Disclaimer: This article contains an affiliate link. That means I get a small commission for whatever you may order, while the price remains the same for you. If you find this article or website helpful, using the link helps me back. (Details)
(June 2018 update in the bottom)
As a bike tourer who prefers wild camping off the grid, I need a good solution for powering my electronics. Lots of methods are fine for phones and other USB devices, but a laptop - especially a Mac - is more challenging.
I couldn't do photography and blogging properly without some extra equipment with me. Besides the obvious DSLR, a laptop is also necessary for storing and processing my images. I prefer a MacBook Air for its excellent battery life, light weight and reliability. To power it, I considered all three main alternative sources of electricity on a bicycle tour:
- Wheel hub dynamos
- Solar panels
- Power banks
Right away it was clear that a dynamo would never be enough for me. I just don't cycle enough per day, and may stop to camp and take photos for several days or even a week. So it couldn't power anything when I need it the most. I didn't even bother finding out if there was an option available that could somehow supply power for the MacBook.
Solar panels were my main choice for a while. I've used a couple small ones before, and although those weren't very good, the technology has come a long way. Plus solar has a "cool factor", which is very tempting. What kind of environmentally aware nomad wouldn't want to harness the green power of the sun? After some research, I had my eyes on the GoalZero Sherpa 100. It comes with a 20W panel and, more importantly, a battery with AC output that I could plug the Mac into.
While that probably would've worked, and been a true off-the-grid solution, there are many downsides. At $500 and 2kg (4.4lbs), it's expensive and heavy. With a capacity of only 8800 mAh, it wouldn't have charged my laptop to even 100% due to transfer loss. Also refilling the battery takes a long time, and I'd have to constantly adjust the panels to be facing the sun. And they may attract thieves - my last solar panel was stolen off a bike pannier while I was drinking coffee at a gas station. Ultimately not an ideal solution.
Finally I turned to power banks. After plenty of googling, I found the best one to be the Maxoak 36000 mAh K3 version. Compared to the solar option, it's much cheaper, smaller, half the weight, holds 4x as much power and doesn't require daylight, good weather, or frequent care. The only downside is I do need to plug it into a wall outlet. Fortunately those are easily available at any café, restaurant, tourist info, hotel lobby, or gas station I might take a break at.
The device has one 16.8V/3.5A output for charging Macs with either T or F Magsafe adapters, one USB-C output, and two regular 5V/2.1A USB outputs. There are four LED lights that tell you how much charge is remaining (0-25%, 25-50%, 50-75%, and 75-100%). And the package comes with a small pouch for storage. It takes about six hours to charge from zero, which is a bit of a wait, but still pretty good considering the huge capacity. For me in practice, that would mean either charging overnight at a camping ground (in the odd case that I stay in one), or doing smaller refills as needed.
So how much is 36000 mAh? That's enough to recharge my Android phone a dozen times, which means maybe two weeks of normal/heavyish use, or a month of light touring use. My 2014 MacBook Air, which has a much bigger battery, can be recharged from zero to 100% twice, meaning about a week or more of photo editing and blogging in my tent. This is plenty for my needs. The device also works with a MacBook Pro - but make sure your version is compatible from the Amazon site, regardless of the type of Mac you have.
I should mention there was a problem when I ordered this from Amazon. I was actually sent the K2 version, which is a Maxoak 50,000 mAh power bank for Windows laptops. To the credit of the seller however, they apologised, let me keep that one and immediately sent the correct MacBook version instead. While that added a little extra hassle and another two weeks of delivery time, it goes to show the seller is dedicated to fixing any issues fairly. Which is always a plus. I then proceeded to sell the K2, so even this mistake finished with a very nice discount in my favor!
In addition to the phone and laptop, this can even charge my camera via a USB charger for Nikon DSLR batteries. As well as the USB rechargeable headlamp that I carry. So it's a nice all-in-one solution.
The only issue is the size. This kind of capacity doesn't come in a small package, and the 1kg (2.2lbs) weight can be a lot to carry around. But if I want the added freedom of working anywhere, there's just no way around the extra weight.
Overall, this is exactly what I need on my bike trip and I'm happy to recommend it.
2018 update on USB cables:
After traveling and using this for a year, I still have no complaints. The Maxoak is one of my favourite pieces of equipment and has saved me countless times. Also my travel partner, who is notoriously bad with charging her devices, often relied on my power bank to keep some of her devices charged as well.
There is one issue that I didn't really consider in this article: USB cables. The quality of your USB cable has a considerable effect on your use of this or any other power bank. Because if the cable is in poor condition, it can lose much of the power in transmission. That means it will draw the same amount of power, but only a percentage gets to your phone or other device.
When you use USB cables, especially on the road, they twist and turn and wear out until the connection is not great anymore. I notice this when my phone stops and starts charging while being plugged in, which is when I replace the cable. Some USB cables charge slower than others, even when brand new. So don't buy the cheapest cable you find, because chances are it will charge inefficiently. As a rule, the shorter and thicker the cable, the better. You can read more information here.