Introduction – Part 2

Going on a multi-week wilderness photography expedition in the wild with no place to recharge your batteries? In this blog series, we investigate solar charging your wilderness photography expedition. In  Part 1, we tested a solar charging system in the backyard, intended for keeping a wilderness photography kit charged on a long wilderness adventure. 

Download Wildernes Expedition Solar Charging Calculator

Before diving into this Part 2, I recommend you first read Part 1, where I introduced the photography equipment I was planning to take on a 3 week photography packrafting expedition to the arctic wilds of northwestern Alaska, estimate average daily energy consumption, test a 2 pound solar charging system in various weather conditions and find the break-even point where solar charging has weight advantage over just carrying lots of extra batteries.  And if you will be solar charging your wilderness photography expedition, download my free Wilderness Expedition Solar Charging Calculator (Microsoft Excel).  Try it out and let me know what you think.

In this, Part 2, I will make a brief report on initial field trials made with this system on a 5-day packrafting trip on Oregon’s John Day River, and a 4-day float on the Grande Ronde River.  While these field trials were really too short to fully test my solar charging system, I will share some basic observations on the system’s practicalities in the field.

Unfortunately, we have had to cancel the trip to Alaska this year due to COVID-19.  So it may be another year or two before I have opportunity to make a “Part 3” post from an actual multi-week field test.

Summary of Solar Charging Field Trials

This article is based on field trials made on a 5-day packrafting trip on Oregon’s John Day River in late-May of 2020, and a 4-day packrafting trip on the Grande Ronde River in late-June of 2020.  While both of these trips were made within 1 month of summer equinox, when daylight is long, both rivers are in deep canyons, which limits availability of sunlight during evening hours.

Nevertheless, I packed the system along and used it everyday.  On the John Day River trip, I logged each solar charging event and recorded the status of all my batteries a couple times each day.

Wilderness Photography Equipment

The electronic devices (cameras and phone), extra batteries, solar charger and battery banks taken on these trips was exactly as described in Part 1, except that I also added a DJI Mini drone with three batteries into the system.  However, I maintained charge on these drone batteries using an alternate solar system, so that this field trial would remain limited to exactly the same equipment described in Part 1.

Wilderness Photography Equipment and Battery Capacities

Wilderness Solar Charging Equipment

General Handling in the Field

The solar charger, battery banks and charging cables were stored in an 8L drybag, which, while rafting, was stored inside the inflated tube of my packraft on top of other equipment, right behind the cockpit.  This area is well protected from bumps with rocks that could be encountered while floating on the river, and provides two layers of waterproofness.

Wilderness Photography Expedition Solar Charging System

While charging in camp, I propped the solar cell up against a rock or bush, and generally put whatever device I was charging in the shadow of the solar cell to keep it out of the sun.  I tried to check on the system every hour or so, to check on battery state of charge and to adjust the cell’s position or angle relative to the sun.

The system worked flawlessly, with one exception.  I generally carry the smartphone in my PFD pocket while on the river.  While my smartphone, a Galaxy S7 Edge, is waterproof, it took some time for its USB connector to dry out, and the phone would give me a “charge port: moisture detected” warning if I tried to charge it before it dried out.  After one of these instances, the phone refused to recharge from solar cell or battery bank, even after the port had clearly dried out (oh no … how to control the drone?).  Luckily, restarting the phone cleared this problem.

Solar Charging Performance

The solar charging system easily kept all of my devices charged.  However, I did not take near as many photos as I expected to take on the planned Alaskan arctic trip.  So my electrical demand was significantly less than anticipated.

The following chart shows the state of charge of my batteries during the 5-day John Day River trip.  The state of charge for each device considers all available batteries for that device.  For example, if three of four RX100 batteries were fully charged and one was fully exhausted, then the state of charge for the RX100 is reported in this chart as 3/4=75%.

Solar charging performance on 5-day packrafting trip on John Day River
Solar charging performance on 5-day packrafting trip on John Day River

Lessons Learned from First Solar Charging Field Trials

  • The solar charging system is easy to carry safely on packrafting trips.
  • The solar charging system handles and performs well in the field, and was able to keep up with keeping my devices charged on sunny days.
  • My smartphone discharged much faster than expected, even though it was in airplane mode.  Either GPS tracking on the phone consumed more power than expected, and/or using the phone as a drone controller significantly increased discharge rate.  I will plan to recharge this battery every day.
  • Under very cloudy conditions, the solar charging system can only support one load.  I attempted to plug the smartphone and Rylo 360 camera into the charger at the same time on evening of Day 4, but neither would charge.  The system would only charge one device at a time.
  • It is easy to accidentally leave the Rylo 360 video camera recording while paddling on the water.  I completely exhausted one battery this way on Day 2.  Something to watch out for!
  • Solar charging in a deep canyon can be limited by shadows from the canyon walls during morning and evening.

What’s Next?

Ultimately, a multi-week field trial is required to fully test that the system is adequate for solar charging your wilderness photography expedition.  With our 2020 Alaska trip now postponed to 2022, I will be looking for a multi-week backpacking or canoe trip opportunity in 2021, and report results back here.  So be sure to subscribe to this blog (at upper right) for notification.

In the meantime, feel free to download my Wilderness Expedition Solar Charging Calculator (Microsoft Excel).  Try it out and let me know what you think.

Below are affiliate links to the equipment used in this blog.  Using these links supports me with no additional cost to you.  Feel free to post any questions in the comments.  Thank you for your support!

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