Hiking - Gear/Equipment

Lithium vs Alkaline Batteries: Find out Which One is Better

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If you are an avid hiker, you know what a bliss it is to be one with the elements. The meandering trails on the off-the-beaten routes invite you to explore them further. The breathtaking scenery that often includes sky-high trees lead you on to what you feel is the perfect hike. The dipping sun casts an orange glow in the evening sky, and you know it’s time to take out your flashlight. But, oops, your flashlight gives up on you. And it doesn’t take long for the perfect hike to become an absolute nightmare, all because of a flashlight. Or, err, the batteries? Believe it or not, something as small as your batteries especially Lithium vs Alkaline batteries can make or break your hiking trip. Read on to stay informed and be better prepared irrespective of whether you are planning your first hiking trip or have lost count of them.

Know More Here:

Batteries, although small, are an essential part of your hiking experience and come in various types. You have single use ones, like alkaline and lithium ones, and rechargeable ones like the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) ones. Find out which ones suit your needs the best with this guide.

Hiking Wisdom: Get Your Battery Basics Right

Alkaline Batteries vs. Lithium Batteries
The Volta Battery: an Invention That Made the Wold a Little Bit Brighter

Batteries are handy storehouses of energy. They date back to as early as 1800 when Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist, invented one using blotting paper and a liquid mixture of zinc and silver. The first batteries introduced to consumers in 1896 were dry cell batteries almost six inches long.

Sleeker batteries have long replaced the bulky ones, and we couldn’t be more thankful! Modern electronics and microelectronics that you almost always use on your hikes, such as GPS receivers, headlamps, and flashlights, are powered using dry cell batteries, including the common cylindrical AA batteries.

Another thing to keep in mind while choosing batteries is something called ‘Battery Capacity Ratings’. This term essentially refers to the amount of current it can deliver in a given period of time. So, a battery of 2,500 mAh (milliamp hours) can supply a current of 2,500 mA in one hour.

How Dry Cell Batteries Power Your Hikes? The Science Behind Them

Don’t worry, we will not take you back to your high school chemistry class here—we will delve only into the basics of how dry cell batteries work. Every dry cell battery has a positive and a negative terminal, and an electrolyte that conducts electricity between the two terminals. Their internal layers, called electrodes, include a cathode and an anode, which is divided by a separator. While the cathode carries a positive charge, the anode transports a negative charge. The electrolyte in a dry cell battery is often a gel or an aqueous paste. Dry cell batteries are usually available in either single-use, non-rechargeable models or rechargeable variants.

When a battery, either rechargeable or single-use, is activated, the electrolyte, the cathode, and the anode interact, and a chemical reaction occurs. The positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons flow through the semi-liquid electrolyte and exit from the negative terminal. This process enables the device, say your flashlight, to function. Over time, every battery dies when the chemicals in them degrade and can’t retain a charge.

There is no perfect battery yet, but the most common ones that power your hikes are single-use alkaline and lithium batteries and rechargeable batteries.

Do you know how these are different from one another? Well, read on to know more about this “lithium vs. alkaline batteries” debate. You can probably share this information with your fellow hikers on one of your post-sunset or pre-dawn hikes in the backcountry.

Different Types of Single-Use Batteries

Battery Recommendations
Recharge? No Thanks!

Single-use batteries are common portable power options among hikers around the world. Their ease of use and easy availability makes them hugely popular in the growing community of outdoor enthusiasts. They are everywhere, from flashlights and headlamps to GPS locator beacons, digital cameras, and other hiking gadgets. Alkaline batteries and lithium batteries are the two most common types of single-use batteries.

Although both of them are non-rechargeable batteries, they have different chemical compositions, voltage, cost, and shelf life. It’s worthwhile to know more about each of them before you gear up for the vast outdoors. So, before getting into the whole "lithium vs. alkaline" argument, let’s understand them separately.

Highlights of Alkaline Batteries

Alkaline batteries are the most commonly used batteries among single-use batteries. The alkaline electrolyte in these batteries is usually potassium hydroxide. In terms of use on hiking, alkaline batteries are best used in low-drain devices, such as LED flashlights and LED headlamps. You can also use them in high-drain gadgets, such as digital cameras, but be warned that this will reduce their life expectancy significantly. That’s because even though they have a high initial energy capacity, high-drain gadgets draw out a substantial amount that drains out their energy quickly.

To give you a better idea, let’s take your GPS receiver for example.

These batteries will last two days if you use your receiver continually while they will last for many days if you use it periodically.

Battery Tips
Alkaline Batteries: A Staple of Every Home

Pros of alkaline batteries:

  • They are widely available all over the world.
  • They are moderately priced, so much so, that it’s safe to say they’re cheap.
  • They produce more energy than their predecessors and other heavy-duty and general purpose batteries.

Cons of alkaline batteries:

  • Their relatively small shelf-life makes their use, disposal, and replacement a perpetual cycle.
  • Most of them end up in landfills, causing harm to the environment.
  • The concept of rechargeable alkaline batteries, although appealing, is a failed technology.

Highlights of Lithium Batteries

Lithium is a remarkably light metal. It gives lithium batteries very high energy density, the highest among any battery cell. This enables them to store more energy as compared to any single-use battery of the same or similar size. They are sometimes too powerful for your average backpacking gadgets, including headlamps, unless their use is specified by the manufacturers of your hiking devices. Therefore, they are best used in high-drain devices, such as digital cameras, and some lower-drain devices.

Non-Rechargeable batteries
Lithium Batteries: No Such Thing as Extreme Temperatures! (source)

Pros of lithium batteries:

  • They have the longest shelf-life among all single-use batteries.
  • They function well even in extremely hot and cold conditions— right from the Antarctic sub-zero temperatures to the heat wave of the Sahara desert.
  • They are extremely lightweight.
  • They provide more energy capacity than general-purpose or heavy-duty batteries.

Cons of lithium batteries:

  • They are expensive and cost more than other single-use batteries.
  • Their high voltage can damage devices if manufacturer information advises against using them.
  • They are often confused with lithium-ion batteries, which are rechargeable. Lithium batteries are non-rechargeable.

The Battle of the Batteries: Lithium vs. Alkaline

Now that you know the pros and cons of both lithium and alkaline batteries, here is a comparative analysis of the two. This guide will help you choose the one that’s best for your hiking trips.

Battery Basics
Lithium vs. Alkaline: Which One Will Prevail?

Ideally, a good battery offers you a balance between 5 factors; cost, voltage, power, power, weight, and working temperature. Let’s see how the lithium and alkaline batteries fare in these regards.

  • Cost: Lithium batteries cost more than alkaline batteries as they outlast and outperform the latter. However, their higher performance justifies their considerably higher prices.
  • Voltage: Lithium batteries produce twice the voltage than what their alkaline counterparts do. If you are planning to make the best use of their high voltage, do match it up with your hiking devices to protect their circuitry.
  • Power: Lithium batteries produce more power and last way longer than alkaline batteries.
  • Weight: Lithium batteries are lighter than their alkaline counterparts, which makes them easier to use and carry extras for backup in your hiking gear without adding to your load.
  • Working temperature: Unlike lithium batteries, alkaline batteries don’t function in extreme temperature. This makes lithium batteries the first choice for outdoor activities any time of the year.

Rechargeable Batteries: Alternatives or Essentials?

Every year, billions of single-use, disposable batteries are born. When these batteries die, they end up in landfills, eventually polluting soil and water. While the scientific and technological community is making efforts to change this and trying to find ways to recycle them, it’s a slow process. At the same time, there are rechargeable batteries that are relatively better for the environment as you can revive them instead of throwing them when they run out of juice. They might also help you save money in the long run.

Among rechargeable batteries available in a cylindrical shape, one of the most common is the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery. NiMH batteries generally provide a steady voltage of 1.2 V, which is sustained throughout a charging cycle, dropping to 1.1 before the cycle completes. They have a capacity rating on 2,500 mAh (milliamp hours).

They are best used in high-drain devices, such as digital cameras and flash units, and in gadgets that are used continuously or for a prolonged duration, such as GPS receivers. They are not recommended for devices that are infrequently inspected or rarely used, including flashlights in emergency kits.

Rechargeable Batteries
(Re)Charge it Up! (source)

Pros of NiMH batteries:

  • They deliver constant energy capacity and voltage, unlike alkaline batteries. This is evident when you use the two types of batteries in a headlamp. When you use alkaline batteries, the light starts brightly and becomes dimmer progressively.
  • They perform well in cold weather.
  • They offer more long-term value than single-use batteries.
  • They can be recharged whenever you want.
  • They can be recycled and, therefore, are more environment-friendly.

Cons of NiMH batteries:

  • They lose power even when they are not in use.
  • Storing them in high-warmth areas affects their longevity.
  • Their energy-capacity reduces over time, often after 100 or more recharges.
  • Dropping them or rough handling can reduce their performance.
  • They are expensive initially and require regular maintenance.
  • They have to be charged before the first use.

Another type of rechargeable batteries is lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion). Li-ion batteries, although ideal for backpackers for their compact size is extremely expensive for hikers on a budget.

If a long-term investment is on your mind, then you won’t mind considering these batteries as they are light, compact, long lasting, produce high voltage, and hold a charge longer than NiMH batteries. However, their low availability in the cylindrical design can be considered as one of their cons along with their high pricing.

Battery Recommendations for Your Next Hiking Trip

what a battery offers
Light Up Your Nights with Only the Best
  • Single-use batteries: As a compliment to chemistry, lithium would undoubtedly be a hiker’s best friend in both familiar trails and unknown territory. Considering the advantages that lithium batteries offer over alkaline ones, they are worth their cost. Whether you choose lithium or alkaline, either of them makes for great backup batteries.
  • Rechargeable batteries: For hikers looking for rechargeable batteries, NiMH batteries are ideal choices. From powering your headlamp to your GPS receiver, you can trust them to offer high long-term value. As a golden rule, read the manufacturer’s instructions before you start using one.
  • Solar chargers and other alternatives: These are especially handy if you’re using rechargeable batteries on your hikes and during extended stays at remote places where finding a power outlet is next to impossible. They offer anytime, portable power as long as the sun is kind to you.

Keep Your Fitness Watch Alive with the Right Battery

Wrist-top Altimeters/Fitness Watches
Keep Your Fitness (Watch) Going!

If you use a fitness watch with inbuilt GPS capability or a wrist-top altimeter on your hikes, this space is especially for you. These devices use button-shaped, tiny lithium batteries that require professional installation. Fiddling with them can damage your device’s circuitry. If your watch or altimeter needs a battery replacement, ensure that you get it done by an expert.

The Best Battery for You: Hiker’s Verdict

Although there are many good batteries, there is nothing that can be called an ideal battery. While single use batteries are convenient and predictable, they have to be replaced some day or the other. As with rechargeable batteries, they also don’t last forever and hold a charge for progressively shorter periods. Batteries are constantly evolving.

There might be a day, some day, when you will find the perfect one.

There is a lot on the plate in the world of battery manufacturing, including making more efficient fuel cell batteries and those customized by nanotechnology. Until then, you can consider your requirements to take a pick from the many options you already have.

Non-Rechargeable batteries
So, What's Your Style?

Tips to Ensure your Batteries Last Longer  

We are sure you would want your batteries to last forever. Right? So here are a few tips you can follow to ensure your batteries last you a long time, if not forever.

  • Don’t put single-use batteries in the freezer or fridge.
  • If you are not going to use a device for a long period at a time, remove the batteries from it.
  • Avoid storing single-use batteries in places where the heat can get intense, like in car trunks for example.
  • Avoid using batteries of different ages and brands together.
  • Recharge standard NiMH batteries every one to two months if left unused for a long time.

Did you find all the information you need about the different types of batteries you can use on your hikes?

Let us know if our tips and information helped you or your friends. Now that you know all about batteries, do you want to find the best flashlight for your hiking and camping trips? How about the best bike lights to ride safely every time? We will help you with it.

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