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The cavernous caveats of a digital nomad on the vanlife

Antoine Meunier's profile picture Antoine Meunier on

TL;DR: Once you nail the basics, you're golden. Spoiler alert: the hard part is nailing the basics.

I was casually reading @arnamak's post when I got a notification from my Missive's chat room:

Missive Screenshot

The answer I gave to Philippe seemed incomplete at best and as I kept thinking of all the shit amazing experiences that I've been through so far being a digital nomad doing the #vanlife thingy and figured out a blog post would be the best way to do it.

Before digging into the good stuff, I should give a quick disclaimer here by stating that the success of working remotely, especially on the road, is bound to the work you do, and with whom you do it. It's the way we do things here, at dnsimple, that made this lifestyle possible.

FWIW, this is like version 8 of the post. It took forever to write it as new shit came up every week and completely contradicted what I had written. For example, coffee shops sucked in BC and Washington but have saved the day more than once in Oregon and California. The sun failing to show up before 7am has been a huge bummer. So on and so forth. T-mobile was a huge disapointement on the Oregon coast but it's rocking now in California nevermind, it's still shitty on the coast. So I guess, the following content is prone to change.

So what can go wrong when one chooses to move into a 80 sqft tin can on wheels while passionately working remotely at an "Internet company"?

Well… virtually everything.

When the accelerator cable breaks and you are "stuck" on the beach... #impromptu #surfsession #homeiswhereveryourwestybreaks #vanlife #explorebc #tofino #westfalia

A photo posted by Northfalia (@northfalia) on

But it's definitely, 100% worth it!

Sunset cookin' 👌 • • • #campvibes #vanlife #vanlifediaries #sunset #beach #beachlife #glamping #remotelife #digitalnomads #campstove

A photo posted by Antoine Meunier (@meeunier) on

Ok, so there are hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of digital nomads out there as opposed to, like, a few hundreds of employed vanlifers… so I'll spare the #vanlife specific stuff for another post and focus on the hurdles to produce high quality work, consistently while on the go.

Let's start with the most awkward and annoying thing: getting a freakin' internet connection.

Lesson #1: T-mobile is the new coffee shop (hat tip to you, Mr. Legere)

I quickly realized that most coffee shops are useless for today's digital nomad. They have absolutely no incentive to provide you with a decent connection…so most of them don't. More often than not, I'd get at least 2x the speed by tethering from my phone and a lot less snobby looks from the so-called "barista" by setting up somewhere else with my iphone as a mobile hotspot.

A photo posted by dnsimple (@dnsimple) on

Intially I wrote a full paragraph ranting about how shitty Canadian carriers are, how expensive their services are but that, in the end, may not be that bad if you compare to the dollars spent in overpriced coffee by using coffee shops for wifi…well, I removed it for one simple reason: America :us: and T-mobile.

So I've swapped this paragraph for a caveat instead.

Caveat: If your living/traveling/vanlifing in Canada, stick to coffee shop and "free" wifi. You'll run over your plan in a week and if your a traveler visiting it'll be cheaper to buy the whole goddamn coffee shop than to get a prepaid plan with 1GB of data.

However, if you're in the 🇺🇸, you're golden. Seriously. You can get a solid prepaid plan with ample data that will allow you to work from wherever you want sans the coffee shop hysteria.

Pro tip: If you're in the US. Get T-mobile's Simply Prepaid – 10gb for $60. If – like me – it's likely not to be enough, get another 10gb plan for your significant other as a backup. Keep your coffee shop expenses under control and it should be a wash.

Unfortunately, having a bulletproof data plan doesn't guarantee bulletproof coverage. Here's how you can mitigate it: don't keep all your eggs in one basket.

Lesson 1.5: Diversification, diversification, diversification!

sorry to break this to you but… all these commercial about "best coverage in America" are slightly misleading.

So! If you're going to expore remote places like this:

Good morning #Tofino! ☀️ #sunisfinallyback #timetodryallthethings #unicorn🦄 • • • #yourtofino #sunrise #remoteoffice #remotework #remotelife #vanlife #vanlifediaries #digitalnomad #officewithaview #lifeisabeach

A photo posted by Antoine Meunier (@meeunier) on

… you might want to diversify your data source.

Personally, I've got a T-mobile plan for my phone and a Verizon mifi hotspot (thanks dnsimple!) as a backup.

It's still not bulletproof but it's been pretty useful in places where T-mobile is nowhere to be found.

With that out of the way, the digital nomad is bound to face another fatality: drained batteries. 😖

Lesson #2: Like a Tesla owner, "range anxiety" becomes a thing

Put it this way: even though it's 2016 and batteries still suck. Until Elon fixes that, there are two ways to mitigate the constant need for a power outlet:

  • Get a bigger battery (or more of them)
  • Use tools that are energy efficient.

My goal was to have enough juice to plow through my morning session – which typically lasts 4 hours. It shouldn't be so hard but using the hotspot dramatically decrease the iphone's autonomy and Apple is surprisingly optimistic when dropping battery life numbers for its Macbooks.

Option number 1 – increasing battery storage (which, btw, is still a dark art for me). This includes essentially any external battery you can add to your setup. If, like me you live in your 🚌💨, you can build an auxiliary battery system and even toss in solar panels in there. If you're a digital nomad packing light, there may be some other options like external batteries and such. There are a gazillion combination possible for a wide range of prices. I'll cover them in a later post. Let's skip this altogether (as I did with my :bus:) and head straigh into option 2.

So, I focused on option 2: optimize all the things!

First thing first, living in the bus has taught me to religiously keep my phone in "Low Power Mode" 24/7 which has helped preserve the battery from creeping apps–I'm looking at you Foursquare. I've been able to last significantly longer on one charge. ( If you find this option a bit too drastic, you can also turn off background app refresh, bluetooth, and motion to conserve battery life.)

The biggest improvement, however, has been to switch my – completely busted – Macbook Pro for a 12" Macbook. Not only is it much lighter and compact, it also have an amazing trick up its sleeve: USB charging 🙌.

You can charge it from a 12v power outlet (ie: from your car's lighter plug). Not only that but you're also avoiding the huge energy waste that is to take the 12v produced by your car (DC current), using a power inverter to turn it into AC current, which enables you to plug in your normal laptop charger; which, in turn, converts it back to 12V—finally charging your computer. This whole rodeo eats up (on average) 40% of the energy.

Now imagine charging your macbook with the 12v outlet and not losing any of that 😱 #greatsuccess

Pro tip: Forget the haters saying it's an ipad with a keyboard and get that tiny Macbook 12". The USB charging is just too good to pass. Plus, it fits nicely in any steering wheel from the '70s

A photo posted by Antoine Meunier (@meeunier) on

Electricity nerd zone: I rigged the bus with a 80 amp hour auxiliary battery charged by the motor alternator. It's been totally underperforming as the tiny engine doesn't produce that much electricity. So, I'm currently looking to gear up for solar to fix this issue and keep the auxiliary battery full…which would in turn fix the need for external power sources once and for all ( more on that in the upcoming #vanlifer specific post).

Finally, now that you've hypothetically charged up your gear and connected to a solid internet connection, you need to figure out how much time you'll spend actually working. Let's dig into what has been my biggest struggle so far: time management and keeping a consistent pace.

Lesson #3: Craft a schedule and stick to it.

I expected this one to be a breeze. I even planned for it. About a month before leaving for #vanlife, I began waking up at 5:30 AM with the goal to achieve the following:

Wake up at sunrise (caveat #1) and get as much work done as possible until 10:00 (caveat #2) at which point I could take off, enjoy life, surf or whatever and log back in for a second session later on in the day (caveat #3).

Caveat #1: Sunrise happens increasingly late as we approach winter months. It sucks. Waking up when it's cold and pitch dark isn't exactly motivating. Also, waking up this early means that you turn into a world class party pooper at around 22:00. (This one has been increasingly hard lately. #winteriscoming)

That's me being a party pooper at 3pm

A photo posted by Northfalia (@northfalia) on

Caveat #2: FOMO or, as @arnamak puts it, Darth Overwork, creeps over at 10:05 and it generally takes half an hour to get over it. Knowing how much activity happens in our Slack channel over the period of a day makes me feel anxious of not being present or available enough but also to miss important milestone of our company. To this date, this is the only struggle I'm still having a hard time to overcome even if my work output exceeds my previous "regular" full work day schedule.

Caveat #3: Life often gets in the way of the second work session. I'm still trying to find a way to get that extra 2-ish hours of productivity. This is probably where the coffee shops comes back into being the digital nomad's best friend as that complementary work sessions always seem to be productive when I pit stop into a coffee shop.

Pro tip: I used a Moleskine & my own iteration of the Bullet Journal to keep track of progress. I've been using it on and off for a couple years. I gave it up a while ago in favor of a personal Trello board. On the road however, nothing beats the reliability and convenience of paper. Plus, it's really cool to flick through the pages and see all the city we've been to.

Long story short…

So far, it's been one hell of a roller coaster. Living on the go is definitely not the easiest way to go about life in today's modern society but it's by far the best way to realize how much we're missing out by working 9-to-5s in our concrete castles living each days like the last and the next. In French we say, "boulot, métro, dodo"… Work, commute, sleep…repeat.

When's the last time you woke up to the sunrise, met a (live) deer, felt super productive for a few hours, then put on a wetsuit and surfed for a while, stopped at a farm stand to pick up veggies, set up your kitchen on the beach, opened a nice local red wine, cooked your feast while enjoying the sunset? You know what's the best part? There's no "repeat". Everyday is different.

If you're working remotely and have been contemplating a wild trip or if you've recently read Tim Ferriss' 4-Hour Work Week and feel like just taking off: just do it. Get out there!

P.S.: I realize that every single one of those topics could have been a full blown post. I'll probably get back to it at a later point. In the meantime, ping me if you have any questions.

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Antoine Meunier's profile picture

Antoine Meunier

cruising through #vanlife in a '72 VW bus.

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