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To leave “civilization” behind for more than a night, we used to require a car, batteries or access to power in order to use new gadgetry. Those days are past. Solar energy is now improving every aspect of outdoor life. After all, where the eco-adventurer wanders, so goes the sun.
The following 10 solar gadgets are useful for everything you could want, from car camping to backpacking to bicycling to a stroll in the park. Enjoy and explore, with only the sun as your guide.
On to our first solar gadget…
#1 The Scorpion
Have no fear. This solar-kinetic hybrid stings nothing but photons, stealing their solar electrons with its integrated solar cell. From Eton, maker of all things kinetically powered, the Scorpion charges various electronic gadgets, including GPS, phones and MP3 players. It can also access weather reports through NOAA bands, broadcast radio and even comes with a built-in LED flashlight. Add to that a walkie-talkie-sized design that includes a bottle opener and aluminum carabineer, and you have everything a survivalist could hope for. The Scorpion retails for $50, although more powerful and subsequently more expensive options are available.
#2 …And Beyond
The Scorpion is not the only solar charger on the market. There are plenty, many of which fit into the palm of your hand. Explore models from Solio, Suntrica, Novo’s hybrid charger case for the iPod Touch, and even one from Kinesis Industries powered by both sun and wind—great for summit hikes.
#3 Solar Backpack
Another handy, easy-to-wear solar charger, this one in the form of a backpack covered in solar cells. The larger size means more power, enough to handle a laptop at the right charge, but primarily intended to charge cell phones or MP3 players. The most notable example to date is the Offgrid Solar Backpack from Voltaic Systems. A full battery (built-in) provides up to 19 hours of talk time or 48 hours of music playback. The pocket decked with solar cells is removable and can be attached elsewhere while it powers up. Integrated laptop sleeve, phone pouch and a bunch of other pockets keep the pack as functional as any old Jansport. Retails for $249.
#4 Solar Bluetooth
Ride, drive (not very eco), walk and talk hands- and grid-free using this solar-powered bluetooth device from Iqua. Dubbed SUN, the device is best suited to the urban eco-adventurer—the bike commuter, walker, jogger or park lay-about. A lithium polymer battery provides up to nine hours of talk time on a full charge, 200 hours of standby time and can recharge within two hours.
#5 Solar Tent
This one will be a breakthrough, if it ever gets to us. For several years now, the folks at Orange and Kaleidoscope have been developing the Orange Solar Concept Tent. A version of the tent was used as far back as 2003 at the Glastonbury music festival in England. The word is that they’re working on a model designed for campers, enabling us to really get off-grid for the weekend, although forested or shaded campsites could be an issue. The truly cool thing about the Concept Tent is its use of photovoltaic fabric, where solar “threads” are interwoven with conventional fabric. If they can get a larger, event-focused version widespread, then a model made for the eco-adventurer can’t be far behind—still in the works but worth mentioning. Here’s the latest from Orange as well as some images.
#6 Solar Lantern
Who needs to solar charge a light when the light solar-charges itself? Such is the question begged by the PiSAT K-Light, a solar lantern-slash-flashlight that requires no batteries, is highly water-resistant, lightweight and provides 120 lumens of LED light over a peak 20 hours of runtime (10 hours in sun=20 hours of lantern).
PiSAT is also offering a “Light for Africa” kit, through which every K-Light sold to you equals one K-Light donated to the Koinonia Foundation and its own solar projects in Africa, where grid power may not even be available. The K-Light’s solar panel is attached only by wire to the lantern, meaning the lantern doesn’t necessarily have to be outside to charge. It can attach to a backpack or sit in the car window on the way to an off-grid weekend.
#7 Solar Cell Phone
Cell phones can be a help in a pinch, but an eco-adventurer is probably “adventuring” his or her way to work every day, too. In such cases, a solar-powered cell phone can come in handy while other commuters swear at their forgetfulness. A few solar phones are hitting the market, led by Samsung’s Blue Earth. For now it’s available only in Europe but could be coming to stateside store near you. The phone is touchscreen and includes several “eco-apps,” including an “Eco Walk” pedometer that shows how many trees you’ve saved by walking rather than driving…as you walk.
The plastic in the phone is salvaged from recycled plastic bottles and made without any of those pesky brominated flame retardants (BFRs), beryllium or phthalate that most phone companies are phasing out due to pressure from environmentalists. The phone also has an “Eco Mode” that uses less power to maximize solar power and, when the sun isn’t shining, it has an Energy Star-rated wall charger to fill in.
#8 Solar Bike Bag
First of a few solar gadgets for the cyclist. The solar bicycle bag is a somewhat stylish, pannier-like bag that attaches to the frame or handlebars of a bicycle. There it will hold your cell phone, music player, camera or even iPad, and keep them charged and ready for use. The lid of the bag is adorned with a flexible solar panel that charges a battery inside, which in turn powers up your assorted gadgetry. It also comes with straps for easy conversion from bike bag to shoulder bag.
#9 Solar Bike Odometer
Number two for pedal-powered bikers: the Solar Powered Bicycle Odometer. It looks a bit like an old solar calculator, given the tiny solar panel powering it, but has even fewer buttons. Keep track of current speed, fastest speed, average speed, distance travelled and calories burned, among others. It is also equipped with a 12- or 24-hour clock and measures only 3x2x0.5 inches—very small and easy on the handlebars.
#10 Steripen Adventurer Water Purification
The best eco-adventurer solar gadget is saved for last. The SteriPEN Adventurer is a solar charger, but not for cell phones or iPods. Instead, it provides solar-powered water purification for the avid, multi-day adventurer.
In 48 seconds, the Adventurer creates 16 ounces of safe drinking water using ultraviolet light technology to purify the water. UV energy emitted by light is absorbed by potentially harmful microbes (most notably the bacteria common to creek and river water). The UV energy prevents the microbe from reproducing which prevents humans from getting sick. This simple process destroys over 99.9 percent of the harmful microorganisms found in nature’s water supply. The built-in solar cell charges two CR123 batteries which perform the purification duties.
Dan Harding is a well-versed veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting. CalFinder’s home solar power site is proud to tout Dan as their solar expert. Visit CalFinder to learn everything from state solar rebates to manufacturer comparisons of solar panels.