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How To Charge A Laptop While Bike Touring


Macbook ProSo many bike tourists are now carrying laptops, that the question of how to charge them comes up very often. It popped into our email box again this week.

“This summer I took a mini-laptop with me for the first time while cycling 4 weeks through Germany, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. And all of a sudden you are not fully independent anymore, as the thing eats power and you cannot recharge it from a small solar panel. Is there a solution for this? I know you can buy a hub dynamo and attach a contraption that outputs 5v, which would be fine for mp3-player, phone, and probably also gps and e-reader (basically everything that can be charged via USB) but what about the battery of a laptop?” -Rob

The answer, Rob, is slightly complicated, and perhaps not the one you’re hoping for. In short, there’s no magic solution.

Dahon ReechargeIt depends partly on what you’re trying to charge. If you have a tablet such as the iPad, rather than a laptop, and if that tablet charges via USB, you can try using your hub dynamo to charge a separate battery like the A-Solar Power Bank Pro or the Dahon ReeCharge. This charged battery can add a bit of power to your tablet but there are quirks to be aware of, including long charging times for some models. We don’t have direct experience with this but we understand that most batteries only give a partial charge to tablets, not a full top-up.

If you have a laptop or tablet that can’t be charged via USB, you might follow in other people’s footsteps by rigging up a battery pack or soldering together a homemade solution but as far as we’re aware there are no products sold that allow you to charge a laptop using power from a bicycle hub dynamo (please tell us in the comments if you know differently!).

Instead, the most practical and cost-effective solution – in our opinion – is to pick your equipment and structure your tour in a way so that laptop charging doesn’t become an issue. In short:

1. Buy a laptop with loads of battery life: many laptops currently offer over 10 hours of battery life, so it shouldn’t be hard to pick an efficient model. The more battery life, the better.

2. Be alert for places to recharge your laptop: campsites, libraries and hotels are obvious spots but start looking and you’ll start seeing power plugs everywhere; in parking lots, public parks and many other unexpected places. If you go to a restaurant or coffee shop, ask if there’s anywhere to plug a laptop in. Tourist bureaus may also be willing to help, while you’re visiting the local area. People in motorhomes are also often happy to plug in your gadgets, so pull up beside them at lunch, crack a big smile and ask!

3. Don’t use your laptop more than you need to: you’re on a bike tour, and part of the fun of bike touring is unplugging from the grid. Unless you really need to work from the road, why spend hours behind the computer screen? Instead, enjoy your surroundings and limit your laptop use to just what you need, at least until you’re staying somewhere with electricity. We have found that 30-45 minutes a night is enough to write at least a draft journal of the day and unload our pictures from our camera: the only two essential tasks we need to do.

4. Consider buying an extra battery if your power needs are very high: as an example, a replacement Asus EEE battery goes for about €100. That’s not cheap, but it’s a lot less than the cost of a hub dynamo and the associated costs to get the dynamo up and running (convertor plus a new wheel or rebuilding your current wheel). You can also get cheaper ‘battery extenders’ for many laptops, though it’s not always clear just how much extra battery life they supply.

Just by taking points 1-3 into consideration, you should easily be able to make your laptop last 5-7 days. Since most of us will stay in a hotel or campsite at least once a week and can recharge there, electricity for your laptop should rarely be an issue. Depending on the area where you’re touring, you may even be in a hotel most nights (Southeast Asia, for example).

Coming back to the hub dynamo, it’s a pretty neat gadget. We have two of them, paired with a prototype Oddbikes USB charger, and they’re great for keeping mobile phones, GPS batteries and bicycle lights on the go, but we still charge our laptops the ‘old-fashioned’ way.

Want more info? Read our article about taking a laptop or tablet on a bicycle tour.

How do you get power on the road? Leave a comment and share your experience!

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36 Responses to “How To Charge A Laptop While Bike Touring”

  1. meghan says:

    We purchased a set from Goal Zero that includes a larger solar panel, battery, and inverter. It works really well to charge a laptop, but it is HEAVY. I would never bring it on tour. We use my husband’s iPhone and have a smaller goal zero solar panel for that.

    Some friends of ours bring an extremely long extension cord in place of any sort of solar or extra batteries. They often run it from bathrooms to their tent. Funny, but it seems to work for them.

  2. Well if you go with points 1-3 you will not have any problem. The problem is the two of us wanting to work with it. Well this is not a battery problem… ;o)

    Tail wind to you all

    Louis-P & Lysanne
    http://on-roule-la-boule.blogspot.com/

  3. Great post! With the continued sophistication of aps for phones, not to mention the small size and weight, a smart phone is all most people need on tour.

    You can update your blog, load photos, etc.

    Here’s some of those options that run from a generator hub.

  4. Thomas Nylen says:

    You might be able to use a wind charge controller. They have deal with the same problem of excess voltage, especially when the wind is blowing at a good clip. I have used flexcharge charge controllers before, which combines solar and wind (http://www.flexcharge.com/flexcharge_usa/products/nc25a/nc25a.htm). It is about $150. Might be some other cheaper controllers out there, or you could make your own: http://www.fieldlines.com/board/index.php/topic,141564.html

    cheers…Thomas

  5. Hendrik Christenhusz says:

    this product does the trick off a Hub dynamo.

    it’s from Busch & Muller.

    and is designed for the bike with variable voltage adjustment up to 13.2 volts at 1.5 amps for laptop use.

    see link below.

    http://www.bumm.de/produkte/e-werk/e-werk.html

    • friedel says:

      Have you successfully charged a laptop with it, or seen a review where someone has done it? I’ve looked around, but I can’t find any mention of this device being able to charge laptops in either the e-werk literature or other blog posts. I’ve found plenty of people who are trying to do it, but none who have actually reported back that they’ve been successful.

      • Hendrik Christenhusz says:

        Yes and Yes, anymore questions, just call the Manufacturer.

      • Hendrik Christenhusz says:

        13.2 volts at 1.5 amp hour it will take some hours to peddal a laptop battery full but to keep topping of the 1/2 hour to 45 minutes use per day and the trickle use on the laptop it works very well, just be sure that you set the voltage correctly for other APP’s when you switch over to exclude damage to units with a lower voltage need, it is not idiot proef so due dilligence will be needed in use. the nice thing is, it’s weather resistant, costs less then some of the home made suggestions and has all the adapters needed for most connections, and can be removed easily when not needed.

      • Friedel says:

        Thanks for the feedback. Which laptop do you have?

        I just flipped our 2 Asus EEE netbooks over, and they both exceed the listed capacity of the e-Werk (one takes 12V but 3A, and the other 19V and 2.1A).

        We might be able to trickle charge them somehow (though I’d be wary of not giving the device its listed requirements) but I think I’d still rather just charge that laptop in other ways, such as by carrying an extra battery, if really necessary.

        In 3 years of world touring, however, I can only think of a handful of times when we ran out of power and in none of those situations was it critical for us to use our laptop.

    • Hendrik Christenhusz says:

      The 12V but 3A, and the other 19V and 2.1A You are mentioning are the Maximum peak charge that the system can support according to manufactures specs this is matched by the Max from de transformer that comes with the laptop. this peak is only reache by start up with a empty battery, the more amp’s the faster the charge at the nominal Bat. charge,just like a car a Laptop Battery has a functional range, if the charge is within that range then the Battery will charge slower or faster depending on the amps. and watts delivered but it will charge, maybe not 100% but 80% to 90% and like i said before i replace the daily use, the E-works is a device that acts as a buffer and voltage regulator so that the battery can recieve the needed Range of power. I have never felt a large or hindering resistance from the Hub dynamo in difference to a regular sidewall Dynamo, and this is a small and unobtrusive system that is cheaper then a solar panel with a 12 volt power regulator which as show by the Links goes for around $150 stand alone without the wires, let alone the the Big panel that you need with it, and in the Netherlands with the bad weather and colder seasons even a large solar panel will not deliver the Amp’s and Watts what a Hub dynamo deliver in 6 to 8 hours of pedaling at +/- 16 kph. I use it to charge my Dell Inspiron 1420 without any Problems ( 19.5 volt 3.4 Amps) and a 1/2 hour of use Usually uses abot 30% of the 2 hour life of the battery.

      • Dragonfly says:

        From my search, the highest voltage output from a bicycle dynamo is 12V at 0.5A and that is a bottle dynamo.
        Most bicycle hub dynamo output only 6 voltage at 0.5A. I think you are right that “the E-works is a device that acts as a buffer and voltage regulator”.
        In this case the bike is charging the E-buffer and via some voltage step-up electronics, the E-buffer is sending
        your laptop the appropriate charging voltage. However in this case I think your laptop will over workk
        the E-buffer (it basicaly a complicated battery that’s all). When the E-buffer is full, your laptop will charge
        for a while but after a while, it will suck the buffer dry and you bike dynamo will not be able to keep up
        no mater how much you pedal. Try testing my theory by bring an empty laptop with a full E-buffer and bike
        continuously for 8 to `12 hours and see how the E-buffer perform.

  6. Tony Ives says:

    Surprised at all the solar and hub generator solutions. Surely if you want all this clobber then go by car or train on your travels? I cycled in July from Britain to Portugal and found it easy at campsites and restaurants to recharge my netbook. You can save weight by buying a charger cable that doesn’t need a travel adaptor for the country’s plugs and even commonise your camera charger cable by buying an adaptor.

    • Though I haven’t personally added a charger, I don’t consider hub generators in themselves “clobber.”

      Hub generators actually enable de-cluttering by taking away the worry of recharging batteries and fiddling with other issues inherent to battery-powered lighting systems. The addition of an auxiliary charger seems to me to be a nice option for those who need to keep in touch.

      I’m surprised that the idea of reliable, independent lighting systems would make a cyclist think of travelling by car or train.

      • Hendrik Christenhusz says:

        Mr.Ives is getting off the issue and the question,
        he apparently likes to travel on the beaten path.
        not like some of us, i see the bike as Independent self supporting unit and in south America one can even Hunt for their own food because the supermarket is not around the corner ( as is in most of Europe)so why not have your own generator for Com., GPS and Doc. facilities, A small laptop with PDF’s is a lot Lighter then all the hard copies that one needs to drag along otherwise.and yes a short wave radio or sat phone for emergency use also needs a battery and solar panels are not always effective and even more bulky. back to the issue what is on the market that works and has proeven itself.

    • Hendrik Christenhusz says:

      But not in Kazakstan or Patagonië (Chili en Argentinië)
      or when one wild camps and or uses nature campsite with no (juice) tony!

      • We tend to get off the beaten track here in Canada as well. Especially in the north, supplies and settlements can be far apart.

        Just to travel the wilds of Canada is self-imposed simplicity. I can certainly understand the idea of moving through the wilderness with as little clutter as possible (I’ve done it … before the days of satellite communications, GPS, etc.) but making this argument in the context of bicycle travel is a bit much.

        Want to really get with the minimalist program? Walk.

  7. Paul Firth says:

    Agree with Tony above. All of these various chargers and generators etc. just add extra weight & clutter and are one more thing to worry about. For me, the clue’s in the original question: “And all of a sudden you are not fully independent anymore”. Says it all really! Either go without having to be connected to the rest of the world and use internet cafes or make do with recharging a small laptop when passing through civilisation. If I’m away cycling, my whole purpose is to get away from things, not feel compelled to keep in touch with everything.

    • Hendrik Christenhusz says:

      Mr Firth,
      the question is; “So many bike tourists are now carrying laptops, that the question of how to charge them comes up very often.” not wether we should or not, don’t clutter the string with inuendos of your own opinions of life. “And all of a sudden you are not fully independent anymore”. is not the question nor the issue.

    • Hendrik Christenhusz says:

      at least not in your view of the content.

      • Paul Firth says:

        Mr Christenhusz!
        Thanks for you reply. However, if I see a topic
        that interests me and want to offer an opinion
        then I will. Take it or leave it, but please
        don’t tell people to shut up.

    • Friedel says:

      Please, everyone, remember to be polite and respectful or we will close comments on this thread. Constructive criticism is welcome on all sides of the debate but keep it friendly.

    • Carlos says:

      “And all of a sudden you are not fully independent anymore”

      My quest for on board power is so I can be fully independent. I’m trying to wrap my brain around the idea that devices that keep you off the grid are somehow contributing to not being independent. It seems the opposite would be true.

      In addition to keeping my laptop, cameras and lights charged, I use my iPhone as a cyclometer and it won’t last more than a couple of hours without some form of supplemental power.

  8. Trevor says:

    Just remember that all the power needed to charge these devices comes from one place: Your legs!

    13.5 volts @ 1.5 amps is about 20 watts. Assuming normal conversion losses from the dynamo to the netbook this means you will probably need to generate 25 -> 30 watts at source. That will be like cycling constantly up a hill or with the brakes on.

    Now, clearly I’m biased but if you really need to stay in touch on your trip I recommend looking at 3G tablets or smartphones. They will charge happily via 5V USB (only 5 -> 7W required), generally run for a long time between charges and weigh considerably less than netbooks.

    • Andyh says:

      Agree no one really wants to be having to deliver an extra 25 or 30 watts on top of what it takes to propel the bike (although this would be negligible compared to the power generated by a decent descent!) but does a laptop really have to be charged so fast. What about trickle charging over a much longer period of time (a full day’s cycling for example)?
      Or a higher rated device that is only used on descents (for those of us who tour in places like Norway)?

  9. Bob Baxter says:

    If you like solar panels you can get flexible models that roll up into a fairly small package. You can get a voltage booster that will bring the dynamo 5V up to 12 to 19V required for a laptop, you will need one that is voltage adjustable. Google will tell you about these items.

    • Dragonfly says:

      Read my comment above. Power is power and in this case it
      all come from your legs. When you need 20 watts you need 20Watt. Most bike generator are rated at 6 watts or so. You step up the voltage and something else have to give.
      In the end it will not work unless you can build a dynamo
      that can generate 20Watts. And even then your legs must be
      able to generate that amount of power inorder for it to work.

  10. Rik says:

    We have a dahon reecharge but very rarely use it – will see how we go in SE Asia next month… before I send it home.
    Our kindle and iphone can be charged via USB, the camera and laptop need a powerpoint.
    In europe we had no trouble finding a source of electricity – campgrounds, cafes etc. In the UK it was really difficult, so I’d just find a friendly guy in a caravan or at reception in a caravan park and offer them a pound to charge my mac – never a problem and have never been charged the money.
    When charging our mac we also plug the kindle and iphone into the mac – a great way to charge 3 devices in one go.

  11. Daniel says:

    Full disclosure: I also posted this comment on the Kindle review ( http://travellingtwo.com/resources/kindle-bike-touring ).

    Does anyone here have first-hand experience of charging the Kindle via dyanmo hub– particularly Dahon’s Biologic’s ReeCharge power pack? ( http://www.thinkbiologic.com/products/reecharge-power-pack ) I’ve emailed the Dahon customer service to ask if Kindles were supported, and they said ‘no’, yet I’ve also read two accounts online of people who’ve said they had no trouble charging their Kindles with the Reecharge. Confused! I was hoping someone here might be able to offer me a conclusive answer As a compulsive reader staring down months of English-scarce countries, my fingers are crossed for compatibility!

    Thanks all

    - Daniel

  12. Nigel says:

    There are number of electrical inefficiency losses to understand when considering laptops. Voltage can only INCREASED via using an inverter, basically two different size coils of wire preceeded by electronics to invert DC to AC and followed by more electronics to do a AC back to DC. A typical power loss in an inverter is 20%. Next, to use a battery to charge a battery, you need a higher voltage at the start to push the electrons in the right direction, so e.g. you need 6V to charge a 5V. So for a typical laptop, their batteries are about 12V, they need 19V power coming in to push power in at a reasonable rate, and feel the laptop get warm being charged, the power loss from heat. To get 19V from a USB hub you need an inverter. So overall about 40-60% of the power you generate from your legs ends up inside the laptop’s battery. Next, as you step up the voltage the current steps down, so a typical 3W hub will end up making about 5% of the current into the laptop it would get from the mains and take a few days of cycling. Why bother! A tablet / smartphone does not have a 12V battery inside, but nearer 4V, so the 6V from the dynohub can directly charge the battery with nearer 80% efficiency (better than to laptop 60% efficiency) plus the tablet consumes power at a much lower rate (no harddrive, smaller screen, power-optimized ARM processor, etc) so will last more hours on a charge. My Google Nexus 7 with a 4500mah 3.7V internal battery lasts roughly the same 8-9 hours as my Asus EEE 1015PN with its 5400mah 12V battery, the laptop needs 3x the power per hour than the tablet and much less of the hub power makes into the laptop battery than the tablet battery as the laptop needs the additional inverter layers.

    I know, its not helping, but this next bit can help.
    If there is some specific application which only runs on an x86 application, leave the laptop at home and configure your home router to allow access to it from outside, then from your tablet access remotely the laptop. Buzzwords to look for would be WoL to save electricity at home, port-forwarding on the router and either VPN or SSH tunnelling. I’ve been doing that for about 15 years now.

    From your tent / bike you need a network connection like 4G/3G in your tablet/phone/mifi or free Wifi nearby, then you access the laptop remotely, you upload files to the laptop and edit them on the laptop and from the laptop upload onto the Internet.

    Most of you NEED to do when traveling you can do on a smartphone/tablet, check email, check weather, etc.

    • Dragonfly says:

      That’s a very nice idea to access your laptop remotely from
      your tablet and I agree with the opinion that most bicycle tour comunication need can be done with a tablet. However there are a few instants, however rare (at least I think it is rare) when a cyclist is not going on tour but he/she might be a scientist doing long distance cycling to do field work in off the beaten track places. In such case they may need to process large amount of data directly from the laptop.

  13. Dragonfly says:

    Here is my solution. I am cycling off the beaten track in so I need to
    charge my Sony Vaio laptop (Z-Series) as well. My laptop battery has a charge content of 8Ah and takes max
    charging voltage of 12V at max current of 2A. There are three methods that I have tried successfuly.

    1) I instaled four Tung-Lin bicycle dynamo on my bike. Connnected them in parallel to up the Amp.
    The Tung-Lin generator is the only bike generator I have found that have the right voltage and Amp for this
    purpose. It is rated at 12V and 0.5 Amp, so in theory, with four in parallel you get 12V and 2 Amp.
    However in practice, you get about 12V and 1 Amp pedaling at about 15km/hr. This is because it is hard
    to pedal fast enough to generate 24Watts of power. With this method I can fully charge my laptop battery
    in 7 to 8 hours.

    Here is the link to the Tung-Lin dynamo at Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000OBWMGK/ref=oh_details_o06_s00_i00

    2) This method is a solar method. Here I used the Brunton 26 Watt Foldable Solar Array. I also used a
    stand-alone laptop battery charger. Also I wanted to charge my battery while cycling so I constructed a
    “Top” for my bike out of stainless steel rods but you may or may not need this. The “top” can be disasembled
    into 16 stainless steel rods and put away along with the Foldable solar array when not used. This method can
    also charge my battery in about 7 to 8 hours
    Here is thelink to the Brunton Array:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000GEFFBO/ref=oh_details_o09_s00_i00

    3) This idea is just like number 1) but use one dynamo instead. But you have to build this dynamo.
    I used the “Hacker A50-16L Brushless Outrunner RC Motor”. This is a motor used by toy hobyist to make
    toy vehicles. This method is very complicated and you may not want to do this. But basicaly I had to
    use a gear couple to the motor to step up the rotation of the bike wheel. Then I have to build my own
    friction wheel with the right diameter to output 2A at 10km/hr biking speed. Also I fabricated a water tight
    aluminum housing for the motor and two aluminum supports to support the whole contrabtion at the front
    wheel. I used two springs placed inside the two supports to make the friction wheel pressed to the front
    wheel. This took a long time to build and in the end it worked very well. With this method, I can charge
    my battery in about 4 hours. This is the same rate that it would take if I plug the stand alone charger
    into the wall outlet. However the down side is it is very heavy to pedal so I can only go at about 7km/hr.
    For this reason, I later adjusted the diameter of the friction wheel so that I can bike at 10km/hr. This
    made the pedaling not as heavy but it reduced the output power and take longer to charge my battery.
    So in the end the charging rate is the same as that of method 1). Thus the lesson is: The charging rate
    depend more on the indiviual pedaling abillity than the dynamo. In other word, how much power can your
    body generate? and how long can you mantain it will determine how fast you can charge your battery.
    Here is the link to the Hacker motor:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000U7ZW2E/ref=oh_details_o00_s00_i00

    In summery I found method 1) and 2) very effective. I used both. When it is sunny, I used solar and at
    night or in the cloudy rainy wheather, the four dynamo are very effective.

  14. Hey Dragonfly,

    i try this one

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000U7ZW2E/ref=oh_details_o00_s00_i00 and it works great :) alo i can charge my phone and other devices with adapters !

    Best regerds form germany

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