Low-carbon Footprint Camping: Sun charges your e-gadgets outdoors

By Sarah (Seve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

Does the prospect of spending a weekend away from your favorite e-gadgets (cell phone, laptop, iPod or PDA) stir up separation anxiety? Around our house we’ve dubbed this e-angst, and it can kill enthusiasm for an otherwise welcome family camping vacation.

For teens or adults similarly infected with e-angst, a diversity of devices are on the market which let you bring your e-gadgets along with you camping and also trim your carbon footprint because they utilize only sunshine for power.

Solar chargers
An assortment of portable solar-powered chargers is available that adapt to virtually any hand held electronic appliance including digital cameras and GPS units. Most rely on photovoltaic silicon cell technology akin to what is used on rooftop solar panels. Many are small enough to fit in a back pocket or certainly a glove box so can travel with you virtually anywhere. The cost is as little as $15 on up to $150 depending on the capacity. Because rechargeable batteries are incorporated, gadgets can be recharged even after the sun goes down. Small electronics generally charge in 2-4 hours.

Solar backpacks offer another option for charging batteries or small gadgets on the hiking trail – the solar cells are embedded into the backpack material using so-called flexible or thin-layer solar technology. Though not widely available in stores, several are sold on-line, some for under $100.

Solar tents based on the same concept have been employed by the U.S. Military – for charging telecommunication and tactical devices and to relieve troops of the burden of lugging around batteries – and could be developed for civilian applications in the not too distant future.

Laptops need relatively high capacity chargers which ups the cost to somewhere between $150 and $600. The solar array can come as traditional panels which fold up much like a brief case or as a flexible sheet which rolls up like a mat. Another style has the panels set into the outside of a computer carrying case. Unfolded, the panels measure roughly 1-2 feet by 2-3 feet. You can either trickle charge the computer while it’s in use to extend the battery life or allow for the up to 12 hours needed to fully recharge a computer that’s turned off. Because solar computer chargers weigh anywhere from one to six pounds, they’re compatible with car camping.

Automotive solar battery rechargers are another option for charging laptops. A solar array plugged into the cigarette lighter recharges the car battery while the laptop is simultaneously operating or recharging via a direct connection to the car battery.

More solar camping supplies
Solar showers are no doubt the oldest solar camping supply around. The concept is incredibly simple and efficient. When a black plastic water bag absorbs sunlight, the light is converted to heat which is transferred to the water inside. At the end of a dusty day, suspend the bag from a tree and let gravity do the rest. These sell for about $25 at camping supply stores.

Zero carbon-emission hot meals can be prepared on campouts using solar cookers which also operate on sunlight. Because internal temperatures can reach 300°F, solar cookers can be used to prepare anything from baked bread to meat stew, and they are also useful for water pasteurization which requires a temperature of only 150°F.

Here’s how solar cookers work. A black lidded pot is placed inside a box-like chamber that traps sunlight and converts it to heat. Some type of clear plastic or glass encloses the pot to keep the heat trapped inside. Light-reflective surfaces arranged above the chamber concentrate additional sunlight into the cooker.

Solar cookers are in widespread use in less developed parts of the world, including China and India, especially in areas where deforestation is an issue or firewood is in short supply. Hundreds of styles are sold commercially at prices in the range of $50-$100. Or, you can easily find instructions on-line to construct your own for next to nothing with just boxes, black paint and aluminum foil.

Rugged solar camping lanterns or torches allow dining or reading after dark without propane or disposable batteries. Battery-powered light emitting diodes (LED) are recharged by a small attachable solar panel. Each hour of charging provides one or two hours of lamp light. Figure the cost at about $50.  There are also many styles of LED flashlights to choose from with the option of recharging by way of built-in solar panels or a hand crank.

Solar hat fans which clip onto the brim are available too for those with the mettle to sport one. They’re driven by a mini solar panel measuring a few inches square and sell for $10 or so.

Given the rate at which new electronic appliances are emerging, their integration ever deeper into the fabric of everyday life seems inevitable. It would be tragic if opportunities to commune with the nature were missed because of our attachment to such gadgetry.

As the sun is the ultimate source of the energy on which virtually all life depends, it seems fitting that solar technologies can play a role in sustaining both our sense of connectedness to and preservation of the natural world.

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