Fact: Working from the road can be fairly taxing (depending on the type of work you do).
Why do I say that? As creatives (designers, illustrators, photographers) we crave our own space where we can spread out our gear, comps, notes and sketches. Having a clean white wall to tape up in-progress designs which assist with iterating versions, or even just having a printer to print out work to see it all from a different perspective can be helpful to getting the best out of ourselves when creating. Overland rigs rarely come with such luxuries.
We also carry quite a bit of gear to accomplish our varied creative projects. Jessica has sketchbooks, pens, markers, paints, watercolor paper and I have cameras, a gimbal, a drone, lenses, sketchbooks, books, external hard drives, and batteries. And then we carry three Macbook Pros. Yeah, 3. One is on loan from a company we do a lot of work for and it has been a lifesaver to have when our primary computers break…which happens more often than seems normal.
Not everyone in our field has all this gear but our creative interests are varied and when we hit the road, we intended to use our experiences from travel to further inform and push our creativity in new and interesting directions. So how do we balance time working with the desire to explore and get outside? What gear is minimally necessary to work as a creative from the road?
Let’s talk about it.
Work and Wander Balance
Our favorite places to get shit done are on top of mountains, next to the coast, or both. Believe it or not, such places exist and we have had many client phone calls sitting in the van atop a mountain or on a secluded strip of coastline. Sometimes when we get out into the middle of nowhere we’ll get a solid 4G LTE signal and we’ll post up there for a few days and get our productivity on. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s tempting to never leave and just squat there until we retire. But alas, no matter how amazing a spot is, staying in one place just doesn’t seem to be in our DNA.
So, apart from the unicorn spots we find, how do we manage to balance the itch to wander with the need and desire to work?
Firstly, we’re workaholics. We love to design, edit, and draw, and when we get into a groove, it’s hard to come up for air or to stop just for exploration’s sake. Recently we rented an apartment in Bozeman, MT so that we could concentrate on a big project.* We chose that city because of all the great outdoorsy things there are to do around there. In five weeks, I think we got out in the van and explored once. The rest of the time, we were working.
We also love to explore, to get lost on a forest road somewhere and find beautiful streams or cliffs to park next to where we can have a long conversation with Mary Jane and Mother Nature.
But we’re fairly productive even then. Jessica sketches while I walk about photographing things or flying our drone to gather more content for either social media or stock photo sites. For us, work and wandering can be the same thing. One informs the other and vice versa, and we happen to thoroughly enjoy both. Personally, I get pretty down when I don’t have a project to work on and if Jess is ever idle for longer than half an hour, it means she’s broken.
A good strategy to employ if you want to get the most out work and wander is to get up before sunrise and start working. Commit to putting in a minimum of six hours either working from your rig or from one of the places we’ll talk about in the following sections and then when work is done, hit the road or the trail. Just make sure that when you have opted to stop and work, that you do it in a town or city that has close proximity to lots of outdoor places.
Usually when we have a big project, we rent a co-working space. Co-working spaces cost anywhere from $15-$25 per day, per person. We only pay those day rates if we have a fast and furious gig we are working on that requires only a few days of nonstop work. If we have a month long gig, we buy a monthly membership, which is typically between $650 and $900 for the two of us. I think in our 3 1/2 years on the road, we’ve rented a co-working space for a month or longer twice. The rest of the time we pay either day rates or weekly rates (weekly rates tend to be about 10%-15% less than the prevailing day rate).
We try to find co-working joints in big cities located near lots of outdoorsy places. For example, we once rented an office for two months in Seattle and every weekend we would head to the Olympic Peninsula to camp and explore. In the evenings, we had time to visit friends we’d made over Instagram that live in the area.
The best thing about a lot of co-working places is that they have 24 hour access, a gym, a shower, and a parking spot with 24 hour access as well; meaning we have a place to work, exercise, shower and sleep. Quadruple win! For us to rent a co-working space it has to have 24 hour access at minimum. Everything else is a bonus.
Now if $15-$25 a day or $800 a month is outside your budget, no biggie! As I write this I’m sitting at a Starbucks in Calgary, Alberta where I’ve been nursing a latte for six hours while getting a ton of work done. The internet in most Starbucks is fast and reliable enough for us to upload the large files that we work with, and working there only costs us the price of a coffee or muffin. But check this out, if you can find a Starbucks where you can park right up next to the building, you get WiFi right in the van and you ain’t gotta buy nothing! BOOM. How’s that for living large while living small?
However, if you don’t like Starbucks because “corporations”, then just point your non-corporate made vehicle to a fair trade, coffee-farm-to-upcycled-cup, non-gentrified, hammer and sickle swinging, uber local coffee house and employ the above mentioned tactics. Just make sure you haven’t showered in weeks, are wearing a beret, and regularly use words like “privilege”, “power structures” and “class” while you are doing it, you commie.
All jokes aside, coffee shops are typically where we execute work…or a co-working space if the project demands it.
Tips for working and wandering:
- Try to work in cities that are close in proximity to places you want to explore.
- Get up super early and resolve to work for at least six hours on your projects before heading out to explore.
- Try to find free WiFi (coffee shops and public libraries).
What gear do we use? Glad you asked! We both rock maxed out MacBook Pros (but the generation of MacBook Pros before Tim Cook ruined them with this latest laptop abomination that Apple is trying to pass off as a professional device). Additional gear we carry are 7-8 LaCie Rugged thunderbolt hard drives where we keep design files, photos, and videos. These have proven invaluable to us. Just a note, the reason we have so many is because roughly half of them function as back ups that we keep under lock and key in the event that someone gets the idea to “spread the wealth” towards themselves.
Something we highly recommend is to get a pro Dropbox account and have all of your working files loaded up to it. Why? Because if someone steals your shit and you haven’t backed up your work to a hard drive in a while, your files will be safe on Dropbox’s servers, assuming you have the Internet to sync your files while you are working.
Speaking of the Internet: when we’re not using the web at a coffee shop or co-working space, we use a 4G LTE Verizon Wifi Hot Spot device. It works remarkably well and sometimes our hot spot connection is faster than coffee shop WiFi. However, you need a serious data plan from Verizon if, like us, you are syncing or transferring enormous files (250MB-2GB). We have an unlimited plan with Verizon that gets us 10GB of data on our hot spot and unlimited data on our phones. You can use your phone as a hot spot but we’ve been told that can kill your phone because of the heat it generates using it that way. So far, our usage hasn’t affected our phones. As with any unlimited plan, the speed may get throttled after a certain usage amount. On Verizon, that’s currently any usage over 22GB per phone. To date, our largest month of data usage was 70GB. That was an expensive month.
Other gear we have is the Slate Mobile Air Desk which is a nice, compact lap desk that helps dissipate heat from your laptop’s battery. Something else that we highly recommend before jumping headlong into working from the road is to invest in a good auxiliary battery set up. Each of our MacBook Pros pull 10AH when plugged into our pure sine wave inverter (that’s a must have so as not to ruin your expensive electronic gear). So if we’re both pulling 20A combined, we get about nine straight hours of work before our batteries need a recharge. Of course, we don’t keep our Macs plugged in the entire time because…
Charge your computers while you’re driving so that the alternator charges your batteries and your batteries charge your laptop without decreasing battery power. Then, when you start working, your batteries are at 100%. Work until you reach 5% charge on your laptop and then plug it in. Repeat this charge and unplug process throughout the day and you’ll save a ton of energy. It also helps if you have been solar charging your batteries throughout the day as well.
The bare minimum gear you need:
- Pure sine wave inverter (minimum 150 watts)
- Auxiliary battery to charge your gear
Depending on your particular pursuits, you may also find these to be basic items:
- External hard drive
- A sketchbook
- A camera
There’s definitely a dance to working from the road. Cords are everywhere, hard drives, camera gear, card readers, monitoring on board power, Internet usage, balancing whether to spend money at a coffee shop or a co-working space, and fighting the call of the wild. Getting around all of this and staying productive can be a chore and a pain in the ass, but we thrive in chaos. Though I’ll admit a lot of projects simply can’t be done from the van, either because of heat outside or lack of space, more often than not we make the shuffle work. All it takes is a can-do spirit, a little creativity, and a passion for working and wandering.
* We rented an apartment because it was cheaper than a co-working space in Bozeman for a month.