On Becoming a Digital Nomad

Three years ago, I sold my house, moved into a 36’ RV, and became a digital nomad. While traveling around the country, I maintained a full-time IT position.

This all started when my wife wanted to go on a cross-country motorcycle trip.  I really could not see us “sleeping on the ground” and staying in a hotel every night on an extended trip was not cost-effective, shall we say.  So what did we do?  Of course, we bought an RV.

My last camping experience was too many years ago to even remember (something about Boy Scouts). But we were game and completely jumped into the water. I had never driven an RV or even spent a day in an RV before purchasing ours.  Crazy as we were, we bought it sight unseen. But... we did a lot of research.  We set our requirements (wife said, “must have a washer/dryer”), spent hours on RV Trader, full-time RV Facebook groups, asked questions of those already in the full-time RV lifestyle and made our plan.

On our first official trip, we drove from Virginia to Santee State Park in South Carolina.  I woke up early after the first night and turned on the water to wash a glass.  No hot water came out. Panic immediately set in.  Here we were on our first full day of living in an RV and my hot water had gone out. Part of the secret to a successful RV lifestyle is tapping into the dedicated community of RV folks online.  There’s always someone out there who has “been there, done that.” I posted about my lack of hot water.  Someone suggested “turn the handle the other direction”. Ugh! I was in such a panic that the simple solution escaped me. I am sure I would have eventually settled down and figured this out but the voice of reason on that Facebook community helped me on that first day.  And it would not be the last time I turned to my community of other full-time RVers.

Like any other digital or technology project, there were clear steps to “project manage” this decision to become a digital nomad.  Determine requirements. Research and identify solutions. Establish a plan. Implement. Measure for success. Find a user community for support. Repeat as required.

Gathering Requirements

I knew connectivity was going to be the biggest concern---how do you telecommute from the desert, the mountains of Colorado, or the California seaside?

Knowing this lifestyle was going to be a reality, planning was key.  How do I do this, what do I need?  I started with research from other RV digital nomads who had a lifestyle like that I was trying to attain. My initial focus was on the technology; what devices would I need, what carriers and plans were dependable and cost-effective, what antenna would work? 

Connectivity

My goal was to find a carrier with the broadest U.S. coverage combined with the best plan.  I ended up with a cellular hotspot plan.  Some nomads use satellite connections, but these are inconsistent and hard to set up as you move around.  AT&T had good nationwide coverage and they were offering a plan that “kind of” unlimited.  You got 22gb of data per month, after which your bandwidth COULD be slowed if you were on a congested tower.  Other options offered a hard throttle of data after 22gb.  My intended use was business, of course, but let’s be honest--- in an RV, I was going to use my data plan for tv streaming, Netflix, and general Internet access as well. 

We hit the road with AT&T on board.  The next consideration on the planning side was to consider RV camping locations which were in the AT&T coverage areas.  This involved looking up various RV sites to see if there was coverage so that we could pre-plan where we were going and ensure we would have coverage.  Was it always perfect?  Of course not.  There were times we only had 3-4 Mbps connectivity which limited things like video calling but I found this was enough bandwidth to effectively support clients from my location. Slow Internet was sometimes the sacrifice we had to make to look out our window at the Redwoods of California or the Oregon coast while tackling a server issue.  There are plenty of stunning places in the U.S. to choose from with acceptable coverage.

However, there will be glitches, as in any technology project, so what’s the backup plan?  If you get to a site and there’s no service?  Do you move to another campground? Do you move the RV to a different location?  For example, when we were in South Dakota, the site was in a gully between two hills--- very limited service.  I went a quarter mile up a hill and got 4 bars.  When faced with limited connectivity, I would look for a Starbucks, local library, McDonalds or other free hotspot within short commuting range.  Digital nomad’s secret:  Look for a Lowe’s hardware.  Building contractors use Lowe’s WiFi in the parking lot. 

As the journey continued, there were lessons learned one of which was “don’t reply on campsite provided WiFi”.  Some campsites locations offered free WiFi. HA! We never found a campground WiFi that outperformed my hotspot.  RV sites and parks do not buy a big enough Internet pipe to accommodate 100 campsites, with kids on their phones, parents streaming Netflix and digital nomads trying to work.

I kept my ear to the ground as to what was available and over time refined the plan.  Redundancy included use of our Verizon devices with a 15gb hotspot on each device.  With 4 devices (2 phones, 2 iPads), there was 60gb in potential data services. Six months after we went out on the road, Verizon came out with a truly unlimited hotspot plan.  This was a great tool to add to the toolbox though we found that Verizon coverage was not as good as AT&T coverage in many of the remote areas we stayed. I did also research offerings from T-Mobile and Sprint but their coverages were only good if you are fairly near to urban areas. 

What questions do you need to ask about connectivity to establish your requirements?

  • What do you do if…? 
  • What is the current state of the wireless market?
  • Is there a better plan?
  • Are there appliances that can help, such as signal boosters?
  • Where are you going to be and what is your environment? 

I recommend redundancy in other services, as well.  For virtual conferencing, I use Zoom, Skype, Teams, WebEx, and others, depending on what the attendees prefer.  I had fun with virtual backgrounds; no one knew I was “camping” unless I wanted them to. 

Hardware

As my experience on the road broadened, I found I needed something that could boost the connection signal.  I ended up with two antennas which I was constantly tweaking to get the best performance based on our current location. Redundancy in hardware is important as well as in connectivity, and this was learned the hard way.  A lightning storm in South Carolina one evening completely fried my main laptop (a MacBook Air).  Luckily, I had brought along an old MS Surface laptop and was able to continue working while I repaired/replaced my main computer. The Surface was not quite robust enough for what I needed but it bridged the gap while I procured new hardware.  My main laptop now is a Dell.  However, I learned my lesson.  I have the Dell, the Surface, and my MacBook is back up and available. 

Where to store data

My experience with lightning is one cautionary tale around where you should store your organization’s data:  not on the local computer.  I keep nothing on the local computer.  I use various cloud services, one for work-related document storage and one for personal use.  These are inexpensive, secure, and easy to use.

The Lifestyle

Do I recommend a digital nomad lifestyle?  You bet.  In the past three years, we have visited more than 20 of the US National Parks, many local and state parks and visited half the states of the U.S., and not just for a quick weekend.  We generally stayed in place for a month at a time, sometimes longer if we really like the locale.  Everywhere we settled, I was able to work a normal work week and take advantage of the sights on our off time.  We even stayed for a full week in the desert of Arizona boondocking (an RV term) without anyone else around.

Keys to Becoming a Digital Nomad

The keys to working successfully while roaming the country (or the world) are no different than what IT professionals should be doing in every project that they undertake:

  • Gather requirements
  • Plan, look at your plan, replan
  • Anticipate obstacles and look for redundancy options
  • Implement
  • Keep abreast of changes, enhancements
  • Adjust as necessary
  • And all along the way, get a good community where you can learn, bounce ideas, get support and even make friends

Traveling the country while still being able to successfully perform a full-time job was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.  I am glad I was able to share this with my wife as we now have a lifetime of memories and too many pictures.  Unfortunately, we have recently come off the road but are now starting our new adventure from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where I have high-speed Internet but still keep a cellular hotspot for redundancy and multiple laptops just in case of that freak lightning storm.

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