How to power your life and work from the backcountry
Earlier this summer, while camping at a backcountry hideaway on the southern Colorado border with a screen of ponderosa pines, a bubbling creek, a resident group of deer, but only a whisper of shaky 3G, I forged up a 300-vertical-foot scree slope, climbed another 100 feet to the point of a promontory, and pulled out my cell and laptop. As expected, the signal was much stronger. So I rang up an adventure guide in Manchester to talk about a story we were planning in the Sinai Desert. I also filed two pieces that I’d spent the day tapping out at camp.
The Modern Nomad
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On the road, anywhere can be an office, but it’s rarely as simple as sitting down at the desk. In search of a connection, I’ve driven 10 miles down a washboard road and hiked to the top of a red rock butte in Grand Staircase Escalante, walked half a mile to a blank spot in the Sonoran Desert where inexplicably there was service, sat typing on top of the truck at the mouth of the Grand Canyon, and four-wheeled up a brutal Southern Colorado fire road to an open overlook where I could use the tailgate as my desk. Some people worry about office-place ergonomics—I just worry if I’m going to be able to log in.
The biggest stipulation Jen and I made when we decided to go full time in Artemis was that our work couldn’t suffer. We thought this would be easy, but the truth is it has taken concessions, (“Nope, we can’t stay at this killer campsite this week because I have a big week of work and it’s completely off the grid”), and some infrastructure investment.
Aside from fresh water, our biggest limitation in the field is power. Artemis can run pretty lean when we’re dry camping, thanks to a propane-powered fridge and stove. And in the backcountry we use supplemental solar lighting, such as those from Luci, instead of her built-ins. But there is no way to eke out more power from our work necessities—laptops, cell phones, and camera gear.
Actually, I found out that you can eke more power out of a device. On Jen’s urging, I grudgingly upgraded from a 2010 Apple MacBook Air to the exact same 2016 model and am now getting eight to 10 hours run time versus one-and-a-half to two on my old device. (The new MacBooks are even more efficient, but the ability to run a hard backup on the road using a Transcend JetDrive Lite in the expansion slot gives the Air the edge.) Still, this power supply is finite, and when our computers die we have to move to somewhere where we can charge. This was a problem at first, and we found ourselves moving too frequently and slave to our devices, which partly defeated the sense of freedom we were chasing with Artemis in the first place.
But two handy devices from Goal Zero have changed that, basically eliminating all concerns we have over power. Though the Yeti 400 Generator is a bit confusingly named—it’s not a generator but a 400 watt-hour battery with USB, AC, and 12-volt plugs—it has become the mainstay of our work-from-the-field existence. It stores enough power to charge our laptops a couple of times, plus additional trickle for phones, headlamps, Garmins, etc. That might not sound like a lot, especially considering that it takes five hours to fully charge from the wall and 13 from a car (that’s according to Goal Zero, though we haven’t actually tried it because who wants your car running that long?). But since getting this unit, we haven’t run out of power for our electronics—well, except once, which I’ll get to in a second.
Not only does the “generator” power from the wall, it also runs off solar, and we have been absolutely amazed with the performance of the Goal Zero Nomad 100. About the size of two laptops when it’s stored, this four-panel solar collector unfolds to the length of a diving board and has built-in cables that plug directly into the Yeti to power it. There are more powerful and efficient solar panels out there, and we’ve considered a built-in unit on Artemis that trickles power directly to the Airstream batteries. But what we prefer about this setup is its mobility: a rooftop unit wouldn’t work at many of the places we’ve stayed because of tree cover, but with the Nomad and Yeti, we can set up in patches of sun and move the units accordingly as the day goes on. For the same reason, we opted for the 400 instead of the mammoth Yeti 1250, which would be great for power supply but very difficult to lug around.
On a cloudless New Mexico day, we charged the Yeti 400 from empty to full in just seven hours, though Goal Zero says it’s likely to take longer because of cloud cover. We try to never let the Yeti get low, and usually a couple hours in the morning sun top it off enough to replenish our devices at night. Goal Zero also makes a connector, the Guardian, to trickle from the Nomad directly to 12-volt batteries.
We have also tried several similar mobile solar options from other brands, and none so far compete with Goal Zero. The difference is the user interface. Goal Zero has created a product that works seamlessly for the solar laymen. Everything is included and attached, and the necessary adapters and cords are all simple and built in. Plug the panel into the pugs marked input on the Yeti, and you can watch the power go in (we get around 60 watts in full sun). Plug in as many devices as you like (there are two USB ports, two AC adapters, and two 12-volt plugs), and you can watch the power go out (up to the 300-watt inverter rating). Unlike some other devices, you can both collect power and use it simultaneously. And once a device is charged, it stops drawing power, so there’s no need to constantly monitor. Basically, the Goal Zero system is ingenious and foolproof—well, almost.
Living in the desert Southwest, we expect daily sun, and lots of it. But earlier this summer, when the monsoon kicked in, we saw seven straight days of clouds and rain, prompting lots of grumbling and head-shaking—and yes, the one time we’ve so far run our batteries dry. We can charge up Artemis’ batteries from our truck in a pinch, so we’d never be completely stranded. But you don’t want the charge to go below half, which can diminish battery performance, so I invested in a Generac iq2000 gas-powered generator. I hate the clackity-clack of a generator, but this one is surprisingly muted and much quieter than the Honda and Yamaha competition. It runs a mix of oil and gas, which is a bit fiddly to set up at first, but otherwise it starts easy, motors at a veritable whisper, and guarantees that we won’t ever be stuck calling for a roadside-assistance tow. Thanks to the Goal Zero setup, I’ve now used it only once.
The final piece of the mobile-office puzzle was the SureCall Fusion2Go-RV cell booster. Using both an internal and external antenna, which are chained together via cabling, this device picks up and amplifies cell signals in places where coverage is poor. It was a bit complicated to install, mostly because it required running cable through the top of Aretmis and into the receiver box in one of the cabinets, and in the end, after futzing about and realizing I’d probably make a mess of it, I took it to our friendly local Airstream dealer. Once installed, it simply powers on and improves whatever signals is around.
This device cannot create a signal—if you have No Service, there’s nothing to amplify. However, we have started being able to camp in a lot more places where flickering 1x service is miraculously upgraded to two or three bars of 3G. We recently revisited that southern Colorado campsite below the rocky outcropping, and with the SureCall I could now send files and Skype while sitting under Artemis’ awning.
Truth is, though, I still climbed up to the top of that spire a few times with my laptop. The ergonomics up there aren’t perfect, but it’s hard to beat a setting where you can respond to email, field calls from overseas, and count elk in the valley all at once.