Electronics on the Tour Divide: Dynos, Chargers, Cables Oh My!

On my Tour divide trip last year, keeping my electronics charged was a huge pain. Some lessons learned below.

Charging Cables are a Single point of Failure

TL;DR – Cables fall apart *really* fast. Bring spares! Get electronics you can swap batteries on, especially batteries you can buy at a gas station.

For most folks, the electronics you bring on the tour divide are critical: you need them to see at night (lights), follow the course (GPS), or get help if you’re stuck (phone/SPOT). We all take care to make sure we get rugged devices, but it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic failure modes – dead battery.

I went into last year’s race feeling pretty self assured because I was rolling a SP PD-8 dynamo hub. I knew I’d have electricity to spare. As a backup, I brought a big battery bank. What I overlooked was that no matter how many electrons I had to push into my devices, none of that mattered if the cables wouldn’t connect. Oops.

For example: I was using my cellphones for navigation. This worked *great*, as long as I had enough battery power. I used a Sinewave Reactor to get USB power out of my dynamo hub, but no matter how long I had my phone hooked up to it, it never charged up because the damn cable wasn’t actually connecting to the contacts in the phone itself. Imagine riding along in the wilderness watching your power level drop and trying to fiddle w/ the cable to get it to charge while going fast enough to keep current running from the dynamo. In a word: impossible.

I’ve never had these problems on other routes – my dyamo setup worked great on the Oregon outback. I think it basically happens because of: the intense vibrations + long duration. My guess is that the internal contacts on the cables themselves just fall apart after a couple days.

Cables are a Single Point Of Failure. Once they start to fail, even being connected to a wall based power supply doesn’t help (much). I spent literally hours jury rigging my cables and phone so that they’d charge overnight. Put a snickers bar under the cable, and a shoe on top of my phone, then check after 5 minutes to see if the little lightning bolt was still there and pray to god it lasted all night.

So – some lessons learned:

  • Get quality USB cables. It sounds rediculous, but you get what you pay for in cables. Since I got back, I’ve been using Anker USB cables for charging. These seem *way* more durable. There are also other ruggedized cables out there. I brought one of these too, and ended up throwing it away, so on to point 2…
  • Bring extra cables. Even with ruggedized cables, I found I could rely on a cable for 3-5 days. Cables are cheap. Buy good ones, bring a lot. If you’re worried about weight & bulk, bring short ones. Don’t count on buying these on the road. You’ll get crappy ones for a lot of money (I spent $25 on a cable in Whitefish, MT). Better to carry more from the get go.
  • Have a backup charging plan. Does your device have removable batteries? Bring a spare. Can you charge your spares w/o a USB cable? Bring that too!
  • Bring devices you can buy batteries for. You know what’s faster than recharging your USB flashlight from the wall? Putting in new AAA’s.
  • Take care of the batteries you bring. Cold temperatures mean bad performance for batteries – keep them warm at night; Don’t drop them.
  • Bring fast chargers, and fast charging devices. If it takes you 8 hours to charge your batter cache, guess how long you’re stuck at a wall socket? Many chargers and devices have fast charging modes now – you could be on your way in half the time.
  • Get a ‘pass through‘ battery cache. If you can charge your device & your cache at the same time you’ve just increased the amount of time you can go before your next stop. Not many battery caches have this feature, do your research and _test_.
  • Figure out your ‘dead device’ plan. If your gps dies, how will you navigate? If your spot dies, how will  you stay in the race? What do you do if your lights runout in the middle of the night? A small Backup light, a rudimentary paper map, and spare Lithium batteries are your friends.

Given how quickly my cables failed, I must say I’m *really* impressed with how durable my SP Dynamo, Sinewave Reactor and K-lite are. The K-lite cables and interconnects are exactly what I’d *like* to be charging my phone with. Maybe Kerry’s got something up his sleeve for the future for phones…

In the mean time, I’m going to start playing around with ways of charging my phone without using USB cables. Wireless chargers have notoriously low efficiency, but poor effeciency + highly reliable is better than a highly efficient cable that doesn’t work.

Electronics were a huge source of comfort and courage for me on the tour – knowing that people were following my ride helped me keep going. Being able to ride into the night let me go farther. Having mine be so tenuous during 2016 was really aggravating. I remember almost running out of cell phone power when calling my family on Fathers day. Next time I go I hope to do better on this front.

Charging on the trail: Dynamo, Solar or Battery Cache?

First things first: Have a backup. Going Battery Cache only? Bring 2 (hell, bring 3!). Bringing a dyno? Don’t skip a cache.

Should I go battery cache only? It’s not a crazy idea. The trick is that  you will likely need more power than you estimate: cache’s perform worse in the cold; your devices will need more power than you think (searching for cell towers or wifi). The solution here is to bring more, and the cost is weight. You should also consider how to keep your caches from failing physically: what happens if they get wet? Will it break if it gets dropped?

What about Solar? Solar is appealing because there are no moving parts. But… weather. And weight. Can you really haul enough panels to power what you need? How will you keep them oriented to the sun? It’s an interesting idea, but seems risky.

Why Dynamo? I love my dynamo lights – every time I move, I get power. But.. they do introduce (very minor) resistance, and they are mechanical and do fail. When they fail, they are really hard to repair. So… it’s also risky. If I had unlimited money, I’d bring this one as a backup.

End of the day, Dynamo seems the least risky and most flexible of all to me, and I have no plans to switch.