Solar powered accessories for camping, walking, hiking and travelling
Solar powered camping
Camping is great fun. I've done a lot of it, but rarely in "proper" camp sites, with a bar, showers, toilet block, cafe, and all the rest of it.
The type of camping I've mostly done is the middle-of-nowhere, roughing-it kind of outdoor life. And nothing can compare. I spent 10 weeks camping all over outer Mongolia, for example - from the Gobi desert, via the central-Mongolian grasslands, up to the northern Taiga forest, near Lake Hovsgol.
Camping in a place where you can see and hear not a single trace of humanity is a very special experience. No roads, no buildings, no fences, no domesticated animals, and no people. Most of Mongolia is like that, open and public land, with wild horses, camels, deer, and many other animals.
Spectacular as the experience was, digging a hole in the ground to go to the toilet, washing (and swimming) in rivers and lakes to get clean, going to bed when the sun sets, and cooking on a gas camping stove can get a bit tiresome.
Our camping experience was in 2000. Taking devices such as camping lights which needed batteries wasn't much of an option - as well as being environmentally dodgy, there was no chance of charging batteries (no electricity for weeks) and throw-away batteries would have been both expensive and wasteful. So we had a torch, a camping stove, and that was that.
Technology has moved on significantly since then, and there are some fantastic solar-powered camping kits which allow you to use the natural solar energy to have a warm shower, to cook, or to light up your evenings.
This article looks at some of those products, how they work, and which ones are more trouble than they are worth. Solar powered camping has a great future!
Solar powered cookers / ovens
Solar cookers and ovens have fantastic potential, not only for houses and villages, but for campers, trekkers, hikers, walkers, and travellers, too.
Solar ovens work by concentrating the sun's energy on to a pot or pan containing food or water (for more detail about how they work, and the different types of solar cooker available, see this article for the complete low-down).
Are they worth buying now? I think it depends on what type of travelling you are doing. While really light-weight solar cookers for travellers are on the market at the moment, they are still very new and rather expensive.
So right now, if you are walking, trekking and carrying your own gear, they are probably not the best investment, as every ounce of weight counts if you are carrying it a long way on your back!
If you are doing more static camping, and will take your gear somewhere and camp in the same place for a while, or can shove all your stuff in a car, then they are definitely worth a look.
Some friends of ours also have one they use on daytrips to the beach, as it is non-polluting and much better to use on the shoreline.
Solar powered camping showers
Solar powered camping - with showers!
These are fantastic bits of kit, and not at all high-tech.
They are large plastic water bags, and work by absorbing the sun's energy and then insulating it and the ever-warmer water inside. The side you leave facing upwards is black, which helps absorb the energy effectively.
The most basic type are pretty much just the bag. You can get others with all sorts of bells and whistles; the next step up from the bag includes a hose and shower head, and usually a hook so you can hang it on a tree or something similar to have an actual shower. The really fancy ones come with screens round them, stands, and all sorts.
These aren't just useful for showers, either. The water can be used for washing up, washing off swimming gear, anything for which warm water is useful. It will save a packet on gas cylinders for a camping stove, and pay for itself very quickly.
We bought a couple of the cheapest solar powered camping shower bags a few years ago, and they have been brilliant. We often use them when we are surfing - put it on the beach before you go in, and when you come out of the Atlantic (which isn't as warm as it might be in England...) you can rinse off salt and sand in warm water. My sisters and brother have also borrowed them for camping and music festivals, and been equally impressed.
We've recently bought two tougher ones, as the cheap ones had started to wear out.
Two important tips for using these - firstly, check the temperature of the water before you pour it over yourself or anyone else. If they have been in fierce sunlight, they can get very hot and might well need some cold water added. Secondly, if the sunlight isn't strong, put the bag on something black, which helps it heat up and stops the heat disappearing down into the ground.
Solar powered camping lights and flashlights / torches
Many conventional camping lights use batteries. That makes them expensive to run, and wasteful - disposable batteries aren't exactly good environmental news.
Others still use the Swallows and Amazons type oil or kerosene lantern. I've never liked those, as they seem a real fire risk, as do candle or gas powered camping lights. The fuel is also an extra thing to have to buy and carry.
Solar powered campings light and torches are therefore seriously useful, in my opinion, and I can't see much of a downside.
Solar powered camping lights work by having a solar panel connected to re-chargable solar batteries. This means they absorb sunlight during the day, and can then be turned on when it is dark. A good system will give about an hour's light per hour of direct sunlight absorbed, which means that a good day's sunlight will last more than one evening, even if it is cloudy the next day.
Camping lights powered by solar energy can be in the form of lanterns, small stand-alone lights, torches, or to be hung from a tree or camping pole.
In terms of what you should look for, LED lights are a must, as they have much longer lives and are less damaging. Pretty much all the camping lights available will have low-acid batteries, too, but check as this is an important feature for longer-life and environmentally-friendly lights.
Solar powered radios
Solar powered radios work in the same way as solar powered camping lights, in that they have re-chargable batteries which are charged by a solar panel when placed in direct sunlight.
Radios are great for using with solar power, because they aren't heavy on electricity use.
Solar-powered radios are good for more than travelling - I bought my mother one as a birthday present last year which she uses when she's gardening or enjoying the great outdoors.They are also useful for emergencies, such as when there is a power cut, or in the car in case of a breakdown.
The technology seems pretty stable, and a solar-powered radio isn't particularly expensive.
Some solar-powered camping radios also have a torch, and some can be wound up as well as using solar powered batteries.
Solar powered backpacks with built-in solar battery chargers
For the well-heeled camper or traveller with an enviromental conscience but a love of his mobile phone, laptop, and ipod, there is now a backpack with built-in chargers for all the electronic gadgetry.
I don't own one of these, and to be honest, don't quite see the point. And the price tag is pretty hefty, as well! Solar powered camping for yuppies, perhaps?