Internet on the road – A vanlife guide on how to stay connected

Internet on the road – A vanlife guide on how to stay connected

Internet Vanlife

Finding driving directions, camping spots, cool swimming holes nearby, grocery stores, cheap gas, etc… we’ll go ahead and say it: we wouldn’t want to travel without mobile Internet these days! It makes things SO MUCH easier and enjoyable, especially since we don’t like to plan ahead. And for the digital nomads out there, having a good Internet strategy is a MUST if you’re fortunate enough to make money and travel…

 

 

1- Cellular Internet Data Plan

That’s the ultimate way to stay connected. We use that 90% of the time. If, like us, you own a smartphone (who doesn’t these days?), you probably take Internet for granted; and it’s even more useful when living a nomadic lifestyle! If you intend to work from the road and your income depends on being online, then a good cellular data plan is a must.

 

Fast & reliable internet means MORE WORK DONE.

Internet on the road stay connected, work and travel
(more info about our Android Radio here)

 

Alright, here’s what’s really going on…  MORE CAT VIDEOS!!

Internet on the road stay connected, cat

 

1.1- Coverage

Unless you plan on urban-dwelling, you will probably end up camping in BLM, National Forest, Public Land or at any remote location; getting lost is half the fun! In that case, it’s worth paying a little more and making sure you’re covered (almost) anywhere you go. Before choosing a network provider, check out OpenSignal app (Android, or iPhone) as you will find an interactive map of different network providers coverage. It’s also useful to find out if your next camping spot has Internet (for people working remotely):

Find-internet-on-the-road-staying-connected-vanlife,-open-signal-T-Mobile-Verizon-Utah
Coverage Comparison for Utah: T-Mobile VS Verizon

 

Coverage varies with network providers: you will find Verizon Wireless has the best coverage out there in rural zones in the USA (which is where we spend most of our time).

 

If working remotely and your income depends on being online, you might consider a signal booster; it takes an existing signal and boosts it from, for example, one bar to three bars; it could make the difference between being stuck or being able to work (or with/without cute cat videos)…

Weboost Drive Reach Cell Signal Booster RV Van Mobile
Weboost Drive Reach. Buy on Amazon.

 

1.2- Cost and Plans

Plans are constantly changing, so it’s impossible for us to keep track! Please refer to Verizon website:

Verizon Wireless Logo
See Verizon Plans

 

 

2020 UPDATE:

We’re now spending more time home here in Canada (thanks to Covid), so Isabelle and I both switched to Telus for time being. It has the best coverage in rural area in Canada.

 

1.3- Using a laptop

1.3.1- Tethering

It’s possible to create a Hotspot with your smartphone to share your internet with your laptop; it’s called tethering. Some network providers allow tethering, some don’t, so make sure to check that. Verizon Wireless allows 15GB per month with the Beyond Unlimited plan (as of September 2017). You can also buy a MiFi device (a.k.a. Jetpack) to create a hotspot; it’s $20 monthly, and you get 15GB tethering in addition of the 15GB on your smartphone (Beyond Unlimited, Sept 2017).

Verizon Jetpack 7730L
Verizon Jetpack 7730L (a.k.a. MiFi or HotSpot)

 

Be aware, most websites are optimized for smartphone: if the website detects that you are browsing from a smartphone, the images and data downloaded are very small. Browsing from a laptop sucks MUCH MORE data than a smartphone! Using a laptop, it’s very easy to go through the monthly 15GB if not careful…

 

1.3.2- Data Saver

To reduce data when browsing from a laptop, we recommend using Chrome browser and installing Data Saver Extension. It compresses the images, videos, and text, which reduces the amount of data used:

Find internet on the road staying connected vanlife, data saver
Data Saver Stats

 

1.3.3- Metered Connection

When connecting to WiFi (tethering from your phone or your MiFi device), Windows checks for updates and downloads them, instantly wasting your precious monthly data 🙁 To prevent that, we recommend doing two things:

 

a) Creating a metered connection

By telling Windows the connection is metered, it limits what apps and Windows can do in the background:

  1. Click on the WiFi icon in the taskbar, then right-click on the connection you want to meter and select PropertiesFind internet on the road staying connected vanlife, window wifi
  2. Toggle the “Set as metered connection” button to “On”Find internet on the road staying connected vanlife, window metered connection

 

b) Turning Windows Update off

Even after setting a metered connection, Windows will still try to update. It’s better turn off the Windows Update service:

  1. Click on the “Windows” button and then “Settings” (left-bottom corner of your screen)Find internet on the road staying connected vanlife, window setting icon
  2. Search for “Services” and click on “View local services”Find internet on the road staying connected vanlife, windows services
  3. Scroll-down to “Windows Update” and double-click on it
  4. Click on “Stop”, select “Disabled” and click on “Apply”Find internet on the road staying connected vanlife, stop windows update
  5. This service can be re-started when desired (at the library or at coffee shop…). Just select “Manual” then click on “Start”.

 

1.4- Unlimited AND cheap?

There are a bunch of small providers advertising cheap unlimited data plans (such as Calyx Institute). You buy a hotspot device (that only works with them), pay for the entire year in advance, and you get unlimited data. We considered them at first, but we realized they come and go, and you’ll lose your money (annual plan and hotspot device) if they ever disappear (we observed that a few times). Moreover, most of the time, they buy bandwidth from smaller network providers with limited coverage… cheap is not cheap anymore if you can’t even use it! For these reasons, we pass.

 

2- Free WiFi

2.1- Not exactly free…

Free WiFi at coffee shops is great, except coffees and goodies quickly add up to the bill! So, it’s not exactly free… And it’s easy to get distracted when we’re trying to work, so we’re glad we have our Verizon data plan as primary Internet source.

Libraries are a good place to get free WiFi; it’s normally fast and quiet (too quiet?).

Some groceries, gas stations, restaurants, Walmarts, etc. also offer free WiFi but it’s kind of slow compared to coffee shops and libraries.

There is a free WiFi finder in the OpenSignal app (Android, or iPhone).

 

2.2- Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

Like it or not, we’re always logged in to something: Emails, Google drive, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, web server, etc., etc. Public WiFi (without or with password) networks are the perfect targets for hackers; your credentials are vulnerable and easy to steal. To protect yourself, we recommend the following precautions:

  1. If doing online banking, log off from the public WiFi and tether from your phone instead.
  2. For everything else, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN is one of the most robust and secure methods you can use to protect your devices. It sends your traffic through an encrypted ‘tunnel’, making it extremely difficult to decipher or intercept. One of the best VPN provider is called “NordVPN“; that’s the provider we personally use because:
    • You can connect up to 6 devices with the same account (different computers & phones);
    • They’re one of the VPN providers with the fastest & most locations available;
    • They do not log any of your online activities;
    • You can use it to browse your local Netflix (or others) when travelling internationally;
    • It’s very straightforward to use: 1- Subscribe, 2- Download & install the NordVPN app on your computers and phones, 3- Connect to the VPN server using the app. That’s it, you’re safe now!

 

NordVPN logotype-horizontal
Check price and subscribe to NordVPN.

 

3- What about Satellite Internet?

It’s slow, expensive, cannot be used when driving, affected by bad weather and land features, and the dish has to be aligned with the god of Internet in the sky when parking. End of discussion for us!

Update 2021: Starlink is currently rolling out, it could be promising but we’re not too familiar with it. What we know so far is that the antenna is NOT small and draw quite a lot of power.

 

4- Netflix

Netflix will quickly drain your monthly data, so we have a hack for ya. You are aware that it’s possible to download movies for offline viewing on your smartphone or tablet, right? Unfortunately, it’s not possible to download a movie on a laptop via Netflix.com… unless you download and install the Netflix App on your laptop through the Microsoft Store or the iTunes Store!

In the Netflix App, search for a movie and click on “download” to save it:

Find internet on the road staying connected vanlife, Netflix

If  “Download” is not showing, it’s simply because this title is not available for download… 

 

5- Safety

Isabelle and I sometimes part ways to go ride alone (or just take a break 😛 ), so it’s important to be able to communicate with each other. The best way to ensure a reliable communication is a pair of Midland Radios, but we really like the “Location Sharing” of Google Maps so we know where the other person is in real-time (as long as there is cell phone signal). The “Location Sharing” feature is located on the upper-left menu of the Google Maps app. Once it’s activated, we can see each others position on the map, nice! (Antoine normally carries the smartphone with him, while Isabelle carries her smartphone + the JetPack hotspot with her; the location comes from her smartphone and the JetPack provides the Internet link).

Find internet on the road staying connected vanlife, Sharing Location Google Maps
Isabelle making her way up “Lord of the Squirrels” trail in Whistler (no worries she’s riding with a group of people 🙂 )

 

 

Conclusion

You don’t want to miss the latest viral cat video, do you? Then get a cell phone plan now.

 

 

 

WANT MORE?

Check out our Build Journal, learn everything about The Van, read our VanLife Guides, or if you’re new to this start by reading Our Story.

 

 

 

STAY IN TOUCH!

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ABOUT US

Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine 🙂 In 2017 we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers and moved into our self built campervan. We’ve been on the road since then and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!

 

 

CONNECT

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CHEERS!

 

 

 

 


DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click a product link and buy anything from the merchant (Amazon, eBay, etc), we will receive a commission fee. The price you pay remains the same, affiliate link or not.

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37 thoughts on “Internet on the road – A vanlife guide on how to stay connected”

  1. I have been doing van life since 2014, off and on. I wish I could have had your blog back when I was figuring things out. Trial and error. Lots of error. Many things tried and abandoned.

    The only suggestion I have to the above is to purchase an aluminum extension pole (20 feet) and put a directional or omni-directional antenna on the top. Connect it to your booster with good quality cable. Greatly aids in amplifying weak signals.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the tips! I am looking to do some camping/mobile living while I have the opportunity to be remote this spring, and I’ve been searching for ways to find WiFi in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia public lands.

    Any other tips for figuring out if national forest campgrounds have campground wifi? Thanks y’all! 🙂

    Reply
  3. We recently added the WeBoost Drive X RV to our build and have been really impressed with the performance. (Especially on BLM land and remote areas).

    We pair it with the Netgear Nighthawk M1 Mobile hotspot/router. We keep a prepaid Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile sim card with us that we can pop in as needed depending on coverage. We even run a few battery powered cameras through the system. Negligible power draw (Solar is really good in CO and we can’t ever seem to get our batteries below 90% even with fridge, fan and Webasto)

    Reply
  4. Very helpful post! Question concerning the power consumption of a signal booster/hotspot. It doesn’t look like this was accounted for in your electrical wiring diagram. Would you be able to provide some more information on that? What is the electrical consumption, what is your estimated usage time with these (having been on the road for awhile)? Or is this negligible?
    Trying to size our system right now, with plans of working remotely, and we don’t want to leave any stones unturned.
    Thanks in advance!

    Reply
  5. Just found your site and CANNOT believe all my lingering van life questions are being answered with every new page you post!!! Thanks so much!! I’ve now got your site welded to my browser (we favorited anyway, but welded sounds more permanent!) Safe travels and thanks for all the great content! You guys rock!

    Reply
  6. Thanks for the tips. I am at a campground right now trying to get some work done on their slow wifi and reading this as I wait for pages to open. This seems like a complicated subject. I can’t seem to figure out exactly how to get enough data to work off my laptop but this helps point me in the right direction!

    Reply
  7. Hi Guys.
    Was wondering, if you are actually using the WeBoost 4GX-RV, and if so, where do you put the main receiving antenna? I was thinking inside the Max Air plastic shell above the fan, but I don’t know.
    -Don

    Reply

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