Two years ago GoalZero expanded its ambassador’s programme to the East and I was presented by Absolut Explorer with a nice selection of gear to use and abuse. Up until then I either assumed that expeditions will mean long periods of disconnect or that at best an eclectic combination of devices and solutions (not all of them compatible) will manage somehow to keep alive a phone or an e-book Reader while camped in a tent up on a mountain. Partnering up with GoalZero changed that dramatically.
In 2010 it was the first time I used, on an expedition in Alaska, a solar panel with a battery. The aim was to power up a sat-phone and a PDA so I can communicate back to Romania. A fairly light setup, it was also light on offering… Car lighter connectivity and low output battery it meant that I could charge only one device at a time, I was swamped in cables and convertors and the use I got out of it was mainly for emergency situations.
2014 found me again in Alaska yet this time with GoalZero. Storm bound in tent we were indulging in long sessions of movie watching on an iPad2 with external speakers able to withstand the howling of the wind. Finishing up with quiet evenings each with own smartphone and headphones while I was reading eBooks on the iPad. Satphone fully charged and power to share with other inhabitants of 14k Camp… A massive change in comfort with almost no change in weight or volume. Since then GoalZero has accompanied me on more than 8 expeditions or major trips and helped us shooting a film that got a prize at Cannes for short documentary…
So what is this gear and how much of it? What I have and used since 2014 is:
The Sherpa 50 Solar kit is a combo of a solar panel and a battery. The solar panel is a 13W (18-22 V) that fully charges the battery in about 12 Hrs (less or more depending on the sun). The battery itself is Li-NMC and can be charged both from the mains or from a solar panel. Usually, when I leave ‘civilisation’ I fully charge the battery from the wall outlet then on the road or BC I keep it plugged into the solar panel throughout the day (whether hiking or in BC). This way I only need to “top it up” rather than fully charge. The combined weight of the panel and the battery is 1 Kg and 300 g thus easy to keep the battery in the backpack and the panel strapped to the outside.
I will leave out any further discussion on specs as on one hand I do not understand them and secondly I do not think they tell the story most of us are interested in in a language most of us understand. I will, however, speak about how I used the setup and what it worked for:
- in 2014 in Alaska we went a bit “overkill” and we had with us 2 Sherpa 50 kits but we could have done, easily, with only one. We had to power one satphone, one iPad, one iPhone 4S, one Samsung (something) and the RockOut 2 speakers. We heavily used all devices as we also lent out our satphone. What I found great about the Sherpa 50 was not that it powered all this well above the consumption need – I expected it – but that it did so in atrocious weather conditions. We left the panel outside, on the tent, days in a row and the battery in the vestibule. I did not notice any significant drop in ability to charge and there were the devices themselves that were dying due to cold exposure and not the battery.
- in Papua (Carstensz Pyramid) not the cold was the problem but the continuous rain and overcast skies. I was drenched and barely saw the sun in two weeks. The Sherpa 50 kit fought valiantly to charge even with so little sunlight and the battery worked without a glitch even if a few times ended up drenched. Of course, as it is not waterproof, I would not recommend for it to be used constantly in wet environments or in the water but for accidental drenching it did not seem to have suffered at all.
- on Bhagirathi I we went in style and we carried along the ‘traditional’ iPad 2, a MacBook Air, a Nikon D90 with 2 batteries, a Canon G1x, the RockOut 2 speakers and the Firefly USB light. We used the latter to light up the keyboard and around the laptop at night, straight from the built in USB of the MacBook Air. We used the MackBook air mainly to copy the SD cards from the cameras and to check out the photos. The iPad was used, in conjunction with the speakers, mainly for movies but also eBooks and was probably the most used gadget. Cristina was lugging around most of the time the two cameras and they were recharged constantly. The iPhones were used either for eBooks or for music – with headphones or the RockOut speakers. The setup we had (2 Sherpa 50 kits) was plentiful for the needs we had plus the cook and porter’s occasional phone charging. We could have done with 1 kit probably but less comfortably. Same for our last trip, this past month, to T16 in Zanskar.
- Guiding Kilimanjaro several times in the past few seasons or the Everest Base Camp trek the Sherpa 50 kit was all the time in and on my backpack. It was good to see my guests’ relief being able to recharge, at will, their smartphones and kindles without having to shell out the $$ in the lodges.
A few words on care: the panel will get scratched. No matter what you do, it will happen. It’s mainly dust and sand that will affect it. This however does not alter the performance. From extreme cold combined with impact one or two of the cells may burst but, again, overall, I did not notice any drop in performance of the panel.
The battery works, more than two years on, as on the first day. Occasional recharging from the mains is advised to prolong its life but I have to admit that rather than the regular cycle suggested I only charged it fully from the mains before trips…
The speakers are the little boom-box of the expedition. The sounds of nature are great but the occasional Pink Floyd does not hurt either.