Lori Carey Photography

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

National Preparedness Month - Gear Review: Goal Zero

Since September is National Preparedness Month, I wrote a two-part series on DrivingLine that covered some important items that everyone who ventures off the beaten path should consider carrying in case of an emergency. My word count is limited in those articles and I could only give some brief information about the items, so I'm going to provide more detailed reviews here on my blog. Although the articles on DrivingLine were targeted to off roaders, being prepared for outdoor emergencies is important for everyone who ventures into the wild, including landscape photographers who travel into the backcountry in SUVs or on foot and even families visiting National Parks. Last year a couple died in Joshua Tree National Park because their vehicle broke down on a remote park road and they were not prepared to be out in the harsh elements overnight.

What I really hate is when magazines and blogs publish a list of "must-have" gear that is nothing more than a list of expensive and fancy gear and it's obvious that the person who put the list together has never even touched any of the gear (Outside Magazine I'm thinking of you as one of the biggest offenders!). I am brutally tough on my gear, I spend days at a time in remote harsh environments where my life literally depends on my gear, and I don't believe in overpaying just for a popular fancy brand name. I do a lot of research before committing to gear because I don't have money to burn (that starving-artist self-employed photographer thing). If I recommend gear, it's because I've field tested it and have verified that it can stand up to my level of abuse.

Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator and Nomad 20 Solar Panel charging electronics in the field.
Goal Zero Yeti 150 and Nomad 20 charging electronics in the field

Even in non-emergency situations I have a lot of electronics I want to keep charged out in the field - a gps, cell phone, ham radio, lights and camera batteries at a minimum, and often a laptop or tablet. In an emergency situation it becomes vitally important to be able to charge communication devices and your gps if you forgot to bring a paper map and compass. Many people who regularly travel into the back country have solar panels permanently installed on the roof of their vehicle, but that's not an option for everyone. In my case, I prefer my Jeep's soft top over the hard top so I have no way to mount panels. And because I prefer gear to have multiple functions (let's face it, self-employed photographers aren't exactly rolling in cash and what we do have usually needs to go toward photography gear), portable solar seemed to be the best way to go.

When I talked to Goal Zero about my articles for National Preparedness Month, the type of emergency situations that could be encountered while off roading and what gear I needed to be able to charge, they helped me calculate my needs and provided me with a Yeti 150 and Nomad 20 Solar Panel to test and review. The products can be purchased individually or as a kit.

The Yeti 150 is perfect for vehicle travel into the back country because at 7.75 x 5.75 x 6.75 inches it's small enough to fit into a tightly packed vehicle (photography gear plus camping gear means there isn't room to fit much more!) but provides sufficient power to keep vital electronics and communication devices fully charged. Although I do have an inverter in my Jeep, I'm concerned about possibly running down my Jeep's battery if I overuse it even though I have a deep cycle battery. I already did that once, thankfully it was at home during a multi-day power outage. I don't even want to think about what I would do if my Jeep battery failed in the middle of nowhere! Installing a second battery is an option, but if your vehicle breaks down in the back country and isn't running, or you have no way to call for help, or it will take days before help could reach you, charging your electronics off your vehicle battery isn't a viable option.

Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator
Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator

I will warn you that it is heavier than it looks. It has a full size AGM Lead Acid battery inside and weighs 12 pounds, not a deal breaker but it's not exactly light weight.

What I love best about the Yeti 150 is the variety of charging ports to cover all of my needs. A key requirement for me is an AC port because some of my electronics only have AC (wall plug) chargers. A 12 volt auto port is also vital in case my vehicle is not running and I can't use my Jeep's accessory port. And if you're anything like me, you probably have a variety of chargers for each of your electronics, which means you have so many that it's a challenge trying to keep them all organized and some times you get caught without the one you need. I have chargers in my home, in my home office, in my Jeep, in my backpack and in three different camera bags so I am always scrambling to find the right charger! The Yeti 150 has two USB ports, two 12V ports (one is an auto accessory port) and an AC port for wall plugs.

Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator
Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator

In between outings you keep the Yeti fully charged by plugging it into the wall. You can also charge it using your vehicle's 12V accessory adaptor. The Yeti is a solar generator; it contains a battery that stores the charge which can then be used to charge your electronics. When you are off the grid the Yeti can be charged with solar panels. Goal Zero makes several different solar panels that are compatible with the Yeti. The Nomad 120 is a great match for off road exploring. The solar capacity is 20 watts and it can fully charge the Yeti 150 in 17-34 hours, depending on how much sun you get. If you want to be able to charge the Yeti faster, you can buy a Boulder 30 or 90 solar panel, or chain up to four smaller panels.

Goal Zero Nomad 7 Solar Panel
Goal Zero Nomad 7 Solar Panel

You can also charge electronics directly from the Nomad solar panels. The Nomad 20 has a USB port and solar ports to connect to power packs and generators. The Nomad 7 has both USB and 12V charging ports.

Goal Zero Nomad 20 charging ports

Goal Zero states that a fully charged Yeti 150 will charge a smart phone fifteen times, a tablet six times and a laptop two times. Adding the Nomad 20 Solar Panel increases the number of times you can charge your devices because the solar panel will keep the Yeti generator charged. I left a cell phone, ham radio and gps charging all afternoon while the Nomad 20 was charging the Yeti, and the battery indicator on the Yeti never dropped below full. (A word of caution - make sure to keep your electronics in the shade while charging, not the blazing desert sun. I learned that the hard way when my ham radio shut down because it overheated. I really should have known that would happen!)

What if you don't get as much as sun as we get here in sunny Southern California? When I returned home from field testing I left the Yeti unplugged, no wall charger and no solar panel to see how well it would hold the charge. After three days of light usage the battery indicator still showed three quarters full, plenty of staying power to make it through a few overcast days.

Goal Zero Nomad 20 and Nomad 7 solar panels
Goal Zero Nomad 20 and Nomad 7 solar panels

If you'd rather leave your vehicle behind and explore on foot, a smaller Nomad panel might fit your needs. The Nomad panels are very sturdy and fold up into compact units. I have a Nomad 7 panel for my backpack/camera bag for charging my USB devices. It is only nine inches long when folded and weighs 16 ounces, the perfect size for carrying in a pack. It provides 7 watts of power, enough to charge most smart phones and gps units. It can also be used with the Guide 10 Plus Recharger to keep your AA and AA batteries charged.

Don't get caught off guard without power! Goal Zero products are designed for active lifestyles. They are rugged enough for me and they are beautifully designed. In addition to the many power packs, generators and solar panels they offer, they also have many accessory products like solar lanterns and flashlights, speakers, and trickle chargers in every size from ultra compact to heavy duty. You are sure to find something to fit your needs!

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