At a time when most of us are working from home and companies are embracing remote routines, there’s been a renewed interest in the digital-nomad lifestyle. But what are the realities of #vanlife when you have a nine-to-five job or a business to run? Managing deadlines on the move, dealing with cramped quarters and distractions, and planning for connectivity issues can be major challenges, but only if you’re unprepared. To find out how to do it successfully, I called Kristen Bor, the adventure travel blogger and photographer behind Bearfoot Theory. She started her blog in 2014 with the goal of making the outdoors more accessible, bought her first van in 2016, and has been living and working on the road ever since. Here’s her advice on how to stay productive.
Get the Right Rig
Bor bought her first van after having to pass up an opportunity to hike the Grand Canyon because she had to get home to meet a deadline. “I just thought, Man, if I had some sort of vehicle I could sleep and work in a little more comfortably than my Subaru, that’d be amazing,” she says. After looking at everything from a travel trailer to a slide-in camper, Bor settled on a van for its comfortable interior, protection from the elements, and its open layout—because she was a solo traveler, for safety reasons she wanted to be able to go from the bed to the driver’s seat without leaving the car.
That first van, a 144-inch–wheelbase Mercedes Sprinter, was a learning process. Living it in full-time showed her what she actually wanted in an adventuremobile. She eventually sold it and bought a 170-inch-wheelbase Mercedes Sprinter, which has more interior space and comes equipped with a 170-watt Zamp solar system (from $700), so she can continually charge all of her laptop and camera gear without running out of power.
If you’ll be staying in RV parks, or if you plan to be on the road for just a few days at a time and don’t need for a lot of power, you can build your own solar system or opt for a simpler portable option, like this one from Goal Zero (from $330).
Create a Dedicated Workspace
Bor’s number-one tip for actually getting work done on the road is to make sure that whatever rig you buy or build has a dedicated and comfortable working area. “In my first van, the bed doubled as the workspace, so that wasn’t a really efficient way for me to work,” she says.
In her new van, she has a cordoned-off space, with a 30-inch table on a Lagun Adjustable Swivelling RV Table Mounting system ($133) that doubles as a kitchen counter. There’s an outlet within arm’s reach and an adjacent storage space for easy access to her laptop and camera equipment.
The tools you’ll need to be productive will largely depend on the nature of your work, but in general, you’ll want to look for a decent laptop with a large screen and good battery life. (Bor has a 15-inch MacBook Pro.) Dor says she’s seen vans with built-in desktop monitors, but everything is a trade-off when you’re working with limited space. “You have to find that balance between how much space each item takes up with how much you use them,” she says.
Since she runs her own business, Bor has an unlimited business data plan with Verizon (from $30 a month). For simple tasks, including checking email on the move, she simply connects her laptop to her phone. But during most of her working hours, she uses a mobile hot spot, like Verizon’s Jetpack MiFi (from $99), which acts as a modem, allows for more than one person to access the internet, and usually lasts a full day on one charge.
Before settling on a network provider, Bor recommends thinking about what parts of the country you’ll be spending the most time in and checking Open Signal for a map of coverage areas from different carriers. Once you pick a plan, you’ll have to be vigilant about staying within your provider’s data zones and choosing your campsites accordingly.
In terms of managing your data so you don’t have to deal with slowing connection speeds or overage charges, Bor advises being mindful of what you’re uploading and how much data you’ve used by relying on an app like My Data Manager.
Embrace the Local Library
Sometimes work means having to upload large video files or relying on a faster connection than what you’ve got, which necessitates heading into town and looking for a place with Wi-Fi. “I prefer libraries, because even the tiniest of towns has one, and oftentimes the signal will be strong enough that you don’t have to go in, you can just sit in the van parked outside,” says Bor. Internet access at a local library is usually free, so it’s a cheaper alternative to frequenting coffee shops and restaurants, where you have to make purchases to use their Wi-Fi.
Manage Your Time Effectively
Time management while traveling is tricky. Bor suggests scheduling tasks that may require a faster internet connection, like video meetings or connecting to your company’s VPN, for the same day so that you don’t have to spend too many consecutive days stuck in a town.
For Bor, staying productive has also meant figuring out what time of day she does her best work and scheduling her time on the road accordingly. To help with productivity and organization, she uses the apps Asana for task management and Buffer for scheduling social-media posts. It can be difficult to set a schedule when there are so many activities and attractions at your doorstep, but Bor uses the reward of exploring new places as motivation to get her work done. “It’s definitely taken some time to figure out. There are so many distractions when you’re on the road,” she says. “You’re camped in these beautiful places, and there are trails all around you. You really have to be dedicated.”