How do you find reliable internet when you live on the road? This is one of our most-asked questions when folks dive into the details of our lifestyle. This is definitely the toughest part of vanlife but, after 3 years on the road, we want to share our go-to sources.

Campgrounds

Private campgrounds frequently have wifi available. The decision to stay at a campground with internet is easy in places like Red River Gorge, Kentucky where there is limited free camping and the pay sites are pretty cheap. We found one of our best work/life balances in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, with cheap camping + wifi + a short walk to the crag. But when travelling full time, staying at private campgrounds becomes significantly more cost prohibitive in the U.S.

Check out our mobile setup (computer, stands, etc) in this post.
blog.weighmyrack.com/the-ultimate-mobile-work-setup-best-for-working-on-the-road

Caution: Many campgrounds that advertise having wifi do not have wifi that reaches every camp site. If working from your mobile office is a priority, call ahead to make sure you’ll get wifi at your site, or you may be spending a lot of time hanging out in the community area (most often where the signal is best). Or, you can upgrade your #vanlife chops and buy wifi signal boosters.

Internet Signal boosters / antennas – You can also read more about these options at RVMobileInternet.com/boosters.

St. George, UT climbing
We can easily unhook the trailer and drive to wifi, like in St. George, UT.

Visit a wifi habitat

Perhaps the simplest option (and usually the cheapest) is going to a venue that has reliable internet. The reality is that after 3+ years living and working on the road, this is our most-used solution. We often camp in areas that simply don’t have any connectivity options, wifi or cellular, and making trips to a local establishment becomes a necessity.

Library – If a library has wifi, it’s always free, even if you’re not local. The biggest downside to working in a library is that you are encouraged to be quite, which can be challenging when you work in team. Fortunately, some libraries like the beautiful Teton County Library in Jackson Hole, Wyoming even has rooms you can use for meetings or Skype calls.

coffee shop working
Coffee shop to the rescue

Coffee Shop – Every cafe, especially if they’re near a popular climbing destination, is now used to patrons spending hours on their laptops. One downside to the coffee shop office is being obliged to buy a drink or two, or three. But the coffee shop is also a great place to interact with the local community and often with other climbers in the area. One of our favorite coffee offices was the amazing 2nd Street Coffee in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, which we have heard is now closed. R.I.P.

We’ll never forget the cafe in Los Angeles that had the most mind blowing internet speeds. After touring Mad Rock, we stopped by and uploaded a 7 minute video in less than 5 minutes. That’s right, faster than real time HD video uploading. We still dream of that place…

Fast food “Restaurants” – When you find yourself in an internet desert, you can almost always park close enough to a fast food joint and use their wifi from inside your vehicle. The signal strength varies, but we’ve been able to do Skype video meetings from a McDonald’s in a pinch. Pretty much every chain has wifi now. When we were in New Jack City, California, where even the library in Barstow didn’t have wifi and the Starbucks connection was completely useless, we ended up going to Subway to upload a gear video.

Other options

  • Friend’s or family’s house/driveway.
  • Local restaurants have increasingly been adding wifi, it just feels awkward not to buy more substantial meals the longer you stay. And they’re definitely not ideal for Skype calls.
  • Even Lowes, Home Depot, and Walmart all have wifi, with varying signal strengths. The nice part is if you’re driving a long distance, you can usually sleep in one of the parking lots if you’re desperate. 
whiskey time
Whisky hour is socially acceptable when working from home.

Cellular hot spot

Sometimes this is free to turn on, other times it costs money (i.e., T-mobile is an extra 14.99 per month). Either way, it will use a LOT of data.

This option really depends on your data plan–your computer eats data fast, so it’s really only a good option if you have unlimited data. Note: If you’re not monitoring data use you can easily use 2GB of data in a few hours simply browsing the web and doing “normal” internet things. Other Downside: speeds are highly influenced by the strength of cell service.

Cell boosters / antennas – We haven’t used them before, but Steph Davis has some reviews of the Wilson Electronics Booster and the weBoost Connect and vouches for both.

Lake Mead Camper life
Working sans-internet at Lake Mead, Nevada

Separate data hotspot

Similar to using your phone as a hotspot, you can get a standalone hotspot with its own data plan. If you want to expand your coverage you can use your phone as a hot spot on one carrier and buy a hot spot on a different carrier. But you’re still confined to cell networks and often the ideal camping spots don’t receive LTE service. 

Most hotspot plans are based on data rates, and most of the carriers don’t offer unlimited plans themselves. For example, the T-Mobile ZTE Falcon Z-917 hotspot would be $79.99 before taxes (or $3.33 per month for 24 months). And then data plans range from 2GB for $20 a month up to 18GB for $80 a month (plus taxes).

But, we just came across a company called Unlimitedville who have worked out a deal with the carriers to offer unlimited data, and, perhaps the best part, is that there is no contract. You can get month-to-month pre-paid plans and you can cancel anytime without repercussions (but it’s cost prohibitive to turn it on/off/on/off again–their business model caters to long-term users).

When we’ve tried hotspots in the past, we didn’t find the cost was worth it because the places we spent most of our time (non-cities) didn’t have LTE service. We still have our T-mobile hot spot, and it’s totally possible that we will turn it on for a month or specific amount of data in the future. But we don’t subscribe monthly.

Note: We just (Oct 2016) got a letter from T-Mobile saying that they would prioritize mobile customers over hot spot customers, we’re not sure if this will be a trend in the industry.

Also, you won’t find T-Mobile’s HotSpot Device in their online store, but you can still buy the ZTE Falcon Hotspot (what we have) by calling 1-800-289-6664 or by stopping by in person at a T-Mobile store.

Alison in the office
Using a hot spot in a suburban neighborhood

Satellite Internet

This is really spendy (thousands of dollars). But, if you were permanently travelling in remote areas and needed reliable internet everywhere, that would be the most sustainable/reliable option. RVDataSat seems to be one of the cheaper automatic systems at $6,500.

There is an online community of mobile satellite Internet users at DataStormUsers.com who help tackle mobile satellite Internet issues. They also have a FAQ that covers questions like, what is the speed?

Here are one blogger’s thoughts of how they justified a satellite:

We spent nearly $6,000 to purchase and install the equipment — an automatic, roof-mounted satellite dish called the Datastorm. We justified it by saying, “With it, we have a business; without it, we don’t.” When we thought of it as a business investment, $6,000 didn’t seem like much at all. The monthly service fee is $80.

A less expensive satellite option is a manually pointed, tripod-mounted dish. The equipment ranges from $700 to $1,500, with monthly service running about $60. It takes around a half hour to set up each time you park, as opposed to pushing a button for the automatic type. Plus, you need space to store the dish and tripod when you travel.

Andreas with popcorn
Working with food is always better.

Summary

Every on-the-road person will have different internet needs, so the exact answer of “the best mobile internet” really depends on how reliable you need your connection to be and how much money you are willing to spend. Since we’re cheap, and we have a trailer that we can park and a separate car we can drive into town, we find the best option for us is to use existing internet at local venues like libraries and cafe’s.

And if you’re interested in learning more about our mobile setup, we wrote a separate post listing our computers, stands, keyboards and mice and storage.

Share
Alison Dennis

Alison Dennis

Alison (she/her) runs WeighMyRack from her 17' travel trailer. She is currently touring the US and would love if you contacted her to meet up to talk about climbing, climbing gear, or if you have any fun and/or ridiculous adventure in mind.

All author posts