While touring, a smartphone can be invaluable. They are GPS-powered world atlases, making it impossible to get hopelessly lost (unless by design). They are never ending jukeboxes of all your favorite songs to help get you up grueling hills. They are a direct line to those close to you, no matter how far you get from them. But most importantly, they are the peace of mind you get from knowing that you’ll always have a plan B if it hits the fan (and it inevitably will).
The problem with smartphones, though, is their battery life is shorter than an ADHD attention span. Did I ever tell you about that time I saw a badger in Wyoming? It was on the side of the road eating roadkill. I can’t believe how much roadkill there is in America. If people had to eat all the animals they killed, they’d think twice before getting behind the wheel. Especially vegans. And once the battery is out of juice, it’s useless. This means your smartphone goal needs to be maximizing uptime. Luckily, there are a few ways to do that.
Economize Battery Usage
The biggest drains on your battery are the screen, the mobile network, and GPS-driven applications. If you plan on mapping your ride or having navigation software available, disabling the GPS isn’t an option, so we’ll ignore that one and just look at the other two. For decreasing the drain from your screen, lower both the brightness on your phone and automatic timeout setting. Also, don’t check your maps constantly. Take some time before you start or during breaks to get to know your route. Then you’ll not only save battery, but you’ll also spend more time noticing the real world around you than the digital one mounted to your handlebars.
Disabling your mobile network will be the biggest battery saver. When your mobile network is disabled, you’ll still be able to receive phone calls and texts, and your GPS will still function properly, but you won’t have access to the internet. Why would you need that anyway? GPS based apps, like Google Maps and Strava, will still function properly. One caveat is that Google Maps won’t be able to build new routes, so chart your route prior to disabling. This also means no audio streaming, so be sure to download any music or podcasts prior to setting out for the day.
Spare Batteries / Emergency Battery Chargers
Not many phones come with replaceable batteries anymore. iPhones definitely don’t, and most Androids don’t at this point. Samsung is an exception, along with some older models from other manufacturers. If you are lucky enough to have a phone that the battery can be easily swapped on, stock up on spare batteries. You can find two batteries plus a battery charger (which charges the battery outside of the phone) for $10 or so on eBay. With four extra batteries, you can rest assured that you can swap batteries during the day, and then charge with your external chargers at night. The nice thing about the external chargers is that they’re battery-specific and of minimal value, so the likelihood from them being stolen is slim. You can usually charge them in a camp site’s public bathroom without worry. Unless you’re in a methy area. Anything can be stolen when meth is involved.
Another option is an external USB battery pack. They are a little more expensive, but they will work with many different phones, so you can use them after you get a new phone. These will add weight, but you’ll be able to extend the life of your phone while riding, and then charge both your phone and the pack overnight. I don’t recommend charging them in public places overnight, though. A great way to charge overnight on the DL is in a campground that has RV hook ups. If you find an unoccupied camp site and use the electric hook up, which has enclosed outlets, not letting anyone know what’s inside.
Solar power is a good way to charge up your phone. Most solar panels work like the external USB battery chargers. They charge up during the day, and then you can charge your phone at night (or whenever). You could even use them to charge up your external battery pack too. They only problem is that they require sunlight, which will be at a minimum during a rainy season week. These are also fairly expensive if you want to get a good model. The big plus, though, is that they have a lot more applications than just touring, so you can take it on hikes, use it in the backyard, or anywhere else you want.
Dynamo / Generator Hubs
This is my preferred method of keeping electronics charged on the road. A dynamo hub is an easily affordable luxury that once you have it, you’ll wonder how you lived without it. For starters, you’ll never have to worry about your lights running out of power, which you will truly appreciate the first time you go on an extended night ride. As long as you’re moving, they’ll be lighting your path. Additionally, when combined with a dynamo-powered USB charger, you can charge any of your electronic devices (smartphone, GPS, beard trimmer, etc.). Just remember that it’s a bike, not a substation, so don’t expect to go from 10% to 100% charge in a few minutes.
Dynamo hubs come in a lot of different varieties, from a basic model featuring reliable functionality to high-end models that are packed full of overbuilt nerd features that make both bicycle enthusiasts and Electrical Engineers drool. As with most bike parts, you get what you pay for, so shop around online and leverage the knowledge of your local bike shop until you find that hub that works for your needs and your wallet.
Dynamo USB chargers, though, do not come in a lot of varieties. You are usually left with two choices: reasonably priced crap and really expensive high-end. I have used the reasonably priced crap. Take my word for it when I say it’s not worth it. You will fry it in no time flat. There are a few good options for high-end models (the Germans know their bike tech), but if you want a reasonably priced, high performing, American-made USB charger, I would recommend the Revolution by Sinewave Cycles. It has the output, reliability, and structural integrity (it works even when submerged in water) that rival the most expensive brands, but a price tag that is half of that of some of its competitors. For more about this brand, take a look at this Philly Pedals review.
People, in our hands, we hold devices that have unlimited potential. Potential to give you the freedom to get out and see the world while resting assured that you’ll always be able to find your way home. So rather than using it to share one more uninteresting photo for your obsessively connected friends to pretend they like, use it to escape the electronic prisons that we have willingly confined ourselves to.