It's a good time to be a camping geek. There are scores of iOS apps to enhance your outdoors experience, from GPS trackers to star gazing apps to knot trying guides and more. If there's anyone out there still saying that tech has no place on a camping or hiking trip, they're just not paying attention.
Because Trees Don't Have Electrical Outlets
So what happens when using all those apps runs your battery down before you can figure out which bird is making that "chee-chee CHEE" call? Luckily, it's a good time for some pretty cool charging solutions too. Advancements in solar power technology have made portable panels much more efficient than even just a few years ago. But even with those advancements, it's pretty hard to charge with the sun when it's hiding behind the clouds -- or at night, for that matter.
A Swedish company called myFC (which stands for “my fuel cell”) has come up with what may well be the geekiest method ever for charging your gear in the wild. It's called the PowerTrekk: a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electricity using water as a fuel source. That sentence is so cool I have to write it again: a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electricity using water as a fuel cell. The process is described as the “conversion of hydrogen to electricity via a ‘proton exchange membrane,’” but I like to refer to it by its more common term: magic.
The PowerTrekk is a smallish brick-sized plastic device that sports a removable lid, indicator lights and a USB port where the magic, I mean electricity, comes out. Removing the lid reveals two circular chambers (one with a plastic flap over the top) that look like miniature cup holders. One contains the water reservoir, which holds the tablespoon of water required to start the reaction; the other holds a "puck" containing the catalyst that reacts with the water to produce the hydrogen that in turn produces electricity. Once used, the catalyst is rendered an inert, sand-like substance that requires no special disposal -- although the company says the puck can be returned for recycling.
Each puck generates enough electricity to recharge an iPhone about two times, according to myFC, Our review unit did not come with full-capacity pucks, however, so we could not verify this. A 1500 mAh internal battery in the device captures the electricity and, if necessary, stores the excess charge. Once begun, the process can't be halted, so each puck is good for a single use. A three-pack of pucks is expected to sell for US$9-10, according to myFC. In case you’re trekking destination requires air travel, the company says both the charger and pucks can be brought aboard an aircraft cabin.
The internal battery can also be charged through its USB port, so you can charge it at home using a wall outlet before your trip. It also allows you to charge your device from the internal battery rather than directly from the hydrogen cell. In our testing, this seemed to result in delivering a steadier charge to the iPhone, which reduced those irritating "Charging is not supported with this accessory" messages. This is common with solar panels and nearly drained external batteries as well.
The PowerTrekk delivered its charge immediately and at an impressive rate -- right on par with charging from a wall outlet. The device's manufacturers say the PowerTrekk's output is 5 watts -- the same as an iPhone charger -- and we saw no reason to doubt this. Although it can also power an iPad, performance will be similar to the trickle charge you'd get if you used an iPhone charger -- including the "Not charging" message while the iPad screen is on.
Charging with the PowerTrekk is completely silent; the only indication that the hydrogen/water reaction is taking place is through the lights on the device and the production of some water vapor. The manufacturer says the device might also get warm to the touch, but we didn't notice any increase in temperature during our testing.
The Future Comes at a Price
While the PowerTrekk is undeniably amazing technology, there are a few indications it may not be quite ready for prime time. The device itself lists for about $230 and each single use puck is about $3. For a lot less money and about the same weight, you could carry a rechargeable battery pack like GoalZero's Guide 10 Plus battery back and a couple extra sets of pre-charged rechargeable batteries, enough to get you through a full weekend of camping. For longer excursions, the cost/weight ratio may start to lean in favor of the PowerTrekk.
The Bottom Line
The PowerTrekk's method of generating clean electricity with a tablespoon of water is the stuff of science fiction. It also frees you from worrying about whether the weather will be cooperative enough to make solar power practical. The pucks and the device itself are lightweight and compact enough to make adding them to your load a non-issue.
Finally, the PowerTrekk's performance is great -- delivering an instant, fast and steady charge to your iPhone or other USB-powered device. The PowerTrekk is not available as of this posting, but the company says it should be in retail stores soon. REI will be the exclusive retail distributor in the U.S. when the product launches. A company representative told The Mac Observer that REI would offer the device at a $199 introductory price at launch.
Contributing Editor Chuck La Tournous writes and speaks on camping technology issues and spends anywhere from 15 to 30 days a year in a tent. His “Tech vs. Wild” session for Macworld/iWorld was featured in the San Jose Mercury News and other publications. His new website, trailcamper.com is in open beta.