Portable Power When You Are “Off the Grid”

Knowing that I will be spending a lot of time in places where I won’t be to charge my laptop, camera batteries and the like easily, I went searching for a portable power source that could charge these and also run some lights and/or a fan when needed. My first “off the gird” trip is coming up in a few weeks when I will be traveling to the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area in northwest New Mexico for landscape/night photography and then on to the Ouray, Colorado area for some fall foliage and wildlife photography. I have been to Ouray many times in summer but this will be my first fall trip. One of the things I am most excited about is the chance to meet a phenomenal photographer by the name of David Kingham. He has some incredible night and landscape images on his website and leads workshops around the American West.

I will be camping out of the back of my “new to me” 2001 Toyota Tacoma that I purchased last week.  Reason I went with this vehicle was that an article on Expedition Portal that rated the Ten Best Used Vehicles for Overland Travel put the 2001-2008 Toyota Tacoma as #2 on the list. I had been primarily looking for a Jeep Wrangler (which I have had two others), a Class B RV (get that in 4×4 and you are spending a LOT of money), and a few other options. Ultimately, I found this vehicle near Dallas and decided I would try to put 400K at least on her before retiring her someday!

Tacoma #3 Tacoma #2

I had been researching many different types of power options for “off the grid” camping and if I can summarize what I have learned it is 1)  it isn’t cheap, 2) most don’t last very long, and 3) if you are a do-it-yourselfer you can save a lot money. The first option I seriously considered were the Goal Zero products since my email has been bombarded by their advertising of late. After extensive reading and searching, here is what I concluded about Goal Zero, they are overpriced, short on power, lots of problems with products, and outstanding at marketing. A quick read through expedition websites and related sources will lead you to the conclusion that if all you want to power off the grid is a smartphone and/or iPad, then this might be the way to go. But if you want a portable fridge, lights, or more, you will spend a lot of money unnecessarily with Goal Zero.

The second option I seriously considered was a simple dual battery setup (click the link for a 43 page thread discussing everything you might want to learn about dual battery setups) for the vehicle. In the long run, the reason I didn’t go this route was because a) it requires either a lot of wiring on your own which I really wasn’t up for b) the second battery is fixed and any outlets are probably fixed as well and thus not portable, 3) to do it right is still a lot of money and modification to your vehicle.

The third option, which I almost bought until I found my fourth and final option, was the National Luna Portable Power Pak. This unit is a self-contained dual battery setup (at least 1/2 of the dual battery setup) and is much more portable than the previously discussed hardwired dual battery setup. This setup was really enticing me until I came across a thread at Expedition Portal on the Ark Pak which was initially developed and sold in Australia and finally began distribution in the United States late last year. I read every page of the thread, looked at every page on the Ark Pak website and was sold on what would provide the most efficient power, for the best price, in the easiest manner possible.

The reasons I ultimately chose the Ark Park over the National Luna are as follows:

1) Price: I got the Ark Pak with 12volt charger which lets you charge the battery with your vehicle for $399 including shipping versus $560 (and not sure if that includes shipping or not).

2) Design: The design of the Ark Pak is much more user friendly and cleaner. The Ark Pak looks ready to go and the National Luna still looks very much like a Do-It-Yourself Unit.

3) Features: The Ark Pak includes a 110 outlet for plugging 2 and 3 prong cords directly into the unit. While not as energy efficient as going straight 12v, you still have both options directly built into the unit. With the National Luna you would still have to by an inverter. My plan is to purchase a 12volt car charger for my Canon cameras to improve charging efficiency. I think the plastic box for National Luna might be a bit sturdier, but I plan to take this out when needed and use next to a table so improved portability was key for me.

4) Customer Service/Reliability – I have read a lot about problems with the National Luna controllers which made me nervous. In addition, on the thread about the Ark Pak the manufacturer and sales reps are constantly chiming in and offering advice, assistance and thoughts on options. That was the final straw for my decision to purchase an Ark Pak.

Before you just click the link and buy one, understand you will still need to purchase a battery to power the unit. You can expect to spend $180 to over $300 for a proper battery in the 100 to 130 ah range. The battery of choice for many is the Exide MC-31 AGM-200 which is unfortunately out-of-stock everywhere due to reorganization of the company. A quick perusal through the thread will reveal some other batteries that have been used.

For a solar option to recharging the battery, you will want to consider this option from Renogy. For around $260 you can add 100 watts of portable solar energy but you should definitely read and understand the limitations of portable solar energy depending upon where you are and how much sunlight you will receive. I plan to keep the battery charged through a mix of 12volt charging while driving and solar power.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about my findings or would like to learn more about this type of portable power.

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