Keeping your portable devices charged when you are off the grid

Post-PC devices rely on regular battery top-ups from convenient power sources.So what do you do when the power outlets don't work, or worse still, there are no power outlets?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

How do you keep your portable gear charged when you're off the grid? What happens when the power outlets no longer work? What if there are no power outlets? Does everything have to grind to a halt as we revert back to banging the rocks together?


(Source: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet)

I spent last week on a remore island off the coast of Wales, UK, where there was no power (and, for that matter, no running water and no proper sanitation). And while I made the trip in order to disconnect from the endless, unrelenting fire hose that is the Internet for a few days, I still wanted to be able to make use of my smartphone, tablet, and e-reader.

(Source: Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNet)

I wanted disconnection, but on my own terms. And with a few bits of kit, I managed to achieve that.

Not having access to functioning power outlets meant I had two options. I could generate electricity myself, or cart power with me.

To make sure that all my bases were covered, I chose both options. Generators were out of the question, so I had to get creative.

While I didn't have the space to take a generator with me on the trip, but what I could take with me were solar panels to collect power, and then use battery packs to store the power.

Note that while I'm talking here about a vacation that took me off the grid, most of this information is applicable to situations where you're forced off the grid (for example, by a storm or zombie apocalypse, although in this situation my primary power supply would be a generator), or have to work while away from the infrastructure you're used to.

I took with me on the trip three different solar panels. At the small end, I took a couple of Powermonkey Explorer packs which consist of a 5W/200mA (under ideal conditions) solar panel hooked up to a 2200mAh Li-Ion power packs. These devices come with a myriad of connectors (but they don't come with a Lightning connector for Apple's new iDevices, so I had to make sure to take my megabucks cable with me) are ideal for low-drain devices such as e-readers and rechargeable LED flashlights.

(Source: PowerTraveller)

To cover the higher-end power demands I also took with me a Powermonkey Extreme pack. This is a 5W (again, depending on conditions) solar panel hooked up to a 9000 mAh Li-Ion power pack. This rugged power pack can output USB 5V 700MAh and 12V DC port 800mAh, making it perfect for a broad range of kit, even obscure devices such as Iridium handsets. This is a pro-grade, hardcore piece of kit that's waterproof, dustproof, and impact resistant.

(Source: PowerTraveller)

While I was testing the kit at the PC Doc HQ the solar panels on the Powermonkey devices looked rather small, especially when you consider how lame the UK sun can be at the best of times, so in order to kick my photon harvesting up a notch I augmented the Powermonkey solar panels with a 7W (5V x 1400mA) Portapow solar panel. While being only 8-inch by 6.5-inch folded, this panel has the kick needed to charge high-capacity Li-Ion power packs such as those manufactured by New Trent.

(Source: PortaPow)

OK, so I had my solar panels, and I had my power packs. Here's what I did with this gear.

  • Since I was taking both my iPhone and iPad, I followed my own iOS 6 battery saving tips to prepare these devices. Also, since my locations had limited cellphone coverage and no Wi-Fi, I turned these radios off.
  • I charged everything – devices and power packs – before leaving home, and switched off the devices so conserve battery power. This meant I was starting out with a full charge.
  • Keep power packs dry. Water – especially salt water – will destroy them in nanoseconds. I store my stuff in a small waterproof Peli case.
  • Once at my destination, and I'd started using my devices, I used the power packs to keep the batteries topped up during the day, and then hooked those packs up to the solar panels even if they are only partially discharged. Remember, it's quicker to charge up a partially discharged battery pack than a fully-discharged pack.
  • I got into a routine where I did the bulk of my device recharging at night, and battery pack charging during the day.
  • Get up early and get the solar panels pointing at the sun as soon as you can. If you're not far from base during the day then you can reposition the panels for best performance throughout the day, otherwise point them due south (northern hemisphere, flip for the southern hemisphere).
  • While solar panels love the sun, battery packs don't, so keep them in the shade for best performance. For added security, put them into a waterproof bag when outdoors, just in case it rains.
  • Clouds are no excuse to slack off from charging your battery packs. Solar panels work even when it is overcast, albeit at a slower rate.

Here are a few other random tips for traveling with electronics.

  • Make sure all your devices are backed up.
  • Label everything. In the comfort of your own home you might feel confident that you'll be able to remember what cables and connectors goes with each device, but once you get out into the field – and throw in some wind and rain for good measure – and I guarantee you that things will get a little blurry. Label everything with waterproof tape, and mark connectors and cables with waterproof paint (or, if on a budget, nail polish works a treat).
  • Pack everything well. I use Peli cases and dry bags, and I like to add zip ties to make sure that my cases and bags don't pop open. Zip ties aren't an option for air travel (unless you want them cut) so I use TSA-approved locks. However, if my gear needs to travel further I like to add zip ties to luggage when moving it between the airport and destination.
  • Familiarize yourself with everything before you leave home. Make sure that it all works, and you know how to work it.
  • Try not to douse your gear in sunblock or insect repellant. Insect repellant – especially the stuff that contains DEET – is particularly nasty and can melt plastics. While DEET continues to be the best defense against ticks and mosquitoes, the CDC does recommend alternatives that are good against mosquitoes alone (I find picaridin-based products to be good against flying annoyances). 
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