Keeping Devices Charged Up in the Backcountry

How I keep my electronic devices like a phone, camera, headlamp or GPS watch charged up while hiking, trekking, or climbing in the wilderness or while on expedition?

Going through a wind farm in Southern California on my Pacific Crest Trail through-hike with my Suntactics S5 charger on top of my pack

I’ve been bringing such electronic devices along on multi-week long expeditions to climb Mt. Everest and Aconcagua, on long distance hikes to Nepal and the Pacific Crest Trail, and on bikepacking trips to Colorado and Utah.  They are an integral part of my experience outdoors.  To keep my devices charged, I find I have 2 options:

1. Stored power, like a battery or powerbank; or

2. Generated power, like a solar charger.

How I choose which one comes down to weight and efficiency.

A 10,000 mAh battery will last me about 4 days of normal use of my phone, camera, Garmin Inreach; or 3 days of heavy use (navigation, music, editing photos and surfing in the evening); or about 5 days if I conserve power (navigation and music only).

My Suntactics S5 Solar Charger is the best and the lightest I have used.  It weighs about 200g, or about the same weight as a 10,000 mAh power bank.  Therefore, for trips out to the backcountry lasting 8 days or less, it makes sense to just carry 2 10,000 mAh powerbanks, or a single high capacity powerbank and not have to hassle with the solar charger.

My backpack with the Suntactics S5 Solar Charger on top.  That red cable is a short 1ft Anker Powerline+ cable attached to an Anker Powercore 10,000mAh battery that is velcroed to the back of the S5 solar charger

Keep in mind that it will take a long time to charge up a single high capacity Power Bank.  It takes 10 hours to fully charge up a typical 20,000 mAh power bank using a 2A wall charger.  Not all wall chargers charge at 2A.  Some only charge at 1A, like iPhone chargers, which would double the time to charge the powerbank.  Some dual USB wall plugs have a maximum charging rate of 2A, so if you plug in 2 devices, the charge rate halves to 1A each.  If you have a high capacity Power Bank that has dual inputs, you need to make sure the wall charger is capable of dual 2A output.

This may not matter that much if you are going home to charge your powerbank between trips, but if you need to charge your powerbank quickly, like if you were through-hiking the PCT and you needed to quickly charge you powerbank during a town resupply stop, you may need an option to quick charge your powerbank.  Qualcomm Quickcharge 3.0 is one such technology.  For the later part of my PCT through-hike, I used a RAVPower Quick Charge 3.0 10,000mAh PowerBank with QC Quickcharge input and output, with an Anker Quick Charge 3.0 31.5W Dual USB Wall Charger.

Photomatix HDR
Everest Basecamp, China, with the wind blowing over Mt. Everest in the background

Solar chargers have worked best for me on multi-week or month-long expeditions where I have a basecamp and am able to leave the solar charger hooked up to a powerbank, and even then, they tend to be finicky.  I’ve found that they do not like to be hooked up directly to electronics, so I’ve learned to just use solar chargers to charge up a powerbank by day, and just use the powerbank to charge up my electronics at night.

I’ve had the best luck with the Suntactics brand, and their small, lightweight, rugged and waterproof S5 solar charger, which I used for 3+ months on the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern through Northern California.  I velcroed a small, lightweight Anker Powercore 10,000mAh Power Bank to the back of the solar charger, and strapped the whole thing to the top of my backpack.  From the desert of Southern California through the Sierras, the S5 would fully charge my powerbank by the end of the day.  Power was never an issue. Going through the forests of Northern California, it became less efficient, and by the time I hit the smoke from forest fires around Oregon, I switched it out to the Quick Charge setup above.

If you are buying a powerbank, I’d stick to the more reputable brands to make sure you are getting the rated capacity.  The same for wall chargers for safety reasons, especially the Quick Charge ones, which create a lot of heat.

Cables matter.  I’ve tested various cables to see which was most efficient, resulting in the least amount of energy transfer loss, and the best one I tested is the short, 1ft Powerline+ Cables from Anker.  I used the 1ft Anker Powerline+ Lightning Cable to charge up my iPhone. It was even more efficient than Apples own iPhone cable.  I used the 1ft Anker Powerline+ Micro USB cable to connect my solar charger to my powerbank, and also to charge up my camera and Garmin Inreach from the powerbank.   I also tested some short, thick, no-name cables, but those were horrible.  Again, I’d go with a known reputable brand for cables.

One final note about charging camera batteries.  I use Sony a7 full-frame and RX100 compact cameras which use batteries that can be charged using a micro USB cable from a powerbank or USB wall charger plugged directly into the camera, without requiring the use of a separate battery charger.  If you are using another brand of camera, you may still be able to charge the batteries via USB by using a universal charger such as the Pixo C-USB Universal Charger.  I believe these are no longer made and are hard to find.


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