There you are, serenely alone in the middle of a quiet, untrammeled desert. Or perhaps you’re camping at the base of a beautiful mountain range. It’s all perfect, at least until you need to get online. And then, poof, the dream of “working from your RV” vanishes, just like that cell signal you checked yesterday on your way to that perfect spot. Welcome to one of the most challenging aspects of working on the road: staying connected.
If you believe all those TV commercials or online ads from cell phone providers, anywhere in the USA you’ll get super-fast 5G to stream movies or play online games. But, as many rural residents can tell you, that’s a great marketing story that doesn’t quite match up to reality. It’s what’s known in the telecom biz as the “last mile” problem. Building a network costs money, and there are plenty of subscribers in cities and suburbs to make it worth the cost. Out in the desert, on the plains, or next to a beautiful mountain range? Not so much. Fewer people = less money for the telecoms to justify building out the network in sparsely populated areas. Out of the cities and suburbs, you’re on your own to cobble together a connectivity strategy.
This post summarizes the hard-earned wisdom I’ve gained in my my six-plus years of staying connected on the road. I’ve divided it into two sections: (1) while you’re moving and (2) while you’re camping. And yes, the struggle is real, my friends, whether you’re driving or sitting fireside at that perfect campground.
(Editorial comment: If you’re *that person* who wants to leave a snarky comment like “I go camping to not be connected,” feel free to quit reading now. Full-timers or long-haulers want (and often need) connectivity. You have it in your house, right? Well, my trailer is my house. ‘Nuff said.)
Let’s Begin: The Truth About Hotspots
If you’re seriously trying to stay connected on the road, let me just say two words: dedicated hotspot. Yes, your phone can be a hotspot, but it’s also a phone and a game system and a calendar and a note-taker and… well, you get the idea. Phones can do a lot of things but they have limited antenna power for pulling in cell signal when it really counts. A dedicated hotspot is a little box that is a small chip and LOT of antenna.
I camped for a season with a couple using their Verizon phones as hotspots while I used my Verizon hotspot; by the end of that trip, they bought a Verizon hotspot because they saw me repeatedly pulling in better signal than they could. Yes, you have to buy a device and add it to your phone plan (or get a hotspot-only plan with a different provider than your phone). I have a hotspot-only plan with Verizon that costs me $95 a month for the hotspot (2 year payoff with no interest) and 100 GB of data/month, with the idle threat that they reserve the right to throttle me after I hit that 100GB mark. For a full-timer or long-hauler, it might be worth the money to stay connected, it depends on your unique situation.
Unless I’m taking a digital break, like last year’s adventures in Utah, I prefer to have signal enough to text someone if needed. I also freelance part-time so I often need connectivity for zoom calls or research or email. When I get surprised by showing up at a place with no signal of any kind, I’m probably not going to stay there very long, to be honest. Some people love the getaway feeling of no connectivity, but for the most part, that’s not me at this point in my life.
Getting Signal While In Motion
From highways to byways and in between, getting (and keeping) a solid connection is not the lock you probably think it is.
Interstate Highways = Good Signal
One of the truisms about looking for signal is to stick to the interstate highways. Truckers need signal, being connected for routing, driver surveillance (how many hours they are driving, for example), and progress to destination. That means almost every interstate highway in the US is going to give you pretty good signal, although you might find yourself losing a call when you go up or down on a hilly road because the thickness of the earth between you and that tower muddies the signal. Or you can lose signal jumping from one cell tower to the next as you drive along; sometimes, the jump is seamless, and sometimes it’s definitely not. Just ask my brother, who has learned to wait five minutes and then call me back if we get disconnected while I’m driving. I think the record is three times in one call, but it could easily be four.
Backroads = Maybe
The bigger the backroad, the better the signal. If it’s a road used by truckers, you’ll probably get a good signal. If it’s flat land, you have a better chance of picking up a signal than if you’re wandering down something winding and wooded, like the Blue Ridge Parkway (although I do get fairly good signal near towns along the BRP).
Taking a Break to Get a Signal
If you’ve been out of cell range for a while, there are always rest stops or off-ramps with truck stops where you can park and then catch up on email, blog posts, work stuff, or just sharing your latest insta pics. And yes, I have done this a fair amount. It’s amazing how excited I can get about a solid 5-bar 5G signal as I approach a Walmart parking lot.
Connecting While Camping
Let’s see what happens when you get to the campground, shall we?
If you’re going to camp and connect, download something like the Speedtest app to your phone, which you can use to test the cell connection of your phone on its home network or connected to your hotspot or campground wifi. You can also use fast.com to check video speed on your tablet, which I recommend if you’re planning to watching anything longer than a three-minute youtube video.
Signal by Type of Campground
Go ahead, ask me the number of national or state campgrounds where wifi was available in six years. My answer would be less than dozen, and probably less than five if I stopped to think about it. County and city parks are somewhat better on this front, but I have limited experience with them and that experience has been a mixed bag. Short recommendation: don’t ever count on wifi at a public campground. (The one brilliant exception to this is Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee, where as of 2021, they had a killer wifi network with super-fast access and no throttling. Just don’t turn off that 10 amp breaker at your site, because the wifi repeaters use that plug!)
Private campgrounds? Well, they usually advertise wifi is available, but… I’ve seen a growing trend of charging for better (or in one case, any!) wifi access. You can have a pretty weak signal for free or you can level up and pay them money for better access. There’s something that annoys me about a private campground charging me $40-50/night and then offering me better (read: decent) wifi for another $3-$7 a night. Some will let you hook up with an unlimited number of devices, but in one case, the paid access was limited to two devices (and I have four, in case you’re wondering…). So far, I’ve refused these “generous” offers to level up and I just use my own hotspots.
Keep in mind that whether you’re trying to get on campground wifi or using your own equipment to hotspot to a cell tower, a *lot* can depend on where in the campground you are. At Powhatan campground in North Carolina, I can pull in signal on one side of the loop but the other one is almost never able to connect. Same equipment, just a different location, maybe all of 100 yards apart as the crow flies. Sometimes you can get wifi at the ranger station, and sometimes the camp host will tell you they drive to a specific intersection or country store to get a signal. You gotta be creative and persistent to stay connected when you’re in the middle of nowhere!
Good Cell = Nirvana
There have been campgrounds where I run speedtest on my three mobile plans and hit the jackpot of super-fast signal for both uploads and downloads. The closer you are to a city or a major highway, the better your chances of pulling in a strong signal.
Weak or No Cell = Frustratingly Normal
Whenever I get to a new spot and Speedtest shows a decent signal, I’m so happy. But that’s not as common an experience as you might think. Campgrounds are generally not right next to cities, and the further out I am, the more I know I’m probably going to have to dive into my bag of tricks to get (and stay) connected.
My favorite trick is the Netgear MiMo antenna, which works (only) with hotspots that have antenna ports, like that Verizion hotspot shown earlier in this post. Some lower-end hotspots don’t have antenna ports, like my T-Mobile hotspot. Sigh. The Netgear antenna doesn’t require any power, so that’s really sweet when you’re watching battery usage because you’re dry camping.
You can invest in a WeBoost RV antenna, and install it to pull in better signal for either cell phones or hotspots without antenna ports. The downside is that it requires 12v power, so if you’re boondocking, you might have to watch your battery status more closely. And while it does work, it’s (a) not cheap and (b) requires setup of the outside antenna each time you use it. Don’t even think about a permanent mount of the outside antenna unless your trailer has a reinforced roof and can support that. (Alto trailers don’t, hence it needs to be set up at each site.)
Campround Wifi Booster?
Getting wifi at a campground largely depends on how close to the router or repeater you are. Well-designed wifi networks, with enough repeaters and signal boosters, are a rare thing in my experience. That’s typically when you see can just get wifi at the campstore or visitor center, so you’ll see a half-dozen people sitting on the porch staring intently at their phone screens almost any time of day in those places.
If the wifi signal is too week at a campground, I usually leverage my own hotspot or iPhone to stay connected because it’s way less frustrating and way more reliable. When the campground has no wifi, which is probably the situation at most state parks and national parks, you’ll be using phone hospotting or dedicated device hotspots if you want to stay online.
I don’t carry a wifi booster. Given the low incidence of wifi at places where I stay, it’s not worth it. Some people swear by them, and if you’re staying mostly at private RV parks, it probably is. I’m mostly in state or national parks, so wifi is a unicorn kind of thing for me.
As far as campgrounds go, there are sources that will give you an idea of cell signal. I have found Campendium’s reviews most useful, not only because the reports are “boots on the ground” campers but also because the reviews are time-stamped so I can see if anyone has been to that spot in the last few months or if the last report was three years ago. A lot changes in cell-signal land over time, so more recent reviews are really helpful. And, yes, I try to leave my own experiences/review there to pay it forward.
Hard Pass on Satellite Internet
I choose to not support private businesses that throw satellites into orbit for the benefit of one billionaire but affect the entire planet (dark skies and astronomy projects, specifically). Keep in mind that satellite connectivity is slower than cable, and doesn’t work without a clear line of sight, so it’s not the nirvana you might wish for. I personally don’t need internet that badly. (In August, T-Mobile announced a hybrid land/satellite network project in partnership with Starlink, set to beta in late 2023, so I’ll be canceling my T-Mobile hotspot when that network comes online.)
My Connectivity Must-Haves
Most of the time, I like having enough internet connectivity to get texts and emails and phone a friend. If I can do that, I can mostly post blogs, althoug uploading photos is slow. I definitely don’t like being completely disconnected unless I choose to, so I have 3 cell providers (one ATT phone, a Verizon hotspot and a T-Mobile hotspot). Among those three, I usually get enough signal to meet my basic needs. I’ve often joked that if anything drives me out of the full-time vagabond life, it will be the ongoing frustration of finding good, solid internet access.
Related Post: Recommendations for Cell Connectivity explains what I use and why.
But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.