Six Months of International Travel with Starlink
Jun 15, 2023
“Stay calm; call 911!” I instructed Luisa as I carefully brought the Nimbl to a stop on the icy road deep within the Yukon. The van lay wedged in the snow on its roof, the wheels spinning in the air like a stranded, upended tortoise’s legs. I jumped out to assist my inverted convoy mate and his dog. They were miraculously unscathed (I will tell the entire story with time). Luisa could communicate with the emergency services across the emergency bandwidth despite lacking a cell signal. I set up my Starlink as soon as my friend and his lab were installed in our camper with a cup of tea and a bowl of water. Within minutes, we were in direct contact with the world, arranging recovery and taking care of the business of emergency.
Six months earlier, we had placed an order for the Starlink RV package while traveling through Oaxaca, Mexico. I was resistant to purchasing the satellite internet service and hardware as I loathed the idea of being permanently connected to the internet no matter where I was. There are a few reasons for this, primarily because during the pandemic lockdown in South Africa, I demonstrated an evident lack of restraint when faced with free time and high-speed internet. Being online is not always good for my mental health, but it is essential to keep us connected, earning, and thus traveling. I appreciate being able to escape the world in my vehicle, to head far out where emails, social media, and the modern world hardly exist. I find peace where my mind can think its thoughts alone. The solution, of course, is self-discipline.
We collected the Starlink in La Paz, Baja, two weeks after placing the order. (There is a very good reason to order Starlink in Mexico; the hardware and monthly subscription are almost half that of the identical service in the USA, and “roaming” internationally is entirely possible. There are, naturally, terms and conditions, such as a Mexican address, but a hotel address will do). Three days later, we aired down, engaged low range, and drove out onto our favorite beach. We loaded the Nimbl with enough picanha steak, groceries, charcoal, and heavy mesquite firewood for us to stay out in our cove for up to two wonderfully lonely but connected weeks. We intended to see how long we could stay off the grid, relying solely on our food and fresh water supplies, the existing juice in our lithium batteries, and solar charging. Our stores lasted almost 10 days, and if we had had a freshwater source and I was a better fisherman, we could have stayed out much longer.
Most mornings, we would wake and set up the portable solar panels and Wagan lithium cube, which had recently found itself dedicated almost entirely to powering the satellite receiver. While the coffee was brewing, we would call the kids via Messenger (they are adults now and living in Mexico as we continue to travel) before taking our dog for a long, long walk down the beach to the “big tree,” enjoying the winter sun on our backs, and again on our faces when we returned to the camper. Following breakfast, we would answer emails and work through our tasks and responsibilities. I would usually listen to my favorite British radio station online while I worked, and at the end of a productive day, we would call the kids again before listening to a Spotify playlist as the fire crackled and the sun set. It did not take long for it to dawn on us that Starlink was an actual, bona fide game changer for us full-time overlanders.
No longer would we need to retreat to paid campsites or pay for a small motel room to furiously catch up on work and emails, and no longer would we find ourselves beyond the reach of an emergency call (yes, we do head into places that remote). No longer would a breakdown in a far-flung area require a long walk to connect with my network of online mechanics, and no longer would we lack entertainment on those long and boring nights. I also found it incredibly helpful to research solutions to irritating problems while working on the vehicle or doing general maintenance and repairs. It was also gratifying to help other travelers who had a family emergency and needed to phone home (the going rate for hot-spotting is one cold beer per half hour in non-emergency situations)
On a January drive from Cabo, bound for the USA and later the Yukon, we confirmed that we were not the only travelers who had discovered the benefits of Starlink, which we had seen often at organized campsites but not so much in the “wild.” At a flat, wide, and windswept arroyo, we came across a herd of vanlifers and overlanders at least one hundred strong. Every shape and size of a four-wheeled vehicle was on display, covered in dust, from lowly delivery vans to ridiculous orange Unimogs. The entire tribe was there, and beside or on top of almost every vehicle was the now ubiquitous flat, white, and rectangular dish on a gray metal base, all pointed in the same direction. The further we traveled, the more we noticed the dishes scattered beside vehicles. Anyone working away from an office can now toil entirely remotely while living in a van on a beach or in a desert, spending pennies daily and earning a living salary. Retirees can now stay in touch with their grandkids while watching golf or football under the comfort of a stretched dollar and a palapa; freelancers are freer than ever.
What are the downsides to Starlink use? Besides the initial cost and the pervasive nature of a permanent internet connection, the two most significant challenges are the bulk of the unit and the amount of precious power the Starlink unit greedily consumes. The Starlink hardware is angular and pointy, the cables about 20 feet longer than necessary, and there is no simple way to stash the unit safely while traveling. The solution to the bulk is to permanently mount the satellite on your vehicle’s roof, though most of the mounting kits seem DIY. With the unit permanently mounted, the daily slog of deployment and packing up would be avoided. And, it is now possible to access the internet while on the move with much more expensive hardware and subscription service (we will soon publish an article listing the options available). The second challenge—its thirst for power—can be addressed by installing additional or dedicated batteries or hacking physically into your expensive Starlink and converting it to run on 12 volts, significantly reducing the power draw.
Honestly, I lack faith in my electronic skills to perform this surgery. Of course, the unit will not use less power if it is only switched on when needed, but what is the point of having satellite internet if you can only turn it on three times a day for an hour at a time? Trusting in the nature of progress, this will likely be an issue solved with the march of time.
In general, we have been impressed not only with the speed of the Starlink internet service as we have traveled across Mexico, the USA, and the Arctic Ocean but also by the robustness of the hardware. Beyond the Arctic Circle, the unit worked without issue despite being outside at temperatures as low as – 45˚F. The hardware has been bumped and manhandled almost daily without showing any sign of weakness. The structural integrity of the Starlink hardware, specifically the higher priced “flat” unit, was proven when we visited our friend’s van in the tow trucker’s snow-blown yard once it had been returned to four wheels. Surprisingly, the roof-mounted unit survived the rollover and did not have a scratch. Time will tell if it will operate as it did before the rollover; I have high expectations.
It is worth noting that, before the accident, we could access the internet via the “flat” Starlink mounted on our convoy partner’s van as we traveled in convoy if we drove behind him and within 300 feet. At night we would hotspot off his Starlink, and no matter where we were, the upload and download speeds were fast and reliable. In conclusion, the Starlink RV package has lived up to our expectations and has proven to be an invaluable tool for traveling and for working remotely. We have no regrets and can confidently say that the product was well worth the investment and has paid for itself a few times over. Over the next few months, we will install the Starlink permanently on our Land Rover Defender and look forward to a fruitful relationship with Mr. Musk.