How To Choose a Solar Power System for Outdoor Adventures
Posted on June 24, 2015
I’ve been looking for a way to charge my DSLR batteries while on an extended weekend adventure for some time, and just thinking about powering my devices with sunlight intimidated me in the beginning. It’s easy to get lost in all the terminology–rated power, open-circuit voltage, the various outputs and ports, panel sizes and recharging gear. It’s easy to get lost in the buying process and buy something beyond your needs.
Don’t forget, pal–you’re no John Muir. Meaning, you probably only spend a few weekends out in the wild, and despite the marketing efforts of these companies, you don’t need the best of the best to keep your stuff charged. (Even if you consider yourself a modern-day Muir, do you think he’d approve of all this stuff we “need” anyway?) Anyway…
Venturing into the world of solar power as a consumer is a dizzying experience since it’s slightly more involved than sticking a plug into a wall. I’ll try to break down the process as simply as I can, and then talk about the system I strapped together for keeping my stuff charged on the trail.
Let’s start with a question–why solar? First, PSA: there are no outlets in the wilderness. Second, I want to rely on my gear (headlamp, phone, GPS, camera batteries, etc.) when I’m in my happy place–far from civilization. It’s absolutely a luxury/ \comfort thing, that is until you need it in a survival situation.
My system may not be comprised of the cheapest gear available on the market, but the good thing is that the investment is mostly front-heavy. After buying some gear, the only thing you’ll need is a little help from the sun and a few cloud-free hours.
It’s important to note that depending on your intended usage, you may or may not need all the gear listed below. If you simply want to charge your cell phone while on a day-hike, the information below isn’t relevant to you. If you consider yourself a weekend warrior and frequently head out on multi-day adventures and get tired of your phone or camera batteries dying, you may be interested in solar-powered gear. From there, you may or may not have a need to store energy via a recharger unit, and would benefit from being able to directly charge your gear from a solar panel. Other adventurers may need an energy storage solution that will allow them to transfer power to their gear, especially when there is no available sunlight.
Hopefully this post helps you think about your needs, and then provides a little detail to understand the gear you need to assemble a solar-based energy system to power your adventures.
Step 1: Collect Energy
In order to take advantage of the (sustainable! free!) energy produced by the sun, you have to be able to collect it. Enter: the solar panel. Panels come in a variety of sizes, weights, cell types and other options. Ideally, the panel you buy should be durable and efficient, and be able to connect to a device to help you transfer, store or utilize energy the panel collects.
It’s important to keep in mind that consumer-grade solar technology is still a relatively new realm, and far from perfect. If there are clouds in the sky, you will not be able to collect sunlight. (In even simpler language, you can’t charge your stuff.) If your panel is not directly facing the sun for extended periods of time, your panel will not collect maximum sunlight, thus prolonging any advertised charge times. (Again, in even simpler language, don’t complain that your stuff took an extra hour to charge than the box claimed. Because nature.) Solar energy is not a guaranteed or reliable energy source, but it’s better than nothing.
After some research, I decided to go with the rugged Nomad 7 from Goal Zero. (There are plenty of other consumer-grade solar brands to choose from—Anker, Joos, solarmonkey, etc.) My purchase decision came down to weatherproofing, weight, ability to easily strap to my pack and whether I could buy it from REI.
(Please note Goal Zero did not sponsor this post. Their products fit my needs and that’s pretty much the end of the story.)
Step 2: Transfer Energy
Now that you’ve got your panel, you need to transfer the energy to your gear or a storage device. Think about the transfer of energy in two different ways–you’re either going to use the energy now, or you’re going to use the energy later. For our purposes, let’s call powering a device from a solar panel “direct charging,” and call transferring energy to a storage solution “indirect charging.”
Almost all solar brands offer direct charging of gear, but only some brands let you store energy within the panel unit itself in an on-board storage solution. If you want to store energy to power gear at a later time, you have to buy a storage device (called a recharger) separately.
The Goal Zero panels have an array of outputs to charge your gear directly–12V, USB, AC (mostly via adapter sold separately) and AA/AAA batteries.
Step 3: Store Energy (optional)
Hopefully, by this point I’ve made it clear that you do not necessarily need an energy storage solution to keep your gear and batteries powered during an extended hike. To reiterate, most panels will be able to power small gear and devices directly from the solar panel itself.
However, if you need to buffer the energy collected through your solar panel for later use, you will need a recharger unit. Just like solar panels, rechargers come in many shapes, sizes, weights and boast a range of outputs and capacities. The gear you need depends on the gear you’re looking to charge during your hike. It’s in your best interest to keep the brands consistent (e.g. if you buy a Goal Zero panel, stick with a Goal Zero recharger) since they’re designed to optimize the transfer of energy more efficiently.
Here’s a scenario. In early July, I’ll be thru-hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail for eight or nine consecutive days. I’ll have my Goal Zero Nomad 7 panel attached to the outside of my pack, and it will be tethered to my Goal Zero Venture 30 recharger during daylight hours. Since I’ll be using my camera during the day, I’ll need to charge my camera batteries at night. But, since my Venture 30 recharger unit is already juiced up (weather + sunlight permitting), I’ll be able to charge my camera batteries and iPhone whenever the hell I want–day or night.
Step 4: DSLR Battery Charging
Ok, photographers–here’s the fun part. You probably use a standard 2-prong wall charger to charge your Canon battery at home. The last piece to this setup is kind of awesome, so brace yourself. Think about how awesome it’d be if a USB battery charger existed–crazy, right? Feast your eyeballs on this, friends:
This unit is far from top quality–not even close to the rigid OEM wall unit. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these USB battery chargers on the market. It’s a cheap fix, and hopefully the unit lasts for more than a few trips. On the plus side, it’s incredibly lightweight at 1.5 ounces, very compact and budget-friendly at $8. If it works, I might actually buy a few more before they disappear.
Do a quick search on Amazon for “OAproda USB charger” and you’ll find chargers for an array of camera brands–namely, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sony and Olympus. It even comes with a micro USB cable to boot!
If you insist on keeping your 2-prong charger and don’t mind adding weight to your pack, Goal Zero’s Sherpa 50 has more heft and durability than the Venture 30 or lesser recharger units. The negatives do add up quickly, though–it’s heavier, requires a significant investment (at the least you’d need to upgrade to the Nomad 13 panel ($80) + the Sherpa Inverter ($50)), recharging time/performance doesn’t increase and the system still lacks weatherproofing.
Another solution to keeping your DSLR battery charged on an extended trip would be to buy several camera batteries, then charge them all up before setting out. Yes, how obvious. I know. But, it’s a practical and cost-effective option (especially if you buy third-party batteries), probably weighs less than the solar setups above and even takes up less space. However, this method won’t last you more than a week–even with five extra batteries, it’s not exactly a reliable, field-tested and long-term solution.
It’s important that you’re conscious of a few points I made earlier. Solar technology is not perfect, and the performance depends on the environment you’re in and the stuff you’re charging. Make sure you really comprehend this to avoid frustration once you get out on the trail. Just be amazed and thrilled that you can actually charge your stuff in the most remote places in the world using sustainable methods. Solar kits, like the one I’ve assembled above, can allow you to enjoy the outdoors with a greater sense of confidence by keeping your camera, GPS, headlamp, phone or laptop (but really, don’t. leave that shit at home.) charged.
Here’s something I always like to keep in mind–despite the ability to keep my devices charged all the time now, that doesn’t mean I have to let my iPhone (or even my camera) take me away from the reason I’m on the trail in the first place. It’s tempting to want to stay connected to social media and show off a bad ass trail selfie, but that’s not why I choose to be outside. We’ve survived (and thrived) for thousands of years without instant connectivity and technology, and it’s important to remember that you cannot rely on it for your safety. Solar power is great to have, but it should never replace the knowledge, awareness and appreciation needed to respect the wilderness.How To Choose a Solar Power System for Outdoor Adventures by Zack Sylvan