[Editor’s Introductory Note: This lengthy and detailed article will be serialized into six parts.]
I’ll admit it: I’m a techno-geek. Ever since I programmed my first computer in BASIC using punched paper tape many (many) years ago I’ve been fascinated by computers and electronics, and I’m always finding ways to leverage technology to improve various aspects of my life. I use RFID chips on many of my preps so I can locate them quickly, I’ve created an extensive database of all of my preps that includes type, quantity, location, storage bin, expiration/rotation date and lots more, and I’ve created a centralized home security system using Python running on a couple of Raspberry Pis with a boatload of sensors and cameras. Yes, I also make sure I have hardcopy and analog backups and alternatives for everything in case something goes wrong, but I’ve found that by taking advantage of technology I can significantly improve many aspects of my preparations.
One of the crossovers of my interest in technology and my military background is that I’ve always been fascinated by the ways the military applies technology to support field operations. Programs like the US Army Land Warrior  and SOCOM’s Hyper Enabled Operator  provide some interesting ideas for how troops can use technology to support combat operations, and devices like the FLIR Black Hornet drone  show how the technology can be applied today. Unfortunately, unless you have a friend in military procurement and $80K to spare, you probably won’t be able to get hold of a Black Hornet drone; however, there are a lot of affordable alternatives available that you can use to improve your operations when you’re out in the field. This article will focus on ideas and solutions for applying technology when you’re mobile in tactical situations.
I know there are folks that believe that digital technology won’t have any place in post-SHTF environments, but I would argue that a lot of the technology I’ll be discussing is just as useful in both pre- and post-SHTF situations as red-dot sights, night vision devices and radios. Most of it can last years if properly cared for, and the low-cost devices I’m focusing on will enable most people to stock up on spares and replacement parts. I’m also not advocating digital solutions as a total replacement for any single item; rather, they can extend or complement other analog or manual solutions.
One other common concern is what happens to the electronics if there’s an EMP event. The good news is that you can fit a decent electronics field kit into a single .50 caliber ammo can converted into a Faraday box . The only thing that may not fit would be a power generation system (discussed later), so you may need a separate way to protect that. I also use several small Silent Pocket  Faraday bags to carry individual devices when I travel with them.
I had a couple of goals for the solutions I’ll be discussing:
- Relatively low cost
- Small size
- Rechargeable/powered via USB or standard AA/AAA batteries
I’ve tried to provide Amazon links for most of what I’ll be covering in the article, but you may be able to find the same or equivalent items for less money on places like DealExtreme, AliExpress, BangGood or other China direct sites (assuming you’re willing to wait a month or two for delivery). Also, please note that I wrote this article over a period of months, which is several lifetimes in the consumer electronics space, and some of the items may have been upgraded or replaced with newer models by the time you read this, so do some research.
I’m going to start by going over a number of factors that are common for most of the devices I’ll be discussing later on – power, wireless communications, weatherproofing and heat management.
More Power, Scotty!
Every piece of electronic equipment runs on electricity (and maybe magic smoke ), so you’ll need to make sure you have some way to charge and run your devices when you’re mobile. If you’re only heading out on a 1- or 2-day movement you may be able to get by with just charging everything before you leave, but having some way to recharge things while you’re away from your home base for an extended period of time can significantly enhance the usefulness of your devices. Since I’m focusing mostly on devices that charge or operate via USB power (5V) that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.
The most obvious way to generate power in the field is a portable solar charger. Some good options are the Nekteck 21W  (2W/port, 2 ports, 3W max total) and the RAVPower 24W  (2.4W/port, 3 ports, 4.8W max total) portable solar chargers. Both are relatively small and lightweight and provide a good amount of power if the sun’s shining, and both provide multiple USB ports for charging devices. If I’m out on a multi-day hike I’ll usually attach my open solar panel to the back of my backpack, but if you’re operating from a base camp you could set it up in some trees to charge things while you’re out and about during the day. The downside of solar is that you obviously can’t charge things when you stop for the night or when there’s no sun due to clouds.
If you’re operating in an area that has fast-moving streams or rivers, you may want to consider getting a Water Lily  generator. I don’t have any actual experience with it, but it’s gotten a bunch of good reviews on Amazon, YouTube and other sites. One big advantage to the Water Lily is that you can set it up and let it run overnight to charge things while you sleep.
If you plan on using bicycles to move around you can use bicycle hub dynamo  to generate power while you’re riding, paired with a dynamo USB charger  to give you 5V power via a USB port. You’ll have to replace the hub in your front wheel with the dynamo, and most of them require that you maintain a certain minimum speed to get decent charging, so this may not always be a viable option, depending on your skill and fitness level. There are also chain-driven generators  available along with a number of various DIY bicycle-USB power projects  on the web.
If you’re in a scenario where there are lots of abandoned vehicles around, you could use any power remaining in their batteries to charge your devices. I carry a car USB charger  plugged into a cigarette lighter socket with some alligator clips  as part of my GHB, since vehicles are most likely to be abandoned due to running out of gas, not because of a dead battery. You could connect it up to charge things overnight while you camp nearby, or, if you need the exercise, you can remove the battery and carry it with you to your campsite. I’d also recommend getting a simple 12V battery tester /meter so you don’t have to keep connecting to different batteries to find one with power.
Thermoelectric power generation is another option – generating power using heat. The most well-known option for this is the Biolite  series of charging stoves. I tried their first generation of devices and I wasn’t very impressed with the amount of power it produced, but their second generation is supposed to have some significant improvements.
Two other potential sources of power generation are kinetic and wind. Kinetic involves generating power by harnessing movement, but despite several attempts  there aren’t many viable options currently available on the market. One kinetic option that is available is a hand-cranked generator  – it’s got some decent reviews on Amazon and YouTube, but I’m not completely convinced that a hand-cranked generator is going to be able to produce any significant amount of power. On the plus side, you’ll get some great exercise charging up your devices. Portable wind power is in a similar state – there are some promising concepts  out there, but the only thing that’s currently available for pre-order is the Wind Lily  (the same company that makes the Water Lily that I mentioned), and that hasn’t shipped as of this writing.
Regardless of how you plan on generating power, when you’re out in the field my recommendation is to treat power like drinking water – fill it up every chance you get.
Depending on your generator source, there may be situations where the power available from any single USB port on your generator isn’t charging things fast enough. For example, if it’s overcast your solar panel might only be producing 1A from each of the USB ports. One other item I always carry is a 2 USB male to 1 USB female adapter cable  – it allows you to combine the power from two USB ports into a single port, which is like hooking two batteries up in parallel (positive to positive and negative to negative). Note that most devices can only draw power at a certain rate when charging or operating, so combining two ports may not make a difference. I recommend that you use a USB power meter  to determine how much power each of your devices consumes while operating or charging, and how much power your generator source is producing per USB port while in the field.
Most of the devices I’ll be discussing operate on a built-in rechargeable battery, but many of them can also run for extended periods of time if they’re plugged into an external battery. It’s also easier to charge a single larger USB battery from your power generation source and use that to charge individual devices than it is to change each item separately. For these reasons I usually carry one or more rechargeable USB battery packs. How big of a battery you should carry depends on how long you’ll be out in the field, how much power you think you’ll need and how much weight you’re willing to carry. Each device’s battery has a power rating, usually in milliamp-hours (mAh) that indicates how much power it can store; a typical cell phone usually has around a 3000mAh battery, and most of the other devices I’ll be discussing have internal batteries that range from 250mAh to 1800mAh. For an outing of 2-to-3 days I’ll usually carry a small 10,000mAh USB battery pack , which fits into the palm of your hand and weighs around 6ozs. For longer outings, I’ll being a larger 26,800mAh pack . I also carry several smaller credit-card-sized battery packs  that I’ve collected over the years – these are useful for plugging into various devices to extend their operating life while in use.
If you plan on regularly using technology in the field I highly recommend creating a power inventory for your devices. For each device, you should document the size of its internal battery (assuming it has one), the maximum power it can draw when charging (this determines how long it takes to recharge – use the USB power meter I previously mentioned), and, if the device doesn’t have its own battery or you plan on using an external battery to extend its operation, how much power it consumes while operating. This will allow you to understand how much power you may require based on projected use scenarios.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)