Remote Power

by Ben Long

In my previous post, I described the storage solution that I'm planning to use on an extended trip - sans computer - to Africa. This trip won't be the first time that I've gone on a shooting expedition without a laptop for backup, but it's the longest that I've ever attempted, and so I needed to contrive a reasonable way to offload my images.

One of the reasons I'm opting to leave my MacBook Pro behind is that I'm planning to spend a fair amount of time in the backcountry, and don't want to have to worry about the extra weight (let alone the danger to the computer). The trouble with backcountry, of course, is that power outlets are spaced really far apart and I will have many things to power: battery charger for the Canon 5D; two Digital Foci backup drives; cell phone; iPod; an external flash and GPS unit that are AA-powered.

Obviously, the easiest way to deal with power problems is to take lots of extra batteries and try to keep them all charged whenever an outlet is available. However, with this many gizmos, multiple batteries is not really practical. And, of course, the iPod doesn't allow for battery swapping. (The Digital Foci backup drives do, though, which is a very cool feature.)

I usually carry two 5D batteries with me, because they're small and light and easy enough to carry into the field. But all my other devices will have only their internal batteries.

I will be dependent on three different charging options. The first, of course, is simply to charge everything up whenever an outlet is available. Fortunately, these days, almost all AC adapters can automatically switch between different voltages, so it's no problem to take them from country to country and plug them directly into a wall. However, just to be sure, you should always check any device and make sure it says something to the effect of "Input: 110-240V". Almost any adapter will have a sticker on the back that indicates its power capabilities. Similarly, if you plan on taking a power strip, make certain that it can handle multiple voltages.

Getting to more remote areas in South Africa will require a car, which means there will always be a cigarette lighter available. This will be my second level of battery defense. With car chargers for all my devices, I can easily keep everything charged while on-the-go.

For my Canon 5D, I've opted for a Sakar Digital Concepts charger. There are a lot of things I like about this charger. First, it has removable faceplates that allow it to adapt to charge several different types of batteries. So, if you carry multiple cameras that use different battery types - say, a 5D and a Rebel XTI - you can charge them both with this charger.

Second, it can plug directly into a wall for wall charging, which means you don't have to also carry along your normal Canon charger. And finally, it includes a car charger cord, meaning you get everything you need in one package. It's also very light, which makes it suitable for backcountry use.

The Digital Foci media drives offer an optional car charger, so I picked up one of those as well. Similarly, I grabbed car chargers for the iPod and my cell phone. So, with all of these cables, I can stay charged as long as I'm near a car.

Getting into the backcountry in South Africa is not easy, but I would still like to try some extended hikes and possibly overnight trips which will take me away from the car. For those excursions, I will take my Solio charger. Priced under a hundred bucks, these lightweight, small solar chargers are ideal for going off the grid. What's great about the Solio is that it has an internal battery. So, you can leave the Solio in your campsite during the day, in direct sunlight. It will charge up its battery, and you can then charge your devices off that battery during the night. Leave it out the next day, and the cycle can continue.

To charge a device off of the Solio, you need a special cable. The Solio ships with an iPod cable, so it's ready to go for iPod charging, and the company sells other cables for just about every type of cell phone. With the Solio, I'll easily be able to charge my iPod, iPhone and Treo. Of course, my biggest concern will be the camera.

Solio sells a special cable that's basically a cigarette lighter socket. As such, any device that you can charge off of a cigarette lighter can be charged off of the Solio. That will take care of the camera as well as the Digital Foci drives. Since I'm already packing car charger cables for those devices, I can just plug those into the Solio.

The Solio also comes with a cigarette lighter adapter so that you can charge the Solio of off a cigarette lighter. This allows you to easily gas it up while driving, even if its cloudy. The Solio is really like carrying an extra battery that's compatible with all your gear. I've used these a lot on backpacking trips, and actually carry two, since they're so light.

So, with this scheme, the only thing I don't have covered are my flash and GPS, which both run on AA batteries. Currently, solar AA chargers are not great. They take forever to charge and are fairly large to carry. There are car chargers for AAs but, since I'm already loaded down, I've decided - regretfully - to just go with alkalines and carry a few sets of batteries. I much prefer rechargeables simply from an environmental standpoint, but this seems like the easiest, lightest way to go. I'll just be sure to pack them back to the US for recycling.

I've used this power scheme on other trips, but never one this long, so we'll see how it goes.


2007-10-02 07:11:01
Treo, iPhone and iPod in the South African backcountry? Dude...

2007-10-02 07:16:02
Ha! Well, I wasn't so much thinking of those three things for the backcountry, as much as trying to find a way to charge them in very small towns and villages. In very small hotels in third world scenarios, I've sometimes found that rooms don't have accessible outlets. Yet these same places will have cell coverage, so the Solio is a good charging option for those times.
John Faughnan
2007-10-02 09:19:38
How are you going to manage image backup? I've heard of devices that will copy from one CF to another -- will you do that and store the backup CF separately from the camera and luggage?

2007-10-02 09:27:00
For image backup I'm using two media drives. I'll just copy the same card to each drive.
Bill Booz
2007-10-02 11:22:44
Ben, while on a trip to southern France this summer we rented a van and I was surprised that it did not have a cigarette lighter. Unless it was just not obvious. Couldn't find one, so be careful and make sure the car(s) you rent DO have at least one!

2007-10-02 12:22:59
A car without a cigarette lighter in FRANCE?? That just doesn't make sense. Thanks for the tip, though.
2007-10-02 13:40:27
I'd ditch the ipod, cell phone, 2 backup drives and external flash unit.
I'd bring the laptop instead of those items....
You do know that your laptop can double as a (polarized) light panel for macro shots? play music and sms/email/voip?
a high powered, cig lighter powered recgargable flashlight will do for everything else.
nmih aa's and ac/auto charger takes care of the gps.
a 200 watt power inverter will charge everything off ac power if needed....
a sloar pannel plugged into the car will keep it's battery going.....