10 Tools to Boost Your Productivity on the Road
Digital nomads are reinventing the traditional home office, and I am one of them.
Full disclosure: I live in a van. In any other year besides 2020, this would sound weird but everything’s a little strange these days. However, if you search “#vanlife” on any social media platform, you’ll immediately become oriented to what I mean. Yes, my husband, our dog, all our stuff, and me too, of course, fit into less than 100 square feet of space. This was our first project post-wedding in October 2019 and building a tiny home on wheels seemed like a good enough challenge for the newlywed stage.
Did you look up that hashtag? Did you see all those glamour shots of everyone holding their arms up in front of a tropical beach, mountain range, desert landscape? Those people don’t have 9-5 office jobs like my husband and I do and, in the van life community, we’re the odd ones. We aren’t focused on traveling for the sake of the ‘gram, we still live our normal lives just with a new backyard everyday.
Being the “digital nomads” we are, we have to be pretty intentional with our daily schedules, trip planning, and hardware set up in the van. After doing this for a little over six months, there are certain things we can’t live without in order to keep this lifestyle working for both us and our careers.
MoFi or jet-packI am always impressed with what modern technology can offer and generating our own personal WiFi network while driving cross-country in a van is solidly one of those times. Did you know that you can put a SIM card with a data plan into a piece of hardware and it will turn the cell phone signal into WiFi? When I learned this was possible I really started to believe that this special lifestyle my husband and I were shooting for might actually be an attainable reality. We do still live in the modern world and neither of us wanted to give up on our jobs or working. This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for the digital nomad or someone aspiring to join our ranks. Having a dedicated SIM card and specialty equipment allows us to have fast and reliable internet so we can continue on our chosen career paths. Learn more about MoFi here.
WeBoost antennaIf you have finally decided to cross the country or are simply heading out of town for a shorter exploration, chances are you’re going to find yourself between two cell towers at one point. If you still need to connect, there isn’t much you can do if you have one measly bar of data and are 5 minutes late for a Zoom meeting. I can’t tell you that I know how it works, seems like magic to me, but the weBoost antenna reliably turns one bar into two, two into three, and full bars into making a 4K movie night happen. The weBoost is not inexpensive, but well worth the investment if you aren’t hanging around major cities.
Cell tower locator app or softwareAs I mentioned with the weBoost antenna, being between cell towers is going to happen. It’s one of those life-on-the-road inevitabilities you just have to accept. Sure, the weBoost with its infinite enigmatic power will help you a lot but even the WeBoost can’t make something from nothing. If you have no bars of cell data, you will have no internet. While there are stretches of the country you can’t avoid this problem entirely, you can try to plan for it. Utilizing an app or an online database of where cell towers are located or even how strong the signal is in some areas while you’re charting out the next leg of your journey does abate some of the stress. We’ve relied on an app called “Coverage Map” for more than a time or two. Research which information source works best for you before hitting the road.
Solar powerWith all those internet needs, where are you getting your power? One of the biggest perks about living off-grid is that there are tons of free conveniences out there available to travelers if you know where to look, or in this case, if you know how to harness the power! If you’re building your own rig, you probably already have started down the road of extensive research you have to do in order to set up your system without professional help.
For some extra support on this journey, I really suggest you check out mobile-solarpower.com. Will Prowse, who runs the website, really knows his stuff. His book was invaluable to us during our build. Nate over at explorist.life is another great DIY resource. On the other hand, if you've decided to purchase a finished rig, be sure to get one with the panels on the roof. This allows you more options than just paid RV campgrounds when you’re seeking out a secluded spot to camp for a few days.
Alternator charging for laptopsTrapping sunlight and turning it into electricity is super cool (at least it still is to us!) While you can trap sunlight to turn into electricity, there’s always going to be a cloudy day that will make you nervous as you watch your battery percentage dwindle. Instead of worrying, lean on your vehicle's battery for support. You’ll need to pick up a 12v mini inverter. This tiny machine plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter and allows you to charge a couple of phones and a laptop while you’re driving. I wouldn’t suggest leaving it on for long after the car is shut off as it might drain your battery and you’ll then need a jump. We happen to own the one linked here but there are other options if you don’t like red or want a different configuration of ports.
VPNThis might not be on your radar if you are bouncing around from place to place, but internet security still very much matters anywhere you go. Signing up for a VPN account, a reputable one at that, will put your mind at ease when you log onto your work email, chat with clients, or even just do some research on a new product. Whatever it is you do on the internet, it’s always better to be safe and to trust that you’re safe, especially if you’re using free public WiFi. What we use in the van is NordVPN but there are many other options. Spend some time doing research on which one will work for you as all VPNs are not created equal.
Boondocking and camping apps or websitesThis entry doesn’t so much help with your day job directly, but it does help you figure out where you’ll be opening your laptop on a given day. There are so many choices for great apps that show where to go for anything from a friendly driveway to BLM (bureau of land management) land and campgrounds galore in between. Some are paid, some are free, but they all work great.
Here are the most popular options:
- Free Roam
- Boondockers Welcome
- Harvest Host
- The Vanlife Ap
Portable ScreenMy husband and I decided early on in our van build that being comfortable while working from our tiny home was a major priority. We had an extra monitor in our possession that we were lucky enough to be able to find space for in the van. It has a simple HDMI cable we can hook our computers into for a second screen. This feature has been invaluable during those times where a tiny laptop screen just doesn’t cut it or if we really need to multitask. If a full-sized extra monitor isn’t going to fit or work for your remote office setup, there are other portable displays that might be perfect.
Bluetooth headphonesThis one is super specific but if you have a pair or you were recently able to snag one at a discount during a Black Friday sale, don’t forget to pack them. Working in the same space as another person is hard enough, but when you can’t block out the noise of them chewing... why yes, this comes from experience! Plus, you’ll need them for any meetings you might have.
Phone calls on the beach? Yes, please!
Mask!This one is not always a given but I have to put it in here because there is still no getting around personal safety and consideration for others even when you’re out on the road. During long drives on stretches of open road across the country where you won’t see another car for hours, it’s hard to remember sometimes that the world is now a very different place. We’ve had some times where we’ve almost been lulled into complacency because of how “empty” the country is right now, especially at tourist destinations. It also can be fun to grab a mask that has your company’s logo on it so you can rock some swag wherever you are.
Bonus Tool – iPadThis entry isn’t necessary, not by a long shot, but if you do have an uber mobile computer or a tablet, don’t forget to take it with you on your journey! If you’ve been eyeing a new machine recently, I’d say go for it and scoop one up before you hit the road. Being able to easily transport my iPad from the beach to a coffee shop and back to the van has added a layer of productivity to my day I don’t think I would experience with a bulkier laptop.
Both my husband and I will be the first to say that van life isn’t for everyone. Living this tiny is not for the faint of heart. There are many other road warriors that live in larger and smaller mobile spaces such as school buses (fondly called “schoolies” by the community), RVs, trailers, and tiny campers. There are thousands of us all around the country and the world, some who are simply traveling and some who are making a full-time life of it all. If this is your dream, we can only give you the list above and the short advice of: “do it!”
Feel free to check out more of our adventures on Instagram @theadventuringgriggs and don’t forget to say hi! We love chatting more about how we live life quite literally on the go. Thanks for reading and see you out on the road!