From the rocky, isolated shore of Crooked Lake in Ontario to the arid sands of Amara in Sudan, to capture those panoramas that make your friends jealous you’re probably going to need more power than you can hike in to the back country with. Long term trips with electronics in the outdoors require a rugged, reliable and weather resistant solution for re-charging those indispensable devices. Here are some portable power generators that caught my eye when I was looking for a solution to this problem for my GPS and GoPro on the Tour d’Afrique. Some are not practical just yet but may become great options in a few years.
The Biolite is an extremely promising, available to purchase, thermoelectric stove. The generator is used to charge a battery housed in the stove casing. This battery powers a fan, which pushes more air in to the stove increasing the fire’s heat. The battery then supplies any excess energy to a regulated USB port for charging devices. The Biolite costs $129 for the camp stove (Bio lite stove). Cool idea!
The Power Pot
Another example of thermoelectric generation is a modified pot where the pot can be placed on any heated surface to generate power. The Power Pot - provides 3W output. This generator isn’t very powerful – It would take more than 4 hours and lots of fuel to fully charge a modern Smartphone (correct me if I’m wrong?). But the fact that it works on any fire or heat source is a huge benefit.
Here is another example in the tea-candle generator, not very practical but another good example of the possibilities of thermoelectric power in the outdoors.
It will be awesome when a company creates a simple folding device with no secondary function that can simply be chucked in to a roaring campfire to produce 10-15W.
These thermal generators would be great on my Canadian wilderness trips, but are useless for the Tour d’Afrique because I wont be cooking for myself. And I imagine in many places I’ll pass through, the locals will have first dibs on most of the wood.
Kinetic power generation is pretty awesome, this type of power generation includes wind, waves and flowing water (dams). In the case of camping adventures the kinetic energy would typically be produced by the campers themselves – converting food energy in to electrical energy by moving something. Another possibility would be to connect a wind turbine to your person or vehicle for example – not sure how practical this is though!
One adventure style kinetic power unit is the Eton Scorpion. This unit has a hand crank to generate power and includes a solar panel. Unfortunately the unit doesn’t provide much power other than to get your device started for a quick phone call in an emergency. It does work any time you need it though! No waiting around for sun or weather to cooperate.
Because I’m looking for power production specifically for a cycling trip I thought I would mention Dynamos. These convert some of the kinetic energy from a spinning bicycle wheel in to electrical energy. They’re usually used to power bicycle lighting systems but output enough power to charge USB devices.
Shimano, Jenson and Schmidt are just some of the companies offering dynamo hubs for bicycles. Peter white discusses them here.
Like any kinetic system, the dynamo requires wattage from the source, that’s the rider in this case. I’ve never used one but most reviewers say that with a modern dynamo it’s hard to notice the drag even with the unit engaged. They typically output 3W and it should be fairly consistent. Definitely worth looking in to for a bicycle tour!
Just bring a sufficiently large battery
If your dark periods are only a few days then a good option for power in wild places is to just bring it with you. This is by far the most trouble free option. A decent portable battery pack is 7-8,000mAh. That will charge your phone about 5 times. This is often adequate with most camping trips lasting for a weekend. A portable battery pack of this size will be about the size of a small (2.5 in) portable hard drive.
Hyper Juice Battery Pack
It’s possible to get larger packs that can even charge your laptop! They are pretty bulky and require a wall socket to charge. I prefer to have something that can itself be charged by USB, this way it can be charged by a typical Solar Panel. A larger battery pack will be about the size of a large (3.5in) portable hard drive, maybe even larger depending on your requirements.
HyperJuice sell all sizes of battery packs. They are i-device themed but the packs should work for any USB device.
Most battery packs are self-enclosed Lithium-Ion type products but there are packs (like the guide 10 from Goal Zero) that simply take NimH rechargeable AA or AAA. I prefer these for travel because if you’re stuck for a USB charge you can buy some alkaline AA batteries (sold everywhere) and transfer the power to your device via the USB output on the charging unit. Also, once the batteries start to lose the ability to hold a charge, you can just replace the batteries rather than the entire unit.
Solar power needs no introduction, in any camping or adventure store there are multiple examples of photo-voltaic panels. Some are rigid, some are flexible and can be rolled up in your pack. You can get many different sizes depending on your power requirements. The big problem with solar power, from the largest installations in the Mojave Desert to your personal solar panel for camping, is that power generation can only occur when the sun is shining. To counteract this you really need to carry batteries or battery packs along with the panel for practicality. See the battery section for more on packs.
Goal 10 Solar Kit
I spent a week researching solar power during the summer and the one product that came out on top of all reviews I went through was the Goal Zero range. For my needs I purchased the Guide 10 Adventure Kit for $150. This 7W panel charges 4 2200mAh batteries in 2-4 hours. I’ve tested this in Canada in august and it took under three hours in direct sunlight. In cloudy conditions it would be longer of course. I expected it to be gimmicky but it’s actually quite good. Of course it’s important to remember that solar panels are bulky and do seem fragile – I’m very careful with my goal 10. If it survives my trip I’ll be impressed!
Pee Power Generator
That’s right, four 14 year-old girls from Africa have designed a system to generate power from your pee. How friggin’ awesome would it be to charge your iPod from the six-pack you just drank? The system extracts the hydrogen from your pee and uses it to power a gas generator. The maker fair team admit it could be potentially explosive so there are some kinks to work out before you’re packing you iPeePower unit in to your rucksack but kudos to the young scientist/engineers who created this!