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Backcountry Technology 101: How to Keep Your Electronics Fully Charged

08.24.18

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Backcountry Technology 101: How to Keep Your Electronics Fully Charged

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There was a time when backpacking or camping meant getting away from all of the trappings of modern life. Although many of us still escape into the wild to disconnect so we can reconnect with others and ourselves, it seems that we still need our electronic gadgets. After all, they do help us capture our memories and navigate our adventures. Even without cell phone reception, it seems we still use our phones to take photos and videos, navigate, and even entertain us by playing music. Although we may be disconnected from the outside world, we still need ways to recharge not only our internal human battery, but our electronics’ batteries as well.

Smartphones, cameras, GoPros, and GPS devices frequently have a rechargeable battery. Even our headlamps, water purification systems, headphones, and watches now need to power up on a regular basis. There are multiple ways to keep these gadgets fully charged and running properly even when we are miles from home.

Tips and tricks to save battery life on your iPhone

My iPhone 7 usually lasts two to three full days when I restrict usage to the Gaia GPS app and my camera and when I keep my phone in airplane mode. Here are some tips to stretch out your phone's battery life:

  • Keep your cell phone on Airplane Mode even if you think you may have service. Turning airplane mode off to try to find service can suck up the battery in no time.
  • Have minimal apps running on your phone. Often we have multiple apps running in the background, which can eat our battery. I try to only have my Gaia navigation app running when I am on the trails. To delete background apps on the iPhone, double tap on the home button and scroll up to delete each app.
  • Power off when you are sleeping.
  • Dim the screen or turn on auto-brightness.
  • Update your phone to the latest software settings.
  • Enable low power mode.
  • Turn off location services.
  • Turn off background app refresh.
  • Turn off notifications.

Tips and tricks to save battery life on your Garmin inReach

  • Turn on the extended tracking setting.
  • Turn on the automatic backlight brightness setting or reduce the backlight timeout.
  • Reduce the message listen interval setting (I have this set to once every 24 hours).
  • Reduce the value of the tracking log interval and send interval settings (I have my send interval turned off).
  • Turn off Bluetooth wireless technology.

Tips and tricks to save battery life on your GoPro

  • Turn it off when you are not recording
  • Update the firmware by connecting the camera to your phone over Wi-Fi and using the GoPro app to update it.
  • Turn off Wi-Fi.
  • Reduce the recording resolution or frame rate: For most GoPro action footage, 1080p at 60 frames per second is the standard. Turning it down a notch to 720p or leaving it at 1080p and setting it to 30 frames per second can help conserve battery life.
  • Carry an extra battery. Each battery only hold 1.5 hours of recording time, so most of us carry an extra battery to have on hand.

Battery packs (power storage)

Think of battery packs as a storage unit. You can use the stored power from the battery pack to charge your electronic devices, but you need to replenish your storage unit with new power from a power source. Your power source can be your wall charger, your car charger, or your solar panel. A decent battery pack should provide an iPhone with four full charges and will run you about $50-$150, depending on the battery size and power.

The capacity of a battery pack is measured in milliamp hours (mAh). By comparing the storage capacity of a portable battery to that of the battery in your device, you can get an idea of how many recharges you have available. This is usually stated in milliAmp hours (mAh) or Amp hours (Ah). For example, 2200 mAh = 2.2 Ah. Watt hours (wh) is another measure of capacity. To convert watt hours to mAh: (Wh /Volts) x 1000 = mAh. Smaller USB battery packs have as few as 2,000 to 3,000 mAh, while larger ones can have as much as 10,000 to 15,000 mAh or more. If you're going to be charging multiple devices or you are bringing a tablet along with you, having one of these high-capacity batteries at your disposal will definitely come in handy. Small electronic devices that can be charged with a USB cable need a 5 volt output rating, so make sure your battery pack as at least a 5 volt output port.

I currently use GoalZero products, specifically the Venture 70 and the Flip 30 recharger. Both of these are drastically different work great for different purposes.

  • Goal Zero Venture 70: This can charge multiple gadgets at the same time, can be used with a solar panel, has a capacity of 17,700 mAh, and is waterproof. I prefer this for longer backpacking trips or thru-hikes.

  • Goal Zero Flip 30 recharger: Charges one device at a time, can be used with solar panel, 7800 mAh shorter charge times than Venture 70, cheaper in price, weighs less than Venture 70, and is not waterproof. I use this on day hikes or on day-long backpacking trips.

Solar panels (power source)

A solar panel on its own is a good way to keep your devices charged while traveling, but pair one with a portable USB battery pack and you'll have a complete energy system. This approach allows you to store the energy that the solar panel generates and save it for use at another time. The larger the solar panel, the more sunlight it collects and the faster it gets converted to power stored in a battery. A smaller panel, though easier to pack, takes longer to charge a battery. Large surface area is also best for conditions such as cloud cover or the low-angled, low-intensity light in winter, or when logistical constraints limit how long you can have it exposed to sun. Solar panels are rated in watts. The higher the number, the more electricity is generated during a given time period. Seven watts is a good number to shoot for.

It took me a while to finally invest in a solar panel, but I am so happy I did. A decent solar panel should run you about $100 to $125. It is important to use your solar panel in direct sunlight and always have it hooked on to the outside of your backpack or tent so that the solar panels are facing the sun. When investing in a solar panel, make sure that it can charge directly to your device and to your battery pack. It is also important that your solar panel is weatherproof and waterproof. I use the Goal Zero Nomad 7. The Goal Zero Nomad 7 plus is new on the market and currently out of stock.

Extra power tips and tricks

  • Always carry an extra USB/lightning cable.
  • Download maps on your favorite navigation device (I use Gaia maps on my iPhone) before you hit the trails, and turn tracking off to save battery.
  • Download your favorite music (I use Pandora) and use it in offline mode while on the trails.
  • Store all electronics in a Dry Sack to ensure no water gets in. I also use my Dry Sack as my backpacking sink to wash my face and dishes.
  • If you have a rechargeable headlamp (like I do), always make sure you charge the batteries everyday before nightfall, as these batteries do not hold their charge for very long.
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