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On the Move

A High-Tech Backpacker’s New Best Friend

While some people can manage to turn off their phone when heading out for the weekend on their next adventure, it seems a near impossible task for most. Whether it’s making use of favorite travel apps, listening to some music, or just using the camera, if your trip is more than a day you might need to recharge. Sure, external battery packs are available (and extremely handy), but you will need to find an energy source once those are dead. So what is the solution?

Being a knowmad at heart tends to lead to a lot of wandering, often with no destination in mind. And while charging one’s phone has become nearly religious for most, there are hundreds if not thousands of times when traveling that finding a place to plug in becomes an annoyance like no other. It comes down to the decision to either let one’s phone go dead, or waste time guerrilla-jacking some electricity from a public bathroom, café, or michinoeki. If you are hitchhiking and have the right adapter, it doesn’t hurt to ask the driver for some juice. But what if you are already off the beaten path—better yet—on the trail enjoying the view and snapping pics like it’s your job? What then?

Well, if you don’t already own one, definitely look into getting a solar powered battery charger. Most of the good ones attach snuggly right on to your pack and are perfect for an on-the-move lifestyle. Whether it’s cycling, hiking or being out on the water that floats your kayak, these bad boys are a must once off the grid.

The most recent models are a lot more user-friendly than in the past, where using them required multiple adapters and often their amperage was too low for certain devices. Not so with the latest ones which often have a USB port (or better yet, two) and have the capacity of charging iPads, music players and just about anything with a USB cable for charging.

There are two basic forms of devices out there that use different technology for their panels. If you want something durable and a bit more rugged, go for the monocrystalline panels. They are going to most likely be a bit heavier but recent models have become more portable than in the past, therefore making them the more popular choice in the last couple of years. However, if weight is an issue, look for the ultra-lightweight models made with flexible CIGS panels. They tend to be cheaper, but obviously not as durable.

Again, when considering solar—especially for longer trips—the keyword here is renewable power source. This is also important if travelling in areas that have frequent power outages or otherwise unreliable power access (think youth hostels/budget guesthouses in more remote regions of China or around SE Asia). Battery packs alone often end up as dead weight to carry around once they have been drained. BUT…when combined with the use of a (compatible) solar charger, bringing along a battery pack makes a lot more sense.

There are quite a few solar power models out there and with most things, at least to a certain extent, you usually get what you pay for. With that in mind, here are a handful of recommendations to check out:

Poweradd Apollo 2  (compact monocrystalline panel)
A solid option for those who need something compact and more durable. It’s got an integrated battery, weighs 9.4oz. (266g) and is competitively priced to boot. Here’s Outdoorgearlab’s summary:

“It is the size of a smartphone, and it will recharge your smartphone three to four times before needing to be recharged in the sun. Its solar panel is small but high quality–however, it still takes about 50 hours to recharge in sunlight. While this sounds like a long time, we found it to be attainable, given that you have a large reserve of three to four smartphone charges and up to two tablet charges before draining the battery.”

SolarMonkey Adventurer  (compact monocrystalline panels)
This is another compact unit that stands out due to its tough two panel clam shell design. It comes with a carrying case and variety of adaptors as well. Comes with an internal battery and weighs 9.6oz. (272g). Here’s a snippet of a Gearweare.com review:

“The Solarmonkey Adventurer is a rugged, waterproof solar charger with an in-built battery so you can charge your devices after the sun has retired for the night. The efficiency of it seems OK, but not outstanding, and it benefits from prolonged periods of very bright sun to charge properly.”

RAVPower 15W Solar Charger  (foldable monocrystalline panels)
Rated very high on thewirecutter.com as a charger that gives the most bang for your buck. For about $50 it boasts fast, efficient dual USB charging capability, a relatively light weight of 1.6lbs (737g) and is well suited for attaching to a backpack:

“Our tests showed that a passing cloud would cause half of the competing chargers to slow to a crawl, but the RAVPower resumed full-speed charging almost immediately once the shade passed. Of the ones that passed the partial shade challenge, it was the strongest, fastest charger in the test. It was also the only charger that included carabiners for easy mounting to a backpack.”

Instapark Mercury 10  (foldable monocrystalline panels)
Also stated as one of the few panels that has two USB ports, it is in the $50 price range, rated at 10W and weighs 12oz. (340g). Here is what outdoorgearlab.com had to say about it:

“It is versatile, easy to use, and affordable. If your main need is to charge a cell phone or small electronic devices, this is an excellent option. When combined with an external battery, you can set yourself up with a smartphone and tablet charging powerhouse, all for under $100. This was one of the few panels with two USB charging ports. It has one of the most generous external pockets for holding your phone, cables, and an extra battery.”

Endless Sun Solar’s Apollo 6  (flexible CIGS panels)
For those who are looking for a really small lightweight option, this unit seems worth considering. Being made with CIGS solar cells, it is somewhat flexible, super thin and weighs only 8.8oz. (250g). As stated with the above chargers, using this with a compatible battery pack allows you to get the most out of it (i.e. use the battery power at night). For more details, check out the review from treehugger.com:

“Because CIGS cells are capable of harvesting the sun’s energy over a wider range of wavelengths than conventional solar cells, as well as performing better in low light and shaded conditions, these 15% efficient solar cells are said to produce “on average, 20% more energy in total each day” than conventional crystalline solar cells.”