Lessons Learned: Internet & Technology

I wrote these thoughts after our first year traveling fulltime as a family. Shortly after this we had sold off our house and returned to the road fulltime.

Internet Connectivity

Since I needed to be online to keep an income coming in internet connectivity was important.

We’ve seen some people attempt similar trips either assuming they’ll just use free available wi-fi or just tethering an existing iPhone, etc - but those approaches seemed risky to us (we do like to eat).

Options included a 3G aircard (or “mi-fi” type unit) or a satellite based approach.  The latter involved equipment started at $1500 & went up from there, so we went with a USB aircard approach. 

3G Internet

With a 3G based approach you are only going to find connectivity where the phone companies think they can make money - so around either busy freeways or population centers. 

From a practical perspective this means many of the beautiful natural places in the country will probably not have a signal. 

If we wanted to visit a Yosemite, Yellowstone or Grand Canyon we’d look for a private park closer to a population center and offering wi-fi.  This way we’d increase our chances of having a workable signal while keeping us close enough to daytrip into the park.

This approach worked well.  There were only a handful of times when we had no usable signal and had to move strictly to find one. The aircard proved handy.

If we were headed out for the day and I wasn’t certain I could find wifi I’d just pull the aircard from the router and tuck it into my backpack. I watched other RV’ers struggle with the stowage, setup and breakdown of a freestanding satellite dish and it looked like a real hassle, especially if it was windy. 

Internet Lessons Learned

  • The downtime of visits to natural areas with known internet “dead-zones” can be minimized by staying in a more populated area and commuting in to sight-see
  • Most private RV parks offer free wi-fi but more often than not it’s either not working or too slow/unreliable to depend on
  • If the park wi-fi isn’t working it’s a fair bet that no one on hand will know how to fix it
  • 3G coverage is pretty good around major freeways and population centers
  • Libraries are the best place for free wi-fi - they offer quiet with comfortable seating, no expectation that you buy something, and overall faster & more reliable wi-fi than RV parks
  • Exterior antennas for both 3G and wi-fi can make the difference between a usable and unusable signal

Technology

Other than the gear required for internet connectivity our technology in the trailer consisted of:

  • 2 Windows laptops (my work machine and a shared family unit)
  • an external back up drive
  • Two cell phones (an iPhone & a non smartphone)
  • 3 iPods
  • 2 Garmin GPS units (kindly provided by Garmin for our use)
  • Cameras - A Nikon DSLR, a Canon P&S (and the iPhone)

Computers

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For computers - there were many occasions where the family laptop was desired by more than one person at once but the family learned to negotiate for it. In a pinch the kids could also use my iPhone to check their email.  Backups were done both to the external drive and to a cloud-based service.

Music

For music - the iPods were a Christmas gift.  Initially the kids didn’t have their own as I wanted drive time to be family time (I don’t like how as a society we’ve become so disconnected while driving with kids tuned out with headphones on or watching movies). 

As the trip went on I realized how many hours we’d be driving and how for many of those hours there just wasn’t much to look at, so we bought iPods and set some rules around their usage.

Navigation

For route planning - we used a combination of Google maps on the PCs & iPhone and would then plug addresses into the Garmin unit for actual in-car navigation. 

Many times we would be in transit while MsBoyink researched destinations on the iPhone.  We did often find that Google map data was out of date or incorrect so learned to double-check against Garmin’s data or confirm addresses via corporate websites.

Photography

For photography - I bought a used Nikon D40 DSLR before the trip that served us well. 

For video, “throw-away” photos, or during inclement weather I’d usually just use my iPhone. 

The Canon point and shoot was only used a few times, mostly when the family was somewhere without me and MsBoyink didn’t want to drag the big DSLR along.

Books

The one piece of tech we didn’t take advantage of yet is an eReader. 

We’re all heavy readers and we’ve trucked many books around this past year.  We donate the read ones where we can (either RV park libraries or Goodwill) and have restocked with fresh material at Goodwills or library sales.

It’s worked, but it’s time to look to technology to save some weight and make reading easier.

To that end I’ve since purchased a Kindle to experiment with and if we like it will probably buy 2 more.

Technology Lessons Learned

  • RV’s are inherently insecure - have multiple backups making sure one is off-site
  • 2 Laptops may not be enough as the kids get older and schooling demands increase
  • A centrally located “charging center” reduces clutter and keeps track of all the various chargers & cables
  • A network attached backup drive would have made for easier and more frequent backups
  • It’s OK for kids to “tune out” for portions of drive times - we had lots of family time to make up for it
  • Don’t take a trip like this without a great camera to capture the memories of it
  • Don’t buy technology for the sake of technology, but rather when it fills a need and can reduce weight/clutter
  • Don’t let the urge to record the trip get in the way of enjoying it “in the moment”
  • No matter what RV park websites say always call ahead to check availability, price, and state of the wi-fi.
  • Before leaving to go visit something like, oh, the Grand Canyon, make sure that you put the SD card back into the camera. Or carry a spare. Or have friends willing to lend you theirs.
Storybird on a laptop

Storybird on a laptop

Boyink sucking up free library wi-fi

Boyink sucking up free library wi-fi

Other First-Year Lessons

What Technology Lessons Have You Learned?

Did you use a different way to get internet? How did that go?

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9 Comments Lessons Learned: Internet & Technology

  1. Picture of JennJennNovember 04, 2011

    Helpful post!  We got one of those 3G Verizon cards and between that and our iPhones (Brent can tether..I can’t) we’ve been good…so far! I suspect we will plan our more remote visits around Brent’s work.

    I don’t even want to list the amount of technology we are traveling with…it’s embarrassing! We got full insurance on the contents of our rv to be safe.  We already owned all of it and we stored a fair amount before we left.  I keep thinking about a Kindle even though the iPad has a Kindle app.  I just don’t like the the iPad screen.  It’s too bright or something and hurts my eyes.  Kindles are so affordable now days that it seems like it would be worth it esp. when our library loans Kindle books.  Still its one more thing.  I’d like to know how you like yours once you spend some time with it.

  2. Picture of AmyAmyNovember 05, 2011

    You sound like you’ve got more options for internet in the States than we do in Australia.  We are really struggling with lack in internet.

  3. Picture of JarradJarradNovember 05, 2011

    Do you have a lot of solar panels too?  We’ve got a similar level of technology to you (and kindles so that we have books) and find that the solar panels only just cope with the amount of electronics.  It’s not just the limited access that is hard.  Agree with you about relying on wi-fi hotspots ... they are usually limited with the amount of downloads, too.

  4. Picture of BoyinkBoyinkNovember 06, 2011

    No solar or genset. We didn’t boondock much due to needing to stay connected to keep an income rolling in.

  5. Picture of Thing 1Thing 1November 22, 2011

    I really liked this post. When we are in the car Thing 2 has the iPod touch 4th gen and he can take movies, video chat on real wifi and all the things a iPhone can do except calling and stuff. I have an iPhone w/o service. Did you know apple has a kindle app?

    I also have my own macbook air so computering isn’t an issue.

  6. Picture of BoyinkBoyinkNovember 22, 2011

    Yep - I have the Kindle app on my iPhone, but still prefer to read on the Kindle with it’s high-resolution screen.

    I just bought a MacBook Air yesterday..;)

  7. Picture of Thing 1Thing 1November 22, 2011

    Don’t you just LOVE IT????? I do! It’s light enough to hold with one hand but no dvd player. :( But we have a huge computer monitor in our room and a blurry dvd player and 2 personal dvd players. Did you get the iPad 2? I also like how that is and it’s good for playing games on it.

  8. Picture of BoyinkBoyinkNovember 22, 2011

    So far I do - it’s my first Mac so it’s taking some getting used to. No iPads here, just an iPhone.

  9. Picture of CarlynCarlynDecember 10, 2011

    I live in Canada so perhaps its different in the US, but if not a heads up on buying a Kindle as opposed to other e-readers. Kindle is completely tied to purchasing books through Amazon. Other e-readers can purchase books off of multiple websites,  borrow from libraries, and access free content, which the Kindle won’t allow. I bought a Kindle and I love it, but if I had to do it again I would chose a different brand so I had more freedom in my reading.

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