Powertraveller – Solarmonkey Adventurer

So there you are, under a bright sunny sky, riding along at upwards of 130mph on a German Autobahn with your wet stuff bungeed to the back of the bike to help it dry and your solar charger tied down on top of the lot. You can’t see it; you’re a little bit paranoid but there it stays even when the bright sunny sky turns black and throws hail and raindrops the size of cows at you unexpectedly.

With no special treatment or particular care given to its wellbeing, the Solarmonkey Adventurer spent a couple of weeks absorbing the sporadic sun rays and powering my iPhone during a motorbike tour and generally just doing its thing without much of a care.

The outer pouch is what makes the Solarmonkey Adventurer so adventurous. It clips to the solar unit securely and features daisy-chain webbing and a carabiner so you can attach it to pretty much anything – a tent, tree, backpack, bike or table – whatever’s in the sun. It’s made from a tough nylon (Cordura maybe) fabric with a chunky zipper. It’s just large enough to stash your phone inside and seal up the whole lot together, although getting the zipper around the end of the USB connection can be fiddly.

The unit itself is a clamshell design made in a tough-feeling ribbed plastic which survives knocks and bumps well. It opens up to become around 35cm long (slightly longer than an A4 sheet of paper) and about 10cm wide. This isn’t a small unit that you could hang off your belt, like our previously tested Powermonkey Explorer, it’s certainly the bigger brother.

The Solarmonkey isn’t just a direct solar charger. It contains a built-in battery which stores all those absorbed rays so you can use them when you need them. I found this an excellent combination for charging up during the day and then attaching my phone overnight. There’s a little red light which comes on to indicate when the Solarmonkey is getting enough light to charge, and this comes on enthusiastically even indoors on overcast days. I have my doubts whether the unit is taking in more charge than it takes to power that red light at times, and I’d have preferred some sort of charge-level indicator because after a couple of less bright days I only managed a partial charge on my phone overnight. [I’ve just read that this light goes green when the unit is fully charged, but I’m yet to see that happen].

Little red light

The Solarmonkey features a simple USB output and is supplied with a number of different connection options for most modern phones and Apple devices. This makes me long for the day when these things are standardised because carrying 4 types of adaptor for the 4 types of device we took on our trip was a pain. And actually that brings me to the only piece of constructive criticism I have on the Solarmonkey Adventurer. The pouch contains an internal pocket for your leads and adaptors. Unfortunately this pocket doesn’t close with any type of velcro or popper and as such I managed to lose a couple of adaptors somewhere on the Autobahn.

The weather during the 2 week test was occasionally very bright, and on these days the Solarmonkey seemed to soak up enough sun to power up an iPhone from empty to nearly full. On overcast days it managed half a charge. I suspect that we’d get better results if the sun was constant and the charger’s location was consistently in it, but the reality of this trip was that shadows and changing angles to the sun limited the effectiveness of the device. Interestingly, although the Solarmonkey is said to chuck out 700mA at 5V, my iPad 1 was having none of it and refused to charge.

That said, the principles work well, and I can’t fault the ruggedness, build-quality and usefulness of the Solarmonkey. I think that if I were travelling for a longer period I’d invest in the optional AC charger, whereby you can top up the internal battery from a wall socket rather than the sun. This, I suspect, would make the Solarmonkey a far more useful device for travellers.

SUMMARY: The Solarmonkey Adventurer is a rugged, waterproof solar charger with an in-built battery so you can charge your devices after the sun has retired for the night. The efficiency of it seems OK, but not outstanding, and it benefits from prolonged periods of very bright sun to charge properly – I never managed to see the ‘fully charged’ light in September European sun. That said, for £85 you get an emergency backup power supply which does convert free energy in to electricity and that’s still one of those engineering marvels which boggles my mind.