I have never been too big on bringing electronic gadgets into the backcountry. This year however, I started using a GPS on all my canoeing and kayaking trips. On one trip, a friend brought along a Goal Zero solar charger. It seemed to work great. Reviews of Goal Zero chargers always state how bombproof these products are. Compare that to almost every other portable solar panel which get very bad reviews for durability.
On our 12 day trip on the Churchill River I decided to take the Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar panel along. I used it a few times to top up my iPhone battery, and was prepared to use it to charge GPS batteries, but I ended up having plenty of spares along.
I didn’t take the solar panel on my other trips, and instead just brought the Guide 10 battery pack. This handy unit allows you to charge AA and AAA batteries from the solar panel or from any USB port (car charger, wall outlet, computer, etc.) It also acts as a external battery pack for charging a cellphone. Unlike many USB battery boost packs, the Guide 10 contains AA Ni-MH batteries which you can remove and use in any other device.
(Note: The Nomad 7 will charge my iPhone 5 directly in perfectly sunny conditions, but any interruption and charging stops. Charging the iPhone with the solar panel running through the Guide 10 battery pack works great. Or you can just charge your iPhone with the battery pack and recharge the battery pack later with the solar panel or a USB source.)
Things I use electrical power for in the back country:
- GPS — My GPS can run for 25 hours on 3 AA batteries. With a full charge I can run the GPS all day for 4 to 5 days. I like to record a track as I paddle and be able to mark waypoints at any time. I turn off the GPS in camp and at lunch. For a two week trip it is easier to to carry two extra sets of batteries than to carry the solar panel. I also always carry maps and a compass.
- Headlamp — My Petzl Tikka XP headlamp will last a whole summer season on a set of 3 AAA battiers. I used to use alkaline batteries, but have switched to rechargeable Ni-MH. I carry an extra set of 3 AAA batteries for my headlamp. In the winter I might switch back to alkaline batteries.
- iPhone — I rarely use the iPhone in the backcountry. Where I travel I almost never have a signal. On several trips I have left my books and journal at home and planned to use my iPhone instead. But I still prefer to read a paper book in the tent and write in a paper journal. I do carry the Guide 10 battery pack with 4 fully-charged AA batteries to recharge my iPhone if needed.
- Camera(s) — I carry a minimum of one camera on all trips. I often carry a waterproof camera and a better quality point-and-shoot with manual controls. Sometimes I also bring along my Canon EOS M mirrorless camera and a few lenses. The problem is, camera batteries contain a lot of juice and it would take 12 plus hours to charge a camera battery with a portable solar panel. Also, camera battery chargers are almost always 110-220 VAC. USB charging solutions are rare, so for now I am forced to carry extra batteries. Of course each camera has its on battery size. Even for my three Canon cameras, I need three different batteries. I carry at least one spare for each camera. That usually lasts me two weeks if I am conservative. A third battery gives me a bigger buffer.
Our group also always has a satellite phone along. We generally only use it in emergencies, so one set of batteries is plenty. Starting this year, there were a lot of SPOT personal locators taken on trips. I haven’t gotten there yet. If I did more solo tripping, I might consider one, but I prefer a bit of isolation. Knowing that I am basically 100% responsible for my own actions keeps me conservative.
I am still figuring this all out. On shorter trips, carrying the solar panel doesn’t make sense. On our Stikine River trip the solar panel would never have worked in the coastal cloudy/rainy conditions. The Guide 10 battery pack/charger is indispensable though. I carry it on all trips longer than a weekend and in my car on extended road trips. For a trip longer than two weeks, I would definitely leave behind a set of AA batteries and bring the Nomad 7 solar panel along instead.