One question I get asked very often is how I keep my devices charged while I’m travelling and out on long multi-day treks. In this day and age we have a lot of power-hungry devices and being able to use them over a sustained period without access to a power-point can be difficult.
Every few months I go on a long hike where I will be out in the wilderness for up to 7 days at a time. Over the course of these treks I use an array of battery operated electronic devices for various critical functions. It became apparent to me that I needed to have a solution to keep these devices charged. I’ll quickly go through these devices and offer some tips to keep the batteries lasting as long as possible. I’ll also discuss the fail-safe solution at the end, which will enable me to recharge my devices should my power saving strategies fail.
Camera – Sony A7R II
When travelling or backpacking into remote country the weight of your equipment can be the difference between having a comfortable time, or feeling like you’re lugging around a bag of bricks. I decided to switch from Canon DSLR cameras to Sony A7 series mirrorless cameras, primarily because of the image quality but the weight of the setup was a huge consideration too. After several years of using this camera system I’ve learned a thing or two about extending the battery life of these devices:
Take more batteries: The Sony Alpha cameras have a rather bad reputation for battery life. This is more a factor of the batteries’ size rather than any particular design flaw. The Sony A7 series are very small cameras and therefore need a small battery to power them. These batteries are typically half the size of large DSLR batteries and unsurprisingly have around half the capacity and weight. To overcome this I take more batteries on long hikes, generally budgeting one battery per day. This means for a 7 day hike I would take about 7 batteries, which don’t actually take up that much space and at 45g per battery there isn’t a huge amount of weight either. If you are taking a DSLR camera with bigger battery capacity you may be able to budget one battery for every two days.
Turn on airplane mode: Enabling airplane mode on your A7 series camera will disable the various wireless communication services of the camera, extending battery life rather dramatically. If these wireless features are required then airplane mode can be switched off temporarily. Just don’t forget to turn it back on!
Turning the camera off after use: This one may sound simple but with the Sony A7 series if you do not turn the camera off and put it in your bag the eye sensor on the electronic viewfinder can keep the camera powered up. The unsuspecting photographer will put the camera in their pack after use, and then maybe a few hours later get the camera out to shoot, only to find the battery is completely flat. This is quite a big issue when you are budgeting one battery per day, and have limited supplies of full capacity batteries. To be safe I turn the camera off rather than relying on it to go to sleep. DSLR or non-Sony users will likely not have this problem, I certainly had no issue with my Canon 5D Mark III when it went to sleep.
Limit the number of long exposures: Long exposures chew battery life so for that reason I limit the number I take, within reason. The same applies to any form of time-lapse where there is a lot of processor use writing multiple images to the memory card.
Warm up batteries in the cold: Super cold temperatures (below zero Celsius) can reduce the charge of lithium-ion batteries. To limit this effect you can keep the batteries in a jacket pocket close to your chest. This ensures the batteries stay warm and perform as well as can be expected.
Recharge your batteries on the road: One of the killer features of the Sony A7 series is you can recharge the batteries inside the camera via plugging an external battery charger into the multifunction port on the camera. Additionally A7 mark II series cameras can be fully powered by an external USB battery. If all the tips above don’t work and you blow your ‘battery budget’ then you can charge the batteries back up and you’re all set to keep shooting. This turns a potential catastrophe into just another day in the office. I’ll talk about my battery charger in the “fail-safe” section below.
Head Torch – Black Diamond Revolt
Bring spare head torch batteries: This is easy to do, and costs very little in size and weight. My head torch takes AAA batteries and I keep an extra brand new set in a snap lock bag. If your primary set go flat or malfunction and you don’t have recharging capability then this is your next best bet. You don’t want to be walking around in the dark in the wilderness without being able to see, that’s not going to end well.
Use lithium-ion batteries: I’ve found using lithium-ion batteries in my head torch makes the torch shine brighter and the battery life is much longer than the alkaline counterparts. Just make sure your head torch can take these types of batteries and be prepared for the rude shot when you pay for them at the checkout, they aren’t the cheapest.
Lock your Head torch: One reason I use the Black Diamond Revolt is the head torch is lockable. This means that the head torch is not able to be accidentally turned on should the power button be pressed while it’s being stored in your pocket or bag. I have had an unlocked head torch go flat from this scenario and it is very frustrating, especially if you don’t have any spare batteries with you! The next best thing if you can’t lock your head torch is to remove the batteries from it when you store it, however this takes additional time and causes a lot of wear and tear on the clip that holds the batteries into the head torch.
Dim the brightness: The Black Diamond Revolt can also be dimmed to a much lower brightness setting simply by holding down the power button once it has been turned on. Running your head torch at a lower brightness setting will maximise the battery life and your fellow travellers will also appreciate not being blinded by your torch when you accidentally point it their way.
Use a rechargeable head torch: I chose the Black Diamond Revolt after a great deal of research because it’s rechargeable. This means if all the precautions above do not keep my head torch batteries going and they run flat, I can still charge them back up to full power using my “fail-safe” external USB charger. That’s pretty comforting to know.
Smartphone – iPhone 7 Plus
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve hiked for days in the wilderness to get away from it all but I’ve taken my iPhone, so isn’t that a little counter-intuitive? It certainly is but I do find the iPhone quite indispensable in a few aspects on these kinds of trips, such as:
- Emergency contact: If you’re in reception range it’s pretty easy to call for help if you have a phone. If you don’t have a phone then you have to resort to a PLB or some sort of emergency signal. Using a phone to contact emergency services could be a lifesaver.
- Camera: Having a smart-phone camera in your pocket ready to shoot those nice candid moments without having to get out the big camera is very handy when you’re on the move.
- Weather updates: Given reception coverage is available the phone can be used to get weather updates, which may help you plan where to set up the next campsite.
- Navigation: The phone also has great maps apps like Avenza maps which you can use to navigate the trails (note that this should not replace the use of a dedicated hand-held GPS unit).Google Maps also can come in handy for understanding the topography of an area.
- Backup torch: If your head torch totally fails and you can’t recharge it, then using your phone light may be your last resort to be able to see in the dark.
- Pedometer: A rudimentary way to see how many steps and distance you covered for the day. This still counts steps in flight mode too.
- Music: The phone is awesome to listen to music on when you just want to chill out at camp after a long day of hard walking. I prefer the sounds of the bush but sometimes it’s nice to drown out the snores of your tent buddy with some relaxing tunes.
So here’s what you can do to keep your phone going for as long as possible:
Turn phone off unless being used: This one is pretty obvious as nothing keeps batteries charged better than not using them. But it is a pain to turn the phone on and off again all the time, so I resist this option. If the temperatures are really cold however I do tend to turn off the phone, combined with putting the phone in a jacket pocket close to my chest to keep it warm.
Turn on flight mode: This is the solution I use as you can generally get at least 2 days out of an iPhone with flight mode turned on. The GPS also works and the pedometer keeps tracking your steps. If you don’t have flight mode on and you’re in patchy reception the phone will keep trying to regain signal, causing serious battery drain.
Turn off 4G: This is another quick tip related to weak signals draining batteries. 3G signals are a lot more prevalent and therefore your phone won’t be switching between weak 4G signals to stronger 3G signals and chewing your battery.
Limit data use in low signal areas: If you turn off flight mode to get a weather forecast for example and the reception is very poor then your phone battery will likely drain rapidly. Try and climb a peak or move to an area with a stronger signal or you may regret trying after you flatten your battery. Your phone will go through a lot more battery trying to download data than it will making a phone call or sending an SMS, so use data sparingly.
Reduce phone screen brightness: Again no surprises here but combined with everything else this certainly has a big impact. If you’re using your phone during bright daylight this may not be an option though, the contrast makes the screen very hard to read.
My ‘fail-safe’ external battery charger – Xiaomi 20000mAh
This is the device I take to ensure I can keep all of my electronic equipment running when I travel or hike. I did quite a bit of research to determine the best option and I found this to be a great balance between capacity, size and weight, and cost.
Capacity: at 20,000mAh this device packs a serious power capacity. I can charge multiple Sony NP-FW50 batteries for my camera, as well as my iPhone multiple times, and top up my head torch batteries, and still have some charge left over.
Size and weight: The device measures 14.2 x 7.3 x 2.2 cm and can fit in a large pocket. The weight of 338g is also quite manageable, especially considering this device can keep all of your critical equipment running.
Cost: These batteries are surprisingly inexpensive and can be purchased for $59.95 including free shipping over at photosupply.com.au.
What it is
This is an intelligent high power external battery charger that has two USB ports to charge two devices at once. It has short-circuit protection, input and output protection for current and over-voltage, and also protection for over-charging. It supports Quick Charge 2.0 Input, and charges an iPhone very rapidly indeed. The device has four LEDs to show battery level, and a micro-USB port for recharging. Ensure you have plenty of time to fully charge the battery as it can take up to 8 hours. I’ve found it performs quite well in the cold, however on one snow camping trip it didn’t work to well after it was placed on the floor of the tent. As the tent was pitched directly on top of the very cold snow this is probably not surprising! Once it warmed back up it was back to normal.
What it’s not
I wouldn’t call this device rugged and durable based on appearance alone. Having said that I have accidentally dropped the device several times onto a hard floor and it still works fine, even after a year of use. I also don’t think the device would be very water resistant as there are no obvious seals in the plastic. Therefore I’m pretty careful where I pack it in my bag and when hiking I keep it in a dry bag to ensure it doesn’t get affected by moisture. Whilst it may not have the durability and waterproofing properties we all desire I see this as being a compromise made against the low cost and low weight of the device. If you look after it you should find it working fine well into the future.
Why don’t you use another charging method like solar or wind?
I genuinely would love to use a solar or wind charger for my equipment. I love the idea of using renewable energy. However, I hike a lot in Tasmania where the weather is highly changeable. I can’t afford to lug a solar panel into an area to charge my devices only to have grey skies and therefore no power. I also could not find a solution for solar/wind that weighed less than the external battery that I use at the moment. So considering the unreliability and extra weight, these renewable type power devices do not suit my needs at the moment. If you’re aware of a device that you think may change my mind, feel free to let me know about it!
Thanks for reading my tips and tricks on how to keep your devices powered while travelling or trekking. If you have any suggestions or know of other great products that can help, please mention it in the comments!