Full-time nomads often fall into two camps. Those who get to frolic about in the fields of sunflowers and noontime happy hours all day, and the rest of us, who need to work to sustain this traveling lifestyle.
While we sometimes wish we were in the previous group, we tend to need to make money in order to spend it on things like border crossings, national parks and the best barbecue in [insert location]. Not to mention we’ve got kids and they don’t understand the meaning of, “Don’t drag your feet, you’ll ruin your brand new shoes!”
Who are we kidding, they don’t wear shoes.
That said, we–and most other longterm full-time RVers and vandwellers–need a reliable internet connection. But how do you find them? We’re here to help!
Cell Service in General
We began this journey of ours back in 2008, with a Sprint data card. It was the only unlimited plan at the time. And it offered relatively blazing fast connection speeds…as long as we were in major cities. Which we never were. So your first best bet is to get with Verizon or AT&T (in the US), or T-Mobile (south of the border).
T-Mobile offers an amazing, affordable service that works on nearly every network in Mexico and Central America, short of Belize where they don’t currently have any deals with the local cell companies. In the US, we’ve found places where Verizon is prevalent and AT&T is not, and to a lesser degree the opposite. If you can only afford one cell line or service, you’re probably best to go with Verizon. Though, we don’t.
Actually, we usually have our phones on some type of AT&T plan and then get a Verizon Jetpack to fill in the gaps. Since returning from Mexico in Spring of 2017, though, we’ve figured out how to ditch Verizon altogether and make due with just our one account.
Finally, and if it’s not terribly obvious, the general rule of thumb is that the closer to civilization you are, the better the signal, except when it isn’t. For example, if there’s a tower out in the middle of the Mojave, and it’s just you and two other guys in a twenty mile radius, you may just end up with speeds significantly higher than if there’s one tower serving a town of 5000 people. It’s called sharing and cell towers suck at it.
Finding Campgrounds with Cell Service
In all reality though, it’s all a crap shoot. One day you’ll be cruising up some mountain pass, with seemingly unlimited bars of service on your chosen provider, when suddenly you get to that perfect campsite, a little patch of heaven under the big pines, tilting just lovely against some riverbank, the sun shining, birds chirping, life is aligned at last!
Then you check your phone and…nothing. It’s either walk a quarter mile back up the road when you want a signal or give up your golden home for the night.
If you don’t want to leave it to chance, there are a few decent resources. The best of those?
Campendium! If you get their app and make a small in app purchase, you can filter campgrounds by reported cell service. Now, not all campgrounds they show will have been reviewed, and not all that have been reviewed will have a cell phone rating, so it’s not a 100% never wrong situation, but it’s definitely a good start.
You can even get that information for free by just clicking on campgrounds with reviews (on the website as well) and looking at what individual reviewers have reported.
For example, if you see that there are five campgrounds in the area you want to visit, and note that two of them have decent coverage, the odds that the other ones will too goes up a bit.
Another decent app, though it doesn’t provide reports on specific areas, is Coverage by the folks over at Technomadia. They essentially have combined all of the carriers maps into one handy little app. You won’t know for sure if an area has coverage, but at least will have an idea on the likelihood and can plan your general direction around that knowledge.
Cell Phone Boosters
Finally, there are areas that are just skirting on the edge of having enough cell service to be useful. One or two bars of 4G might not be enough to get your work done–or stream season after season of the Walking Dead–but three or four might do the trick.
There are these magical devices known as cell phone boosters that somehow grab what service is available and condense it into, well, more bars.
The folks at WeBoost were kind enough to send us one of their Drive Sleek devices to test, and we couldn’t be happier. Personally, the idea that these would work well enough to make a difference–and be worth the price point–never really seemed like reality to us. Then we got one for free, asked our traveling friends about them, and bam…life was changed.
Suddenly we had a whole new slew of off the beaten path national forest and BLM land we could call home. On average, the boost is only a bar, sometimes two. Occasionally, though, we’d go from no service at all to just enough to keep me tuned into email or receiving text messages. That can make all the difference for whether or not we can disappear into the forest or not. Your results may vary, of course.
The biggest downsides to cell boosters are simply that they require a power source, and involve a lot of cables, but such is the reality of getting online in the middle of nowhere.
At the End of the Day
Cell coverage has improved drastically since we began back in the late 2000s. We just recently spent the entire summer camping for free in Colorado with rarely a moment of frustration over the lack of service. Then again, most of I-10 driving through West Texas is still dead. Then again, there’s no good camping there anyway. Inversely, on US 90 through the same part of Texas (but better), we were streaming movies and downloading big ol’ ZIP files in moments.
For the location independent, but still income reliant, traveler, it’s a great time to be on the move.