About 10 years ago when I first started to switch from film photography to digital photography, I started looking at solar power options to keep my batteries charged on long trips. At the time, I found that the Brunton SolarRoll did the trick, because it was light, it could charge my batteries and it was easy to pack away. Since that time, I’ve found myself carrying more electronics into the woods. I sometimes carry a GPS, a laptop, hard drives (gasp, even with some movies on them), my Kindle Fire, two cameras with different batteries, a VHF radio, a mp3 player, headlamp and a cell phone (p.s. on trips less than two weeks, I usually just bring the camera and headlamp). I have friends who run the Wilderness Classroom Organization (WCO), an educational non-profit, who use even more electronics on trips. On a recent trip with them, I was shocked when I saw them pull two laptops and two Apple iPads out of Pelican cases. The array of wires, solar panels, battery packs and converters to run them was almost as tangled with wires as the back of a home entertainment system. Obviously, if you embrace modern electronics on expeditions, a simple solar panel isn’t enough anymore.
The ability to instantly connect with the world while on an expedition is now more the norm than not, and people are starting to carry more electronics on shorter trips. I predict that in the future if the younger generation engages with wilderness, and the evidence is that they won’t, we’ll see more electronics in the woods. The current outdoor industry, parents and outdoor educators would be wise to embrace this coming electronic trend if the industry and recreational pursuit is going to survive the electronic generations, who continue to participate in fewer numbers, in part, because of electronics not being able to come on trips. But, I digress…
The problem with power and solar power in the woods is that it’s hard to figure out exactly what is needed, especially when hauling a literal boat load of computers, video cameras, phones and cameras. Luckily, Goal Zero has started to make it easier to understand what’s needed. I say started, because it’s still confusing to someone that hasn’t used solar before. On my trip with the WCO, I got to see how the Goal Zero technology works and was impressed. Obviously, I need more time with the gear for a real review.
Goal Zero explains their systems like this; you need three things:
- Something that provides and collects power, either solar or from an outlet.
- Something that stores the power, i.e. a big battery.
- Your gear and something to connect it to the storage unit.
Once you have all three, you’re good-to-go. To help you along in your pursuit of power, they package everything into sets or if you need to customize your approach, they offer everything in a la carte. Adventurers will be most interested in the Sherpa 50 Adventure Kit, because it’s the lightest choice and it’s small. With the cords you’ll need, it will likely weigh three to four pounds. The 2012 version, when it comes out, includes a bolt on inverter so you can plug your laptop right into the unit without buying a 12v power point adapter. The next step up is the Sherpa 120 Kit which offers a larger panel and more storage capacity. You can also chain devices together for more power.
The Sherpa 50 Adventure Kit recharges the included battery in five to ten hours, and it recharges a laptop once per battery charge. You can run the laptop via battery while connected to solar, so there’s some give and take here, but if you just need a bit of laptop or iPad each evening plus some minor power needs, i.e. a camera battery charge, this would be a good way to go. I suspect that if you’re a heavy power user or if you have kids that the power needs will be greater. At that point, being able to increase the speed of charge to the Sherpa seems like a better choice than carrying a heavier battery. I suspect that if I was buying today for a big expedition, I’d buy a Sherpa 50 Adventure Kit with a second Goal0 Nomad 13.5 Solar Panel, which would charge the Sherpa 50 in three to five hours. The two panels weigh about the same as the larger Nomad 27 Solar Panel, but gives you a bit more flexibility in the long run. If it was just for one trip, the Nomad 27 and the Sherpa 50 would be the way I’d go. Possibly adding a second Sherpa 50 if we expected to use more electronics, such as during a photography workshop.
The best part about solar power is that it’s starting to become affordable. The prices of these kits are under $400, which might (I don’t remember the exact price) be pretty close to what I paid to get my original panel with a prodeal. It’s really a no brainer if you have kids and want them to enjoy camping (they’ll probably never enjoy it in the same way we do, so it’s time to embrace it.) It’s also a no brainer if you plan on doing a longer trip with electronics.