November 15, 2016

Field Test: Nomad 7 Solar Panel Performance

This article is part of a series about using the Nomad 7 Solar Panel for amateur radio use on backpacking trips.  Be sure to review our prior article, "Project: Regulating the 12v Output of the Nomad 7 Solar Panel".  In this article we bring the project together with a field test during a high adventure backpacking trip in the Californian Sierras.

Golden Trout Wilderness

The Adventure

Our hiking group decided to take a 5-day / 52-mile (83.7 km) hike through the Golden Trout Wilderness located in the Sierra Nevada range in California.  The Golden Trout Wilderness is 474 mi² (1227.65 km²) (303,511 acres) of rugged mountainous beauty.  The wilderness is named for and protects the habitat of golden trout which is California's state freshwater fish.

Photograph of a golden trout being help in the palm of a hand.
California's state freshwater fish the golden trout.
Elevations range from about 680 feet (210 m) to 12,900 feet (3,900 m).  An abundance of wildlife inhabit the Golden Trout Wilderness including Monache deer, Sierra Nevada red fox, pine marten, cougar, black bear, rattlesnake, and scorpions.  We would be off the grid completely for the duration of our 52-mile trek.  No electrical power.  No stores or restaurants.  No mobile phone service.   Perfect!

Photograph of a scorpion
Scorpion encountered while trekking in the Golden Trout Wilderness

This meant that each member of the team would need to pack what he would need to survive for 5-days in the wilderness.  Here is what I stuffed into my backpack:
  • Topographical map
  • 1 gallon zip lock bag to keep the the map dry
  • Compass
  • Small tube of sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Fleece jacket
  • Rain shell
  • Boonie Hat
  • Quick drying pants that convert to shorts
  • Headlamp
  • First aid kit
  • Waterproof matches in a waterproof container
  • Small butane lighter
  • Knife
  • Dehydrated food for 6 days
  • Trail snacks
  • Bear canister
  • Hip canteen
  • 1.5 liter water bag
  • Water purification chemicals
  • Tarp
  • 550 cord
  • 2 trekking poles
  • Bivy
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • 2 pairs of wool socks
  • 2 wicking undershirts
  • 1 quick-drying shorts
  • 2 wicking long sleeve shirts
  • Fuel canister
  • Backpacking stove
  • Small foil pack of chili peppers
  • Whistle
  • Cook pot
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Liquid soap
  • Baby wipes
  • Ultralight super absorbent towel
  • Toilet paper
  • Trowel
  • Kenwood TH-F6A tri-band HT
  • Nomad 7 Solar Panel (modified and regulated)
  • iPhone for pictures
  • Earbuds
My backpack weighed around 38 lbs. at the start of our journey.  Weight is extremely important on a long trek with significant elevation changes.  Every bit of additional weight requires more energy from the backpacker.  The weight is most apparent when climbing several thousand feet in elevation.

We knew we would be isolated throughout our trek.  Our adventure was scheduled to start immediately after the mountain roads became clear of snow so we were pretty sure we wouldn't encounter very many people (if any).  Communication is critical in an emergency situation. 

Emergency Communication Gear

We had two hams in our group so we naturally decided to pack a set of two-way radios and solar power.  The Kenwood TH-F6A HT radios would allow us to maintain communication with each other if we became separated or if someone had to hike out to get help.  The radios would also provide the possibility of calling help directly from a mountain peak through either a repeater or another amateur radio operator.  
Photograph of the Kenwood TH-F6A tri-band amateur radio
Kenwood TH-F6A Tri-band HT

We packed our Nomad 7 solar panel that we had modified to provide output via Anderson Powerpole and a pigtail suitable for the Kenwood HT's.  The solar panel would allow us to keep our radios and mobile devices charged for the duration of the trip. 

Photograph of the Nomand 7 Solar Panel and Kenwood TH-F6A tri-band amateur radio
Nomad 7 Solar Panel and Kenwood TH-F6A

Field Test Results

Our Kenwood TH-F6A radios worked great during our trip.  We used them to maintain communication between the front and back of our group while hiking.  We also used them to maintain communication when exploring the area around camp.  Fortunately, there were no emergencies during our adventure.

On two occasions we inadvertently and unknowingly dropped our radios while crossing obstructions.  In both instances we noticed the radios were no longer attached to our packs and quickly retraced our steps to recover the radios.  The Kenwood TH-F6A is well-built and suffered no damage from either incident.  From this experience, we learned that clipping the radio to the pack is insufficient for securing it.  We improvised lanyards from lengths of 550 cord to positively attach our radios to our packs.  The lanyards allowed the radios to be used while hiking without the risk of falling off and becoming lost along the trail.

We are blessed in California with an abundance of sunshine which we harnessed with our Nomad 7 solar panel to recharge our iPhones and Kenwood TH-F6A.  We chose to recharge one device at a time so as to minimize the charging time.  In full-sun, the Nomad 7 seemed to recharge our iPhones at about the same rate as we would have experienced plugging them into a wall socket charger.  The Nomad 7 did a great job of recharging our Kenwood TH-F6A for the first few days.  On our last day, while recharging our Kenwood F6A via the Nomad 7 solar panel, the radio stopped charging and would no longer power-on.  We believe the unregulated (15vdc in full sun) output of the solar panel was the cause.  For more on this read our article Project: Regulating the 12v Output of the Nomad 7 Solar Panel.

We decided to protect our remaining radio from damage by not connecting it with the solar panel for the remainder of our trip.  Having at least one functioning radio in the event of an emergency was our priority.

We tried recharging while hiking by tying down an open Nomad 7 to our backpack.  This didn't work very well as were constantly moving in and out of sun and shade.  We found it more effective to recharge when stopped on breaks, lunch, or while setting up camp.  Being stationary allowed us to orient the solar panel to maximize sunlight exposure.

The Nomad 7 is very well made and durable.  We gave ours some unintended rough treatment while backpacking and it kept working the entire trip.  This is an important quality in any backpacking gear.  Packs and their contents tend to get knocked around a bit while trekking.  

Even though we didn't have an emergency, it was comforting to know that we could recharge our devices during our 5-day trek through the Golden Trout Wilderness.  Our batteries would certainly have been depleted after 5-days of usage had we not had a solar panel in our packs.  We really enjoyed being able to shoot photographs to our hearts content with our iPhones without worrying about running out of power.  At 1.4 lbs, the Nomad 7 solar panel was definitely worth the additional weight.  We were disappointed to have one of our Kenwood radios stop working as a result of charging it from the unregulated Nomad 7 solar panel.

Mountain meadow in the Golden Trout Wilderness
When we returned home, we subsequently went to work to solve the issue by regulating the output of the solar panel at a lower safer voltage (see Project: Regulating the 12v Output of the Nomad 7 Solar Panel).  We are looking to our next adventure and packing our (now regulated) Nomad 7 solar panel.  We know we now have the perfect backpacking adventure amateur radio and solar power setup.

See you on the trail.  73.


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    © Michael W. Maher and NJ2X.COM, 2016.

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