Road trip survival with Powerbag, Third Rail, Fitbit, and TripIt (gallery)

Sometimes you make trips where you are not close to a power source or have a need for gear that is critical to do the job. You can check out some photos and my thoughts of recommended gear.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

I travel quite a bit and after a couple of recent trips, one to CES in Vegas and another for a very successful tug refloating in California, I thought it would be worth sharing with you some of my favorite gear that stood out among the crowd. You can check out photos of a Powerbag pack, Third Rail iPhone battery pack, Fitbit fitness tracking device, and TripIt travel software and service in my image gallery.

Image Gallery: Check out my preferred road trip gear to make sure you get work done on the go.
Image Gallery: Powerbag
Image Gallery: Third Rail pack

Powerbag Business Class Pack

About three days before I left for Vegas and CES 2012 a large box was found on my doorstep. It turns out that Blue Wolf Communications sent several of these packages to media around the U.S. prior to CES. I found a Powerbag Business Class Pack inside the box with a note inside that invited me to visit the Powerbag booth at CES to pick up a rechargable battery for the backpack. You see, this particular backpack has four connections inside so that you can charge up your devices while on the go.

The Powerbag Business Class Pack is constructed of durable black material with rugged high quality black zippers for pocket access. You will find three large compartments that extend from the top of the case to the bottom and one small zippered pocket in the middle that is great for your wallet, keys and headphones. In the two larger compartments you will find various pockets, some with flaps, for you to store all of your accessories, pens, and other gear. In the front large compartment you will find dividers for different mobile devices and right now I have the Kobo Touch eReader in the back one and two spare phones in the other two.

There is also a large laptop compartment at the back of the pack, adjacent to the straps. An excellent feature of this particular Powerbag is that it is Checkpoint Friendly so you can unzip it and lay this large laptop compartment down by itself. I prefer to travel like this without having to remove my laptop and so far it hasn't been an issue for the TSA.

There is also a side pocket that is great for a phone while on the other side you will find a small flap where you charge up the bag with the included A/C adapter. A 6000 mAh battery is included, but you can also buy spare 3000, 6000, and even 9000 mAh batteries. The battery fits into the connection port inside the bottom of the 2nd large compartment. The USB connection, this allows you to plug in any USB cable that came with your device, is found in this same compartment as the battery.

In the front compartment you will find the three cable connections one for Apple iOS products, one for microUSB connections, and one for miniUSB connections. The ends of the cables fit into small pockets and the best thing is to plug a device in and put it in the front compartment with soft material in the dividers protecting it as it charges.

On the very front of the Powerbag is a logo that serves as the status button. Press it once to see the status of the battery (white lights illuminate one to four bars) and press and hold for two seconds to activate charging mode of the bag.

The bag weighs just over 3 pounds, but feels pretty light to me considering all of the compartments, pockets, and functionality. The straps are adjustable and comfortable while the top handle has a great soft gel feel to it. I thoroughly enjoy using this pack and it has been extremely useful in keeping my gear, including my iPad, powered up.

This is just one model of Powerbag and if you check out the Powerbag site you will see some very cool choices. I like the look of the Sling bag and may have to pick one of these up for my daughter as she heads to college this summer.

Third Rail iPhone battery pack

While I was conducting a survey on a WWII-era tug and preparing calculations to raise a sunken sister tug, I discovered my iPhone 4S could not go a full day with moderate to heavy use and needed it to get through the day. I bought a large Mophie Juice Pack Plus in the airport to help me out for that trip, but didn't like that I now had a thick iPhone that didn't fit that well in my pocket.

While at CES in Vegas, I met with the folks from Third Rail at Showstoppers and liked what I saw with the Slim Case for iPhone 4/4S that is $10 less ($89.99) than I paid for the 2000 mAh Juice Pack Plus. What I like about the Third Rail solution is that you can place the slim rail system on your iPhone and then just slap on batteries for the short charging cycle and then go back to a slim iPhone again.

The Third Rail System actually is a 3-in-1 solution with a slim protective case, backup battery pack, and universal battery for other devices (such as a Bluetooth headset).

The case part of the system adds very little to your iPhone thickness (a mm or so) and about 1/4 inch to the bottom (only weight 0.85 of an ounce). The bottom is where the connection is made from the case to your iPhone and to the microUSB port. I actually found the case made my iPhone sound better since it angled the sound to come out on the front of my iPhone instead of down out the bottom. It is a two piece case with the very top portion securing to the bottom just below the camera. It provides good corner protection and covers the full back too. There are openings for the volume buttons, ringer switch, 3.5mm headset jack, camera and flash, and power button. By the way, I find the thickness of the Mophie Juice Pack Plus affects flash performance, but this does not happen on the sleeker Third Rail System. The case is covered in soft touch material so makes your iPhone much less slippery in the hand and on a table or dash. I LOVE that it gives me a standard microUSB port for charging and even syncing so I don't have to hunt for an Apple plug anymore and can reduce what I carry on the road with me.

The magic happens on the back where the 1,250 mAh battery pack (each one weighs just 1.4 ounces) secures and connects to the three gold connectors by placing it on and sliding it down so all four corners engage. If you are a real road warrior, you can even buy multiple battery packs ($59.99 each) and stack 2, 3, or 4 of them to make charging them all up easy before you go out and get to work the next day. The batteries have smart technology in them so that each is charged in order from lowest available charge so you can easily manage your battery capacities. You could stack them up and charge your iPhone that way, but it is better to just slap one on at a time for charging on the go.

There is a switch on the slim case to enable charging and also a button on each battery that lights up green lights for charging status. There are two ports on the battery so you can charge them up (plug a microUSB port into the port marked IN) or use the included adapter and plug in (to the OUT port) a USB cable from other devices to charge them up too. Thus, the battery can be used as simply a backup battery for multiple devices. A great feature of these batteries is that they are future proof since any changing design of the iPhone simply means an altered slim case, but the batteries will always be compatible with the updated slim case part.

The Third Rail system comes with the Slim Case, one 1,250 mAh battery, and USB adapter for other devices. It sells for $89.99 and given that it is future proof with lots of flexiblity I highly recommend it as a charging solution. Since I started using one, I have actually seen two others in airports with the same system.

Let's check out the Fitbit and TripIt »

Fitbit fitness tracking device

A couple of weeks ago I wrote up an article on using the Fitbit Ultra and Jawbone UP and still enjoy using the UP thanks to its vibrating smart alert. However, the UP has quality issues and has not been updated yet so I cannot recommend people buy one at this time. The Fitbit Ultra on the other hand has been performing like a champ and lets you track so much more than the UP.

I am actually doing some stair training for the upcoming Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Big Climb to support my survivor friend and the Fitbit Ultra tracks levels of stairs with its integrated altimeter. The Fitbit also tracks: Steps: Pedometer feature that I verified matches closely to reality and what the Jawbone UP measures. Distance: Uses your profile data and pedometer to calculate distance. Calories burned: Uses your profile data and tracked info to figure out burned calories. Sleep cycles: Attach the Fitbit to the included wristband and track how many times you wake up, how long it takes you to go to sleep, when you went to sleep, and how long you were in bed for.

The Fitbit Ultra connects wirelessly to the USB dock, but not wirelessly to your iPhone. There is a great iPhone app, but nothing yet for Android or I would use it even more. I do like that the Fitbit has a cool blue display that shows you the following:

  • Steps
  • Distance
  • Calories burned
  • Floors climbed
  • Flower status: Grows the more active you are
  • Clock
  • Stopwatch
  • Random greetings and messages

The display lets you get quick instant status since you have to connect to the dock (physically or wirelessly) to update the website which then syncs to the iPhone app via the Internet. Let me be clear, there is no connection between the Fitbit and the iPhone as all data goes up to the Fitbit website and then syncs to the iPhone. Thus, it seems to me that an Android app would be that difficult for them to create. You can connect with friends through Fitbit and use the connections to compete and compare with others.

You can connect the Fitbit to your waist, put it in a pocket, attach it to your bra, or connect it to your wrist using the wristband (primarily for sleep tracking). The Fitbit Ultra is designed to just slide over something, but they also include a holder for thicker attachment points such as a belt.

Fitbit is becoming a standard for activity tracking and has opened up their data to let third parties create products to integrate the data that the device tracks. I have my Fitbit connected to RunKeeper and LoseIt! at the moment. I also pre-ordered their Aria WiFi scale and can't wait to start using it to help me get healthier. BTW, I tracked 17,740 steps, 8.98 miles, and 21 floors climbed in one day at CES.

TripIt travel service

I gave TripIt Pro a try last year and wrote about my huge savings. I have continued to save money on flights over the last six months and don't take a trip without uploading my reservations to TripIt. There are mobile apps for the iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone so I travel with my full itinerary on my smartphone and no longer print out sheets of confirmation emails.

TripIt yesterday announced TripIt 3.0 for iOS that lets you purchase TripIt Pro from your iOS device and check out the new travel dashboard. The new dashboard includes the following:

  • What’s Next: preview the next trip or activity, or click through to view the trip itinerary
  • Trips: access all travel itineraries in one place, including shared trips
  • Network: keep track of friends’ trip plans, including “Who’s Close,” TripIt groups and network updates, and “Inner Circle” for Pro users
  • Points (TripIt Pro only): get a heads up on reward points nearing expiration on the home screen, or click through to access all accounts, point balances, progress towards the next status level, year-to-date and recent activity

You can also now setup trip calendar syncing from your iPhone or iPad.

Back to the first page »

Editorial standards