How to charge devices while bikepacking
How to charge devices while bikepacking
All those USB-powered devices can be a blessing and a curse. While they are convenient and powerful — just think about everything the smartphone in your pocket does — you cannot escape the need to regularly plug them in somewhere to top up their batteries.
Usually, this isn’t the problem. For most people, charging devices becomes a routine. They plug their phone in overnight, or they re-charge a tablet when they aren’t using it. But on a bikepacking trip, those routines might not be available. Spending a day on the road and the night in a tent means a different form of power is needed. Essentially, the choice is between carrying extra power, or generating that extra power.
Carrying power packs
The most common solution is to carry extra power by using battery banks. These are easily available and a range of sizes, and perhaps the most logical solution, what better way to extend the life of a battery than with another battery.
They come with some drawbacks. Perhaps the biggest is size and weight. The more devices and the bigger their battery, the bigger the power pack that is needed. Of course, if it’s only to charge lights, which are energy efficient and may not be used much if most cycling is during the day, then a small pocket power pack might be enough.
However, most people will need more. If it’s to charge a bike GPS, phone and other lights, a large and heavy battery bank might be necessary. And, of course, it’s also possible the power bank will need charging itself, their efficiency doesn’t always match the manufacturers claims and can be affected by things like age and temperature.
While, perhaps, slightly more complex, generating power on the go is better aligned to the concept of bikepacking. What’s the point of the freedom of cycling and camping, if it’s restricted by the need to charge your phone? And ways to generate power for devices have been growing in response to the natural demand there is.
Many solar chargers are on the market. These offer the promise of free energy, with the sun charging devices while you ride. In practice, however, they may not be effective enough for most people.
Portable solar panels tend to be too small to generate significant amounts of power. Additionally, solar energy works best when the panels are in an optimal position, as soon as the angle changes, they start to become less effective at generating power. It is, obviously, difficult to maintain that optimal position while cycling.
And, of course, it’s no use at all if there is no sun! A cloudy day might mean no charging. And even on sunny days, routes that are shaded, whether by buildings or trees, will struggle to have an impact on the power bar. In some cases, it might mean that charging is limited to just a short period every day when the sun is directly overhead.
The result is that, at the moment, solar charging it perhaps more a novelty than a practical option. However, if it’s just to add a little extra power to batteries on low-energy devices, they might provide enough.
Designed to fit between the forks of the front wheel, hub dynamos will generate power whenever the bike is moving. The exact power generated will vary between models, meaning it’s possible to buy a dynamo that suits your style of cycling. And they have little drag, so will not impact on cycling performance too much.
The drawback they have is that they do not generate much power. The most powerful, like a SON28, will generate about 3W. And while power is power, it means that devices with a large battery will take a long time. Cycling all day may not fully charge a bike GPS or phone, for example.
Since they generate AC power, rather than DC, they will also need a convertor to charge devices. And they tend to be one of the most expensive options. Depending on the model chosen, you can expect to pay several hundred dollars for a hub dynamo.
PedalCell is another dynamo option. This, however, looks more like traditional dynamos, fitting to the frame to run a flywheel against the wheel. This has the advantage that it is easy to fit and even the minimal drag can be eliminated when charging is not needed.
PedalCell is also a more powerful option, while factors like speed will affect the power generated, a reasonable cyclist can expect a constant power delivery that is two or three times that of a dynamo hub. The power is delivered to capacitors, and discharged through its own USB hub, making it easy to charge multiple devices while on the move without having to buy additional units.
Which is best?
Ultimately, the best option will depend on things like the devices that need to be charged and the bikepacking itinerary.
For many, the power packs will be sufficient, but that decision will involve some calculation of battery sizes and an estimate of usage. And it is easy to get wrong, the amount of power that might be used while bikepacking will be very different to everyday life, even with the same device.
That is why many bikepackers look to some form of generation to charge their devices. It liberates them from the need to think about charging, having to sit in cafés watching the battery fill, or plan hotels on an itinerary that should be about camping. And it removes the anxiety of getting things wrong, there’s no danger of a miscalculation resulting in a dead GPS at a critical time.
The key decision is which is the best charging option, and that will depend on factors like the number and type of devices that need charging. And it’s always sensible to allow for a little extra, rather than the devices you have now.
But when you’ve found the option that’s right for you, you won’t look back and will be able to enjoy a bikepacking adventure without the fear of empty batteries.