Once upon a time, really just one generation of workers ago, the concepts of travel and employment stood diametrically opposed. If you were going to be an earner, a saver-for-your-future, a contributor-to-society, then you worked forty hours-a-week and travel was limited to maybe 10 days of vacation time per year (if you were lucky) and the occasional three-day weekend getaway. Or, if you wanted to travel, you’d be considered a bum, burning through your life savings (or inheritance?), selling puka shell necklaces on the beach to afford enough day-old croissants to survive.
Maybe those are extreme examples, but my point is: Work has changed. Today, thanks to the proliferation of the internet and personal computers, more and more people can work remotely. Even traditional 9-to-5ers are frequently offered one work-from-home-day a week as an incentive package. The advent of high-speed, 4G mobile wifi has pushed this trend even further.
Now, you don’t need to sit at home or at an internet café; wherever you have good cellular reception, you can work. Take it from me: I’ve been living and working out of a van for almost two-and-a-half years now while traveling around the country. Today I’m going to take you through some of the tips and tricks I’ve collected through trial and error (a lot of error) along the way, hopefully helping you decide whether #vanlife and/or a digitally nomadic existence is right for you.
The Right Kind of Job
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth saying: This doesn’t work with all jobs or career paths. Sorry, heart surgeons, but this kind of thing tends to require a job where you primarily work on your own and/or on the internet. I’d say it’s most popular with graphic designers, programmers, web developers, and those more elusive gigs like photographers, writers, visual artists, and even some investors.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to make the #vanlife work by showing up in Smalltown U.S.A. and finding an odd job for a week or two, or selling your watercolors on the sidewalk, but it’s significantly more difficult. Skills certainly help, but people may be leery of hiring someone who just drifted into town and is going to drift out again soon. I’m not trying to discourage you, I just want to prepare you for the realities of life on the road.
Personally, I was very fortunate to have the work setup that I did before I started this adventure. I’m a freelance journalist and had managed to establish myself in a few niches several years before I hit the road full-time. None of those niches required me to stay in any one place. I’d already been working remotely for about three years, so the majority of my employers (various magazines and blogs) may not have even known that anything changed when I switched to digital nomading. Unfortunately, freelance journalism gigs are increasingly hard to come by, especially for those trying to break in.
Jack Into The Matrix
If you do have one of those coveted internet jobs, there’s some good news: It’s never been easier to get online. For most of your daily emailing you may not even need to go beyond opening an app on your phone. For those occasions when you need to get your laptop out, it’s still pretty easy. Virtually every coffee shop and hamburger chain in the U.S. offers free Wi-Fi (Starbucks and McDonald’s being the most prominent two). Sometimes you can just log in from the parking lot, if you don’t feel like going inside. I recommend going inside on occasion, though. It’s good to be around other humans every now and then, and it may be what saves you from becoming a weirdo hermit who lost all their social skills.
Since my road-trip began, though, my go-to solution has been a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. These are palm-sized devices that connect to a 4G network and then broadcast a Wi-Fi signal that you can connect your computer (or tablet, or phone, or smartwatch) to. They typically get you about eight hours of use per charge, too, which is not at all shabby, and they have strong radios — so they often manage to get a stronger connection than my phones do. Another great reason to use them is that they are vastly more secure than using a public Wi-Fi. If you ever have to do any kind of banking, financial transaction, or sending/receiving of personal information, avoid public Wi-Fi at all costs.
My most-used Wi-Fi hotspot for the last two years was the Verizon Jetpack MiFi 6620L. It’s consistently delivered excellent data speeds even in pretty remote areas. It’s also taken a number of tumbles and has proved to be very rugged. I’ve also been using a ZTE Falcon Z-917 on the T-Mobile network. It’s even smaller than the Verizon Jetpack and fits in my jeans pocket without looking weird. Between the two of these I’ve had coverage nearly everywhere in the United States. For those who don’t want an extra device, most mobile service providers will allow you to use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot, too, though they may charge a fee for it and it will drain your phone’s battery very quickly if you aren’t plugged in. Speaking of…
If you’re relying on your laptop, phone, and other gadgets to pay the bills, then you need a convenient way of keeping your electronics charged. There are many ways to do this. Personally, I went the high-end route. I took my van to AM Solar in Springfield, OR — a company that specializes in power systems for RVs and vans — and had them squeeze as much juice into my system as it could fit. That ended up being two 160-watt solar panels on the roof, a 3000-watt hybrid inverter, and a monster 200 amp-hour lithium battery. The battery charges off the solar panels, off my propane generator, and off the alternator when I drive. The inverter is such a beast that I can run my microwave off the battery. It’s a dream setup.
It was also very expensive. For those with less-extreme power needs, I’d recommend going the DIY route and installing something like the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Solar Generator Kit. It includes a 33Ah battery (which you can plug in to charge whenever you have access to an outlet) and a 20W solar panel to help keep it topped up. You may need more or less power depending on how many gadgets you need to charge, but at roughly $650 the Yeti 400 is a middle of the road solution. It includes a couple AC outlets, a DC, and a couple USB ports for very easy charging, and you can add more solar panels to your roof to charge faster, and/or charge it off your cigarette lighter as you drive. It’s compact enough to be a good system for a smaller vehicle, too.
Other Bits and Bobs
There are so many other things to consider that it could fill a book. I would highly recommend getting a safe, bolting it to the frame of your vehicle somehow, and keeping all of your valuables in it. I got the Viking Security Safe VS-38BL (with fingerprint scanner for easy opening in the dark), and it was a small price to pay for peace of mind when I’m away from my van. I’d say a good alarm system is borderline mandatory, too. I went with the Viper 5806 system, plus GPS SmartStart.
Lighting also makes a huge difference. Replace the bulbs with LED analogues, but make sure you get the warmer type, not the harsh blue ones. I went as far as to install Philips Hue LightStrips, which give me incredible control over the brightness and color of my lights. That’s a pretty extreme system, though, so if you’re trying to keep it on a tighter budget, grab a half-dozen Enevu Cubes. These little color changing LED light cubes can dramatically change the feel of your little space.
Apps Are Your Friends
There’s a big difference between being a digital nomad and a digital recluse. I’ve met other vanlifers who, after years alone on the road, became pretty intolerable to be around (though, to be fair, it’s possible they started like that). My point is that we humans need interaction with other humans, otherwise we start getting a bit looney. Early on in my road-trip, when I was exploring new parts of the U.S. where I didn’t know anybody, I realized that if I spent too much time alone I would feel more awkward when I started talking to people, and so I imposed a rule that I needed to have at least one real, extended, face-to-face conversation with someone every few days (“That’ll be $3.99, please,” doesn’t count.)
As a single person, I would often check out the dating apps Tinder and Bumble when I arrived in a new town. I was always upfront about the fact that I was traveling and that I didn’t live in whatever town I was visiting, but more often than not I was able to convince someone to have dinner with me. Sometimes they would even take me out and show me the highlights of what the town had to offer. You really get to appreciate a place on a deeper level when you see it through a local’s eyes.
If you aren’t single (or dating apps just skeeve you out) there are still a lot of great options. I’ve had some really incredible experiences using CouchSurfing.com and made friends I’m still in touch with a decade later. Not only are these folks likely to show you their town, but they may be able to provide a place to park, too. Pro-tip: It’s worth really filling in your profile, adding photos, and getting friends to vouch for you. MeetUp.com is a great resource, too. It’s more activity-based, so if you’re pulling into Madison and are wondering if there’s an ultimate frisbee pick-up game happening, it’s probably got you covered.
If you want to know more about my specific van setup or my life on the road check out my website www.connectedstates.com for more info. The best way to follow along, though is via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.