Power

Nitecore charger

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One of the few downsides of modern digital cameras is the need for frequent battery charging. My first pro-level camera, a (film, of course) Canon F1 built with the ruggedness of a 747’s Black Box, had a battery to operate the light meter, but would function quite happily without it; you just had to remember the classic “Sunny 16” rule for exposure. 

Not so these days: No battery, no camera. Even the ascetic’s choice, manual-focus rangefinder Leica M10 is digitized and thus dead without power. 

One upside is, modern lithium/ion batteries boast tremendous charge density for their weight. Another—important for travelers—is that virtually all chargers for those batteries are muti-voltage and will operate happily on either 120 or 240 VAC current. Unfortunately, while the countries of the world managed to confine their mains single-phase voltage supply to those two choices, the variety of plugs necessary to access that voltage is bewildering. And if, like me, you are absent-minded enough to leave not one, but two adapters firmly inserted in sockets on a single trip across Africa, you could find yourself critically short on charging capabilities. Trust me that finding a U.S. to Botswana or Namibia adapter in Botswana or Namibia is a near-futile quest.

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Fortunately there is a backup power source right there in the notebook computer you take to download and store those photos: the USB port. Which brings me to the Nitecore charger.

The Nitecore, which is available in numerous configurations to accept most camera batteries, plugs into the USB port of your notebook computer, which means it is way less likely to be left behind. That would be enough for me to click “buy now” right there, but the Nitecore also incorporates a digital readout that tells you the overall health of the battery, its current state of charge, rate of charge, and voltage. Brilliant. 

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I used the Nitecore on a recent trip to Mexico in our Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper, which highlighted another advantage: Since we currently have only a single-outlet 12VDC to 120VAC inverter in the truck, I was able to charge both computer and camera batteries at once. And I found the state-of-charge feature useful: At one point I was unsure of the capacity left in one of my BP-DC12 1200mAh batteries before a long hike. So I plugged it into the Nitecore, which informed me it was at 980 mAh—plenty to go on with just a single spare.

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The Nitecore has a very short cord, which enables it to fold away in the back of the unit. And as you can see from the lead photo, the unit itself is significantly smaller than either my factory Lumix or Leica chargers. Given the extra functions included, that’s remarkable. Bravo Nitecore. 

Highly recommended, even if you’re not absent-minded.

Battery decluttering

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Even in a vehicle as electrically antediluvian as a 1973 FJ40, connections to the battery can get out of hand with the addition of just a few accessories. For many years, I’ve used battery terminals incorporating a threaded vertical post to secure positive and negative cables and wires, both for basic functions (starter, etc.) and accessories such as the 2-gauge cables powering the Warn 8274 winch, and the 10-gauge connection to the auxiliary driving lights. 

But over time the connections have been stacking up—there’s now a separate cable to charge the auxiliary battery, and another for the ARB compressor.  Even with the installation of an Optima yellow-top battery with redundant side terminals, it was beginning to look cluttered, and probably doing nothing to maintain adequate current flow.

So I ordered a pair of Pico 0810PT “Military style” (their words) terminals from Amazon. Nothing fancy—no gold plating or built-in digital voltmeter—but substantial, and the horizontal bolt not only doubles the available connections but is far more secure than the wing nut on the old terminals. At $10 for the pair it was a bargain for a significant improvement in my wiring. 

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P3 Solar—power an iPhone or an Expo

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Even the most back-to-basics overland trips rely heavily on electronic equipment these days. Last fall I bicycled the length of Israel—about as back-to-basics as you can get short of walking—yet I still carried an iPhone to log the route and an iPad for taking notes.

Most of the time I was far from wilderness, but I planned to spend time in the Negev Desert, and also just wanted to be as independent as possible from the usual juggling act with outlets in hotel rooms. So I borrowed a Dynamo solar power pack kit from P3 Solar.

The Dynamo kit comprised a folding 20-watt PV panel, a 16,800 mAh lithium-ion battery pack, connectors for various devices, a set of alligator clips to jump an auto battery, and both 12VDC and AC units to recharge the battery from other sources if needed. 

The P3 panel soaking up early morning Negev Desert sun.

The P3 panel soaking up early morning Negev Desert sun.

I originally intended to see if I could secure the open PV panel to the tops of my panniers behind me to get constant charge, but quickly realized that, since 90 percent of my route was trending southward, I’d be shading the panel most of the time. So I was mostly restricted to laying it out in the morning and evening to charge the power pack.

I needn’t have worried. The pack retained enough juice to keep the iPhone navigating and recording all day, and regained full charge easily with just a few hours of exposure. I rode all the way from the Lebanon border to the Red Sea praying I’d come across a motorist with a dead battery, so I could whip the P3 pack out of my handlebar pack and jump his car, but alas, Israelis apparently maintain their vehicles well despite being among the planet’s worst drivers.

The Dynamo kit nestled securely under my tent between the rear panniers.

The Dynamo kit nestled securely under my tent between the rear panniers.

With connectors pared down to only those I needed, the P3 kit with power pack added just 2.3 pounds to my load (I could have reduced that further if I'd left the case at home). Perfectly manageable on a bicycle, it would be virtually unnoticeable on a motorcycle. The kit is now called the Dynamo Plus and incorporates a 25-watt panel, so recharging devices will be even quicker. 

P3 Solar offers an array of products up to an impressive 200-watt rollable panel—available with a folding mount to secure and angle it properly—that will power a fully equipped overland vehicle campsite, fridge included. We used a pair of them along with two of P3’s Dynamo AC600 battery/sine-wave inverter pack to run the entire Overland Expo headquarters at the Biltmore last year, including lights, computers, and a printer. Check out the entire line here.

Energy independence . . . for your overland vehicle

This will come as a shock to many of you, but it is actually possible to camp without electricity. 

Reliable visual records from the Middle Ages (1950—1985) clearly show families surviving—even, at times, apparently enjoying themselves—in campsites lit only by white gas or propane lanterns, retrieving food from insulated boxes cooled only with ice, and engaging in such non-electrically dependent activities as fishing, swimming, climbing trees, and reading books manufactured in the ancient Gutenberg manner, on paper. (A few disputed images even purport to show family members talking to each other.)

Of course it’s easy to idealize scenes in vintage Kodachrome transparencies. What isn’t so apparent are the tragic effects of those primitive times: respiratory problems from second-hand kerosene smoke, salmonellosis caused by eating chicken stored at above-optimal temperatures, blindness brought on after repeated attempts to read Field and Stream by the light of a candle lantern (not to mention the devastating tent fires also associated with open flames), ugly cases of fratricide sparked when siblings were forced to interact directly with each other. (“Where’s Timmy?” “I don’t know, mommy. Maybe a bear ate him.”)

We can thank the advances of civilization—the Cree, the Engel, the earbud—for the blessedly longer median life expectancies now enjoyed by overland travelers. But LED lanterns, 12V fridges, and the myriad of electronic entertainment and communication devices now virtually grafted to our persons—they all require electrical power. Those of us who’ve moved even farther upmarket with such things as truck-mounted campers need yet more, for water pumps, vent fans, heater blowers . . . although personally I’ll draw my line of sympathy this side of anyone who wants to power a flatscreen TV in the wilderness.

An auxiliary deep-cycle battery has become nearly standard equipment for a well-sorted overland vehicle, and with good reason. It keeps the starting battery free for its critical duty, and serves as a starting backup as well if connected with a selectable isolator such as the National Luna (although the advent of the brilliant Micro-Start and similar products has made this function nearly redundant). With a battery monitor it’s easy to keep track of usage and voltage.

However, depending on load (especially that fridge), you can run down even a high-quality Group 34 AGM battery in anything from six or seven days to less than one. If you’re on the move day to day, it’s likely your engine’s alternator will be more than adequate to bring the voltage back up to an ideal float level of 13.4 volts or so. But what if you’ve found the perfect beach or forest campsite and don’t want to move for a week, or two? Idling the engine is a notoriously poor (slow) way to recharge a battery, irrespective of the fact that you’re pointlessly burning fuel, causing pollution, and spoiling your ideal campsite with noise. You need a different power source—and the finest one you could ask for is a mere 93 million miles away.

For years auxiliary photovoltaic (PV) solar panels for vehicles fell into two broad categories and capabilities: You either had a permanently mounted rigid unit or units of decent (50 to 200 watts) output installed on the roof with brackets, or you made do with much smaller flexible PV panels which clipped directly to your battery and could be laid out on either the hood, roof, or ground. The former, while sometimes capable of maintaining auxiliary battery voltage nearly indefinitely, were bulky and heavy, and created serious overhead hazards for tree limbs, etc. The latter were rarely if ever capable of doing more than delaying the necessity for running the engine.

That’s all changing. Roseann and I now have two 100-watt semi-rigid PV panels on the roof of our Four Wheel Camper; attached directly to the roof via stout adhesive backing, they create essentially no windage or clearance issues, and over many trips have proven to keep our auxiliary fully topped up to run the camper’s fridge, (LED) lights, vent fan, and water pressure pump, and recharge capabilities for our extensive array of journalist-oriented electronic devices and cameras.

And now it’s possible to get that same level of input with a completely portable kit displayed by P3Solar at the Overland Expo. Their 200-watt flexible panel weighs barely five pounds, and rolls into a 35-inch by 5-inch tube. While it obviously takes more time to set up than a permanently mounted panel, you can use it on different vehicles, and if you want to park in the shade you can run the panel out into the sun (although since the panel is equipped with bypass diodes it handles partial shade quite well). Your roof is also now free for bicycle or kayak racks, or a roof tent.

The P3Solar panel connects with standard 2-pin SAE plug. You could run that through alligator clips and simply hook it up directly to your battery, but with that much input you’d need to monitor the system very carefully to avoid exceeding maximum voltage. Much better to run it through an MPPT (maximum power point tracking) charge controller, which will optimize the unit’s 24-volt output. A standard charge controller will work as well, but will pull the voltage down a bit and thus not exploit the panel’s full output.

The panel can be deployed by laying it flat on the ground; however, the company also offers a clever folding aluminum frame that positions the panel at a more optimum angle for those in latitudes above the tropics. It expands accordion-like in about five seconds and snaps into place; the panel then attaches to it securely with Velcro. The frame can be (that is, should be) staked to the ground with included stakes that are stouter than anything I’ve ever seen included with a family sized tent. Impressive. Thus anchored the assembly shrugged off a 20mph breeze out at our desert camp; Wally Stoss at P3Solar assures me it’s been tested at over twice that. The EZ-out kit include a larger diameter bag and a rigid tube to separate the panel and frame, and the whole kit is still under 20 pounds. 

On a very warm (95ºF) summer morning with the sun still low, I recorded a bit over 100 watts out of the panel mounted on the frame. Since PV output is lower in high temperatures, and obviously lower when the sun isn’t directly overhead—and since most PV panels never see their theoretical maximum—this is astounding performance. Most fridges draw in the neighborhood of three amps (36 watts at 12volts—and of course only intermittently), so I was already well ahead of that. 

It’s clear the P3Solar panel would give most overland vehicles complete electrical independence—and then some—for as long as you wanted to stay and enjoy that beach. I’m curious what the output of this panel will be in colder temperatures with the sun overhead. Imagine selling your excess electricity to fellow campers . . .

P3Solar is here.