You'll Get a Charge Out of This

What to do when there aren't any wall plugs.

Original: 1/23/2008

I've been meaning to write this short article since I came back from Kilimanjaro last year, but you know how that goes. The best laid plans, and all that.

So, how the heck did I power my D200 for 10 days on the mountain and then another 20 days on safari? Oh yeah, and charge my iPhone (which had faster Internet access on the mountain than I get here in the States--yeah, AT&T EDGE service is soooo good ;~)? And my Sony eReader? And my guide's iPod? Actually, I ended up charging a lot of things, as I was the only one with power on the mountain.

Well, here's the secret: sun, and plenty of of it. Don't have sun? Then I can't help you. But if you do have sun, then you just need a couple of things:

  • A Brunton SolarRoll 14 (you can get it from Amazon and support this site if you're interested). Nope, it's not inexpensive, but it's what you want. First of all, it's very thin and rolls up into a nice tight storage tube that is easily packed (and even easily strapped to the outside of packs). At barely over a pound (17 ounces), it's not going to weigh you down, either. In full sun it'll put out 14 watts of usable energy, and if you need more, just daisy-chain multiple rolls together.
  • The other bit is inexpensive: get something like the Impact CM-ENEL3 Mini AC/DC battery charger (you can get that from B&H and support this site). Basically, you need a charger that uses the standard auto adapter, because that's how you plug things into the Brunton. For those of you with iPods and iPhones, you can get an auto adapter at almost any place that sells iPod accessories. For my Sony eReader, I found an auto-style charge-everything adapter with the right tip in the markets in downtown Arusha, Tanzania. Gave the accessory for sending audio to a car's system that came with my charger to my guide, which made him very happy.

Amazingly, my iPhone, iPod, and eReader charged faster via solar on a sunny day than they do via AC on a cloudy one. The EN-EL3e not so fast, but still fast enough that if I had a couple of hours of sun I could usually get the battery topped off each day.

You'll need to keep the panel oriented towards the sun. On Kilimanjaro, that was easy: I just had my porters pitch my tent so that the side faced the setting sun each afternoon and hung the panel on the side of the tent. This initially amused them, but eventually I found out quite a few of them had iPods and Walkmans that needed charging, so my tent quickly became the local electric company.

Copyright 2008 Thom Hogan

Make sure you test your equipment before you head into the backcountry. There are no gauges or feedback devices to watch, so you have to do a little experimentation to see just how to orient the panel to get maximum energy. Plus you'll also want to know just how long a charge should take on a sunny day, and partially cloudy day, and an overcast day.

One last word of advice: my panel got muddy, dirty, dusty, and just about everything else it could get (I think a hippo pooped on it once, too; sure smelt like hippo, and we had them walking through two of our camps on safari). The panel works much better when it's clean. Enough so that the first thing I did every time I hung it on the tent was spend a few minutes wiping it down with a clean rag and water, and again when I put it away. Keep it clean, and keep the inside of the tube Brunton supplies for carrying and storing it clean, and you'll be a happy camper.

I wasn't particularly careful with my Brunton, and other than a scratch here and there, it seems no worse for the wear.

This combination is good enough I'm considering mounting a few Bruntons on the roof of the shed in my backyard and doing all my charging that way. Of course, I'll have to find time to set that up right as it involves some mounting, drilling, a bit of wiring, finding all the right chargers, and putting a little stand inside the shed. Judging by how long it took to write this short article, it may be awhile. | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at

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