Is Vanlife Office Space Possible: The Historian’s Take on Getting Internet on the Road, Insects, and Paper

The myth is that all travelers are “anti-routine.” That folks just sorta do whatever and leap from ship to ship with knives between clenched teeth.

Well, no.

Many digital nomads have a game plan. That plan may be as simple as renting coworking space or using WIFI from a Panera across the street.  Me? Here’s how I turned my van into a mobile office.

Work Space

The addition of the microwave cabinet was a huge boon (can I use this word and keep my street cred…hmmm). I leave the top empty for the inevitable stacks of paper and research I have to go through. Because the edge comes RIGHT up to my bed, I can also use the cabinet as a desk. If I need to move around a bit, a folding table in front of the storage box (bottom left) makes another good workspace. Usually, I’m working on the bed, encircled by the papers of long dead people.

20180708_073654~2 (2) resized

A system for preserving fragile documents

For the preservation of older documents, I keep an empty cooler under my bed. Things safely stay there for days. When I do get back to the house, I start proper archival methods.

So why a cooler?

I need to protect items from as much humidity as I can.  Alternatively, in the case of brittle paper, I may need to add a little moisture. An empty cooler allows me to adjust the environment with archival desiccants or the addition of controlled moisture.

And…not to gross you out…


Bookworm Damage
Bookworm Damage on Errata. CCBY 4.0 Ragesoss.

When people stuff papers away, nasty bugs (especially silverfish) can get in there. GROSS. I do a full post on my history page, but the quick and dirty is that I keep papers locked away until I can check them one by one. I don’t leave anything old loose in my van.

If there is evidence of bug activity (different bugs like different materials), I wrap the documents. Once I get home, I put the wrapped bundles in the freezer for several weeks. Currently, my freezer is full of old paper and tofu. Sometimes they touch.

Minimal Electronics

To work, I need my laptop, a portable Doxie scanner, fans, and recording devices for capturing interviews. This scanner works fine for new documents. For things too precious to scan with the Doxie, I take a high res image with my phone or camera.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this. For a longer post on how I power electronics in the van, click here.

Two Methods for Getting Internet in the Van

I reckon there are a billion options for this, but I either tether (easy, but possible drama) or use a range booster (no drama, but upfront expense). Both take less than ten minutes to set up.

Option A: Tethering

Your carrier may charge extra for this. Even on unlimited data plans, if your carrier sees too much data usage, they may throttle/slow your connection. On limited plans, you could be in for a nasty bill. Check your service before doing this. Some are perfectly cool with this.

  1. On your phone: Go into the network (or connectivity) settings screen and turn on tethering.
  2. You’ll see up to three options for tethering, depending on your phone and carrier:
    1. WiFi hotspot– You can attach all of your devices to this network, but this will quickly drain your battery.
    2. USB – Super fast, but you’re limiting to the length of your cord.
    3. Bluetooth – I hate this. I find it buggy and slow, but that just may be my devices. You’re limited to one device at a time.

Tethering via WiFi

Choose WiFi Hotspot on your phone to create a hotspot. You’ll need to come up with a password for that hotspot. This prevents others from tapping into your phone’s service. Next, go to your laptop or tablet and find the network you just created. Type the password and you’re done.

Tethering via USB

As easy as it sounds. Connect your phone and laptop with a USB cord and flip the tethering switch on your cell phone.

Tethering via Bluetooth

Turn on Bluetooth on your laptop (you can find it in the search bar). Next, turn on Bluetooth on your phone. Your phone should now give you an option to search for devices. Do that. Once you see your laptop, connect the two. Each phone will have a different way of setting it up, but the instructions have been easy to follow on every phone I’ve seen (not a huge range, tbh).

Remember, tethering can sometimes lead to throttling. It won’t make the internet unusable, just very slow and un-Netflixy. To avoid this, use a range booster.

Option B: Use A Range Booster

If you’re parked near a place that has free WiFi, you can use a range booster to bring the signal to your van, RV, or car. Here is my Alfa booster, model AWUSO36NH.

AlFA WiFi Booster for Vanlife

I ordered the Alfa Bundle above from Amazon because it came with two antennae – a standard one of +5dBi and a long-range one of +9dBi (both 2.4 GHz). It also came with a clip to attach it to the laptop and a suction cup to hold it to a window.

Right out the box, it gave me full bars from a Lowes that was eight highway lanes (and several parking lots) away. The box claims it can boost anything from over a mile (2km) away.

To get it to work with Windows10, I had to install a driver from the manufacturer’s website (the included CD didn’t work), but otherwise, I haven’t had any issues with it. For those who haven’t used something like this, you simply connect the green thing to your laptop via an included mini-USB. For interested parties, the frequency range is 2412-2483 MHz.

On taking unnecessary work breaks:

The same things that distract me in the house distract me in the van. Tea, Netflix, going for unplanned walks…mostly Netflix.

I am who I am.

Hope this was helpful!

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10 responses to “Is Vanlife Office Space Possible: The Historian’s Take on Getting Internet on the Road, Insects, and Paper”

  1. Good point about having a gameplan! I’m always thinking about my work setup (wifi, cafes, etc) about 3 days ahead of time.

    I like to keep two tethering options available: my phone and a MiFi hotspot, each on different networks. That gives me backup in case of signal weakness on a single network.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great advice thank you. While I await the restoration of my vintage camper to be completed, I’ve been traveling in my SUV and staying at AirBnBs and friends. The hardest thing is to figure the best way to store important stuff. (Well no, the hardest thing is the time it’s taking to rid myself of 3 storage spaces of stuff. But that’s off point)

    There just is not a lot of room in a 16 foot camper with me and my large dog. This did help with some ideas though so thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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