Green IT

Solar generators, sat-coms among the gadgets at Overland Expo

An annual Arizona exposition for self-organized adventure travel demos the latest tech for exploring off the grid. I went along to see the gear.

ox lead image
Patrick Nelson

I’m just back from Overland Expo, the Burning Man festival of self-propelled adventure travel.

For the uninitiated, Overland Expo is the world’s foremost overlanding event. The three-day rendezvous is held every year, about this time in the mountains of Arizona.

Over 200 vendors of adventure travel equipment, camping gear, motorbikes, vehicles, and services present their wares to thousands of beyond-pavement, do-it-yourself adventurers.

Backcountry exploration

While much of the cutting-edge gear there is vehicle-oriented, interspersed are the often military-inspired tools that the connected among us need to get online, communicate and perform work while off the grid in the back-country.

And you don’t have to be crossing the jungles of the Darian Gap to take advantage of the stuff. It works on weekend adventures too.

Here’s what I found:

Flexible solar panels

Ideal for anyone who wants to stay powered-up on a weekend hike, or an aforementioned hinterland adventure, PowerFilm makes unique thin-film solar panels for portable, remote power.

Just to be clear, these solutions aren’t the kind of solar kits coupled with 5 volt battery that you can pick up at your local box store’s camping aisle. These are industrial strength, foldable or roll-able products used in space, military and marine environments.

powerfilm image Patrick Nelson

The panels that caught my eye were the small low-light panels suitable for affixing to a backpack. Amazon prices start at $49.99.

But PowerFilm will make you what you want. Thin-film amorphous silicon, the material used in the panels can be up to 2,400 feet long.

Solar generator

While solar panels of the kind PowerFilm make are good for collecting the sun’s power, you need somewhere to store the juice for extended days and nights in the backcountry. That’s where GoalZero, also showing at Overland Expo comes in.

GoalZero makes the Yeti 1250 solar generator. The file-box sized, self-contained device features a 100 Ah battery—that’s about 66-times the capacity of most iPhone batteries.

Along with USB, 12V, AC and Anderson Power Pole outputs, you can recharge it with AC, 12V or solar.

Good for off-grid fridges and TVs, the weight is 103 pounds, so don’t plan on taking it hiking.

goalzero image Patrick Nelson

The cost is $1599 from the company, but GoalZero does sell less capacious versions if that price is a bit steep.

And also bear in mind that you could probably get almost three nights in a Ritz Carlton for the same price, and that hotel chain does have more comfortable beds than you’ll find in even the best glamping environment.

Satellite communicator

Delorme was showing its inReach Explorer two-way satellite communicator device too.

The smartphone-sized device is a combination GPS mapping receiver with 160-character satellite send and receive texting to SMS or e-mail. Global satellite coverage is via the Iridium constellation.

Service plans start at $11.95 a month and the device retails for $379.95 at REI.

Delorme Delorme

The device allows you to pair it with tablets and smartphones. It doesn’t substitute for full satellite Internet—I wrote about Inmarsat’s more fully featured, and more expensive IsatHub satellite hotspot launch in December, 2014, and will review that model in Digital Nomad soon. But Delorme’s device does let you stay in touch where there’s no cell service. And it’s two-way.

And of the show?

It’s not only gear. Nomads there told their tales of crossing hinterlands and deserts, and insiders proffered unique travel advice in lectures.

If you want to know the best way to ship a vehicle from the States to Africa, for example, I think I can now find you someone who will know.

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