Road trips, and other “off the grid” travel adventures are a time for slowing down, for finding the unexpected, and for reconnecting with the world around you. Unfortunately, for us photographers, they can also be a time of anxiety and frustration. How can you keep your camera charged so it’s always ready when inspiration strikes? How can you handle batteries and backups of your photos so they aren’t lost in the mix before you return home?
As a consummate road-tripper and photographer, I’ve spent many years fine-tuning how to keep my camera charged, and my photos safe, for weeks of off the grid travel. Here are some tips to help you do the same.
Many cameras, from point and shoots to DSLRs, are powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Li-ion batteries are small, lightweight, rechargeable batteries that can tolerate hundreds of charge and discharge cycles.
They are recharged by an external charger, which comes with your camera when you purchase it. That charger plugs into a wall via a two-prong plug and feeds off your house’s Alternating Current power (also called AC power).
Here’s where charging off the grid gets tricky. Unless you’re staying nightly in a hotel room, two-prong AC plugs (and the charging capacity to power them) are hard to come by. In order to keep your camera battery charged, you will need to adapt.
Essential Charging Gear
Start out by purchasing a universal Li-ion battery charger. Universal chargers can hold almost any kind of small Li-ion battery, and come with a two-prong plug as well as a 12-volt Direct Current (DC) adapter. This adapter is cylindrical and fits into your car’s 12-volt port (traditionally called a “Cigarette Lighter” charger).
If you plan to drive for long distances each day and are only looking to recharge a camera battery, this may be all you need. If you plan to charge other devices—tablets, phones, and laptops—or won’t be driving, you’ll need a power bank.
Power banks are essentially big batteries. They receive a charge, either from a wall outlet or an alternative source like solar panels, and hold onto that charge until you need it. Power banks vary greatly in size, weight, and capacity.
Small USB power banks are perfect for powering cell phones and tablets. Depending on their capacity, they can recharge a phone or tablet anywhere from two to eight times.
Though they are harder to find, some small power banks also have a two- or three-prong port for plugging in a Li-ion camera battery charger. For quick trips where a little backup is needed, these power banks are just right.
If a little backup isn’t what you’re looking for, it’s time to call in the big guns. Portable power stations range in size from 150 to 1250 watts and are designed to be a full-service power solution. Power stations offer three-prong ports for AC power, multiple USB ports, and a 12-volt port.
They can charge camera batteries, laptops, tablets, and cell phones with ease (charging capacity varies by model).
Portable power stations are relatively large, as well as heavy. To illustrate, they are great at a campsite but too bulky to hike comfortably into the backcountry. These power stations are recharged by plugging them into a wall outlet, or by connecting them to solar panels and allowing them to charge for 8-12 hours.
If you’re looking for serious charging power, or plan to be off the grid for long stretches, a portable power station is a wise investment.
Note: Portable power stations cannot be brought on airplanes, though smaller USB power banks often can.
Is there anything worse than returning from travel and finding your image files are corrupted or missing? A savvy photographer will avoid this scenario by doing daily backups of their images.
Backing up images online to the cloud is an option if you have fast, reliable Wi-Fi at your disposal. Set the backup to happen overnight, and you’ll wake up knowing your images are safe.
Fast Wi-Fi is hard to find. Hotel and coffee shop connections are often sluggish, so always be prepared with another backup plan. If you’re traveling with a laptop you can either back up the images directly to the computer or carry a rugged external hard drive. If the images are critical, such as a wedding gallery or a shoot for a client, back up the images to two different locations.
When traveling without a laptop, invest in a portable backup device like a Gnarbox. These small drives have an SD card slot and will copy and store all of the card’s images. Again, if the shoot is extra-important, be sure to back up the images to at least two locations.
Keeping your camera and other devices charged while on the road can be a challenge, but is made easier with a few pieces of essential gear designed to meet your charging needs. Together with regular backups, you can take images off the grid with ease and peace of mind.