I rode my bike across Iowa last week.
For the past 42 years, an Iowan newspaper called The Des Moines Register has organised an annual week-long bicycle trip that sees some 10,000-15,000 people ride their bikes from the Missouri River to the Mississippi, dipping one bicycle wheel in each per tradition.
It’s called “Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa,” but you can call it RAGBRAI.
Maybe you’re a well-to-do person ready to book rooms in small town Iowa every night so you can sleep in a bed and get a fresh shower every morning before taking to the road. But this seems to miss the spirit of the event. You gotta camp to do it right, and long-term camping for the internet-addled contemporary human presents two major problems for those who insist on a certain degree of comfort in their daily lives: how to charge your phone, how to find a bathroom.
That phone-charging problem is solved quite easily with help from a solar charger (and this is especially true if that solar charger has a battery that stores enough juice to fully recharge your phone twice). This Wirecutter review made the case pretty clear — get the Cobra CPP 300. Almost everything else is just messing around.
Seventy dollars and two Amazon shipping days later, I’m holding a Cobra CPP 300 in my hand. It’s large without being obnoxious and heavy, a huge credit to its design (in the solar energy world, “large” is something to aim for as a larger photovoltaic array will catch more sunlight and generate more electricity). It folds open to reveal its two solar panels, and if there’s enough sunlight present, it will instantly start charging its battery. This happens passively, there’s no button to push to engage “charging mode” or whatever.
A small red LED lights up on the device to let you know, “Hey, I’m getting enough sunlight to charge my battery! Soon you can use me to power your phone as you check Twitter during a bike ride through pastoral American heartland!”
The charger was robust enough to survive being latched to the front of my bike and take the slight (but constant) jostles that go along being attached to a vehicle in motion.
I used MapMyRide to track RAGBRAI distances and elevation, so this meant my phone would constantly be pinging GPS services to track its location and rate of travel, hitting the battery hard. And when you’re a mildly obsessive data nerd like me, you want the whole day’s riding recorded as one workout, so this solar charger had better work.
Over the course of my ride, my routine became to run my iPhone off its internal battery until it hit the red “20% charge remaining” indicator. Then I’d turn on the solar charger by hitting its one external button to charge the phone back up, being sure to turn the charger off when my phone was at or nearing full battery life.
While the phone runs off its rejuvenated battery, the solar charger gets back to the near-witchcraft of charging its own internal battery by collecting sunlight. You might say my phone was only ever running down its battery, while the solar charger’s was only ever running up.
The Cobra CPP 300 met all my expectations and then some, but to get the most out of it, you need to do a little planning ahead. You’ll almost certainly be taking juice out of the charger’s battery faster than the sun can replace it (even though that slow, steady restoration from the sun helps quite a bit). This means after a day’s ride, my charger’s battery was always nearing its bottom. An LCD display shows you the battery status. Four out of four black bars filled in? You’re fully charged. Just one? You’re hosed, and now it’s too dark outside to recharge!
Never fear: the Cobra CPP 300 has USB charging inputs for recharging its battery from any USB port or electrical outlet. I had a standard Apple USB-to-outlet converter that I used to charge it off of our group’s generator each night. If you can plan ahead such that you’ve got access to electricity at night, you can still recharge your solar recharger, sun be damned. This means I got to start the next day’s ride with both the phone and the charger bursting with battery life.
The Cobra CPP 300 is a solid buy for anyone going on extended outdoor adventures. The fact that it can also be recharged in an outlet means that if you think to charge it the night before, you’re totally covered for the next day’s electricity demands.
I had zero problems keeping my phone running all week. I spent the rest of my time looking for a bathroom.
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