10-Watt USB Solar Panel Review

by Ben N on August 6, 2014

I recently got to take a multiple day canoe trip. Since I like photography and video, I really wanted to take along some gear to shoot some stills and time lapse of the trip. However, a device like an iPhone running GPS or a GoPro shooting time lapse can eat up a LOT of battery power.

Since I wasn’t going to be near an electric outlet for five days, I’d have to find another way to keep my devices powered up.

Before leaving for the trip, I got my hands on several gadgets from BROWN DOG SOLAR. This included a 10-watt folding USB solar panel, a 10,000 ma “Power Bank” battery, a USB stick light, and a retractable USB cable.

Here’s some direct links to those products:
10-Watt Folding Solar Panel
Power Bank Battery
USB LED Light Stick
Micro USB Retractable Cable

To start with, the 10-Watt solar panel is a flexible black canvass material with four PV cells on it. On the end is a waterproofed female USB connector. The panel  measures 7.5 inches wide by 27 inches long when open and 7.5″ x 6″ when folded up. That’s a bit large for a pocket, but still a nice compact size for a backpack or gear bag. Two solid metal snaps hold it securely closed. There’s also four grommet holes that are perfect for rope, bungie-cords, carabiners, or any other way you would want to attach the solar panel. This would work well to hook it to a backpack for hiking. In my case, I just hooked a carabiner through a hole to a piece of cord tied to the canoe. This would keep the panel from getting knocked off the boat, or even keep it from getting lost in case (heaven forbid) the canoe capsized.

The 10-watt panel is rated for 2 amps at 5v (USB). That’s powerful enough to charge something large like an iPad. It was MORE than enough for the iPhone, GoPro, and Power Bank.

Frankly, my main concern on the trip was keeping my GoPro charged. I had shot some time-lapse recently. Large capacity SD cards are dirt cheap now-a-days and provide for nearly unlimited data storage. The limiting issue is BATTERY LIFE. Even then, I would want the camera in the waterproof housing during the day for shooting from a canoe. You can’t have the camera in the waterproof housing AND plug in power at the same time.

So, what really worked best was to charge the Power Bank with the solar panel during the day while shooting time lapse, and then charge the GoPro in the evening from the Power Bank. We also had both sunny days AND rainy ones. Charging the Power Bank made sure I always had a buffer, and plenty of juice for my devices, even covering days that it was raining.

I was also using my iPhone to shoot stills, occasionally check a GPS map, make contact for our ride back to the vehicles at the end of the trip, and simply have on hand in case of emergency. The GPS ate up half the battery by the end of the first day. At night, I simply plugged the USB cable between the Power Bank and the phone, and it quickly charged up.

The Power Bank is pretty straight-forward. It’s a battery that you charge from USB. So, you can charge it with the folding solar panel, or a USB wall power supply, or a USB cord plugged into a computer. It features an ON/OFF button, a 4-LED state of charge indicator, a built-in white LED flashlight with two levels of brightness, a mini USB connection for power in, and a standard USB connection for power out. The whole thing is wrapped in a rugged rubberized waterproof case.

The folding solar panel has a standard USB connection on it, which is great, because you can charge pretty much anything, but the Power Bank has a MINI-USB connection for the power in. I suppose this not only saves a little space, but keeps you from confusing the two ports as well. I used the retractable USB-to-miniUSB cable to connect the two. The cable worked well, and unlike every window shade I have ever used, actually retracted the way it was supposed to!

The last item that I had with was an LED USB light stick. Everyone on the trip had a small personal flashlight and I wasn’t really even intending to use the LED light stick. However, on our last night our schedule was a little different, which lead to a late lunch and then an even later dinner. By the time we were doing dishes, it was pitch black. I plugged the light stick into the USB out port on the Power Bank, and used the power button on the Power Bank to turn the light on and off. The Power Bank itself makes a nice weighted base, and there’s just enough flex to the light to make the whole thing into a useful battery-powered gooseneck lamp. It gave off plenty of wide area light for our whole camp kitchen. Worked great for washing dishes in the otherwise darkness.

Another thing I like about the Brown Dog Solar products is that they all packed right in my GoPro case. I have a small Storm Case with padded dividers for my GoPro, Cardellini mount, and other accessories. Everything fit right in there with the folding solar panel fitting perfectly on top. Both the Power Bank and 10-Watt Folding Solar Panel are water-resistant/water-proof and I didn’t have any problems with the rain, dew, dripping canoe paddles, or bilge water. (No problems with all that sand everywhere either!)

Overall, I was very impressed with the Brown Dog gadgets. I had looked at some other folding solar panels at the camping store, and was shocked at the prices. The Brown Dog items are all solid and reliable, which is exactly what I’m looking for when I’m off grid in the middle of nowhere.

If you are interested, here’s some of the stills and time-lapse that I shot, powered by Brown Dog Solar devices.

Til next time, stay charged up!



Canoeing the Black River

by Ben N on July 29, 2014

I just got back from canoeing the Black River.

For the past several years, my father, my brothers, and I have been taking multi-day canoe trips as sort of a male-bonding vacation. It tends to be easy-going. The main expense is gasoline and a cooler full of groceries. We’ve canoed several different parts of the state of Wisconsin, and every year have gained a little more experience, and a little more camping gear.

This time, it was my father (Jim), my brother (Wayne), my brother-in-law (Fred), my cousin (Chuck), and his son (Huxley). We put in to the Black River at Black River Falls, and headed downstream for four days. We had three canoes. Fred and Dad both solo’d, and Wayne and I doubled up in the largest canoe. Chuck and Huxley brought a tandem kayak, although tween-aged Huxley seemed to sleep most of the time in front, with Chuck paddling away in back.

This year, I was in charge of food, and I brought three coolers, a dutch oven, and a large sack of dry goods.

We left first thing in the morning to get to Black River Falls around noon and then put in for half a day of paddling. Half a day is pretty easy, which leaves us looking for a primo camp site. The river didn’t disappoint, and we set up on a beach facing a beautiful bluff carved out by the current. Traveling by water means that weight isn’t an issue. While backpackers often every item they carry down to the gram, with a canoe, there’s nothing stopping you from bringing a three-burner cast-iron stove….. Which weighs 68 pounds.

While it takes a while to set up camp, and I don’t love lugging around the heavy gear, it’s pretty luxurious to be in the middle of nowhere and still be able to have Chicken Cordon Bleu, biscuits and gravy with actual fresh-made biscuits, and from-scratch chocolate chip scones. Wayne and I did the cooking and didn’t have any complaints about the food. Wait, there actually was one. My dad said that the trouble with this kind of cooking was that nobody would believe them when they get back…

Paddling was pretty easy. The worst of it is that the Black River is aptly named. It’s so dark that you can’t see into it more than a few inches. Although there were very few snags, they were hard to see coming. Overall, the river is almost all sand through this section. Sand so clean and uniform that you think you are at a public beach. There were a fair number of shallow areas where we had to hop out because of low water, but even then, it was just walking on sand. I nearly never had to put on shoes.

The river twisted and flowed downstream. Bald eagles spotted the sky. We saw both the world’s fastest turtle making a run for the beach, and a high-diving turtle make a “plop!” off a log three feet above the river. We saw a six-foot-long snake swimming across the river, and Chuck, being Chuck, had to immediately paddle after it in his annual snake hunt. The night was clear. The constellations shone down on us and coyotes howled in the distance.

During the day, the most common stop was a location known as “Cookie Island” – which was pretty much anywhere we could take a break and share cookies, chips, and apples. Lunch was sandwiches, including venison sausage, meats, and cheeses.

The weather was generally not too warm and partly cloudy. We got rained on a few times, first while breaking camp (but after we were mostly packed) but everyone had either a rain-jacket or at least an emergency poncho. I was pretty happy with my recently-purchased day-glow jacket that I bought on a whim before the trip. The next day, the weather was manic-depressive and alternated between gusts of rain and gorgeous blue skies.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the trip was camping with cows. We always noticed animal prints when we pulled into an area that we planned to camp at. Usually it was just raccoons, and signs of other humans – old camp fires and empty beer cans. Several times we saw very large dog prints. Chuck managed to convince himself that it was NOT a wolf, but rather a man traveling in a canoe with a very large dog. At one beach my dad pointed to a large curved print and hollered “Look Ben, horse prints!” It wasn’t quite a horse-shoe, but I couldn’t figure out what else it could be. I couldn’t imagine somebody going out horseback riding where we were.

We set up camp. Put up the tents. Set up the stove. “Hey, look over there.” On the north end of the beach was a black cow, wandering out of the woods. She was soon joined by a few more, and pretty soon, there was a herd of cows on the edge of our campsite. With them were several playful calves and…. a bull.

The cows eyed us, and we eyed them. It was a “Mexican Stand-off.” The cows lined up in a row facing towards us, and the bull started stomping the sand, kicking it backwards in the way a cartoon bull does before charging the bull-fighter. We all had been rather quiet since the bull started making aggressive movements. My father had been sitting in a camp chair – his attention fully on the herd, when he finally turned to speak to one of us, only to find that we all had taken one very large step backwards, nearly hiding in his shadow.

Shortly after that, Fred had started cracking dirty jokes about cows and bulls, and as if offended, the lead cow turned her head and walked off towards the woods. The rest of the herd soon followed.

Of course the rest of the evening was spent making up ghost stories about cows.

The next day involved more paddling, and my dad found and old bocce ball. We improvised a beach game that was half lawn bowling and half “jarts”, tossing the ball towards a circle in the sand with a shell in the middle. After my father destroyed one shell , shattering it in half with a game winning toss, we switched to crushed aluminum cans, still calling the target a “shell”.

Our final day was an easy paddle down river and taking out at a boat launch. Our other adventures of the trip included stopping at North Bend, a town so small it nearly qualified as a ghost-town. We also ran into a group of canoeists who only paddled far enough from the bridge they put in at to get around the bend and set up camp on the beach. We were impressed by their ratio of three beer coolers per canoe – far more than we had brought. We also had a few minor scares of tipping. Fred got soundly stuck on an invisible log, and Wayne and I risked tipping every time we had to get back in the canoe, which was often, as our cargo barge was the first boat to bottom out, get dragged across the sand, and have to try to get back in at the edge of a drop off. Once, the sand sucked off my shoe, which started floating down-stream. (Thanks for catching it, Dad!)

The annual canoe trip is always interesting. It’s a chance to get away from the city and the stresses and responsibilities of daily life. We balance simplicity with technology. We gaze at the night sky and see the stars, but also man-made satellites, and even here we can see the glow of the cities. Time slows and we all have to do our own share of chores, setting camp, finding wood, cooking, washing.

Finally back home, I’m glad to have a hot shower and the ability to go to the bathroom without being bitten by mosquitos. Even with our modern conveniences, there’s nothing quite like being on a beach just off the river, staring at the night sky, counting the stars…. and out blessings.

Keep paddling…



Screen Printing

July 6, 2014

This weekend, I finally got to learn how to screen print.
About a week ago, I was over at my sister’s house and saw that she had her screen printing supplies out. Amy has a fair amount of screen print experience and has sold custom t-shirts with original designs for some time at local art studios. [...]

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Mother Earth News Fair Roundup

June 11, 2014

Recently, I got to travel to the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA to give presentations on electric vehicles and DIY projects. While I was there, I also got to check out a few presentations as well as booths and vendors. What I really seemed to notice as a theme this year was very [...]

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Magnetic Knife Block

April 8, 2014

For some time now, I’ve owned a santoku , a Japanese-style kitchen knife. It’s great, I love it. It’s become my favorite knife, but the problem is that I’ve had no good place to put it….. until now.
When I got back home the other day, doing something with this knife ended up being on my [...]

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DIY Yogurt

March 23, 2014

The last couple of days, I’ve been playing around with “Sous-Vide”, a cooking technique that depends on carefully controlled water temperature.
What other things really like just the right temperature? How about yogurt-making!
I made yogurt once before, just following some basic recipe on the web, which goes, essentially:
Heat 1/2 gallon milk to 200 degrees F.
Chill it [...]

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DIY Sous Vide

March 23, 2014

Recently, I started playing around with “Sous-Vide”.
For those of you who don’t know, this is a cooking technique where food is sealed in a vacuum bag and then cooked in hot water AT THE TEMPERATURE YOU WANT TO FINISH IT AT. That means it’s pretty much impossible to overcook your food, and it’s great for [...]

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Lock Your Truck with a Wrench

March 20, 2014

Today, I decided I was going to clean up my garage a bit. It’s finally starting to feel the slightest bit like spring, and I felt my time might be best used by being outside, moving around, and DOING something.
I quickly got distracted by my pickup truck. I had some ugly decals on the cap [...]

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Etched Glass Pi Pie Pans

March 11, 2014

Recently, I’ve been doing some work sandblasting. Since Pi Day is coming up (March 14 – 3.14), and I just happen to have a stack of Pyrex pie pans handy, I thought I’d go ahead and try making my own custom Pi Pans.

I started by designing a logo in Illustrator. Well, that’s not quite right. [...]

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DIY Oil Lamp

March 1, 2014

I was wandering through the thrift-store this morning, looking for materials for projects, and I was amazed at the variety of glass ware. There was everything from beer glasses to sundae cups to every variety of  vase you could think of.
I had recently seem some photos of some nice oil lamps, and figured it would [...]

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