All Charged Up and Ready to Go
Choosing Electronic Cellmates
By Tamia Nelson
June 7, 2011
Not long ago, while grubbing around in a dark corner of a musty closet, I stumbled on a box containing some old notebooks. And I do mean old. They predated my first desktop computer, and since I've been using a computer for most of my writing since the mid‑1980s… Well, you can do the math. Anyway, while leafing through one of my finds, I noticed that it contained the gear list I'd put together for an early Big Trip. As I scanned the faded entries, I was amused to see that there wasn't very much difference between that old list and its latest incarnation, a PDF residing on my Kindle. Not much difference, perhaps, but there was one area where things had really changed. In the quarter‑century between the old list and the new, I'd entered …
The Electronic Age
Not that I had a choice, really. Thanks to the microchip, the LCD, and the Internet, electronics have moved from the periphery of our lives to center stage. Cell phones. Laptops, notebooks, netbooks, and tablets. E‑book readers. Digital cameras and MP3 players. GPS receivers. Personal locator beacons. The inventory is as extensive as it is familiar. Yet back in the day, when I was still scribbling gear lists down in the pages of tattered notebooks, all these gadgets were either nonexistent or enormously expensive. Even such mundane items as flashlights and headlamps have now been totally transformed.
So it's not surprising that my latest gear list has a lot of things on it that need batteries. This is a problem in the backcountry — only a minor nuisance on short trips, maybe, but a major headache on expeditions. After all, you can never find a current bush when you need one. Paddlers' coping strategies are many and various. None, however, is entirely satisfactory. In my case, I've opted for standardization. As far as possible, I avoid devices that require proprietary batteries, choosing items powered by AA cells, instead. My reasoning is simple. I only have to stock one size, and I can carry a lot of spares. I also have plenty of alternatives: inexpensive alkaline cells for non‑voltage‑critical applications (flashlights and headlamps, say), lithium cells for cold‑weather and high‑drain devices (my digital camera), and nickel‑metal hydride (aka NiMH) rechargeables for life‑cycle economy. Resupply is easier, too. If I run short on an amphibious jaunt, or if a waterway brings me close to some rural hamlet, I can buy alkaline AA cells in almost any convenience store, even a ramshackle ser‑sta‑gro with chickens scratching around the rusting wrecks in the field out back. Are you hoping to find a non‑standard proprietary lithium‑ion battery on the shelf next to the Swisher Sweets and Honey Buns? Good luck.
In short, standardization simplifies logistics and allows you to swap batteries between devices as required (if, for example, you take more pictures than you planned, but use your headlamp less). Both are good things. But putting this idea into practice hasn't always been easy. Cameras were no problem. My Canon PowerShot A590 IS point‑and‑shoot and my Pentax K200D digital SLR each use AA cells. Yet even here I encountered a stumbling block. I soon noticed that my cameras went through alkaline cells with astonishing rapidity, and the name‑brand NiMH rechargeables that I bought at the local HyperMart did little better. In fact, the SLR wouldn't even wake up from its slumbers when I offered it the HyperMart fare. Being comparatively new to the world of digital SLRs, I was stumped. So I turned to the Pentax Forums for advice. And in short order I got it. While all AA cells are (theoretically) equal, at least insofar as nominal voltage is concerned, …
Some Cells are More Equal Than Others
Much of what I was told I already knew. Alkaline AA cells are wimps. They're starvation rations for high‑drain electronics like digital cameras. Their voltage falls off rapidly, and almost before you know it they've dropped below the device's cut‑off. End of story. Lithium cells, on the other hand, stand and deliver. Voltage fall‑off is minimal until the cells are nearly exhausted, and it takes a long time to reach that point. The Energizer Ultimate brand is perhaps the best known example. Not surprisingly, it's what I've always used. Ultimates aren't cheap, but their long life helps to offset the initial cost. So far, so good, and none of this was news to me. But what I didn't know was this: There's a great deal of brand variability among NiMH rechargeables, and most of the Pentax SLR owners with whom I corresponded had concluded that Sanyo eneloops stood at the head of the pack. Their advice was simple. Avoid Brand X. Go with eneloop. So I did. (NB Sanyo doesn't capitalize "eneloop," and I won't, either.) Here's a set with their recharger:
Funnily enough, though, while it was the eneloops' ability to deliver constant voltage under load that made them useful to me, it's their shelf‑life that gets the most attention in Sanyo's ad copy. That's because many fully charged NiMH cells go dead after sitting around for only a few months, but eneloops can hang onto a charge for a year or more. In fact, they're advertised as being ready for use right out of the package. It's proven to be a potent selling point, and other manufacturers were understandably quick to follow suit. Eneloops have now been joined on the shelves by other "low self‑discharge" cells. I'm told that these are every bit as good as eneloops, too, but you'll have to look elsewhere for confirmation. I'm sticking to what I know, and I know this: It's a rare month that I shoot fewer than 1000 pictures with my Pentax, yet the same four eneloops almost always last from the beginning of the month to the end. (Note, however, that I seldom use my flash. If you do, you'll go through batteries at a much faster clip.)
The upshot? A single set of freshly‑charged eneloops will see me through most trips, though I always bring along at least one spare set, just in case — either charged eneloops or disposable lithium cells. Neither has let me down.
Now let's turn back to standardization for a minute. There's another point in its favor. Since electronic devices differ in their power needs, sometimes quite dramatically, you can often use "spent" NiMH cells taken from a high‑drain device like a camera in a less demanding application, without recharging. I've have good luck recycling both hand‑me‑down eneloops and nonrechargeable lithium cells from my cameras, using them in flashlights and headlamps, not to mention my Garmin GPS. I don't get the same service I'd get from fresh cells, of course, but I usually get something. It's always worth a try, at any rate.
In fact, if you have an inexpensive multimeter at home, you can even vet batteries before a trip. You may be surprised at the results. I've had lithium cells that were too pooped to power my Pentax still register as "good" on the battery tester, and when I subsequently retasked them for the GPS, they've kept me on the map for hours. Though I'd never rely on second‑hand cells in a critical application, it's good to know that you can practice a sort of trickle‑down energy economics to get the most out of your batteries, extracting every last erg before you put them in the "dead cell" bag for later recharging or disposal.
Ah, yes. Recharging. What do you do when your last cell flatlines? That's where my backcountry energy budget breaks down. If you can't find a current bush to plug in your recharger — and though I keep looking, I've yet to see one — you're going to have to make your own juice. This problem looms especially large when you have one or more high‑drain devices that use proprietary rechargeables. Many digital cameras fall into this category, and laptops are another obvious example. Most are notoriously power‑hungry, and if you insist on keeping your trip journal on your laptop (or even a somewhat more portable tablet), you'll have your work cut out for you just to keep it fed. It's a very good day when I get more than six hours on my laptop before it pulls the plug on me, and even my frugal Kindle e‑book reader needs to be topped up sooner or later. Cell phones are also awkward customers, but unless you've got a couple of teen‑agers or commodities traders in your party, you probably won't be putting many minutes on your phone in the backcountry. A fresh charge should see you through almost any trip. That's not the case with laptops and similar ravenous beasts, of course.
The easiest solution to the problem is just to leave any high‑drain devices that use proprietary or hard‑wired batteries behind when you set off for the put‑in. But if this doesn't appeal, you'll have no choice but to carry some sort of …
It could be as simple as one the ubiquitous battery‑powered cell‑phone chargers, many of which can be used to charge other devices, as well. Or you might opt for something as technically complex as a portable solar power system. Though I own one of the cell‑phone chargers (it uses AA cells to recharge my phone's battery), I've never needed it in the backcountry. I've no experience whatever with any of the various solar chargers, either. Still, since the number of devices I own that use non‑standard rechargeable batteries is steadily increasing, I'm keeping my eyes open, always bearing in mind that if a charger is to be of any use at all, it has to deliver enough current at the right voltage. It also has to have the proper adapter(s). Practicality is another hurdle. While there's no denying the attraction of getting free power from sunlight, sunny days can be rare treats in Canoe Country, even in high summer. Moreover, maximizing the output from any solar panel requires that it track the sun in its arc across the heavens with a fair degree of accuracy. How would I do this on a paddling trip? I don't know.
Then again, the question may be moot. It's possible that I've reached the point of diminishing returns where backcountry electrification is concerned. My best course may well be to make do with devices that use standard AA cells, like my cameras and GPS, supplemented by a few — a very few — current‑sipping gadgets like the Kindle. After all, if I'm content to rely on muscle and wind to move my body from place to place, do I really need to be plugged in every moment of every day? I don't think so. There's a lot to be said for spending a little time out of the loop, after all. "Simplify, simplify." That was Thoreau's advice to anyone in search of the good life. And I think he was onto something.
We've come a long way from the days when paddlers recorded their travels in leather‑bound journals by the flickering light of candle lanterns, using steel‑nibbed pens and illustrating the pages with watercolors executed on the spot. Ours is an electronic age. We have tablet computers, headlamps, and digital cameras. But there's no gain without pain, and we now have a new problem: keeping the current flowing in the backcountry. Still, a little planning can go a long way, right? In our struggle to stay charged up, standardization and careful energy budgeting are all it takes to win the day.
Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.