Finding Electricity For Gadgets While Bike Touring

bike touring powerAre you one of those people that can’t leave home without your digital camera, mp3 player, laptop, mobile phone and of course a handheld GPS receiver to navigate your way around the world?

We have to answer ‘guilty’ to carrying around several gadgets.

Many people will prefer a simpler way of touring but we make good use of our electronics on the road. Having said that, they come with dilemmas as well. You’ll have to clear out your panniers to make way for all those toys and adapt to lugging the extra weight around. Carrying valuables also means you’ll worry more. Think long and hard before taking something and decide if the space, weight and security concerns are outweighed by your need for the gadget.

The biggest ongoing challenge is finding a way to keep everything fully powered. It’s not quite as hard as you might imagine. Our digital SLR camera, for example, can take hundreds of pictures on a single charge so we only have to plug its battery in once or twice a month. The laptop is the biggest power user but we have ways to keep that running. Everything else only needs infrequent attention and the more we tour by bicycle, the better we get at keeping everything charged.

We have a few things that run on disposable AA batteries but these are relatively low power users and we don’t have to replace the batteries very often. Getting AA batteries is never a problem but in Central Asia it was impossible to buy good quality batteries.

Our battery powered list includes:

Gadget Battery Type Duration
Apple 20G iPod Built in Four to six hours.
Bike computers (Cateye & Decathlon brands) CR2032 10,000km
Cateye LED lights AA Infrequently used. More risk of corrosion than dead batteries.
Edirol R-09 Audio Recorder AA A few hours.
Nikon D80 SLR Lithium Ion Long! 100s of photos.
Petzl Tikka LED Headtorches AA Two months of reading in the tent.
Panasonic CF-W4 Laptop Built in Good for a laptop. Four to six hours.
Roberts R9968 SW Radio AA At least a month.
Sony Cybershot T9 Lithium Ion Too short. A few hours.

The way we charge things has varied from region to region.

In North America and Europe we used campsites at least a couple times a week and we could usually access a power point there. Even if we didn’t pay for a powered site, plugs can be found in the bathrooms or communal areas. This is a bit of a pain because now you have to bring a book and sit in the toilets or put your tent facing the bathrooms to ensure no one steals your laptop while you’re cooking supper. We also wrapped our electronics in a plastic bag to protect against water when we used bathroom powerpoints.

Tents at PassauYou can also enlist help in campsites. Campers with RVs are often happy to let you plug in something inside their motorhome or the front desk may charge something for you.

A last ditch resort is to look around supermarkets. You’d be surprised how often there’s an unused electrical outlet outside, maybe even beside a picnic table. Buy lunch in the grocery store and chow down while you wait. If you have moral qualms about this, ask the manager. They rarely mind.

In cheaper parts of the world like the Middle East and Southeast Asia, charging gets a whole lot easier because you’re never out of a hotel for more than a few nights. Between accommodation, restaurant owners were happy for us to plug something in while we ate a meal. People in these regions love their mobile phones so sometimes shopping centres or public parks have recharging points. Convenience stores in Japan also have kiosks for repowering your mobile phone.

Central Asia posed the biggest challenge because we did a lot of wild camping and power cuts were frequent. Even in a hotel, we didn’t always manage to recharge everything. Remote areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan may have a guesthouse but no electricity. If you’re going to India, you may have similar problems.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Try to buy electronics with interchangable cords. If you need a separate cord for each one, you’ll find all the power bricks add up to almost the same weight as the gadgets. We have a single cord and this plugs into the converter for the laptop, the charging unit for the cameras and powers the USB adaptor for our iPod.
  • Electrical sockets in developing countries are often very loose. Bring scotch tape to make your plug stay put. It’s common to see sparks fly when you plug something in.
  • It’s possible to create a unit that recharges AA batteries on the go using a dynamo. This needs a little electronics know-how but search the internet for ideas and enlist a clever friend to help out, or buy a SON dynamo for your front bicycle wheel – not cheap but effective for charging most things.
  • With things like cameras and laptops, use the lowest power setting available. Turn off automatic review features on LCD camera screens.