Becoming a Digital Nomad (Part 3 – What You Need)
Aug 29, 2020
If you missed out on Parts 1 or 2 of my ‘Working from Roam’ series you can check those out by following these links.
- Part 1 was called ‘Nomadic Leap of Faith’ and focussed on making the decisions to take your office out on the road. Find that HERE
- Part 2 was called ‘Choosing Your Vehicle’. In that post we got into a couple of different vehicle types, and how they may effect or suit your work style. Find that HERE
This month we’ll dig into some of the things that you will need to work. Mostly the basics, but hopefully there will be a few things that you may not have thought of.
Tools of Our Trade
- Power: Electricity is a fundamental requirement for most workers. We look at how you can make it, store it and use it.
- Computers & Storage: Whether you are a fan of Apple or PC. There are some things to watch out for.
- Connection: Your nomadic lifestyle is going to take you away from all that juicy broadband speed you get at home or your office. We’ll look at where and how you’ll get connected.
- Accessories: A few items that will boost your productivity, make things a little more pro or maybe even save your bacon!
Ready to roll? Let’s get into it …
Power to the People
We mentioned in Part 2, different vehicles are going to be able to create and store different amounts of power. Power is usually created by your engine, shore power or solar. That then gets fed into your batteries and from there you can power your work products.
Fill em up
Batteries! You’ll have one, maybe two, as a starter battery for your vehicle. You’re better off not using your vehicle starter battery for your living/work. A ‘House’ or ‘Leisure’ battery is a separate entity, dedicated to your living space.
As always with power. More is better. It’s not unusual for us to blaze through a good amount of amps a day. How much you use is very dependant on you. Finding out what you use, how much it takes to charge and your general power use is essential. Drop us a note if you want some guidance. Whatever you choose, bear in mind that you can pretty much empty lithium batteries with no issues. Lithium batteries will, however, return the favour and empty your bank balance.
AGM / Gel batteries, like lithium, are safe and sealed. But, unlike lithium, will not totally ruin you financially. The kicker is in the fact that AGM / Gel batteries can only be emptied to around 50% before they start to deteriorate. So, don’t drain them more than half way. Factor in this difference in use when you tally up costs vs benefits. A 200ah lithium battery is has almost the same ‘useable’ as a 400ah AGM/Gel battery.
Rev It Up
When you drive your vehicle generates power via the engine and then the alternator. The excess power created can be fed into your house battery system. It almost always (depending on how much solar you have) generates much more power than solar. It’s free. It’s fast. Make the most of it.
In order to get power to your house battery you can connect your house to your starter battery. This runs the risk of you using too much power, killing your starting battery and being stranded.
To combat this, you can instal a device that sits between your starter battery and your house battery. They come in various forms, from a manual switch, a relay that switches on when you start your car and onto more complex devises that watch out for a certain voltage level before the switch on and off.
All of these basically connect and disconnect your two battery systems. Charging when its ok to charge, disconnecting when not charging so that you don’t accidentally drain your vehicle starter battery.
In short, use your engine to fill your wonderful batteries. It’s fast, it’s free and it does it while you are simply driving from camp spot to camp spot.
This Big Road Trip currently uses: Blue Sea ML-ACR Charging Relay
Fun In the Sun
Solar power is a great forum subject. It seems that no-one really knows everything, and even the pros discover new techniques and tricks.
Do not be fooled. You do not get much power from solar unless you have a lot of panels and a lot of sun. We have almost 500w (three big solar panels) on our roof. We get up to 39a in extraordinary conditions and, even then, for the briefest moment. 30a is a good figure on a sunny day. A cloudy day can drop that to just 10a an hour. To put that in perspective, our low power travel kettle takes just over 5a to boil.
Solar power is a great top up. If you don’t use much then it can be your main course of power. But go into solar with eyes open, understand what you use and how much you can expect; and then get as much solar as you can fit.
Solar comes in an array [sic] of different types for different installations. Throw some up on your roof and you have solid or flexible solar options (solid panels are more efficient). You can also get fairly decent suitcase style panels, which you store inside and then put out in the sun.
Suitcase style panels are less convenient than ‘always working’ roof mounted panels. But you can park under shade and place your panels out in the sun. So, that’s a ‘plus’ for them.
This Big Road Trip currently use: 480w roof mounted solid solar panels with a GoPower PWM charge controller. We would advise using a different controller, there are better options available.
Nimbl Vehicles now use Victron Energy products.
Plug it In
Shore power or Electric Hook Up is where you plug your vehicle into a power source and charge it from a power lead. You’ll sometimes find these in campgrounds but it’s amazing where you can find a rogue power point somewhere. A park, a streetlight, a restaurant toilet. You’ll get used to spotting them like you will spotting a water faucet!
More tech geekery, apologies! Let’s keep this short. Some of your gear might use 110v power (or 230v in many countries). Hairdryer, kettle, blender. Any larger item will likely need this greater voltage.
The problem is your batteries are very likely 12v.
An inverter is simply a small nondescript box with a fan that takes your 12v battery power, ramps it up to 110v/230v (depending on the type of inverter you need) and passes that increased voltage to your plug receptacles.
Many overlanders only use 12v items, or only use 12v chargers charging everything. This can work. For a digital nomad, wanting normal power but also to charge things like a laptop faster, an inverter is a must.
This Big Road Trip currently uses: 1,000w Magnum MMS 1012 Pure Sine Inverter Charger. Nimbl has recently adopted a full Victron electrical setup for their new campers and are also providing an update of the full lithium system for existing campers. From solar controller through to inverter charger. Victron have quickly established themselves as the current ‘go to’ for overland electrical systems.
Still With Us?
That’s the geeky part over with. Hopefully it was understandable. I tried to keep it simple but, without actually owning the items, I appreciate it is hard to take in and understand. If you have any questions on power send us an email or message through social media using the links at the foot of this blog post.
The Brains of the Operation
I’ll be honest, I am an Apple fan. Great products, long lasting, they hold their value.
James uses a MacBook Pro 15″ as he does a lot of design, photography and video work.
I use a MacBook Air. It is a little slower than the MacBook Pro, but I don’t use anything that requires a lot of intensive processing. Slower for me is a split second here and there. Slower for James would be minutes extra for video encoding or something. You are likely to know if you need a more powerful computer.
We also use iPhones. We use them to ‘tether’ our laptops and get online (more on that later). I have an old iPhone 6 Plus which, despite a few drops, knocks, heat and dusty environments, is still going strong. James has an iPhone 7 Plus which he will be upgrading to an iPhone 12 when it comes out.
Whatever your phone, it is likely going to be a well used camera and video recorder. So, bear that in mind.
With a ‘Plus’ sized phone we found we have not needed a tablet for navigation. The size of the iPhone allowing enough space for maps. As we age and our eyesight depreciates, we’ll likely revisit this assumption.
Depending on your job, you may end up creating a bunch of files that your really, really do not want to lose.
Life on the road can be a maelstrom of bumps, knocks, shakes, sand, dust, rain, heat, cold. The last time I looked none of those things were laptop friendly.
Ensure you back up your work. We use Google Drive or DropBox for ‘cloud’ backups. We also use a Lacie Rugged Drive as a hard version backup. They are solid, durable and able to cope with everything we have thrown at it so far. It comes in various sizes.
This Big Road Trip currently uses: Lacie Rugged Drive
Get Yourself Connected
A little more geekery for you, but I’ll keep it light. You have a couple of choices, wifi or cell data. When Elon Musk gets his wonderful sounding satellite data plans off the ground, literally, we’ll write another blog post. We can not wait for this evolution in cell data. Satellite data will mean you get great signal, everywhere, and Musk is promising amazing price plans.
Wifi Close By
Wifi sounds great, in reality I would not rely on it. Rarely it is fast, sometimes it is good, often wifi will be reasonably slow or entirely useless. A 1Mb connection shared by thousands of YouTube streaming charlatans intent on ruining your days work.
In short. If a campground advertises ‘wifi’ be prepared for it to be slower than a VW Kombi, with just as many breakdowns.
When the sun goes down, and the locations close, these wifi hotspots can be great though. Which leads us to
Wifi and the Long Distance Relationship
We have a gadget. It works 85% of the time with wifi connections where you have the password and you can use it a reasonable distance away.
It is a wifi extender. Basically a wifi arial with a router attached. It picks up a wifi signal from some distance and feeds it through the router in your own vehicle. You connect to your own router and, boom, you now have a wifi connection.
This is great when you are camped near that coffee shop or restaurant where you obtained the wifi password earlier in the day. Or that campground that has a ‘wifi area’ 500m away from where you are actually parked.
Later in the evening as people drift back to their vehicles, or early in the morning whilst still in bed. You can hook up to that distant wifi connection whilst everyone else stares at a ‘No Wifi Connection Available’ message on their screen.
The added benefit is that you can also use public wifi in the comfort and quiet of your own vehicle. Park in a quiet corner of a library car park or just down the road from a coffee shop and use the extender to pick up their wifi.
Is this essential? No. Until it is. It a couple of hundred bucks but we have easily made that back many times over with the number of times we have used it to work where otherwise we would not have been able to.
During lockdown at Bonanza Campround in Colombia, we had wifi in our camper in the camping area when no-one else was able to get it. 3 months with unlimited YouTube and Netflix. Not bad.
This Big Road Trip currently has: RedPort Halo Wifi Extender
Tether Me Senseless
Let’s cut to the chase. Get a data plan. Tether your phone to your laptop and use that data. It’s faster. Easier. More convenient. More reliable.
There are not that many places where cell reception is a dud. And you can usually tell where those places are going to be. If you have to drive into the desert for three hours to get to a camp spot, you may be out of luck.
Two main options prevail. Google Fi and Local SIM cards. Use Google Fi if you don’t really mind about cost and just want convenience. There are considerable savings if you run with local SIM cards.
So what is tethering? Basically, it’s turning on your phones ‘hotspot’ option. Using your laptop, search for wifi and select your phone. Your laptop will then be ‘tethered’ to your phone and you can use your cell data. Tethering can be done via USB or wirelessly. If going the local SIM route, ensure that you have a data plan that allows tethering.
Now that you have the basics dialled, there are a few add-ons that might make life easier. Here are some of our favourites.
Phones, cameras and plenty of other gadgets all charge via USB. Having USB sockets will make things a lot easier. These cone in various flavours, but being able to plug straight into a 12v source means that you don’t have to turn on the inverter to use 110v/230v.
Alternatively, powered charging stations do need an inverter for more power, but can often charge multiple devices quickly. If you have a lot of devices that charge on USB / USB-C / Micro USB etc then you are going to be much better off with a power station with multiple charging ports so you are not endlessly digging around for that little USB charger block that came with your phone.
“.. Arrgh, more batteries! ..” I hear you cry. Well, these are simple and cheap and can save your bacon if you are running out of juice just when you need it. Grab a couple of these guys and keep them charged. You never know when you’ll need one.
Anker make great power banks and they come in a variety of options – some might say too many! We have a little one that weighs next to nothing and slips easily into any pocket without a bulge. We grab it whenever we are headed out and our phone charge is a little on the low side. It charges an iPhone surprisingly quickly and you can use the phone while it is charging. We also have a much larger one, we have never used it but it charges a modern smart phone (like an iPhone X) around 8 times. The small one is excellent and will probably be fine for the majority of people. If you want to recharge your laptop, you have have to go a bit larger still.
Keep an eye on the charger ports. To recharge the power banks themselves – Some have a Mini USB for charging, others a USB and some a USB-C. Some also have a mix of those. To use the power bank to recharge your device – Some have built in leads, some have external leads, some come with no leads. Some are USB or USB-C or micro USB. And then some have more than one port so you can charge more than one device at a time.
So, you can see why there are so many options! The key thing is to know what you want to charge, what type of charger cable that devices needs and whether you want to charge more than one device at a time. That will narrow down your field considerably. From those remaining options, look for a power bank you can charge using a lead that works best for you.
Headphones and Mic
If you are teleconferencing and want to up your game, headphones and a Mic might be an option. I teleconference all the time and use wireless headphones, they double as my Spanish Learning headphones and run headphones too.
We have not needed a microphone, using the laptop built in version works just fine for me. James is looking into a better mic for video recording, we’ll update this post once he gets it.
This Big Road Trip currently uses: Jaybird Vista True Wireless Sport Headphones
We nearly didn’t bring this. A 30 foot extension cord that winds back into a case. We have a thick shore power cable for the camper already, but threw this in as a ‘we can always get rid of it’ it. We use it all the time.
Free power is always nice, and when plugged into shore power you get to charge your main battery bank and can take the opportunity to charge everything else as well.
There is an equation that applies to shore power and your camper. The distance from when you park/camp is the distance of your power lead plus another few feet. Having an extension cord will give you a much wider radius around your camper form which to grab power. Offices, toilet blocks, security guard kiosks; you name it.
Just Do It
In Part 1 we covered making the decision to become a Digital Nomad. In Part 2 we looked at some vehicles you could do that in, and here we have covered some of the ‘stuff’ that can make that dream become a reality.
Of course, this is kind of a surface scratcher. Trying to herd this particular group of overland advice kittens is inevitably going to raise as many questions as it answers and as you dial down into what might work for you there is going to be some element of a gamble.
If you are after some help or advice, please feel free to contact me through our social media channels listed below.
You can follow Claire at ThisBigRoadTrip.com or her Social Media accounts.