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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.

On Foot, Off Grid: Ultralight Lighting Combo

When it comes to backcountry light sources, I like redundancy but when it comes to hiking or bagging peaks, I dislike weight. Two lights are heavier than one. You can see my dilemma. Maybe you have wrestled with it too. Fortunately, I have found an ultralight, extremely useful combination of lights that keep weight to a minimum has built-in redundancy, recharges via the USB power bank I am already carrying, and won’t break the bank. In fact, this combo weighs less than most tactical flashlights.

The combo consists of two very compact and lightweight lights: the Streamlight Microstream USB which we have already reviewed and the utterly incredible Nitecore NU25. Both of these lights together weigh in at 3 ounces and the pair will set you back only about $65.

Before I get into why these lights work so well together, I’ll share a few thoughts on the Nitecore NU25 – a lightning review of sorts. This headlamp is a darling of the ultralight community and it is easy to see why. It has well balanced beam shape and plenty of output along with long-running low modes. The separate high-CRI flood beam is great for reading maps in true color and the red output is actually well-executed enough to be useful for tasks like finding your beanie in a cold tent without overwhelming your dark adjusted vision. It even has an easy to deal with lock-out function which is great for a light that will spend most of its time bumping around in your pack. It’s an incredibly functional headlamp that weighs in at just 1 ounce and costs only $35. That is, frankly, incredible.

Nitecore NU25 shown with a legacy headlamp. We’ve come a long way.

The Streamlight Microstream and Nitecore NU25 are even better together. I use them in two situations that cover 80% of my backcountry use case. They are my go-to lights when I am NOT PLANNING on being out past dark but want to carry lights just in case and they are ideal for warm weather overnighters/multinight trips. They could be pressed into cold weather but I would prefer lights than can take lithium primary batteries for this (see this article). I have found several reasons why they work so well together:

Common Rechargeable Functionality – They are both rechargeable via micro USB. I always carry an Anker Power Bank (see the previous review) so it is easy to keep both lights up and running. When one is charging, I can use the other. No muss, no fuss.

Extreme Redundancy – These aren’t just redundant because they are both potential light sources. They take redundancy to another level due to the fact that the Microstream can stand in as a headlamp thanks to its two-way clip that allows it to be clipped to a hat brim. They can also leverage the same power source.

Extra Functionality – The NU25 is especially useful for backcountry use. It has red output for use in dark conditions where you don’t want to wreck dark adjusted vision. It has a high color rendition output for use in reading maps after dark. It can even be powered directly from your power bank which is great if you want to use it as a tent light!

Lightweight and Compact – Both lights are also extremely lightweight and compact. Lightweight is obviously nice when your pack is already full of 40 pounds of other lightweight gear. However, compactness is an often overlooked but desirable attribute in electronics. I can fit both of these lights AND the power bank in the same pocket of my shell to keep them warm in case conditions get cold above tree line. Emergency lights aren’t useful if the cold has drained their batteries.

It would be hard to find two lights that cover more bases, provide more redundancy, are more affordable, and better quality than these. They are a worthy addition to any kit.

Where to Buy

I have never been able to find either of these lights in a brick and mortar store. However, some of you may be able to find the Streamlight without much trouble. I just purchased mine on Amazon:

Nitecore NU25 Headlamp on Amazon

Streamlight Microstream USB on Amazon


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

The above URLs may be affiliate links.

On Foot, Off Grid: Nitecore F1 Charger

The Nitecore F1 Charger doesn’t look like much but it is nothing short of amazing when it comes to portable power. Its main function is as a battery charger for lithium batteries like 18650s and 16340s (RCR123) but it can also serve as an ultralight battery bank. If all that wasn’t enough, it supports through-charging which makes it a valuable companion to any portable solar panel. It does all that in a very compact, 1-ounce form factor. It’s basically the ultimate charger for the outdoorsman.

Overview

The Nitecore F1 is made from lightweight but strong polycarbonate with a spring-loaded, sliding battery contact that supports a number of common lithium batteries (26650, 18650, 17670, 18490, 17500, 17335, 16340(RCR123), 14500, 10440). It has three tiny LED indicators that are used to read out the voltage of the battery and indicate status for the charger. It also comes with 2 rubber bands (you only need one, the other is a spare) that are used to ensure the battery stays in place.

The F1 features a standard Micro USB in port allowing it to be powered by any USB power supply like wall warts, computers, solar panels, power banks, and more. It also has a standard USB out port for its power bank functionality. It allows the F1 to draw power from a battery and feed it to another device like a cell phone.

The F1 also supports through charging meaning that it can charge the battery and power the USB out port at the same time. This is key to its solar utility (more on this later).

Observations from Use

If you were on a really tight budget and didn’t mind charging just one lithium battery at a time, the F1 would actually serve well as a very basic home battery charger. It can even read out the voltage on a battery and tell you it charge status based on its simple LED display. It works just as well in the field or in a vehicle. It is a simple but capable charger.

The F1’s ability to be used as a power bank really adds to its backwoods versatility. It will provide 5 volts, .5 amps via its standard USB out. That is relatively slow for charging something like an iPhone but it will get the job done. I know some ultralight hikers have even used it successfully in place of heavier traditional power banks… just be sure to carry extra 18650 batteries!

All of the above is great but the F1 really comes into its own when used with solar panels where it addresses two major issues. First, most chargers require somewhat consistent power levels or they produce a charge error and stop charging. This is obviously not ideal for solar where the power that the panel provides fluctuates constantly based on the solar conditions. The F1 is different. I have never been able to produce a charge error with it. It seems to happily keep charging, hanging on at just a trickle, when clouds roll in. Then it recovers seamlessly when the solar conditions improve. If your panel is producing power, the F1 seems to be able to put it to use.

The second solar issue that it solves is with devices that are finicky about constant power levels when charging. For instance, many smartphones like to have a constant power level when charging. If the power provided by the power drops it will likely cause an error and the phone stops charging. If this happens while you aren’t babysitting the solar panel, you can miss out on a lot of valuable charging time. The F1 can be placed inline between your panel and your phone (or other devices). The panel charges the battery and the battery provides a consistent amount of power to the phone. The power never sags (unless you deplete the battery) which ensures there are no charge errors. It acts very much like the batteries in a home-based off-grid solar system. It won’t be the fastest charger you have ever used but it can provide some peace of mind.

Alternatives

There are a couple of other chargers that I have used outdoors including the Olight UC Magnetic Universal Charger (click to see the review) which has the advantage of working with NiMH cells and an amazingly compact form factor but lacks the solar utility or power bank functionality.

Additionally, I have used the larger XTAR VC2S in a similar role. It can charge two batteries at once and also acts as a power bank. This is a very full-featured charger but it is significantly larger than the F1. It is somewhat solar compatible but long interruptions in sunlight can produce charge errors from which the charger will not recover without intervention. Still, when used with something like a Suntactics Solar Panel with their very smart automatic restart functionality (more on this in a later article), this can be an excellent charger/power bank for extended trips.

Note: It can be tempting to try the Nitecore F2 which is similar but accepts two batteries. However, it is not nearly as solar compatible so I found it to be far less useful.

Wrap Up

The Nitecore F1 is a 1-ounce wonder. It’s a good battery charger. It’s a passible and ultralight power bank. It’s indispensable for backcountry solar. It also only costs about $10! If you are using a solar panel in your hiking gear, this can add some great capability and flexibility.

Where to Buy:

I doubt many of you will be able to find the Nitecore F1 Charger in a brick and mortar store. Ebay typically has competitive prices on the F1 as do many flashlight/battery websites. Be mindful of counterfeit Nitecore items. When I purchased mine, Amazon had the best price with shipping included: Nitecore F1 on Amazon


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.

On Foot, Off Grid: Cold Weather, Battery Powered Gear, and You

There is a cruel irony in the fact that we rely more on electronics, like flashlights, during the short days of the winter months when cold weather can wreak havoc on your batteries. Cold weather slows the chemical reactions that take place inside the battery which lowers its ability to deliver the power you need. 

Have you ever had a phone or flashlight refuse to work because of cold weather? Depending on the circumstances, that can be anything from a mild annoyance to a very serious situation.  Fortunately, you can mitigate the effects with solid gear selection and some planning.

Bring Them Inside… Your Jacket or Sleeping Bag

Your first line of defense against the cold is your clothing. The same goes for your electronics. Anything that you have with a battery should be stored inside your jacket during the day and your sleeping bag at night. This will keep them at a similar temperature to your body which is more than warm enough to keep them running.

This is, perhaps, the best argument for choosing compact, lightweight gear. It needs to be able to fit in pockets or sleeping bag, close to your body, without being a burden. It’s also the reason that I prefer base layers with a chest pocket as this can be a great place to store a smartphone even if you have removed insulation layers during high activity. 

If the electronics you are keeping near your body are sensitive to moisture, consider keeping them in a plastic bag or some other vapor barrier to protect them from your perspiration.

Battery and Gear Selection… Choose Wisely

This series has covered a lot of rechargeable electronics in part because I have been working to streamline my own loadout with rechargeable options. However, I will readily admit that rechargeable battery chemistries are often very susceptible to cold weather. There are ways to mitigate this with your battery and gear selection.

Choose the Right Battery – Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries show a significant reduction in efficacy when the temperature of the battery drops to around freezing according to published testing by Panasonic. You are unlikely to notice this until the air temp is colder than the freezing point since factors like the battery’s own warming from internal resistance, warmth from your hand or head, or other factors can play a role but the fact remains that these batteries can begin to suffer performance loss at freezing and more drastic losses below freezing. Recharging at these low temperatures can also be an issue.

Lithium primary batteries like CR123As or lithium AAs, are more resistant to cold. These batteries can usually provide acceptable performance to temperatures well below zero. Energizer for instance, touts that their AA Lithium batteries will retain around half of their capacity down to -40C/F (depending on the rate at which they are discharging). Which brings us to…

Choose the Right Gear – If you are going to select something like a flashlight or headlamp that uses rechargeable batteries, it would be wise to ensure that it can also operate with lithium primary batteries for cold weather use. If you have selected a light that will accept lithium primary batteries, you can then either leave the rechargeables at home when you expect cold temps or at least carry some spare lithium primary batteries as a backup. Options are a good thing. 

In the early days of 18650s, it was typical for a light to be made for CR123A batteries but also accept 18650s. This dual-fuel concept is not always the case these days with more and more lights being made specifically for these high-performance batteries. Flashlight makers are chasing lumens and courting flashoholics that seek only the highest performance which can often only be provided by lithium rechargeable batteries. Make sure you understand what kind of batteries your light can take before you open your wallet.

The following are headlamps that accept rechargeable batteries for 3 season use and primary lithium batteries for cold weather. I have purchased all of these, use them, and will be reviewing some in future installments:

If you need even more cold resistance than battery selection alone can provide, consider something like a headlamp with a remote battery pack. Headlamps with battery packs in the back, separate from the light emitting portion of the lamp can be worn with the battery pack under your hat and/or hood to keep the batteries at a good operational temperature. Some headlamps that are built for cold and/or longer runtimes even have larger remote battery packs with a long cable that allows it to be placed in a coat pocket or on the beltline.

Headlamps with remote battery pack options:

There MIGHT Be a Cold Weather 18650 Option… Maybe

I should point out that Nitecore, who is known for selling good quality 18650 batteries (I say selling instead of “making” because most flashlight makers just rewrap batteries from other makers), offers two batteries that they claim are built to handle temps down to -40C/F fairly well. Many people who know more than me speculate that these are just rewrapped Panasonic NCR18650F cells which will cost less but are not as easy to find. I couldn’t find much in the way of testing, other than anecdotes, on these batteries so I am hesitant to spend the money on them when I have other workarounds.

Wrap Up

Cold weather doesn’t have to be a death sentence for your electronics. You can mitigate its grip on your batteries with some planning and remember, you should always carry some analog backups where possible, like a map and compass.


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

The above URLs may be affiliate links.


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.

On Foot, Off Grid: Battery Banks

Electronics have become an important part of many people’s backcountry experience and safety. On Foot, Off Grid is a new series on Jerking the Trigger that will cover concepts and electronic gear that power your backcountry adventures. The series will cover plenty of gear options and explore ideas for dealing with cold weather, streamlining your power needs, and more.


The On Foot, Off Grid series is going to kick off with a gear item that might be considered the heart of any backcountry power setup – portable power banks. These portable powerhouses can help you charge your phone, charge a flashlight or headlamp, charge batteries, charge GPS units or personal locator beacons, and more. These are important parts of anyone’s gear list and all of them benefit from the addition of a power bank.

What is a Power Bank?

A power bank is essentially just a case that contains a series of batteries (usually 18650 lithium-ion batteries) packaged in a case with at least one input for charging the bank and at least one output for charging electronics (usually some flavor of USB). Even more simply put, it is an easy way to store, carry, and then access electricity.

How Do I Use One?

There are a lot of ways to use a power bank in the backcountry, some of which I have already mentioned. There are some specific ways that I use mine that I can share. The primary use for mine is to keep my phone operational. Today’s smartphones offer excellent GPS functionality (better than many dedicated GPS units), long battery life, excellent cameras, and emergency connectivity in far-flung places. They are also quite a bit more rugged with many of them even being submersible. I will never be caught without a map and compass but my cell phone is central to a lot of what I do when outdoors.

Additionally, I use other accessories with my power banks that let me charge batteries or directly charge USB-rechargeable headlamps and flashlights. By carefully selecting my lights and carrying a power bank, I can reduce the number of spare batteries that I have to carry.

Other Considerations

  • Be sure to test a power bank with your devices before you head out. You need to understand how much power you’ll need and how quickly you can charge your devices.
  • Cold weather can be hard on the lithium-ion cells contained in most battery banks. Choose your power bank with this in mind. If you will be out in cold weather, your power bank should be small enough to carry in a pocket under your insulation layers to ensure that it remains functional.
  • Quality power banks aren’t that expensive. Don’t skimp. The quality of the cells inside the power bank is often reflected in the price. You will see better performance from a quality power bank.

Recommendations

I have used Anker power banks for years. The Anker Powercore 10000, in particular, is beloved among many backcountry travelers for its combination of lightweight (6.34 ounces), compact size (about the size of a deck of cards), quality, and affordability. If I could only have one, it would be this one.

Click Here: Anker Powercore 10000 on Amazon (affiliate link)

I also use an Anker Powercore 20000 that I have owned for years. It is about twice and size and slightly more than twice the weight of my Powercore 10,000mah in part because it is a slightly older model. The current model is slightly lighter than mine.

Click Here: Anker Powercore 20000 on Amazon (affiliate link)

The options for these power banks are extensive. Stick to a quality maker and select the options you need. Anker has always worked for me, they are known for good service, they use quality cells, and they are rugged without being bulky.


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.

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