How To Work Remotely While Camping

On a conference call at Wyeth Campground in the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. We’ve been combining work with full-time camping and travel for nearly two years.

I still remember my sad, old office: the white board, the calendar, the window overlooking a parking lot. Today, my office is a meadow overlooking Oregon’s mighty Rogue River…or wherever I want to be.

In 2014, my husband Chris and I upended our lives so we could travel full time by van, mostly camping around North America. Selling all our stuff? Easy. Deciding where to travel? Easy. Figuring out how to work remotely while camping? Not so easy.

But we’ve been working remotely while traveling full time for two years and finally have it figured out—we think. We’ve broken out the laptop in the Florida Keys and video conferenced near kangaroos at a national park in Australia. If you want to spend more time outdoors while still earning an income, here are some tips for taking your work from the office to the campground.

LOCATION-INDEPENDENT WORK

The most important part of working remotely while camping is having work you can take anywhere. That usually means knowledge-based or creative work. But you needn’t be a software engineer. Lots of professions have room for location-independence, whether it’s seeing patients via telemedicine, translating documents or selling your art via Instagram. Here are some ideas for getting started:

Doing some writing before taking off on an afternoon bike ride at Valley of the Rogue State Park

CHOOSING A CAMPSITE

When choosing campsites, think about any specific requirements for your work. A writer working on a novel might be OK camping in a remote canyon without phone or mobile internet access, but a project manager who needs to interact with team members might not. Look for these work-friendly campsite features:

  • Shaded or covered picnic tables: More ergonomic than a camping chair with your computer in your lap, and protects you from the elements (and screen glare)
  • Sites that aren’t packed together: Less chance of distractions or background noise, especially if you’re on the phone or on a video conference
  • Campground Wi-Fi: Try to pick a site close to the router, if you can
  • Outdoor common areas: Some campgrounds have a common area that have plugs and picnic tables
  • Proximity to a town: When all else fails, take a short drive or bike ride to a coffee shop, library or stronger cell service
  • Drive-in sites: Most people respect the campers’ code and don’t take from other campers, but if your work requires expensive equipment like a laptop or video camera you’ll want your vehicle to be in sight (and valuables out of sight) rather than in an overflow lot

When we know we have to prioritize work, we camp at state parks or county parks. They are usually closer to municipalities, so they typically have better cell and data service.

This gazebo offers Wi-Fi, electricity and shade from the brutal desert sun at Lake Cahuilla Recreation Area outside Palm Springs, California

GETTING ONLINE

Because most location-independent work requires internet, you’ll likely care most about getting online and keeping your devices charged (which I’ll talk about next). When you’re at camp, you have three options:

  • Light Use: Campground Wi-Fi. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s frustrating. Campground Wi-Fi is free, but also has fatal flaws: If you’re far from the router or in a packed campground with people trying to download movies, you won’t be able to send a one-sentence email. Think about it like free Wi-Fi in an airport: It can be helpful when it’s available, but you wouldn’t want to bet an important work project on it. We’ve had luck with campground Wi-Fi at smaller county parks.
  • Medium Use: Tethering to your smartphone. This is the option we use since a lot of our work, including video calls, can be done via smartphone and we only need to tether occasionally. This only works if you’re in a place where your mobile provider has good coverage. When we first started out, we signed up with T-Mobile because they offered unlimited data, but the signal was so weak outside of metropolitan areas that it was unusable for working at a campsite. We’ve since switched back to Verizon, and I’ve even been able to email from very-remote Great Basin National Park near the Nevada-Utah border.Most smartphones allow you to create a personal hotspot, allowing multiple devices to surf the internet using your mobile data plan. The upside is you likely don’t need to purchase a separate data plan or device to lug around. The downside is it drains your smartphone battery, especially if you’re tethering multiple devices or using it for more than an hour or two. Also, if you only have 3G-speed service or lower at your campsite, you can’t make a call and be online at the same time. (TIP: If you’re in a national park without cell service, try making your way to the visitor’s center; there’s a good chance you’ll have some signal there in a pinch.)

A beautiful outdoor office in Long Key State Park in Florida; with that view, we didn’t get much work done!

  • Heavy Use: Wi-Fi hotspots. If you need to be on your laptop and with a reliable connection, hotspots may be the best choice for you. Keep in mind that the service and speed are not all that different from a smartphone if you’re going through your existing mobile provider, but you have the added bonus of sparing your phone’s battery life. In fact, many hotspots last for days without needing a charge. You may need to change your existing mobile data plan or sign a contract. There are also services like Karma, which relies on the Sprint mobile network to deliver their service and offers monthly or prepaid data plans.
  • When It Absolutely, Positively Has to Work: Go to town. You can always take a short trip into town to find a coffee shop, library or co-working space if needed. For instance, we loved the Manzanita Campground in the Coconino National Forest outside Sedona, Arizona. It was secluded and beautiful, but also only a 15-minute drive from town. We’d work for an hour or two, then lose ourselves in the red rocks.

Catching up on work, tethered to my smartphone, after the sun went down in Palmetto State Parkin Texas

KEEPING DEVICES CHARGED

My husband and I have a rule called ABC: Always Be Charging. We keep a power inverter that allows us to charge our smartphones and laptops off of the car battery while we’re driving. We’ll occasionally top off our smartphones while we’re parked at camp (with the engine off—don’t be those people!). The inverter has a built-in safety that switches the power off if we’re in danger of draining the car battery. Here are other ways of keeping your devices charged:

  • Purchasing extended-life batteries or spare battery packs
  • Installing a second, house battery into your car or van (charged by solar or your car’s alternator)
  • Solar-powered chargers
  • Outlets in public campground spaces, such as bathrooms (ABC, even when brushing your teeth!)
  • Powered campsites, although they cost more than primitive sites
  • Hand-crank generators and other creative solutions

Hiking around the canyon rim at Dead Horse Point State Park (depressing name, beautiful place) outside Moab, Utah

ENJOYING THE CAMPING, TOO

You might be thinking, When am I supposed to have fun? Maintaining balance if you’re working while camping is super important, especially since snafus like a downed cell phone tower can throw your fun plans out of whack. (This happened to us when we were at Moran State Park on Orcas Island, Washington; fortunately, there’s a library on the island.)

My biggest piece of advice is to plan on staying places for a good length of time, whatever that is for you. Two days to explore Arches and Canyonlands national parks isn’t enough if you have half a day of work to do.

When we know we only have a day or two somewhere, we prioritize only the most pressing tasks or take the days off entirely. We’ve even adjusted our itinerary when we know something important is happening, like a time-sensitive shipment arriving at a UPS Store for my husband’s business. You can also decide that mornings are for exploring, afternoon is for working, and evenings are for the campfire. With a little planning, you can make almost anything work.

Even if you’re working on something difficult, you’ll be amazed by how soothing it is work surrounded by nature instead of a cubicle. Just remember: When you’re done for the day, switch off and take a hike!

Have other tips or hacks for working while camping? Please share them on the Hipcamp Facebookpage!

Words and photos by Tamara Murray

Tamara is one half of the van-dwelling duo at Nomads With a Van, where she shares practical van-living tips. Her favorite campgrounds are on Forest Service land. She helps social-good nonprofits with their communications, earning jealous laughs when joining video conferences from campgrounds.

Hipcamp Staff

Hipcamp is an online marketplace where you can list, discover, and book campsites and accommodations on private and public land. Hipcamp is your go-to guide to getting outside. If you’re a landowner, Hipcamp creates new revenue streams for your business, which can help conserve your land and keep it wild. #FindYourselfOutside #LeaveItBetter

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