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Backpacking Internet Access
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Jacob Avanzato
(jacobiat) - F
Backpacking Internet Access on 04/16/2012 18:07:39 MDT Print View

I'm going to be taking the month off in june and doing some backpacking around northern california ive wanted to do for a while. My employer is ok with it as long as i keep in contact and do a bit of work online every day or two. The company is willing to foot the bill for a mobile satellite internet setup so that i'll be able to do that.

What I'm thinking I'll need is some sort of bgan internet terminal like the thrane explorer 500, with most likely iridium satellite internet. The power for the setup will come from a set of goal zero or brunton solar panels with capacity and an adaptor to power both this setup and a hopefully low power and bgan optimized netbook/laptop.

The thrane 500 is about 3k new, im expecting around 500 for the solar panels and another 500 for a netbook. So around 4k total for something like this. While work is paying the cheaper the better and would love to be able to reduce this to around 2000.

I'm wondering if there is anyone out there who already has a setup like the one im describing?

The part im mainly not sure about is the bgan terminal and satellite internet access. are there possibly less expensive options that people use out in the wilderness? The terminals are expensive but thats not the main problem, its the $5 or so a mb for iridium data that can really add up. Any cheaper satellite data solutions or magical cellular range extenders that would work all over california that people know about?

My base pack weight is about 20 pounds right now, If its possible I'd like to get a setup that, minus the netbook or tablet i'm going to use weighs not much more than ten pounds.

I know a lot of people aren't that excited about bringing tech into the wilderness but its going to allow me take the extended backpacking trips i've always wanted to do without going broke and I think that's something pretty amazing.

Any ideas or experiences are definitely appreciated

Jacob Avanzato
(jacobiat) - F
oops on 04/16/2012 18:12:08 MDT Print View

This is my first post on backpacking light (although ive been reading for a while) and just realized I might have put it in the wrong place, If so I apologize and hopefully the mods can move or delete and i'll repost

Mark S
(gixer) - F
Solar charging will be tough on 04/16/2012 18:32:48 MDT Print View

Biggest problem i foresee is charging.

It's going to be extremely difficult to get enough consistent sunlight on your solar panels to kick out enough watts to charge your battery pack.

It helps that you'll be in sunny CA, but add to that trees, clouds, and the fact that while hiking the solar panels will not be in the ideal position and i'd bet good money you'd be lucky if you see half the advised solar power outputs.

If your base camping then it will be better, but in my experience it's still going to be tough to carry enough solar panels with you to consistently charge up and power a laptop, internet connection etc.

How remote are you going to be?
If your near a town i would advise you to buy a few batteries for your devices and set up a battery drop with a friend.
That way you know for sure you'll have enough juice to do your work a day or 2 after the drop.


Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Backpacking Internet Access on 04/16/2012 18:51:49 MDT Print View

Well I can't help out with any technical stuff. I just wanted to chime in that I think your employer, is , well different in a good way.
Working and checking in will be cutting into your mileage. Where are you planning to go in NorCal? Tahoe Rim Trail would have fairly good cell service. Trinity Alps, none at all.

Jacob Avanzato
(jacobiat) - F
Re: Backpacking Internet Access on 04/16/2012 19:05:13 MDT Print View

As far as mileage, im not too concerned about it so stopping a couple of hours a day to setup solar chargers is fine. I'll carry enough batteries to work for a couple days of no sun but want the solar setup so that barring unseasonably bad summer weather i'll most likely be able to recharge even if i have to stop for a bit.

I'm going to be pretty remote. Planning to start with hopefully a week around the ishi wilderness then trinity alps and yosemite/sequoia depending on snow cover. While I might get normal cell coverage some places most won't have it

Ed Hayes
(ejhayes) - F

Locale: Northwest
Just use cell service? on 04/16/2012 19:49:23 MDT Print View

Why not just use cell service when you get it, then live off what you downloaded for a couple days until you have service again? Significantly cheaper (free if you already have a smartphone and laptop).

You would have to plan your route to take you into cell coverage every 2-3 days (or whatever). That is the only issue because it could limit how deep in you get.

But I personally think the cost for this type of endeavor is outrageous, even if your employer will cover it. You're going to have a lot of data costs too w/ satellites (and very slow connections). It is one thing to be in the middle of Africa or Greenland and need internet. It is a totally different thing to be in California, where you can easily backpack in and out of cell coverage.

Again, add up realistic data costs before you even try to go with the satellite idea. Let's do some math examples. Assume 30 days, with you having cell cover 1/3 of them. That gives 20 days of sat data. Figure 100MB a day, if you are working for 2-3 hours. 100MB x $5 x 20 days = $10,000 in data costs. Even cutting that in half is still $5k in data.

IMHO just not worth it for somewhere like the USA where you can plan to be in cell coverage off and on.

Edited by ejhayes on 04/16/2012 20:07:14 MDT.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Backpacking Internet Access on 04/16/2012 20:20:09 MDT Print View

I have been doing something similar for years, but I discuss my method later.

The problem I see is checking in every day or two. If you run down your batteries and then have several days with no sun, you can't check in unless you are carrying some sort of reserve capacity battery. So what you need to do is check your devices for amperage requirements and then size a solar system accordingly. Without getting technical, hope for about 50% of the rated output per hour. I really don't see a feasible way to do this, unless you hire a couple Sherpas :)

I have played around with a Goal Zero 7 watt panel and it barely keeps an iPhone usable in places with more sun than you are going.

So this is how I do it. I set up a base camp with my tent trailer, which has 250 Watts of solar, and a battery bank of 250 Amp Hours. So if I get back to the trailer and there is no sun for several days, I have plenty of battery reserve. At the trailer I run an modified sine inverter to charge/run my devices. It charges faster. Typically I will hike Fri-Mon and work Tue-Thur. I may move my trailer to a new location between hikes. I secure my laptop in my truck when I am gone. I tether my cell phone to the laptop, so I need cell coverage. I find Verizon has the best coverage in most areas. Another option is to hike to towns every 4 days and work for 3 days, but you will be carrying all your electronic gear. Also I would worry about breaking something crucial while on the trail.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Backpacking Internet Access on 04/17/2012 01:07:58 MDT Print View

Data costs don't have to be high or slow. Use an RDP (remote desktop) connection to connect to your servers in your office (or to your office computer) and you will only be transferring a screen bitmap of your office desktop (and that's only a small amount of data).

I do this with my iPhone all the time and it works very well. The iphone screen is too small for serious work but an iPad works much better for this and will get you much longer battery life than a netbook. The advantage is that you are actually working on your desktop computer and so your office network and all of your software is available to you. Your company's techs will have to provide you with access through the firewall but that's a simple task. The only downside is that if you need to work with applications that refresh the screen constantly (ie. video), the performance will be very poor but for most applications it's fantastic.

The best RDP app that I've found is called 2X. It's free and is amazing!

Edited by skopeo on 04/17/2012 01:11:12 MDT.

j lan
(justaddfuel) - F

Locale: MN
Re: Backpacking Internet Access on 04/17/2012 08:05:03 MDT Print View

I think this idea is pretty much unattainable. I have a 14w brunton solar roll that i use to charge small things, sometimes strapped to my back, sometimes outside the tent. Brunton also makes battery packs (, which can be used as backup sources when the sun is shy. This works for cameras, field recording laptops, etc.

Buuuutttt, the power drain of a satellite internet connection is going to drain that thing in 2hrs or less and take 8 hours to re-up. If you took the satellite out of the equation and used a cell hot-spot, it might really be feasible with a couple sunny 0 days per week. Good luck!

Oh and satellite internet is $5000 for 1.2gb of data.


Edited by justaddfuel on 04/17/2012 08:17:12 MDT.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Backpacking Internet Access on 04/17/2012 10:53:21 MDT Print View

This company can set you up with everything you need (including and satellite optimized laptop)

Looks like a lot of gear to pack along though.

Nigel Healy
(nigelhealy) - F

Locale: San Francisco bay area
Re: Backpacking Internet Access on 04/17/2012 12:37:20 MDT Print View

RDP - correct it utilizes less bandwidth via sending pixels not documents, but that's not usually the problem. If you're able to get a signal you can replicate email with documents and then process them offline, because where you get a signal is not necessarily where you want to read, write, write, i.e. work. For unreliable connections, I used online replication, offline working. I have both systems, because some tasks like web-surfing, modern websites assume broadband speeds and the RDP type connection just sends a blurry but workable screen, but for emailing I used offline replication client software, so e.g. Thunderbird, Outlook, Lotus Notes replication (all do the same basic thing).

Last week I travelled southwest USA and similarly promised work I'd check emails quasi-daily, and the signals, when I could get one, were sometimes strong, but I'd not hold a strong reliable connection for long.

Power - well I think the context of OP is not many hours of battery life needed, just some quick checking, document handling, replying. A decent capacity charged battery and carry a charged spare batter can get hours which is all someone who is on vacation and keeping ontop of email requires. Also, what is the nature of the work? I use a small netbook and a 3G USB dongle but if it was simple text email replies then a smartphone (yer over-priced Apple or your cheaper equivalents). Carry a mains charger and top-up at any civilisation stops. Solar makes more sense when someone is trying to get more time online, and as posted by others, when you have a heavy basecamp which statically points skyward and you hike lightweight.

1) before setting off get a remote-desktop capability for when you need high-bandwidth but can't see it. This can be harder than you think. Many businesses do not have this capability. There are ways of making it work but it can be long-winded.
2) before setting off, replicate all your emails on the portable device to local storage, so you can access old information and search when offline.

When travelling use either remote desktop or email replication to handle the different types of data, types of applications, the reliability and the bandwidth.

FYI in 1996 I was doing this with a Psion 3c and a Nokia PCMCIA GSM datacard!

Mike In Socal
(rcmike) - MLife

Locale: California
First, define your requirements on 04/17/2012 13:13:18 MDT Print View

What kind of access do you need? A couple people have mentioned remote desktop. Is this truly what you need or do you just need to get to email and perhaps some kind of web-based application?


Jacob Avanzato
(jacobiat) - F
tentative gear list on 04/17/2012 17:16:11 MDT Print View

Thanks to everyone for all the great information, helped a lot to get a better picture of what ill have to get.

I'm definitely going to use remote desktop to minimize my data usage, Thanks Nigel! I'm going to have to research it quite a bit more but just wondering if you know roughly how much it will throttle data usage by? for example if my office computer used 20 mb in a browsing session how much data would the satellite or wireless internet use on the computer that im physically on?

Since no matter what I do satellite internet is going to be extremely and possibly prohibitively expensive I would love to find something portable that would extend the range at which i get cellular internet signal (for verizon i think) i could just tether my laptop to my verizon iphone to get signal some places but I'm wondering if getting a 3g dongle or some sort of dedicated range extender is going to be better in terms of signal range, anyone have any ideas/experiences?

As far as what work ill be doing, I work in internet marketing and the main things im going to be doing online are monitoring statistics on our internal admin panel and accessing online ad tracking software. I'll also be sending/receiving emails and using some windows programs to create and build ads so i'll need windows access. At least part of the work i can do with my iphone to reduce power consumption but i will need to get on a laptop at least a little bit.

Right now heres the gear list i'm thinking:

explorer 110 bgan terminal: 2 lbs and 30w max power usage. pretty much the lightest terminal around i think. costs about 3k but i think ill start by renting for a month for about $200
asus zenbook: 3 lbs (I already have it and it uses 35w max so i think ill try and data optimize and ruggedize it)
brunton solaris 62w panel: 3.5 lbs. about $1,000
extra batteries, the tekeon 3400 will power my laptop once i think or the explorer 110 almost twice: 3 lbs, $100
waterproof laptop case, power adapters etc: 2 lbs, lets say $300
3g dongle and data plan: depends

So a total of around 14 pounds for everything and a cost of about $1500 to own the minimal power gear, 200 for a month test of the bgan, and add whatever satelite and cell data end up costing.

The solar solution might not be as cheap as i thought before but i think its definitely doable.
the power requirements are 30 watts max for the explorer 110 bgan terminal, 35 watts max for my zenbook laptop. thats a total of 65 watts max. even if i have to double this and get two solaris 62's the weight is possible even if the price is hard.

I'd also carry at least 3-4 hours worth of batteries using the laptop and bgan terminal simultaneously. It will depend on what i end up with but i think i can do this with between 3-5 pounds of batteries

My goal is to be able to have a fairly normal office in the wilderness, working at least a couple of hours a day so long as there is sun. Its the need to work that holds me back from being able to do the long trips that i want and if i bring the office with me, despicable as that may be, its going to allow me to do that.

Nigel Healy
(nigelhealy) - F

Locale: San Francisco bay area
Re: tentative gear list on 04/17/2012 20:19:23 MDT Print View

RDP, set your screen size to the minimum, set color depth to minimum, the actual bandwidth is related to the amount of screen-change going on, but you can see 16Kbit-64Kbit type bandwidth demands. You can learn how to across your home network and count the bytes doing some tasks for some time. What I do is place RDP inside SSH which compresses and encrypts, but that is quite a geeky thing I can walk you through offline, if you can say a desktop at home to all you need, you then can access that home desktop remotely. To get inside corporate networks is trickier.

Nice thing about RDP is the clients are more universal. There is also VNC which is even more universal but I find clunkier.

Satellite Internet has higher latency, doing RDP over satellite you will see a noticeable lag between driving keys and mouse and seeing an action. Hence terrestrial data is more viable for RDP.

You kitlist looks expensive and OTT it seems more for someone who really WANTS TO WORK, you'd be far cheaper and lighter just planning moving between bases which have terrestrial Internet (say a hotel), recharge your devices there, do some loops around and then relocate base. You can do a few hours on the netbook between bases. You're then only lugging a basic netbook between bases and traveling light most of the time. Its meant to be vacation right??? Plan a route based around bases?

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Backpacking Internet Access on 04/17/2012 21:01:13 MDT Print View

If you want to see how much data your netbook will chew up using RDP, try using a USB modem as most companies will have a user web page that tracks your data usage very accurately. Working for a few days, doing your normal work via remote desktop over a USB modem will give you a pretty good idea of what your data usage will be with RDP.

You can help ease data usage over RDP by not having background images displayed on your host desktop and setting the RDP session to the slowest bandwidth speed possible. RDP can be configured (somewhat) to optimize performance based on your bandwidth.

You will also want to make sure that all of the windows features that are polling for info (constantly) are shut off on your netbook. This will also extend battery life. Type "msconfig" at the run prompt and look at the services you have running (automatically) and shut off everything but the few mandatory services that let you do your job. Shutting off things like auto email delivery will also save refresh cycles so RDP won't be redrawing needlessly. Remember that with remote desktop, fewer screen refreshes equals less data usage. The nice thing about RDP is that as long as you keep the processing and storage on the host PC, data doesn't move across the network to your netbook (only the cloned screen display is passed to your netbook).

Good luck, your mobile base camp sounds very cool.

Chris Rothwell
(heelix) - F

Locale: Midwest
Don't discount wind on 04/17/2012 21:01:17 MDT Print View

I've been experimenting with charging my tablet and phone in the field - so a bit less amperage than what you are looking at potentially. One of the ideas I'm messing with is a light weight wind charger. I'm charging a battery pack at night with a twisted Savonius style turbine made from wire/nylon. I'm generating more than enough power for a RAZR. So much so, that I'm probably going to try for some higher amperage batteries. (The Asus Transformer is a bit more of a challenge as it seems to be using the USB3 spec rather than USB2 for the charging. Not sure if I'll even bring a tablet since I could really cut the weight down if I focus on 1800 mAh phone and the 4" screen works remarkably well as a book reader.)

Anyhow - assuming you already have the trickle charger bits in place, you may want to try a wind turbine in your quest. Might only get a few hours of solar recharge time while hiking, but I got plenty of wind/power while I was sleeping. Way to much on mark 1-3 of the project.

Mike In Socal
(rcmike) - MLife

Locale: California
Remote desktop over satellite on 04/18/2012 01:33:11 MDT Print View

I have to agree with Nigel. RDP over satellite is going to have a significant delay and I think you will have a frustrating experience. I would recommend setting up a semi-automated process that lets you download and sync data that you can analyze offline then you can compose your responses and sync them back. Something like Dropbox or Evernote on the iPad comes to mind. Then, you can establish your connection and do something else while the upload/download takes place.

...and take a look at this:

Edited by rcmike on 04/18/2012 01:41:46 MDT.

Nigel Healy
(nigelhealy) - F

Locale: San Francisco bay area
Re: Remote desktop over satellite on 04/18/2012 08:53:29 MDT Print View

I'd do both. You'll get a terrestrial signal at times anyway. RDP is more about having to go to websites with lots of bandwidth-hungry features which assume broadband. RDP leaves all that bandwidth demands remote and via setting your resolution and screen color at low settings, those bandwidth-heavy screens become fuzzy. The static images and text are usually more what you need to see.

Nice feature of RDP over unreliable links is everything is in the same place (e.g. all documents required are still open on screen) when you resume the connection.

Offline readers is usually what I use when travelling as it allows me to work offline and will keep trying to send over an unreliable connection. These 'ole techniques still have some use in general, for working when flying or when in a terribly slow free hotel Wifi.

Another reason for offline is you can work when its DARK, that consumes less power! For a low-power device, you're talking about 60% less power than when having to fight the sun. So sync when in good signal-strength area, reply offline, then sync later. Typically reply immediately to urgent/quick replies, promise a fuller response by the next day then work offline from your shelter and sync later.

Gary Rozanc
(grozanc) - M
This might help with charging! on 04/19/2012 09:18:53 MDT Print View

I just saw this over at kickstarter. A cooking pot that creates electricity for charging stuff from the heat from cooking.

I don't know how ultra light it is, or just how much of a charge you'll get, but it worth looking into.

Jacob Avanzato
(jacobiat) - F
backpacking internet on 04/27/2012 15:34:17 MDT Print View

Just wanted to post a reply about where im at in the process of getting online in the outdoors. I'll probably have the basic setup ready by june and I'll put up a new post with results then.

Here are my current plans.

for the power for the laptop and internet

The solar panel im going to use is the PowerFilm F15-1800 30 watt to start with. theoretically it will provide my laptop with enough power to run indefinitely in full sun. in reality i think it will probably be a lot lower than that but it should give me enough power to work an hour or two most days i think. If and when i need more power i'll try and just daisy chain another of the same panel to it and should be fine then.

Ive been looking at some other power solutions, mainly hydro, wind, and thermoelectric. the Savonius style wind turbine that chris mentions above seems promising but i cant find anything light enough off the shelf and i'm not sure about trying to make it myself.
The kickstarter power pot that gary is talking about is definitely interesting. it is supposed to provide 5w of power, much more than the 1-2w that the cool but possibly not so practical biolitestove does. once it actually comes out in june i think ill get one and try and use it to trickle charge my backup battery

the battery i'm going to start by using is the tekkeon mp3750. it weighs a pound and can charge laptops and lower powered devices simultaneously. its recommended by various solarpower and sattelite internet companies so i think it should work well. based on the specs it shold give me an extra 2 hours or so of internet usage power and if i want more backup i can hook up another one to it.

now so far as getting backwoods internet signal i've decided on using a combination of two things.
In a lot of places i'm going to be able to get spotty cellular signal. I'm going to use a wilson cell phone signal booster to try and improve that somewhat. I haven't decided on what model of amplifier and antenna i'm going to use yet but it will weigh in the 1-2 pound range and cost 100-300. They don't draw too much power so i should be able to connect it up to my backup battery.

For satellite internet i had been thinking in terms of bgan from inmarsat. its very fast and reliable but extremely expensive even if i cut my use down to almost nothing with a remote desktop and other data saving devices.

For my type of use i think globalstar satellite internet is going to work much better. It has a bad reputation for reliability in the past decade but from what i understand since the launch of part of their second generation of satellites its doing much better. in the parts of califoria i'm going to be in its looking like there is 5-10 hours of coverage a day, definitely enough for my uses. it has 10kb/s download speeds so not the fastest but with compression i could easily do basic work on that. The best thing about globalstar is that its Cheap! I'm going to get a used globalstar gsp 1600 phone for 200, compare that to 1-2k for most other satellite phones or modems. Then instead of thousands of dollars a gb for data from iridium or inmarsat, globalstar costs just $40 a month for unlimited calling, texts, and data. the reliability will be the big drawback but supposedly later this year globalstar will launch the rest of its gen 2 sattelites and get to 90% coverage. even if that doesnt happen and i have to deal with dropped calls and spotty service the price will make it worth it.

a few other items i'm going to get

An Aqua-Quest waterproof Sleeve along with a screen protector and keyboard cover to help weatherproof my laptop. the sleeve is a new item i think but aquaquest gets good reviews and itsthe lightest waterproof laptop case i could find.

Probably going to get a MorningStar ProStar PS-30M solar battery charge controller to help regulate my solar battery connection. probably a few more adapters as well but im working on figuring that out.

adding up the weight of the 30 watt solar panel, a backup battery, my laptop and case, satellite phone, iphone, and a fairly big wilson cellular amplifier and antenna the weight comes out to 9.4 pounds. Even if i have to add another solar panel, a powerpot, and a couple pounds of adapters i'll still be under 15 pounds for the whole power/internet setup and a expedition base pack weight of under 40.

If anybody has any further ideas or suggestions definitely let me know.