It's easier than you think.
So, you've decided it's time to go off the grid. Time to disconnect yourself from fossil fuels and really get lost somewhere peaceful and isolated. But there's one problem: you're still a nerd. And still addicted to the shiny gadgets that make life in our bustling, noisy concrete swaps so hard to give up. It's time to start looking into solar power.
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I've spent almost every weekend of the last several months out camping or working far away from power sockets and gasoline. Two panel kits- the Sherpa 50 and Sherpa 120 from Goal Zero, have accompanied me. Here's what I've learned about living off the sun:
1. A Little Discipline Goes a Long Way:
Together, both of my panels are capable of generating a little more than 40 Watts per hour. Both batteries can store up to 200 Watts at a time. Keeping my phone or tablet trickle-charged throughout the day doesn't require much thought. But my box fan draws about 60 Watts per hour on high. So- with this limited set up- how was I to stay cool in my tent on a Texas morning in June?
The answer is diligent use of my alarm clock.
Texas is relatively tolerable from about 9 PM to about 7 AM. Every night, I'd go to bed at around midnight and set my alarm for 6 AM. When it went off, I'd turn on the inverter attached to my battery stack and turn on the fan. Then I'd sleep for another three hours in total comfort, free from the oppressive, sticky tent heat that makes camping in the summertime such an ordeal.
With a relatively affordable solar set-up, you can have most of the comforts of home if you're willing to exercise care and discipline in when you use them.
2. Charge Before You Leave.
Do yourself a favor and make sure your batteries are all charged to full before you leave the house. More than once I went off on a camp-out with drained batteries, certain that I'd be able to charge them on the hike or as soon as I set up my tent. Rain, overcast skies and late arrivals can make all of that impossible. Which could leave you without music or heating or lights when you need them most.
Camping well is about setting yourself up for success and anticipating your needs before they happen. Charging your batteries up the day or two before your trip also gives you an opportunity to check all your cables and your inverter box. If something shorts, you'll be grateful it happened at home and not in the middle of Yellowstone. Which brings me to tip #3...
3. Bring Back-Ups.
You probably can't afford to bring 'back-up' solar panels and batteries. In my experience, it's the cables that crap out first anyway. If you can't afford to be without power wherever you're going, bring spare cables. And at least one spare inverter box. All your back-up bits should be stored in a waterproof bag or container.
Goal Zero's solar panels and batteries are, in my experience, nearly indestructible. But I've still had to replace several of their adapters and one inverter box. I've also had to replace one replacement inverter box. I'd recommend spending a good chunk of money ($50-ish) on your box. If at all possible, check the sockets beforehand to make sure they aren't too loose around standard plugs. That's a problem endemic to cheap inverters.
4. Minimize Draw, Maximize Capability.
When I set out on my last five day camp-out, I had two basic power needs that depended on my panels: Music and Air Conditioning.
For A/C, I had box fans. Even used sparingly, those wouldn't leave much juice for my music set-up. Rather than bring along my computer speakers or a plug-in iPod dock, I went with a AA battery-powered bass amp with rechargeable batteries. My original plan had been to bring my laptop along to drive the music, but I realized quickly how silly that was. My laptop could get 6-7 hours at most out of a charge. It wasn't efficient in stand-by and it required a lot of power to charge.
My PlayBook, on the other hand, was able to go all five days as a media player with only one short trickle-recharge. I was able to get around the 16 GB storage limit by loading several different playlists on my laptop. Whenever one got old, I'd whip out my notebook and switch them out. It required very little power and kept my beats fresh for the whole trip.
5. Solar Devices Take Stress off your Battery:
The week before one of my longer trips into the woods, I came across a rack of little solar powered lights at Home Depot. They stick right into the ground and turn on as soon as it gets dark outside.
You can find dozens of different types of solar lights out there, some for as little as $2-3. My camp purchased about a dozen of them. We'd leave them in the sun during the day in a sort of 'solar garden' and place them around our camp in the evening before dark fell. If at all feasible, I'd recommend doing all of your lighting this way. It's cheap and it frees up your main array for real work.
If you aren't wildly concerned with volume, a solar boom box is another great way to free up power.
6. Don't Be Afraid to Build Your Own:
I love Goal Zero's products, and I recommend them for everyone. But they aren't at all cheap. If you're just doing wilderness hikes and need something to strap to a backpack, their kits are ideal. But if you have more long term plans in the bush, it might be time to look into building your own. You can construct larger arrays- 100 to 200 Watts, for a relatively low cost. These kits won't be as tough as something you'd buy pre-made, but they're more practical for permanent emplacement.
The Bottom Line: Going solar is practical. For under $1000, you can have A/C, music and a fully charged phone or tablet at all times, wherever you wander. Beware though. Solar charging is an addictive hobby, and you'll soon be tempted to go further than any pre-built kit can take you.