My strategy for getting off the grid while using an array of electronic devices.
“I will be out on an island in PNG for about a week and I think electricity may be non-existent. What do you use to keep your batteries charged for such an extended trip.”
Keeping batteries charged and finding electrical outlets used to be one of the biggest challenges for traveling chroniclers. 15 years ago the batteries in our laptops hardly lasted two or three hours, our video cameras needed constant charges, and our smartphones … well, most of us didn’t have smartphones back then. It was common in those days to book yourself into a hotel room, look around, and find that there are not any electrical outlets — seriously. I can remember having to resort to using an Alphasmart Neo — which has a 900 hour battery life — to be able to continuously write on the road without being hamstrung by the lack of a charge.
These days are no more. My laptop battery lasts for ten hours. My Blackberry Key2 can go two days of heavy use without needing to be plugged in. The battery in my GH5 can last out an entire day as my hybrid. My Blackmagic cinema cameras … well, that’s another story.
Today, electrical outlets seem ubiquitous. If each table at a cafe doesn’t have its own designated plug customers throw hissy fits. Even the very chairs in airports often second as giant power banks. There are random charging stations all through the cities of the world. And it is no longer a weird thing to ask someone at an establishment to plug in your electrical device for a little while.
In point, from a power perspective, the life of the digital nomad has become way easier.
(But you could counter me here by saying that in the analog era, when we used mechanical film cameras, wrote by hand in notebooks — yes, I used to do that — and smartphones were a fictional technology, we didn’t have a need for electrical outlets and could travel far, far off the grid without worrying about not being able to collect content.)
However, it is still possible to get off the grid and find yourself rendered plug-less — theoretically, at least. So what do you do?
The first thing I would look at is the dispersion of cell towers in the places you intend to travel in. Where there are cell towers the people are more than likely going to have smartphones and are more than likely going to demand places to plug them in. If you see cell towers, then don’t worry much about electricity — you’ll manage for most of your devices.
If you’re going beyond the bounds of cell coverage or you use power hungry devices — like digital film cameras — you’re going to want to prepare. Look over your electronics, calculate how much you’re going to want to use them and how much time their batteries can give you per charge, and set yourself up to go three days without needing a recharge.
I say three days here kind of randomly. There has to be some limit that you’re willing to accept, as you can’t travel with enough juice to last forever. You need to plan to come into town and recharge every once in a while, otherwise you’re going to need too many / to big batteries to travel with. Two to three days would be acceptable for me.
There are two main ways that I allow myself to be able to go this long between charges:
- Lots of spare batteries.
- Big batteries that can power multiple devices.
For my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4k, I carry five batteries.
For my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, I also carry five batteries.
I carry two batteries for my GH5.
I carry a 10,000 mAh external battery, which can provide around three complete charges for my Blackberry or multiple charges for my small LED lights.
I carry six AAA and six AA rechargeable Eneloop batteries for my two audio recorders.
I will also sometimes carry a 90-watt hour v-lock battery, which can power my Blackmagic camera and pretty much everything else.
If I need more power, you can carry other lithium ion batteries, such as the Sony NP-F770 (4400mAh), that are not too big and heavy, which I can place in a charger and then plug into other devices via USB.
What about solar power?
I don’t bother with it. While I believe you can adequately charge a cellphone with travel sized solar cells — especially in the tropics — it is my impression that this would not be possible to collect enough of a charge for my cameras. As my phone can go for a week with just an external battery, what would be the point of fumbling with solar?
Now, if I was going to set up a base of operations in a remote location, I may resort to solar — but that’s a completely different story.
Be aware of airline regulations when traveling with large amounts of batteries. To put it simply, you have to keep each one between 10,000 mAh or 100 watt hours, and sometimes there are restrictions on the number of them that you can carry on with you. If carrying over a half dozen batteries — which you’re probably going to have to do — spread them out among your carry-ons: put some in your bag, some in your “personal item,” others in your jacket pockets, and send others through on their own. You do this because when there is a line of people going though security they inspectors can’t tell right away where one passenger’s stuff ends and another begins, which impedes their ability to quickly and easily count up how many batteries you’re actually carrying.
Basically, look at the devices you want to power, estimate how long they last per charge, and calculate how much juice you’re going to have to carry to last for a pre-determined set of days between charges.