As a family living out of a van, traveling the backroads, forests and deserts of these United States, we rely almost solely on our cell phone connections for the Internet.
In addition to simply wanting to stream the latest episodes of the The Mandalorian come family movie night, I also rely on a steady connection to the web to get my work done, which in turn results in things like food, clothing and gasoline. The fun stuff that only so slightly separates us from the pack of squirrels currently trying to find a way to sneak into my cooler.
This requires a steady balance of “Where do we want to go?” and “Yeah, but is there cell service there?”
While we can find time to unplug and explore more remote locations, sometimes we want to live in far off the beaten path locales and do so for a long period of time, which means we need to find the best of both worlds. This is where a cell phone signal booster often comes in handy.
To that end, we’ve been testing the weBoost Drive Reach for the last few months.
At $499.99, it’s not exactly a cheap foray into the world of getting more bars of service, so while Wilson Electronics did send us a unit to sample for free, we want to be absolutely clear that we’re in no other way being compensated for this review, and–large story short–it’s not going to be a full-on sparkle pony.
This is the fifth cell signal booster we’ve used, though, and in comparison, is absolutely one of our favorites, for what it does do.
First, as a family living in a van, as opposed to an RV, this thing is compact. Here’s the company product shot:
You attach the outside antenna to the top of your vehicle’s roof and it simply hooks on with a magnet at the bottom. This magnet is powerful enough to withstand North Dakota plains winds, so it should hold up to just about anything, making it super convenient to install. You can route the wire between your door seals and then everything opens and closes as it should.
We had no issues finding a spot for the red device and internal antenna. You can then plug it all into power via a “cigarette lighter” type outlet. So, setup and use is super easy.
How Well Does the weBoost Drive Reach Improve Your Signal?
Aside from price and ease of use, this is clearly the biggest concern.
We’ve used it for months now and will explain three typical situations and how the weBoost Drive Reach performed.
1. Woodenfrog Campground, Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Okay so technically this excellent little forested campground is in the Kabetogama State Forest, but it’s essentially the de facto campground for much of Voyageurs National Park, and that’s the reason we were there. It’s a large campground with decent cell service to begin with. Some spots had 2 or 3 bars of Verizon LTE. The spot we wanted bounced between 1 and 2 bars of LTE, and in our experience, 2 bars of LTE is the absolute minimum for a reliable connection. Once the Drive Reach was running, we were solidly pushed into the 2 bars range.
In this case, the weBoost Drive Reach performed wonderfully.
We consider this the absolute minimum from a cell phone booster, so test one passed.
2. Pole Mountain, Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming
This is a large dispersed camping area covering miles of road. Some spots have great service, while others are more or less completely devoid. We find this to be a typical situation for wanting a cell phone booster. You know there’s service within a few short miles, but you’re just not getting it at your particular location.
In our particular spot, service was in the 3G range–which these days means, “No Service.”
The Drive Reach boosted us all the way up to 2 bars of LTE, which transformed this from a great weekender of a spot to a place we could setup camp for a full week and still get some work done.
In this situation, the weBoost Drive Reach performed wonderfully.
3. Buffalo Gap Campground, Little Missouri National Grasslands, North Dakota
This was a peculiar situation but gave us the most reason to question the validity of dropping $500 on this particular booster. I’m sure it’s also the reason many people grow frustrated with boosters in general.
This relatively small campground is strange in that it has absolutely no service in one entire loop, and most of the other loop is 1x / Edge. But then, miraculously, a few spots at the far eastern end of the northernmost loop get 2 bars of LTE.
We really wanted to stay here so we could explore Teddy Roosevelt National Park (the campgrounds in that park were closed.) The three sites that had decent reception were already taken, though. So we chose one not fifty yards away and got the booster up and running…only to find out that it did absolutely nothing. How this is possible, when literally you could throw a laptop far enough to get cell service, was baffling. And this wasn’t the only time a situation like this occurred. We saw similar results across Wyoming, in wide open areas where nothing should have really been obstructing the devices ability to grab signal that other campers enjoyed not that far away, and in other more forested, and therefore reasonably more difficult to boost areas in Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
For those expecting to make miracles happen, or that this device will actually “Reach” out and pull signal closer to you, that simply doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s a booster, not the Jesus Christ Cell Phone Plan.
How Well Do Cell Phone Signal Boosters Work in General?
This is one of the more common questions we receive through this website. The short answer is, sometimes.
weBoost has sent us a few models to test. The Connect RV 65, though a beast of a device that requires something akin to running a flag up a pole, did work quite well. It’s more for RVs than vans, no doubt, but it definitely worked. We also used their Drive Sleek for about a year and found it made just enough of a difference to give us a little more range.
At the end of the day, it’s all about expectations. If you’re hoping to be able to drive a hundred miles away from a cell phone tower and magically boost your signal into a Netflix-streaming machine, you’re going to be disappointed. If you just need to kick it up a notch or two, dear Emeril, then we think more often than not you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
But the biggest thing we’d urge you to consider is the cost. Is it worth $500 to you to be able to go a little further? To us, it might be. Even with the double-fisted handful of times we’ve been able to go just a little further, sometimes being able to do so but still having a good connection meant I didn’t have to spend $20 / night on a national forest campground. At that rate, this thing pays for itself in 25 days. If you know you’re going to spend the majority of your time boondocking and trying to be as remote as possible, then yes, I’d say it’s worth it. Otherwise, or if you’re uncertain, you may want to do a few laps around the United States to see what situations you’ll actually end up in before dropping that many Benjamins.