Smartphones and other electronic devices have become commonplace in the backcountry. There are incredible advantages to having a high quality camera, GPS unit, music player, guidebook, and emergency phone all in one lightweight item. Besides smartphones, there are additional types of electronics in the field, such as rechargeable headlamps and eReaders. But even the best electronic gadget isn’t worth anything without power, which is where portable power devices become essential.
External batteries are charged up before you leave home and hold a certain capacity of power. There are two BIG advantages to using a battery -- they are reliable even on cloudy days and they are small and compact. With a battery pack, all you need to do is plug in your device and it will charge up within a few hours.
Capacity varies from 2400 mAh (about 1 phone charge) to over 20,000 mAh. Bigger batteries come with more capacity but also have more weight.
Batteries are my portable power of choice for shorter trips (<5 days) or for longer trips with minimal power usage. Even long distance hikers are using battery packs since they can visit a town every week or two for a recharge. Battery packs are becoming the most common option for portable power due to their low cost and high versatility.
As trips get longer and more remote, solar panels become more appealing because you have an infinite power source -- the sun. The trick with solar panels is to balance power output (watts) against weight. Arrays with multiple or bigger panels will give you more wattage but are also heavier. To make things even more confusing, some panels come with built in batteries that store charge, while others require you to have a device plugged in while sitting in the sun in order to charge.
The best solar panel for your needs is primarily dependent on how abundant the sun is, ie. California desert vs Pacific Northwest. If you are traveling in a cloudy environment then a larger array and higher output will be required. If you are traveling in a sunny environment you could get by with a smaller array that charges a battery. Paddlers and basecampers can opt for a larger array since they don’t have to worry about weight.
Overall, a solar panel is the way to go for long and remote backpacking or paddling trips. The array weighs more than an external battery but provides you with unlimited power (assuming conditions are appropriate).
BioLite is a company that has built a variety of unique, multipurpose products; most notably their CampStove which allows you to cook a meal while also charging a device. The CampStove uses twigs as a fuel source and converts the excess heat into electricity!
While the CampStove allows you to cook and charge with the same device, it isn’t going to provide the same amount as of power as batteries and solar panels unless you keep the stove running overtime (2+ hours).
The three main caveats for BioLite products is that they rely on found natural materials (bad for sparsely vegetated environments), they cannot be used during certain fire restrictions since they are technically “open-flame” stoves (a regular mandate in the western US), and at 33oz it’s a heavy piece of gear to bring backpacking.
Don’t think of the CampStove as a means to keep your phone fully charged. Instead, it’s a way to get 10 - 15% charge during dinner and perhaps breakfast. View the entire BioLite line of products here.
What will be you powering? How will you be using it?
Running a GPS on a phone uses a lot more power than just the camera, even though most phones can now use GPS while in airplane mode. Determining how you are going to use your devices informs what type of portable power device you’ll want.
If you’re on a long remote trip, or using a lot of devices, then a solar panel array is the way to go. If you are traveling for less than a week an external battery pack is likely the more logical option.
Follow these tips to help maximize your phone’s battery life in the field.
Don’t forget to think about the weight of your portable power device. Backpackers will want to pay even more attention to this since many of these devices add a pound or two of weight. A small battery pack is the lightest option, followed by most solar panels, then finally the BioLite stove.
Smartphones and portable power devices are tools that we can use to either better experience our wilderness settings, or detach from them. I am a believer in the use of appropriate technology while backpacking and camping, but I would also urge you to remember that the natural environment is your entertainment, not your device.
Do you have a question about portable power devices? Send an email to brian (at) outdoorblueprint.com, shoot me a tweet, or leave a comment below.