Disconnecting from the digital world is honestly one of my favorite parts of bikepacking. I like to pretend I’m returning to a simpler time, back before smartphones and the internet existed, when life was mostly just about playing outside (yes, I am definitely old enough to remember that, and yes, I know that dates me).
Yet ironically, keeping electronics charged is one of my biggest bikepacking gear issues. Facebook and news feeds may be mercifully unavailable, but I still find myself schlepping a bunch of USB-fed devices into the backcountry, hungry for electrons in the middle of nowhere.
Between my elderly smartphone with failing battery life – which is my primary navigation device – and a Garmin InReach Mini, USB chargeable bike lights, and Kindle e-reader (my favorite luxury item on solo rides), a lot of electrons are needed.
If wild camping for several days in a row with no power outlets in sight, and/or doing a lot of night riding (as in bikepack racing), recharging needs can really add up. And since items like navigation and lighting are usually mission-critical, running out of battery is simply not an option. Tricky, right?
If you can relate, or are just getting started and wondering how you’ll keep your phone and other electronics charged while bikepacking, then this post will hopefully be very helpful. I’ll cover everything from choosing your devices carefully to using them efficiently, and how to charge them on the go with electrons you create or capture yourself.
Power Needs Depend on Route and Style
How much electricity will you need to power your bikepacking trip? Like all things bikepacking-related, it depends.
Are you sleeping in a motel or developed campground most nights, or will you be wild camping for several nights in a row? Taking plenty of leisurely breaks, or pushing through long days and even some nights? These factors make a huge difference in the electronics and charging methods you’ll need.
Motels are easiest, obviously. Just plug stuff in overnight while you sleep. You’ll likely want a multi-port wall charger and a couple cables and you’re good to go. A small power bank for backup wouldn’t hurt.
Developed campgrounds usually have power, but probably not at your site. You might need to leave stuff charging in the bathroom or near some other power source. If you’re worried about leaving a phone or other valuable device unattended, plug in a power bank and then use that to charge other devices later. It helps to have a multi-port quick charging plug and cables so you can charge stuff quickly before bed.
Wild camping – setting up in the middle of nowhere, often on National Forest or BLM land if you’re in the US – is a great way to deplete your power reserves while enjoying peace and quiet. You’ll want a healthy supply of power banks, and if your route includes some lunch or grocery stops, a multi-port quick charging wall plug and cables so you can top up efficiently while you eat.
Expedition riding or bikepack racing: two different styles for sure, but both have similarly massive power needs. If you won’t be seeing an electricity grid for weeks or will be riding straight through the night, you’ll absolutely need some way to replenish on the go. Most of these riders use power banks in conjunction with a dynamo hub, though increasingly efficient solar panels can be a more budget-friendly option.
Choose Your Devices Carefully
It’s obvious that different devices have different charging needs, but I’ve found the differences can be even bigger than expected. Here are some of the ways to conserve power – or not – based on which electronics you’re bikepacking with.
Newer smartphones with better battery life make a huge difference, especially if you’re using it often for navigation.
Dedicated GPS navigation devices, like the Garmin eTrex 22x, have much better battery life than a smartphone. Some can also run off AAA batteries, which are easy to bring or buy spares for. This is one of the main reasons many people use dedicated navigation devices, despite the fact that smartphone navigation apps are free and convenient.
Devices with flexible charging methods are very helpful. For example, my Petzl headlamp can run off a USB-rechargeable battery or AAA’s (widely available at convenience stores), making it much less likely that I’ll be left in the dark.
Bike headlights with external battery packs, like the Imjin 800 Onyx, can diversify your power needs compared to a USB-powered light like the Niterider Lumina Boost (which I otherwise love). The downside is that the battery packs often need a special cable and wall power to recharge, so, it’s a tradeoff.
Battery Saving Tips for Electronics
Using electronic devices carefully while bikepacking is at least as important as how you recharge them. Here are a bunch of ways to conserve battery while you’re out on the road or trail.
Smartphones in General
Smartphones vary a lot in terms of battery life and features. Some have battery saver modes that actually work well; others, not so much. In all cases though, the battery will last longer if you:
Use airplane mode as often as possible, turning off all external connections. If you need to use a single connectivity feature like Bluetooth, keep mobile data and wifi off. This is especially true in areas with no service, where the constant process of trying to find coverage can run down battery even faster.
Keep the screen off as much as possible, and when on, adjust the brightness to the minimum needed to see the screen. Set a screen timeout to make sure it turns off automatically, especially if using a phone for navigation. Take care not to turn the screen on by accident in your pocket or bike bag.
Keep the phone warm in cold weather. Some phone batteries lose charge faster than normal if exposed to near- or sub-freezing temperatures. Keep your phone in a pocket or inside your sleeping bag at night when temperatures dip.
Turn it off as much as possible. This one is obvious, but sometimes we’re so used to having our phones available that we don’t think of it. If you don’t need your phone for a few hours – maybe you have a dedicated navigation device, or the route is obvious, or you’re trading off nav duties with a riding partner – power it off. This is especially important overnight, as long as you don’t need the alarm clock feature (or if you do, try a simple digital watch).
Smartphones for Navigation
Saving battery is harder if your smartphone is your navigation device, but there’s still plenty you can do to stretch it farther.
Cache your route and maps for offline access. Where I tend to bikepack in the western US, this is mandatory since I rarely have phone service. Even if you have full bars all the way, caching your route and leaving your phone in airplane mode will extend battery life. I use RideWithGPS, which offers offline caching for a few dollars a month and has great cycling-specific features.
Use audio cues and alerts. In the RideWithGPS app there are settings for turning audio cues off and on. If your route file includes cues (“turn left at…”) you can easily leave the screen off and still follow a complicated route via audio cues, saving a lot of battery. Even without cues, you can turn on the off-course alert which will beep at you if you miss a turn. Then you can follow your instincts at straightforward intersections, stopping only if you hear the alert.
Important tip! Make SURE the alert is on, your sound is turned up, and you don’t have headphones attached or connected if they aren’t in your ears. I have definitely missed a few turns this way. It’s always smart to check the screen at critical turns, especially when heading downhill…
Resist unnecessary map checks. I know, sometimes you just need to know how much closer you are to the top of the hill, compared with where you were five minutes ago. The reality is, you’ll get there when you get there, and you can probably estimate exactly how far you’ve ridden in the last five minutes anyway. (Other people do this too, right? Or is it just me?)
Satellite tracking and messaging devices like a SPOT or Garmin InReach Mini (my current favorite) are essential bikepacking electronics in my opinion, especially for solo riders or anyone in remote places. They’re powered in a variety of ways, often lithium ion batteries or USB.
If your device uses USB charging, it’ll be competing for electrons with your smartphone and other USB devices, so you’ll want to think about conserving its battery too. Battery usage for these devices depends a lot on which features you’re using.
Emergency use only: if you’re just carrying it for the SOS button, keep it turned off in an easy-to-reach place unless you need it.
Periodic checkins: if you’re sending a preconfigured “all is well” message to family each night, again, leave it turned off until it’s time for the nightly checkin.
Live tracking: this uses battery life the fastest. If you want to send tracking data as you move, whether to Trackleaders.com during a race or to your family, charge will drain a lot faster. To conserve it, use the longest tracking interval you can get away with (10 minutes will use more battery than 1 hour – note that some races have requirements for tracking interval) and turn it off when you’re not moving for awhile.
Bluetooth: as with smartphones, Bluetooth eats battery life on satellite trackers. If you have a Garmin InReach Mini or other device that connects to your phone via Bluetooth, keep this turned off except when you’re actively using it. This goes for the smartphone too.
Here are some benchmarks: My InReach Mini will last between 1-2 days when tracking at 10 minute intervals, 3-4 days when tracking at 2 hour intervals, and a very long time if I’m just turning it on briefly each night to send a checkin message. I keep Bluetooth turned off in all these cases, except briefly when I need to use my smartphone to compose a message.
If you’re riding with traffic and want lights for visibility, and/or riding after dark, you’ll need to consider light batteries. There are many different types of lights and light batteries, from simple AAA alkaline to proprietary external battery packs to the typical USB-rechargeable setup. I won’t get into all the options here, but whatever battery type you have, here are some ways to conserve it.
Headlights: use the least battery-intensive setting appropriate for the riding conditions. If using a headlight to make you more visible to vehicles during daylight hours, a flashing mode will both be more visible and save battery.
Light setups for night riding can be very individual. Experienced night riders often have two different lights (helmet and bars, or helmet and fork) with different modes and charging methods. They know how many hours each lasts for in each mode, and will actively switch between them to extend battery life based on the terrain.
A dynamo hub is the ultimate luxury for night riding, but it won’t be practical for all riders. If going without and trying to conserve battery, it’s important to use the dimmest headlight setting you can safely ride with, turning up the brightness and/or using two lights only when needed to negotiate tricky terrain.
Tail lights: use a flashing mode. This is more likely to catch a driver’s attention and it saves battery – win win!
Recharging Electronics While Bikepacking
Sometimes you can squeeze every last drop of battery life out of your devices and it still won’t be enough. Now let’s talk about how to recharge your electronics while bikepacking.
Quick Wall Chargers and Cables
When I’m racing, or touring with a lot of wild camping, I have a resupply routine. The moment I walk into a gas station or general store I greet the person in charge, hold up my plug and cable, smile big, and ask if they mind me plugging in while I shop. I’ve only been denied once, and it was because they literally didn’t have electricity.
I leave the phone and/or power bank plugged in while I shop and eat. In small towns I never worry about theft; I could leave my phone there all day and it would still be there. In a busy gas station on a main highway I might be more cautious. It helps to have a beat-up old phone like mine in either case.
Some wall chargers and cables can charge your devices over twice as fast as others, so to get the most out of short charge stops you’ll want the right gear.
Charger and Cable Recommendations
For wall chargers, I recommend the Anker PowerPort mini. It has two USB ports, is very compact (the prongs fold in), and uses Anker’s IQ fast-charging technology. However, there are plenty of other options with everything from a single port to six or more, if you want to shop around.
For cables, I again recommend Anker as a trusted brand. Look for cables that say “fast charging” or “quick charging” and be sure to choose the correct type for your device: USB, USB-C, or Lightning / iPhone.
Short cables are good for saving space, but sometimes extra length is helpful for charging in awkward places, like behind the soda machine in the convenience store. I usually take one 3-foot and one 6-foot cable.
Note that in order for fast charging protocols to work, all parts of the system need to support them: your device, cable, and wall charger. A charging system is only as fast as its slowest link.
Power Banks for Bikepacking
The best power bank for bikepacking (sometimes also called a cache battery or portable charger) is just like all the other best outdoor gear: compact, lightweight, and highly effective.
As with cables and wall chargers, you’ll want a power bank that can be charged quickly (look for Anker’s IQ symbol, for example). It’s nice if it has a quick output charging rate too (Anker’s PD symbol, for Power Delivery), but this is less critical since we often have plenty of time overnight to charge from a power bank.
Power Bank Recommendations
Power banks have been improving quickly, and I’ve acquired quite the collection between my various trips. Sometimes the cheapest ones don’t actually provide the full capacity they advertise, and some are heavier than others. Here are the latest standout models as of late 2020 / early 2021.
Anker PowerCore Essential 20000 PD ($49.99): This minimalist option only weighs 12.2 ounces and supports both quick input and output charging. However, it only has one output port, so if you want to charge two devices overnight you’ll need to wake up to swap them out.
Anker PowerCore 26800 ($69.99): This beefy power bank weighs 17.3 ounces but still has a slightly better capacity-to-weight ratio than the 20000 PD. Its 3 output ports are ideal for those charging several devices, and the innovative dual input ports allow for a faster charge than any other Anker model.
Ainope 10000mAh PD 3.0 QC 3.0 ($25.99): My new favorite, this little guy is lightweight (6.6 oz) and very versatile. It supports fast input and output charging, has input ports for both regular USB and USC-C (in case you brought the wrong cable), and output ports for 3 devices at once. The numeric capacity display is a nice touch, and I like that it stops charging once my device is full instead of running itself down overnight if I leave my phone plugged in.
Tips for Using Power Banks While Bikepacking
How much charge do power banks actually provide? I can usually charge my smartphone 2-3 times from a 10,000mAh model, and 4-5 times from a 20,000mAh model. This seems to be pretty typical.
I often like to carry two 10,000mAh power banks instead of one 20,000mAh. I like the flexibility to charge one while using the other, the small size that fits easily in my top tube bag, and the redundancy in case I spill coffee on one while it’s in my stem bag (hypothetically speaking, of course).
Try to avoid charging your phone from a power bank (or dynamo hub or solar charger) while riding, especially on rough ground. I only have anecdotal evidence for this, but several long-distance riders have told me they suspect this damaged their charging ports. If you must charge on-the-go, try to do it on smoother ground.
Solar Chargers for Bikepacking
Honestly, solar chargers aren’t the best fit for a bikepacking setup. I’ve used one successfully while loaded up with panniers, touring-style, but haven’t yet figured out a good way to secure the panel to a soft-bag bikepacking setup.
Then again, I haven’t tried all that hard, so I won’t say it can’t be done. Perhaps it could be draped over the handlebar roll, or secured around a seat bag somehow. With a rear rack and panniers, it’s fairly straightforward.
Not too long ago I would have said a portable solar charger isn’t worth the weight, but panels continue to get more efficient. While backpacking the Colorado Trail this summer I put the Big Blue 28W Solar Charger through its paces and was very impressed (here’s my review).
The Big Blue does a particularly good job with partially cloudy and shady conditions, in other words, typical reality. We had a surplus of power on that hike, and I would think similar performance would apply to bikepacking as well, as long as it can be attached securely to your setup.
It’s best to use a solar panel to charge a power bank, and then use the power bank to charge a phone later while not riding. This ensures that if something shakes loose or the charging port gets vibrated into oblivion, you’ll only need to replace a power bank and not your much more expensive phone.
Solar panels can serve a purpose for those who need to generate power on the go but lack the budget for a dynamo hub, or who ride several different bikes regularly and don’t want to put a dynamo hub on each. However, for those who need lightweight, high performance power generation for racing or remote expeditions, a dynamo hub is the gold standard.
Dynamo Hubs for Bikepacking
A dynamo hub is a nifty gadget that replaces the hub in your front wheel and generates electricity when the wheel spins. A magnet rotates inside a copper coil, physics works its magic, and boom, you have electrons flowing to your thirsty electronic devices.
The upsides of dynamo hubs are substantial. They generate power on-the-go like nothing else, so you can ride essentially forever without needing to stop and charge. You can run bright lights directly off them, and/or charge a cache battery. They work at night, unlike solar panels, and don’t add the extra weight and bulk of a stack of power banks.
The downside of a dynamo hub is mainly cost. They run a few hundred dollars just for the hub, which then needs to be installed in your wheel by a mechanic (unless you’re good at wheel building). For folks who ride several different bikes or swap wheelsets regularly, dynamo hubs are impractical because they can’t easily be switched between wheels.
A few other considerations:
Dynamo hubs can and sometimes do fail, so you’ll still want to be equipped with a backup plan that can get you to civilization if needed.
If you’re doing a lot of water crossings you’ll want to be careful not to submerge the hub.
Dynamo hubs work best during moderate to fast riding. If directly powering a headlight, brightness can depend on speed. On very steep or technical trails they won’t provide enough power for a bright light, so a separate light will be essential if riding at night.
Here are some popular dynamo hub choices:
- Schmidt SON 28 – most expensive and considered most reliable; the premium option.
- SP (Shutter Precision) – less expensive, opinions are mixed about reliability.
- Shimano – several models at varying prices and weights.
- Kasai Dynacoil – FS model is the first field-serviceable dynamo hub available.
I’m no expert on these, as I haven’t yet been willing to shell out the cash (though I’ve been tempted), so I’ll direct you to this more detailed comparison.
Charging electronics while bikepacking is kind of like doing anything else while bikepacking: the ideal solution focuses on self-reliance, durability, and redundancy. If navigation is mission critical, then so is powering your navigation device. This will make more sense once your system has failed in the middle of nowhere, if it hasn’t already.
If you’re on a budget, load up on power banks. I typically take a single 10000mAh power bank for trips where I’ll find a wall plug every 2 nights, and two for trips where it might be 3-4 days between wall plugs.
If I’m “racing” (in my own back-of-the-pack way) and riding a lot of nighttime hours, I’ll take three or four 10,000mAh packs to get me through an event like the Smoke ‘n’ Fire.
If you already own your dream bikepacking rig and can spare the cash, a dynamo hub is the luxury option. In the meantime, a carefully chosen solar charger can help you eek out a couple more days away from civilization, if that’s what you’re after.
Whatever system you choose, I hope it helps you keep your devices fed with sweet electrons so you can enjoy beautiful remote places for longer.
More Bikepacking Resources
If you’re wondering how to keep your electronics fueled with electrons while bikepacking, you might also find these helpful:
- Water Purification for Bikepacking
- Creative Ideas for Bikepacking on a Budget
- Bikepacking Food Ideas and Advice
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