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PowerFilm AA + USB Solar Charger Review

Posted February 25th, 2012

powerfilm AA+USB chargerNote: A few months after writing this review, we received reports of reliability issues with this solar panel. We currently can’t recommend any solar panels for bicycle touring. They seem too unreliable.

More and more cyclists are loading down their panniers with electronic gadgets, and all of these high-tech tools require one thing: power.

How to keep all those batteries full? Our top choice is a hub dynamo but that’s an expensive option.

For power on a budget you could also consider a solar panel. Recently we had a chance to test out the PowerFilm AA + USB folding panel (cost: about $80 U.S.).

In the interest of full transparency, we received it from a good friend. Her extended family manufactures these panels. Like always, however, we promised her – and all of you – an honest review.

With that out of the way, we can honestly say that first impressions were good. In a nutshell, this panel:

  • Seems robust
  • Weighs a modest 180 grams
  • Folds up to a fairly small size; just a bit larger than your wallet, at 14cm x 8cm (5.5″ x 3″).
  • Is water resistant, so a small drizzle won’t hurt but you will have to put it away if the rain persists for long
  • Has grommets (small holes) on each end, which make it easy to fasten the solar panel to the back of your bicycle, bags, etc…


PowerFilm USB + AA Charger Test

What Does It Promise?
The PowerFilm website says that this solar panel will fully charge 2 AA batteries in about 4 hours, in full sunlight. The batteries are included, and sit in a box at one end of the panel. You can either:

  • Use the panel to charge the included AA batteries and then use the stored power to recharge your gadgets later, via a USB port on the charging unit (when you’re in the tent at night, for example).
  • Charge your gadgets ‘on the go’ by plugging them into the panel as you’re cycling

Using one of these two methods, PowerFilm says you should be able to charge most micro USB devices, such as mobile phones (including the iPhone) and mp3 players. Even charging the iPad is possible, although PowerFilm recommend their stronger 10 watt foldable charger, the F15-600, if powering an iPad is a priority.

We decided to test it on a bright, sunny weekend.

This is the Alblasserwaard area of the Netherlands

How did it perform?
With the panel strapped on the back, we hit the road around lunchtime. We didn’t cycle much on Saturday, so it was on Sunday – after just under 6 hours of cycling in total – that the indicator light changed colour and told us that the AA batteries were full.

This was a bit more time than the 4 hours promised by PowerFilm but – to be fair – we weren’t in the sun during our entire riding time. Inevitably, you cycle in the shade or stop for a break occasionally.

When we returned home, we plugged our Kindle into the solar panel. The Kindle battery was nearly dead when we plugged it in, and after draining the AA batteries, it was about 1/3 full.

After returning home, we repeated this test by simply setting the solar panel on a sunny windowsill a few times and then transferring the charge to the Kindle, and each time the results were similar: a few hours to charge the AA batteries, and a charge of about 1/3 to the Kindle.

Charging the Kindle with solar power

Normally, at this point, we would have taken the PowerFilm panel out a few times, before writing this review, but on this occasion we have to apologize. A bout of terrible weather and the arrival of baby Luke put a stop to that idea.

Was our test extensive? No. But it did give us the impression that this could be a useful gadget for touring – as long as you don’t expect too much. Don’t plan to fully power a laptop with this solar panel. You could, however, happily keep a camera battery or mobile phone charged with it (weather permitting).

Day 3 - Going solar
Going solar – the Two Wheeled Wanderers used Powerfilm chargers on their trip

Other Experiences With PowerFilm Panels
Since we couldn’t test the PowerFilm charger as much as we’d have liked, we asked a couple other cyclists using PowerFilm solar panels for their opinions.

Tom Allen took a PowerFilm charger along on his bike travels:

I found the PowerFilm 4xAA charger the lightest and quickest charging solution I’ve tried, not to mention being one of the few units that actually works in practice! I found very useful the indicator LEDs to let you know when each pair of batteries is being charged and when it meets capacity. The grommets which allow the unit to be tied down to rack-top bags and the like make it particularly suitable for the cyclist. -Tom Allen

Karen, of the Two Wheeled Wanderers, also has experience with the Powerfilm AA + USB charger. In this case, the review is less positive. At first, she found it worked very well. After a few months of solid touring, however, her panel stopped working. Karen has written to Powerfilm about this experience but hasn’t received a reply.

Have you ever tried a solar panel for touring? Leave a comment and share your experience.

You may also be interested in these articles:

 

Power Your Bike Tour With The SON Dynamo Hub

Posted January 31st, 2012

SON DynamoFor a constant source of power on the road and bike lights that never run out of charge, the SON Dynamo hub should be at the top of your bicycle wish list.

We’ve been testing our SON hubs (with Supernova E3 Pro front lights) for about a year. With some 5,000km of riding under our wheels, it’s fair to say that we’re more than pleased. Our love of the SON hub can be summed up in two main points:

1. Power On Demand - You can now run bike lights and charge your mobile phones, GPS systems and other small gadgets, purely through the power of your legs. It is wonderfully freeing to know that you don’t have to worry about batteries any more.

2. Reliable - These hubs are known to be almost worry-free. They come with a 5 year guarantee and should easily see you through a long bike tour. So far, we haven’t had any issues at all to report.

Keep reading our review of the SON dynamo hub.

Review & Contest: Vaude Road I Handlebar Bag

Posted November 29th, 2011

For nearly a year now, Friedel’s been searching for a handlebar bag. There are many to choose from but for a long time, none of them seemed ‘just right’.

They were all too big, too expensive or too hard to open and close. It wasn’t until she saw this – the Vaude Road I Handlebar Bag - that she took the plunge.

Friedel's New Handlebar Bag!

Here are some of the features:

  • Weighs 595 grams
  • 5 liter capacity
  • Klick-fix attachment (very sturdy)
  • Includes a map case and rain cover
  • Shoulder strap (removable)
  • Reflective details
  • Retails for €60 (about $80 U.S. dollars)

Inside the main compartment is a:

  • primary storage space
  • zipped pocket along one wall
  • pocket with a velcro closure along the other wall.

The two side pockets are handy places to stash a passport or emergency cash. The whole compartment is padded with foam (behind the polyester liner), and this gives a bit of shock protection to whatever you put inside.

Friedel's New Handlebar Bag!

The main pocket is fairly spacious. Friedel typically carries a small camera, wallet, keys, sunglasses and a mobile phone inside. You could fit a small DSLR camera inside, though there wouldn’t be much room left over.

On top of the main compartment is another pocket. It’s perfect for a few papers, or a set of keys. On the front of the bag, you find another similar pocket, with more separated areas. These various pouches and slots make it easy to categorize and sort your stuff.

Friedel's New Handlebar Bag!

The bag isn’t waterproof but it does come with a rain cover. Even in fairly heavy rain (without using the rain cover) the inside stays fairly dry. It makes sense, of course, to put things like cameras and passports in a plastic bag, or remember to put the rain cover on at the first sign of a shower.

All in all, we really like this bag. It’s sturdily constructed, big enough to carry everything you need, and the zippers make it very easy to open and close – even while riding. Highly recommended.

*** Win A Vaude Road I Handlebar Bag! ***

Note: the contest is now closed. Click here to find out who the winner was.

For our wonderful readers, Vaude has agreed to give away a Road I Handlebar bag! It will be black with red trim, as you see in the picture below.

Vaude Road I Handlebar Bag Want to win? Here’s what to do:

  • Leave a comment below. Tell us why you’d love to win one of these bags.

OR

  • Tweet the following message about the contest: Win a Vaude Road I Handlebar bag from @travellingtwo and @VAUDE_nl http://bit.ly/winvaudebag

Good luck! You can enter twice: once by leaving a comment on this page, and once by Tweeting about the contest. We’ll pick a winner at random from the comments and tweets. The deadline for entries is 5pm (European time) on Sunday, December 4th, 2011. We’ll announce the winner on Monday, December 5th, 2011.

Review: Hilleberg Nallo 3GT Tent

Posted November 19th, 2011

When we’re on a bike tour, there’s no place that feels more like home than our trusty tent, the Hilleberg Nallo 3GT.

Hilleberg Nallo 3GT Tent
Our tent, set up in New Zealand. At this point, it had been used over 300 times.

It’s not the cheapest tent on the market by a long shot ($829.95 for the red model, a bit more for the green) but it is very durable. Our first Nallo 3GT was used over 400 times. It was still functioning perfectly but was suffering from some UV damage.

We then had the chance to get a newer model at a discount, so we took the opportunity to renew our tent. Had we not been so impulsive, the old one probably would have lasted for several months longer.

Our second Nallo 3GT has been used about 100 times and we expect it to last for at least as long as the first one (probably more, because we’re now more savvy about protecting our tent from UV damage by using a tarp and pitching in shady places).

Read the full review of the Hilleberg Nallo 3GT tent.

Hilleberg Nallo 3GT: Our Trusty Tent For Bike Touring

Posted November 18th, 2011

When we’re on a bike tour, there’s no place that feels more like home than our trusty tent, the Hilleberg Nallo 3GT.

Hilleberg Nallo 3GT Tent
Our tent, set up in New Zealand. At this point, it had been used over 300 times.

Here’s how it looks as we’re setting it up. As you can see in the video, it’s pretty quick to set up: about 5 minutes, or a couple minutes less if you don’t have a “little helper” to contend with!

We Love It Because…
At around $1,000 U.S. this is certainly far from the cheapest tent on the market but it is very durable. Among other things, we’ve tested it in 15+ hours of the hardest rain we’ve ever seen (we were perfectly dry), and in gale-force winds (the tent flexed gracefully with the gusts).

We love this tent so much that we’ve actually bought two of them. The first one was the tent that accompanied us for most of our 3-year world bicycle tour. When we decided to replace it, we’d used our first Nallo 3GT over 400 times. To put that in perspective, if you bought this tent today and used it as much as we did, you’d pay around $2.50 U.S. for each night of worry-free camping. Bargain!

When we replaced it (30 months into our trip), the Nallo 3GT was still functioning perfectly but the outer shell had suffered some heavy UV damage and we weren’t sure how much longer it would last. We were offered a newer model at a hefty discount so we jumped at the chance to renew our tent. Had we not been so impulsive, the old one probably would have lasted quite a bit longer. We could also have renewed our tent by simply buying a new outer tent from Hilleberg, although we didn’t know that at the time.

Our second Nallo 3GT has been used about 100 times and we expect it to last for at least as long as the first one (probably more, because we’re now more savvy about protecting our tent from UV damage by using a tarp and pitching in shady places).

Camping In A Rocky FieldYou can set this tent up with the front fully open. This is great in light rain, and on hot days (it allows for a lot of air flow).

Advantages: Here are a few of the reasons why we really like this tent…

  • Quality. This tent really does stand up to everything. We’ve tested it in heavy snow, pouring rain and fierce winds and it’s never let us down.
  • Lots of space. We have the 3-person model and it’s perfect for 2 bike tourists plus all the associated gear. We can put all our bags in the porch, and still have room to sit and read. That means we don’t feel claustrophobic, even on rainy days when we might be inside the tent for a few hours.
  • Light. At 2.7kg, this is one of the lighter 3-person and all-season tents on the market.
  • Easy to pitch. There are only 3 poles and set-up is intuitive. Not long after we bought this tent, we had to set it up in the dark. We had no problems. Hilleberg say you can pitch the tent with as few as 4 pegs. On very rocky ground, we’ve pitched it without any pegs, simply by using rocks to secure the corners and tying the guylines to nearby trees, bushes or other fixed objects.
  • Great customer service. Hilleberg have been super at answering any questions we had about the tent, and helping to troubleshoot when the zippers wore out (this was easily fixed).
  • Multiple set-up options. In addition to the ‘standard’ set up, you can completely open the front of the tent. This is really nice in the summer, or any time you want a lot of air flowing through the tent.

We currently use a Hilleberg Nallo 3 GT for cycle touring which weighs less than our Terra Nova Quasar. When we are cycletouring we are mainly using lowland campsites and thus prefer the Nallo over the Quasar as it gives us far more room for the weight carried. -Jon & Frank of the CycleTourer website

Disadvantages: Like anything, there are a few downsides to this tent…

  • Too short for tall people. If you’re over 6 feet tall, you’ll struggle to stretch out fully in this tent. Andrew is 5’11″ and his feet nearly touch the end.
  • Expensive. This is definitely not the cheapest tent on the market. It costs about $829.95. Yes, it’s going to last you a long time, but if you’re not sure how much you’ll use it, you might be better off with a less costly model. Alternatively, watch for sales. Sometimes you can get a deal on last year’s model.
  • Occasional condensation. On very cold nights in damp climates, we try to keep all the heat in by fully closing both the main entrance and the door that separates the porch and sleeping area. That does lead to some condensation. Most of the time, we’re not camping in extreme cold and so we don’t entirely seal the tent. You can leave the doors partially open (while still keeping the mosquito net panels closed) to improve airflow.
  • Sometimes too big. This is a roomy tent and you need a relatively decent amount of space to put it up. This isn’t often a problem but sometimes we have to hunt an extra few minutes for the perfect spot.
  • Groundsheet sold separately. It’s not all that unusual for tent groundsheets to be sold separately, and you can expect to fork out about ($97.95) for the official groundsheet for this tent. The footprint is almost essential, as it makes the porch usable in all weather (even when the ground is wet). Alternatively, you could just lay a small sheet of plastic down, but then that’s one more (relatively heavy) thing to carry.

Camping In A Rocky FieldEven in rocky areas, without much space and hard ground, putting this tent up is no problem.

On the whole, we feel the advantages of this tent far outweigh the disadvantages and we’d heartily recommend it for anyone planning an extended bike tour. To paraphrase a famous commercial:

Cost of a Hilleberg tent? $1,100 U.S.
Cost of the groundsheet? $100 U.S.
Cost of knowing that you can sleep through the worst storms? Priceless!

Are there other tents to consider? Of course! We’ve profiled a few options in our article about Choosing A Tent For Bike Touring.

If we didn’t have such a big budget, we might go for the MSR Hubba Hubba. It costs far less ($239.93 from REI) and you can take the rain fly off completely, for star gazing on clear nights.

This particular Hubba Hubba tent is owned by Shane, who’s currently taking it through Africa.

Shane's MSR Hubba Hubba

We also really like the look of Macpac’s Citadel Tent, and featured a small review of it in July’s bike touring newsletter.

Trevor's Tent

And if we were touring solo, instead of as a couple, we might consider the compact Hilleberg Akto. This one is owned by Stijn.

Hilleberg Akto

Want to read more reviews of the Hilleberg Nallo 3GT? See: