I bought a Freeloader Globetrotter solar charger a few months ago, with a view to using it on the West Highland Way, and then future backpacking trips. The hope was that it would provide enough power to keep my Google Nexus One android phone in juice.
So, what do you get in the pack?
You get the Freeloader Hub, which is a 1000mAh battery, 2 small solar panels to make up the standard Freeloader unit, and the Supercharger solar cell. There’s also a small plethora of adapters for connecting to various types/brands of gear and a case for the hub to fit into.
Now, when it comes to build quality, the hub itself seems reasonably well built, but when the 2 small solar panels are attached, the connection doesn’t seem the most secure. There were a couple of times on the West Highland Way when one side or the other came loose (we’ll get to that, though).
The Supercharger is stored in a reasonably tough nylon case with a plastic cover to protect the solar panel itself. It’s actually pretty good at keeping the dust, etc off it, apart from one small flaw. That is the connector, where you would connect the cable from the hub to the supercharger. Basically, it’s simply a USB port recessed slightly into the protective case. It does seem a little flimsy (in the sense that a sharp tug on the cable up or downwards may result in it coming away from its housing), and it’s a little too exposed to the elements for my liking.
How well does it charge, though?
Well, you need to initially charge it by USB a couple of times to give the battery pack a bit of life. I did this with no problems.
I decided that when I walked the West Highland Way, I’d leave the Supercharger behind and just take the regular Freeloader. My thinking was that my mobile battery would last approximately 2 days, I’ve got a spare battery, which would last another 2 days, and the fully charged Freeloader would charge my phone up by about 70% (the phone has a 1400mAh battery), which would last another day or so, before I’d actually need to use the solar capabilities of the unit.
The plan worked well at first – at the end of day 4, my second phone battery was just beginning to die. I took the Freeloader out, which I’d fully charged by USB before leaving the house and… nothing. No charge at all. Apparently, the battery pack on the Freeloader doesn’t hold a charge. After only 4 days, it had dissipated a full charge to nothing at all. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed.
With some crafty use of paracord, which I’d kept for emergencies, we attached the Freeloader to the top of a pack, where it would get a fair amount of sunshine on day 5 (which did turn out to be a rather nice day!). After approximately 3 hours with it on the pack (and both LEDs lit up to say that it was working and charging) – about 30 seconds of charging time to the phone.
I effectively gave up on the unit completely at that point and resigned myself to having no contact with the outside world for the remainder of the trip (though coincidentally, Janie had the sense to take a mains charger, and never really struggled to find places where she could charge the phone)
I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the whole thing completely, so when I got home, I ran a few checks to see whether the charger had any usefulness at all.
First off, I put just the Freeloader itself horizontally on a south facing window sill for 8 days. (typical Scottish days – mixed cloud, rain, sun, etc) After that time, I checked to see how much it would charge my phone – 7% charge to my phone. Not good.
I then tried both the Supercharger and the Freeloader – the full whack of solar panels over 4 days (2 of which were absolutely stunning). This time, they charged the phone by 30%. A significant improvement.
If I’m backpacking, the chances are, I’d only be using the Supercharger, so I put that up, by itself for a week, while I went on holiday to Argyll. When I came back, I plugged the phone in and I got 7% charge.
All in all, the Freeloader Globetrotter simply doesn’t seem to be able to cut it in typical Scottish weather conditions. I suspect in a sunnier climate it might work quite well, but Scotland just isn’t that place.
I paid £35 for the whole kit, and in hindsight, I could have purchased 6 spare phone batteries and a lightweight mains charger for the same price, which would have been much more effective. If the unit was able to hold a charge for more than a couple of days, it might have been worth having along as a way to quickly boost the battery of the phone. It’s certainly light enough (the whole unit is just a little over 200 grams, with the hub being less than 100)
The freeloader is now relegated to the back of a cupboard, never to see the light of day again.
I think if I was to attempt a solar charging option again in the future, it’d most likely be the (much) more expensive Powermonkey Extreme, as the unit has a massive capacity (9000mAh – enough to charge my phone 6 times over), can hold its charge over a long period of time and can be charged by solar power, mains and by USB – so there’s always charging options available. However, the cheaper, lighter option, if only backpacking for a week or two is simply to carry spare batteries for the phone (unless you’ve got an iPhone, where you can’t swap the batteries – that’ll teach you!)