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If touring in coldish weather (UK, circa 0degC), electronic equipment will get cold. How best to ensure everything continues to function?

  • Dynamo lighting should presumably be largely unaffected by cold.
  • GPS head units probably cannot be reasonably insulated while retaining visibility for navigation - does that mean they should not be charged in use? How much is runtime of, say, a Wahoo Bolt with nominal 15hr battery life likely to be affected?
  • Powerbanks can be recharged from dynamo but I guess not safely/effectively when too cold. Is there a sensible way to keep them warm? eg. Would insulated cooler bag help?
  • Phones could be switched off to conserve power but otherwise probably need to be kept warm (eg. my current phone battery plummets to 1% after less than an hour when sat in the side-pocket of my bag). Is there a better alternative to storing in an a ziplock (ie. sweatproof) bag in an inner chest/waist pocket?
  • I'd want to bring a laptop for detailed route-(re)planning as I find doing that sort of thing on a small mobile phone touchscreen very hard. How are they affected by sub-freezing temperature when notionally powered off? If used for only a short period in a tent, would long term battery health be seriously affected? After a day in the cold, how long do they need to sit in the warm for the battery to become safe to charge? Perhaps just turning on and using would warm it without damage?
  • USB head torches and backup bike lights can probably be recharged in the warm rather than from dynamo. Would ones that take (A)AA batteries be more reliable?
  • While operating from a powerbank, I don't think my Gear360 2017 camera charges its internal battery so perhaps that is safe as-is? I can't see any (non-)operating temperature specification in the documentation except comments related to overheating which won't apply.
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  • With the right app and a good phone, route planning is perfectly fine. I plan all my routes via phone, particularly also on multi-day tours. So you could save a significant chunk of weight by getting accustomed to route planning on a phone, or perhaps a small tablet.
    – Erlkoenig
    Jan 8 at 13:45
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    I recently found out that my Garmin switches into a low-power mode at cold temperatures (I've been riding at around -10°C). It means that the screen keeps turning off after a couple of seconds with neither interaction nor an important turn or so. A bit irritating, but actually still perfectly ok for navigation, and it means the battery lasts very long. Jan 9 at 16:27

5 Answers 5

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I navigate on my phone in all UK weather conditions, and certainly see the effect on battery life. It's less obvious on my rechargeable lights, but it's there. One thing to note is that old batteries are far worse than new ones in the cold; I've had lights where this made a big difference.*

In general, insulation (of the level you could manage here) is of very limited benefit without some source of heat inside - within a few hours you'll be down to ambient temperature anyway.

Powerbanks are good, partly because compared to phones and GPS devices they're cheap, but also because they can be kept insulated in a top-tube bag or similar. They generate some heat in operation - not much, rarely enough to feel, but enough to gently warm their own battery inside insulation.

If you're not using your phone to navigate, keeping in inside your warm clothing in a low-power state is a good idea. Better than a plastic bag is a waterproof phone, next time you're upgrading anyway.

If touring in really cold weather I'd try to find somewhere warm and comfortable in the evening, with charging and WiFi. A phone should warm up internally in the low tens of minutes, but a laptop might take an hour or more. Bringing cold non-waterproof kit into the warm, the biggest worry is condensation on the insides, so everything should be sealed into a plastic bag until it has a chance to warm up. A powerbank, GPS, or phone could be charged in the bag, with it barely open around the cable. Or warm yourself and your kit over dinner, insulate everything, and turn your laptop on as soon as you're in your tent.

But for whatever you're navigating on, things get harder. The back of a device can be protected from the wind and insulated a little. That's better than nothing, as is covering the whole thing in a couple of layers of plastic - if you can still read the screen. If it works for you, running you navigation device in a toptube bag directly off a battery gives both insulation and self-heating. But I've found that the slightest dampness ends up condensing on the plastic window of my toptube bag, having been evaporated by the same self-heating - less of a problem in properly cold and dry conditions than on the common UK chilly and damp winter days.

In extreme conditions a paper backup is a good idea if you can't rely on local knowledge. Alternatively, if riding in a group, you don;t all have to run navigation devices all the time - someone can keep theirs tucked away against their body for when others run low.

Dynamo lights are fine, but charging from a dynamo is pretty limited in winter as you need lighting for so much of the day.


* The cell(s) of what we call a battery have an internal resistance, which is inherent to their chemistry. This gets higher both with age and at low temperatures. Because the charge level is measured by the voltage at the terminals, when a current is being drawn, the measured voltage will be lower at lower temperatures for the same charge. In the worst case this will cause the device to shut down to protect the battery. This can be quite sudden if the demand for current increases, as the voltage drop goes up. So turning up the screen brightness, turning on a torch, etc. can cause it to shut down. Continuously running at higher loads, starting from warm, is likely to be less of a problem as self-heating will work in your favour.

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    Many decades ago, in the tropics, I used to have a huge silica gel(?) pack in my camera bag. it must have been at least 6" x 8", so must have held 250g or more. Am thinking of getting a few somewhat smaller ones to put in the ziplock baggy for my micro sd cards and ssd. The Matador flatpak soap cases are nice but I haven't tested how well they work in the cold - might be good alternative to ziplock under clothing though.
    – jhnc
    Jan 9 at 16:52
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There are a few aspects to consider, especially for batteries, I'm assuming that most of your devices are using lithium-ion packs, so let's focus on this type of battery:

Battery temperature ranges

0°C are well within the operational range of Li-Ion batteries, I will use the manufacturer specifications of a Garmin device

  • Usage: -20ºC - 60ºC (-4ºF - 140ºF)
  • Charging: 0ºC - 45ºC (32ºF - 113ºF)

So, you are probably safe to use your devices at the temperatures you are expecting to ride in. Expect the capacity to drop in lower temperatures, I haven't found any exact numbers but only statements of "up to 80%", so it is safe to assume you cannot rely on getting 15 hours out of your head unit in the cold.

My personal experience with various Garmin computers in the winter is that batteries don't degrade as much that it becomes a problem if you leave some margin. I know my previous Edge 520 did ~8 hours on a charge and I did several 2-3 hour rides without problems and far from running out of battery.

NOTE

As highlighted in nightrider's answer below, devices should be checked individually. While Garmin's specs go down to -20°C, for example my phone's manufacturer states that the device shouldn't be used or charged below 0°C, probably due to the more exposed and advanced battery.

Battery charging

Charging might be a problem in sub-zero temperatures, as stated above, the temperature range for charging is narrower and 0°C is typically the lower limit. It'll probably work but charging speeds are lower and going below zero might even cause lithium plating that will eventually damage the battery. I didn't find a good English source but the effect is described here.

If you are recharging battery packs/devices on the bike via hub dynamo, it'll probably be enough to keep them in a bag/cover, charging itself will slightly warm up the battery and keep it in an acceptable range, at least if it isn't too cold.

Other considerations

Besides temperature, the other main concern is moisture/water ingress. Documentation should state the IP rating that defines what the device can take.

For example, Garmin head units are rated IPX7 which means you could even drop it in up to 1 meter deep water for 30 minutes, so that is of no concern.

I'm not so sure about laptops as most devices are not really used outdoors, I don't think that your expected temperatures are a problem but you should keep it in a protective case. If you are using bikepacking bags, make sure they are waterproof - I had a trip in October relying on some dry clothes in my "waterproof" Evoc frame bag but hours of torrential rain flooded some of the compartments. It could be that I didn't fully close the zippers but in case of doubt, better wrap important stuff in a plastic bag.

Every electronic device will have such kind of information in its manual or technical documentation, I assume the battery will be the main limiting factor, but I think I've seen LCD screens act slowish in low temperatures, too.

Also factor in that laptop touchpads/fingerprint sensors might act weird with cold/wet fingers.

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    IT is not so easy with Li Ion below zero luciferlights.net/en/li-ion-battery-cold Jan 8 at 10:03
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    I think (partly @VladimirFГероямслава) that the temperatures quoted here are true enough for not damaging the battery of a well-deigned device long term, but not for getting decent performance.
    – Chris H
    Jan 8 at 10:05
  • @ChrisH I quote from the link "Yes, using a li-ion battery below 0°C will irreversibly destroy it (battery ageing). The lower the temperature, the more the battery ages. If the discharge current is low (e.g. C/10 = 0.34A) the damage is not great. In case of high discharge currents, the damage is already significant." Jan 8 at 10:06
  • @VladimirFГероямслава OP said ~0°C so devices should still work with reduced capacity and on the edge of the charging window. Considering the 0°C lower boundary, it might not be the best thing to charge a head unit on your handlebars via dynamo while riding in the cold, though.
    – DoNuT
    Jan 8 at 10:07
  • @VladimirFГероямслава and Garmin says there's no problem for slightly warmer temperatures. If it's only occasional, even below freezing will be small compared to routine aging of Li cells anyway
    – Chris H
    Jan 8 at 13:31
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Devices need to be checked individually. For instance, there are ruggedized mobile phones certified to work up to -10°C (here for instance). This is the same temperature for that the battery of my E-bike is certified for riding (not charging or storage). Some Panasonic laptops are certified for -29°C so you unlikely ever would need to care. Garmin 235 is certified for up to -20°C for usage (not charging).

If the manufacturer wants to design the device for cold, they may add temperature sensors for battery management, heaters, better rated and tested components and the like. They can do lots more than the end user can do.

From the other side, some other models may lack protective circuitry, use older generation battery and this way be not just unreliable but unsafe in very cold conditions. If there is no operational temperature range specified anywhere, or just a pretty warm "recommended" temperature, the device is likely not suitable for winter conditions.

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For electronics, also think about condensation:

When you bring your very cold electronics in a warm environment, like a hotel room... or a warm humid environment like a tent with someone breathing inside... water vapor in the air will condense inside the devices.

The worst case is a cold device placed inside the jacket to warm it up, while you're riding a bike and thus sweating.

The usual outdoors devices have no problem with this because they're rated IPX6 or 7, waterproof, most likely airtight/watertight. But for a laptop or a phone... it's a different story.

However, if you place your device in an airtight bag (ziploc), then when you're at camp, just let it warm in its bag... and when you open the bag no condensation will form inside the device.

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  • I agree with this, though I must confess I have used various kinds of devices (non-waterproof) in warm, humid rooms coming in from the cold and always got away with it. Not that I would recommend it. Meanwhile, I've had battery failures whilst operating devices outside in dry, cold weather. Point being, it's perhaps not right to say condensation is the "biggest risk". Jan 9 at 16:36
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Dynamo lighting should presumably be largely unaffected by cold.

Usually true, but some (especially rear) lights cheap out and use batteries for the stoplight. The theory is that battery is (or at least used to be) cheaper than supercapacitor electronics, and if you use the battery anyway only for few minutes at most when stopped and when riding the bike all of the power comes from the dynamo, the battery life for stoplight is very good and once the battery runs out, you don't lose entire rear light but just the rear stoplight.

So check if your stoplight is battery based and if so, you may want to monitor more often in the winter that it works, since it's dark and cold reduces the lifetime of batteries.

USB head torches and backup bike lights can probably be recharged in the warm rather than from dynamo. Would ones that take (A)AA batteries be more reliable?

(A)AA batteries at least would give some freedom about chemistry: NiMH vs alkaline. However, if you want to limit yourself to rechargeable only, that freedom goes away. And also, alkaline isn't very good in very cold. My understanding is that at least for primary batteries, lithium based chemistries excel in the cold, so this might very well be true for rechargeable batteries as well. Lithium-ion cars do function when very cold, the only restriction is that charging in the very cold isn't possible and at first the power goes to heating the battery and once it's heated, only then can charging begin.

Personally, I prefer AA because it's a standard and Eneloops are marvelously long-lived (I still have some bought in 2008 that are going strong) and don't self-discharge practically at all. Some people dislike it because power density isn't the same with LSD NiMH than it is with lithium ion.

If you buy a non-AA light, either you can't change the battery, or changing it requires disassembling lots of electrical equipment that has not been designed for disassembling plus soldering, or the battery may be user-replaceable but available only for X number of years from the manufacturer after which replacements become unavailable.

Same thing for lawnmowers, I use gasoline powered ones since gasoline is a standard. Tool batteries not so, standards come and go all the time, although some standards like Ryobi or Makita have been reasonably long-lived, but then again neither Ryobi nor Makita is a lawnmower company so the lawnmower options aren't as good as with Stiga, Stihl or Husqvarna.

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  • Years ago, before I switched to a dynamo system (I'll check my rear, thanks), I had AA eneloops in my old Philips Saferide headlight but they kept dying. It's possible I may not have been waiting long enough for them to warm up before charging when I came in from the cold.
    – jhnc
    Jan 9 at 23:15

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