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On Foot, Off Grid: Suntactics sCharger-14

I’ll just say up front that this sCharger-14 is easily the best portable solar charger that I have used and then I’ll spend the rest of this article telling you why. The bottom line is that the quality is excellent, they are assembled and supported here in the USA, and they have a feature that is an absolute game-changer (more on this later).

sCharger-14 Specifications:

  • Output: 2800mA, 5.1V, 14Watts
  • Circuitry: 2-USB Ports, Patented Auto-Retry (Auto-Reset)
  • Weight: ~21oz (596 Grams)
  • Water Resistant: 40 Feet, Corrosion Resistant, IPX7 Rated
  • Dimensions: 11.6″ x 7.25″ x .25″in (closed) / 11.6″ x 14.5″ x .125″ in (open)
  • Solar Cell Efficiency: ~20%, Mono-Crystalline
Suntactics sCharger-14 (upper right) shown with another panel during testing. There will be a review available on the other panel soon.

Observations from Use

To understand what makes the Suntactics panels so great, it helps to have some context for the state of the solar charger market and some experience with the challenges of solar charging devices in the field. I’ll try to provide that context before explaining how Suntactics addresses both.

Regarding the state of the market – It only takes a quick search on Amazon to see solar chargers from a variety of names you don’t recognize and a few that you might. Many of these brands are based in China and appear to exist solely for the purpose of selling inexpensive electronics on Amazon. In my experience, their quality is often dubious and their specifications aren’t trustworthy.

Suntactics, however, has been making excellent portable solar panels since 2009 and their panels have been very well vetted by several demanding user groups including the through-hiking community and military personnel They work. Their panels have no moving parts. They are laminated in such a way that they submersible and they shrug off poor weather conditions. I have used a USB voltmeter to verify their output claims and this panel will often deliver a charge in conditions where my other panel gives up the ghost which speaks to its efficiency. On top of that, their electronic design is superior to anything I have tried… which brings us to the game-changing feature.

Regarding the challenges of solar charging in the field – You may be aware of the fact that the sun’s position in the sky changes throughout the day. You may also be aware that things occlude the sun, like clouds, exist in significant numbers. What you may not know is that many devices like battery chargers and cell phones just aren’t built to handle the realities of solar charging and the voltage changes that come with it.

In many cases, a cloud passing in front of your solar panel will cause the output of the panel to drop which induces a charge error and the device stops charging. Many cell phones are also a little picky about their charge level and will simply not adjust as the panel output changes with the solar conditions. This can lead to more charge errors or slower charging than is necessary. Basically, all of this means you have to babysit your solar charger at all times so that you can unplug and replace the USB device as necessary to reset any potential charge errors.

All Suntactics panels have a feature that addresses this issue very elegantly. They call it “Auto-Retry” and it basically means that the panel automatically restarts the charge every 5 minutes. It is as if you are standing there unplugging the device and then plugging it back in every 5 minutes. You can leave Suntactics panels unattended with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that charge errors will be dealt with automatically. It’s basically magic.

This photo was taken during testing to illustrate some very challenging conditions. See the next image for actual multimeter readings during these conditions.
In this real-world test, the sCharger-14 was still putting out 4.59 volts at .44 amps with the sun occluded by clouds. The other panel tested during this time was producing charge errors.

I originally purchased my sCharger-14 as more of a preparedness item than a backcountry item. It is the largest panel that Suntactics makes in the sCharger line but I still find it to be quite portable and lightweight compared to many panels so it has seen time in the mountains. That said, I would like to pick up one of their smaller and lighter panels eventually for backcountry use with my preferred power banks (see previous article regarding power banks).

I’ve done things like charge 2 cell phones at once (though only one USB socket will have the Auto-Retry feature). I have charged 18650 batteries in the field at 2 amps (the panel will do it if the charger and solar conditions allow)! I can’t do either of those with the other chargers I have tried. I should also note that this particular panel tops off my battery banks relatively quickly which I appreciate.

Wrap Up

I am not an electrical engineer so I likely won’t dive that much deeper into the stats or tech for this panel. I’m just a guy who has spent too much time screwing with other solar chargers before stumbling on a brand that works. The Suntactics panels are efficient, exhibit great quality and efficiency, and that is all great but… What really sets these apart is that they have obviously been designed to address the challenges of solar use in the field.

Suntactics makes a number of sizes and configurations in the sCharger line. They seem to be made in batches and their website is kept up to date with only the particular panels that are available at that time. Suntactics.com

They also sell direct via Amazon with Prime shipping which is where I purchased my panel: Suntactics on Amazon.com.

1

How (and Why) to Ditch Hydration Bladders

I remember when I purchased my first hydration bladder. It felt like a superpower. I could basically just conjure water like a wizard. Abrakadabra… Hydration. Several years, experiences, and broken hydration bladders later, I now question whether they are even a good idea.

Why…

A list of grievances:

Hydration bladders are more fragile than almost any bottle. I have broken at least 6 hydration bladders from a wide variety of manufacturers including your favorite. In the best case, your stuff gets wet. In the worst case, you lose your most vital resource.

They don’t handle the cold as well as a bottle that is built for cold. Granted, the bladder itself is usually well insulated enough inside your pack to prevent freezing but your mouthpiece and hose will likely freeze. This can happen even if you are careful about blowing out the hose if it is cold enough.

They are more expensive especially compared to free bottles. That’s right. There are some really good bottles that are basically free with the purchase of something like Smartwater, Gatorade, or maybe those tradeshow freebie sports bottles. Even if you have to buy some bottles for specific purposes, they are less expensive than a bladder (and they lost longer with less maintenance).

They are terrible to clean. If something requires tablets, special brushes, and weird expanding drying rack to clean, it kind of sucks. Those bladders and hoses get really, really nasty if you don’t clean them well.

They make it easy to over-utilize your resources. “Gee whiz, this climb is kicking my tail. I’ll just take a quick swig.” Do that a few times and before you know it, you’ve knocked back all 3 liters and you’re looking for a place to refill. You need to hydrate but hydration bladders make it easy to take in more than you need.

They have the word “bladder” in their name. That’s a little weird, right?

I will grant you that they do have some advantages. The convenience can’t be beat but, again, this is a double-edged sword. They are also often lighter in weight than the bottles required to carry the same volume of water.

This pack in this photo (HPG Ute) has 6 liters of water on board. 5 liters are in bottles on the outside of the pack and an extra liter is tucked inside in preparation for an overnight trip with no water access.

How…

The “how” basically boils down to a few key factors. The first is having the right gear. You need to make sure you have the bottles you need to carry a sufficient amount of water and then you have a pack that will support your new hydration bladder-less existence.

The bottle part is easy. Just find bottles that will let you carry as much water as you would have with a hydration bladder. I like to use the big Nalgene 48-ounce bottles. They are the same diameter as the typical 32-ounce bottles so they fit all the same pouches. Two of them will carry roughly the same amount of water as a 3L bladder. Alternately, the 1-liter Smartwater bottles are a great shape for packing in a backpack.

Speaking of backpacks, I like Hill People Gear packs for carrying a lot of water since they typically have ample bottle pockets and provisions for attaching bottles to your pack belt. I can easily and comfortably carry 5 liters of water on my Umlindi or Ute without even having to stash any water inside the pack. I can place additional bottles in the pack as necessary.

This Hill People Gear Umlindi has almost 5 liters of water on board in preparation for a day far from any water source.

Once you have the gear sorted out, you can address the convenience aspect. This is important because, while hydration bladders can lead to over-hydration, you still don’t want to make it hard to take a drink. My standard is that I must have at least once bottle that can I drink from without having to stop to access it, drink from it, or stow it again. I like to use a sports bottle as you might use on a bike but really, almost any bottle will work. The key is to make sure this bottle is easy to access like on your waist belt or lashed to your pack strap. I just rotate water to the easy access bottle from other bottles when I get a chance.

Don’t submit to the tyranny of hydration bladders any longer. Save money, save headaches, and save water by switching to bottles.

Attaching a bike bottle to your pack strap is easy. Photo Credit: Hill People Gear
5

Hill People Gear Pocket Sling (and a New Pack Easter Egg)

The Hill People Gear Pocket Sling is now available. We teased the Pocket Sling way back in January of this year and it is now in stock.

The Pocket Sling turns any of the Hill People Gear Pockets and the smaller packs like the Tarahumara and Attache into a sling bag. It features 500D Cordura construction with 1/4″ thick foam for comfort and a central side release buckle for easy donning and doffing. The ambidextrous sling can be attached to the Pockets via its 3 included ITW Grimloks and it also includes 3-bar sliders for turning the shoulder harness attachment points on packs like the Tarahumara into loops for mounting the sling. Speaking of packs…

I noticed an interesting entry in the list of compatible packs on the Pocket Sling product page. The list shows the Tarahumara, Attache, and then a pack called the Junction which has never been shown anywhere as far as I can tell. This obviously isn’t a lot to go on but I love a good teaser.

HillPeopleGear.com

The Best Things No One Has Told You About the HPG Umindi

There are probably a few hundred reviews of the Hill People Gear Umlindi out there already. All of them are going to tell you that the Umlindi is versatile enough to slide from daypack to overnighter thanks to HPG’s system of pockets, comfortable thanks to their unique suspension, and durable thanks to their materials and production in the USA. That’s true of all the HPG packs. This article is about what no one else told you…

Overview and Background

The Umlindi is a mid-sized pack with a capacity of around 30L/2000ci (the capacity can be greatly expanded with HPG’s Pockets). The pack can be worn without a belt as a backpack or paired with HPG’s Recon or Prairie Belts (which I highly recommend) to be worn as a lumbar pack. It features HPG’s excellent compression design and harness which is a key to the comfort of any HPG pack.

I purchased a Kifaru G1 Molle Express (MOLLEX) more than 10 years ago and it really opened my eyes to 1) how versatile a mid-sized pack with a well-designed suspension system could be and 2) to a very different concept in suspension (different to what I was used to at least). The MOLLEX was the first pack that I owned that relied heavily on “delta” straps to pull the weight of the pack close to the wearer and into the hip belt rather than load lifters.

About a year ago, I bought an Umlindi to serve as the lighter, less tactical, cooler-to-wear MOLLEX replacement that I have always wanted. Both packs use wrapping shoulder straps and waist belts rather than heavy padding, both rely on delta straps instead of load lifters to direct the weight into the belt, and both carry the weight of the pack low. The Umlindi suspension is really only similar in concept as the HPG shoulder harness really sets it apart with additional comfort and increased mobility.

The Umlindi is more of a lumbar pack than a backpack when used with a hip belt (I use the Prairie Belt) unless the wearer has a shorter torso. It rides low on the back. This lumbar pack DNA is what makes it somewhat unique, one of the major keys to its usefulness as a pack for me, and the source of the unique benefits that I have been alluding to all along.

The Best Things No One Told You About the Umlindi…

As a reviewer, I am often guilty of spending so much time wrapped up in features that I don’t adequately relay the benefits of those features. I suspect that is true for a lot of reviewers and maybe why some of these benefits haven’t been put to paper:

Plays Well with Rifle Slings – If you have ever tried to sling a rifle while wearing a backpack, you know what a pain it can be. This is doubly true for 2-point slings that wrap over the shoulder and across the back of the wearer. With a traditional pack with load lifters, the must either be run under the pack or it rides on the wearer’s neck if worn over the pack. The Umlindi keeps the wearer’s shoulders and upper back mostly free except for the harness which lays completely flat. It allows a 2-point sling to worn completely normally over the pack and even makes it more comfortable as the sling rides on the harness!

It is a little hard to see what is happening in this picture. It shows my shoulder from above and right. My 2-point sling is ridding on the padding of the HPG harness and wrapped naturally around my back while I snowshoe.

Keep It Cool – The Umlindi does a better job of keeping me cool than any of the ventilated packs I have tried. My shoulders and upper back are more exposed and when the pack is properly fit, the wearer can create an air gap above the lumbar pad that can be opened up based on the delta strap adjustment.

Ruck n’ Roll – The Umlindi is a great training pack. This is due in part to the ventilation mentioned above and because it carries weight low and focused into the belt. I have used a kettle bell as weight but more recently I’ve been using a cheap ruck plate which carries more naturally with less shifting. This pack is a real back-saver if you spending a lot of time with a weighted pack.

Don’t Touch My Hat – This is one is fairly off-beat but it has turned into one of my favorite things about the Umlindi. It doesn’t bump into hats with wrap-around brims like a Tilley or cowboy hat. That may not seem like a big deal but when it is 100+ degrees, bone dry, you are above tree line, and the sun is absolutely relentless… its a big deal.

Clearance, Clarence – Finally, I live in an area with a TON of trails. The agencies and volunteers that maintain these trails can only do so much in a season. Additionally, we tend to have thick second growth of tree species like Grand Fir in off-trail areas that have been logged. This means ducking under a lot of thick branches and deadfall when hiking on and off-trail. The Umlindi provides plenty of clearance for when you need to duck under objects.

Wrap Up

When you combine everything that has been written a million times about all Hill People Gear packs with anything above that might be important to you, I hope you are getting the picture that the Umlindi is a great pack. I like it so much that I am sorely disappointed when my loadout necessitates a larger pack.

Umlindi at HillPeopleGear.com

Review: Boonie Packer Safari-Tac Multipurpose Sling

Mounting a modern 2-point tactical sling on an AR-15 is easy. Many stocks and handguards can accept a side-mounted sling by default or at least with the addition of readily available accessories. If you want to do the same thing on a rifle or shotgun with a traditional buttstock, it becomes a little more complicated… unless you know about a sling that has been around forever: the Safari-Tac Multipurpose Sling from Boonie Packer/Redi-Mag.

Overview

The Safari-Tac Multipurpose Sling is a 2-point sling that allows rifles and shotguns with traditional stocks with bottom mounted sling swivels to be carried across the front of the shooter in the same way a modern 2-point tactical sling would. It accomplishes this with a unique attachment method that requires no modification to the host rifle.

You can see the attachment method in this video:

Observations from Use

I’ve been using these slings for more than 12 years. They absolutely solve a common problem in a simple (and affordable way and I am ashamed that I haven’t reviewed this sling until now. This sling does not get enough credit.

The sling attaches via two hard plastic bars that can be tucked into standard sling swivels easy but can not slip back through without intentional manipulations. At the front, the sling just attaches to a button mounted swivel in a fairly standard way with the sling just running out from the bottom. The rear swivel is where the magic happens. The rear swivel is used as a stop that prevents a webbing loop that is wrapped around the buttstock from sliding forward and back. The sling is attached to the loop on the side of the buttstock rather than the swivel itself. This is what allows the rifle to be carried flat against the wearer’s chest.

This Safari-Tac has a plastic slider to adjust the length of the sling. This slider can be operated while the rifle is slung but I still wouldn’t quite call it is a “quick-adjust” sling. The slider is there to aid in length adjustment and for the sling’s use as a shooting aid more than it is for left/ride side transitions or cinching the rifle close to the wearer. It can be used for those purposes. Just don’t expect it to slide like a quick-adjust mechanism.

In addition to the 2-point sling functionality, the Safari-Tac can be used as a shooting aid. The slider creates a loop in the sling that can be looped onto the support arm to help the shooter build a more stable shooting position. This can be something of a lost art these days but it is very handy for those who know how to fully leverage the functionality.

This sling is excellent for bolt action rifles, shotguns, .22 rifles, and any other traditionally stocked weapon that you want to carry in a manner that keeps it comfortably away from a backpack and readily available. Shotgunners may find it especially useful as mounted a modern 2-point sling to a pump-action shotgun can be frustrating. I particularly like it for a longarm that I might carry while hiking like a shotgun or lever-action because it works so well with backpacks thanks to its flat, wide webbing and positioning.

Wrap Up

The Safari-Tac Multipurpose Sling likely pre-dates most of the modern 2-point slings that JTT readers are familiar with but that doesn’t diminish its relevance today. This sling is incredibly useful and solves a common problem in an elegant way. I should also mention that it also happens to be very affordable.

Check it out at the Boonie Packer/Redi-Mag website: Redi-Mag.com

NOTE: Be careful if you plan to purchase one. Boonie Packer/Redi-Mag make other slings with the term “Safari” in the name. I am sure those are fine sling too but this review and the functionality described pertains to the “Safari-Tac” sling.

Sneak Peek: Hill People Gear Fanny Pack

Hill People Gear (HPG) is very well known for their Kit Bags, a handgun concealment chest rig designed for backcountry travelers. Now they are about to take their proven design and apply it to fanny packs. Fanny packs are “in” again but in outdoor circles, they never went away. The ability to carry gear on your hips, in a location that is easily accessible while still moving, is just too handy to ignore.

The HPG Fanny Pack shown is a production sample. It makes use of the Snubby Original Kit Bag footprint and layout meaning it should easily handle handguns up to roughly Glock 19 size along with other essentials like a GPS, phone, snacks, etc. It features a rear clamshell gun pocket, a clamshell gear pocket, and finally a front stash pocket.

HPG would like to have this to market before Christmas 2019.

HillPeopleGear.com

Photo Credits: Kevin McDowell (Operations Manager, HPG)

Hawkrigger Para Bellum Buckle

Hawkrigger has developed a new buckle based on a historic French military dive belt. The buckle consists of two metal plates – one larger and one smaller. The smaller side is adjustable and can be passed through the larger, locking the belt closed. It is designed to be easy to adjust, easy to don/doff, and with no buckle parts that can wear out.

The Para Bellum buckle is already available in very limited numbers on both the Para Bellum Watch Band and Para Bellum Belt via direct message on Instagram. These will be available for regular purchase soon at Hawkrigger.com. Stay tuned for details.

On Foot, Off Grid: Olight UC Magnetic USB Charger

Electronics have become an important part of many people’s backcountry experience and safety. In this series, On Foot, Off Grid, we cover the electronic gear that power your backcountry adventures along with some strategies for their use. The series will cover plenty of gear options and explore ideas for dealing with cold weather, streamlining your power needs, and more.


We covered the use of a power bank as a central, or even THE central component, of a portable backcountry power setup in the first installment of On Foot, Off Grid (read it HERE). Now we are going to take a look at an item that lets us access the electricity stored in the power bank to charge other loose batteries – the Olight UC Magnetic USB Charger.

One of the main reasons I purchased an Olight UC Magnetic USB Charger is the form factor. It looks more like earbuds than a battery charger. It is extremely compact and extremely lightweight yet it is a surprisingly full-featured charger.

There are other chargers with a similar form factor on the market which brings me to the other reason I chose the Olight version. It is the only one I found that was smart enough to charge both lithium-ion batteries like 18650s or 16340s AND NiMH cells like the Eneloop AA and AAA batteries that I prefer.

Using the Olight UC Magnetic USB Charger is extremely easy. You simply plug it into your USB power source and then attach the magnetic leads to each end of the battery you want to recharge. Polarity doesn’t matter because the charger is smart enough to detect it automatically. An indicator light at the base of the wire will let you know what is happening – blinking red means standby or a charging error, solid red means charging, and green means that your cell is done charging.

It is very well designed and well made. The cord is the flat type that will not tangle. All of the components are encased in anodized aluminum. The magnets in the leads are appropriately strong and the leads are shaped well for use with both flat and button top cells.

I strongly suggest you try this at home before you bring it into the field. One, it is nice to get a sense of the speed that it will charge your batteries. It isn’t the fastest but I have found it to be completely acceptable for recharging AA and AAA batteries in the field. Two, you want to be sure it works with your intended power source. I have used it with Anker Powercore power banks and a Nitecore F1 Charger (more on this in later installment).

Here is the bottom line: The Olight UC Magnetic USB Charger is easy to use. It packs as small as a set of earbuds and weighs just .72 oz. It charges both 3.7V lithium ion batteries and 1.2V NiMH batteries. While it only charges one cell at a time, this hasn’t been an issue for me as I have taken steps to streamline my electronics to include items that only require a single cell. This is an incredibly lightweight, compact item that can be an important part of any backcountry power setup.

Where to Buy:

These are available all over the internet. When I purchased mine, I couldn’t beat Amazon’s price with the included shipping: Olight UC Magnetic USB Charger on Amazon (affiliate link)

The Amazon page also features a full list of compatible lithium ion cells.


Do you have a gear or concept recommendation that fits the On Foot, Off Grid series? Tell us about it in the comments below or drop us a line on the Contact page.

The above URLs may be affiliate links.

Fenix HM65 Rechargeable Headlamp

Fenix just released the details on a new headlamp, the HM65 Rechargeable Headlamp, that is loaded with interesting tech and features. The most prominent feature is the use of dual emitters with one optimized for throw and one for flood light.

It boasts a 1000 lumen turbo setting along with other, longer running modes including a 130 lumen settings that run for 48 hours+ according to Fenix (actual real world runtimes can vary). See the chart below for full ANSI runtime and output ratings.

The HM65 is rechargeable via USB Type C (cable included). It comes with an 18650 battery but it can also be powered by two CR123A primary cells which is good news for those who might take this headlamp into cold environments.

The body of the HM65 is made from a magnesium alloy. Fenix claims that makes it both durable and lightweight.

The head strap design includes a top strap as is standard for single 18650 powered headlamps. It features a perforated design that I suppose would promote breathability.

The HM65 can be pre-ordered. It is not expected to be available until Tuesday, June 25th.

FenixLighting.com

Luxe Hiking Gear to Release Minipeak XL

Luxe Hiking Gear is known for their lightweight, stove-ready backcountry shelters. They make a number of pyramid, hexamid, octomid hot tents that cost significantly less than most similar shelters.

One of their smallest and most popular shelters is their Minipeak – a floorless 2 person (1 person with stove) pyramid shelter with double entries and ripstop polyester construction. It’s popular due to its low cost for a stove-ready shelter, versatility, and solid feature set. It only makes sense that they would offer a larger version.

Luxe Hiking Gear has announced that the Minipeak XL will be available soon. It retains everything that makes the Minipeak great but has a larger foot print that allows for up to 3 people or more space for a taller person versus the Minipeak. It is available in a number of configurations with is typical for all Luxe shelters (floorless, with an optional partial nest, and more).

The Minipeak XL is available to pre-order now at a special price. Delivery is expected in August.

Minipeak XL at Luxe-Hiking-Gear.com

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