tldr; Alayna cried. McDonald’s is the real MVP.
One of the first things people ask us when we tell them that we’re living in a van (right after they ask how we shower and go to the bathroom) is “How are you working while traveling?”. This post will be a bit about the last week of February, which we split between Tucson and El Paso, and will also give a glimpse into how our van-work setup has been working throughout our first month and a half on the road.
First of all, we are both really fortunate to have jobs that allow us to work remotely. This is not an accident, nor is it just a bi-product of many companies moving to a remote-work setup due to COVID-19. When Choi and I first started dating, we talked about how we both wanted to travel long-term and we knew that we would need to have jobs that we could keep while traveling. For the last ~2 years we’ve both been looking for flexible, remote jobs, and we were both lucky enough to find and start those jobs at the beginning of 2020.
For our jobs, all we need is access to good internet and a way to keep our laptops charged. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong!
Cue months of research into different types of batteries and solar panels, converting watts to amp hours and back again, learning about wire gauges, switch panels, circuit breakers, inverters, cell signal boosters, and so much more. All of this to determine how much power we would need to be able to have a steady and reliable way to charge our devices and how to stay connected to cell signal.
As a very short summary, what we ended up with was an electrical setup involving two 100W solar panels mounted to our roof, a charge controller to convert that solar power, two 125Ah AGM batteries, an alternator and isolator which allow us to charge our batteries from while driving, a switch panel with circuit breakers where we can plug everything in, 12V chargers for our laptops, cell plans with the max amount of high speed hotspot data per month on Verizon for Choi and AT&T for me, and a cell signal booster to help us get faster service when in remote areas.
Putting all of these components together involved a lot of research, hard work, and more expensive purchases. It also involved a lot of help from Choi’s brother, Patrick, some tips from his friend Forrest and my Uncle Justin, and a last minute suggestion from my dad to bring along a backup mini inverter.
Patrick helped us so much throughout the van build and especially with the electrical process. I was at my wits end trying to figure out how to wire our electrical system without frying or blowing up any of our expensive equipment and Patrick simply pulled out a napkin and drew a diagram to determine where we needed to put our circuit breakers and the most efficient way to lay out our system. Patrick, we truly cannot thank you enough for everything you did to make our van-life dreams come true.
I am so happy to say that for the most part, this electrical setup has worked perfectly! Even on our cloudiest days, we’ve barely dipped into our power supply which was something I was pretty worried about prior to heading out. Our outlets work wonderfully. Our circuit breakers are functioning. We’ve had relatively good cell signal everywhere we’ve gone.
While the electrical setup itself has worked well, our work-from-the-van situation is definitely still being refined. I’ve had battery issues with my laptop that began before we embarked on this journey and have unfortunately gotten worse as time goes on. What this means is that my laptop needs to be plugged in pretty much at all times in order to function. This is unrelated to the fact that we live in a van. But, the fact that we live in a van has definitely compounded the inconvenience of this issue. Instead of spending my work days sitting outside at our campsites or in parks like I had hoped, I have been forced to spend almost all of my work day sitting inside the van. We’re working on a solution for this though, so hopefully I’ll be able to sit outside to do my work soon!
The other major issue we’ve experienced is with our hotspot data. When we have enough data, the hotspot works great. As long as we have cell signal, we’re able to work without a problem. What we’ve been surprised by is how quickly those 60GB of high-speed hot spot data disappear. Even without using our hotspots for browsing the web or watching Netflix, we’ve found ourselves running out of our data faster than we had anticipated.
Our solution for running out of hotspot data? Free wifi! In Phoenix, we were lucky enough to discover a neighborhood library with super fast, reliable, wifi that you can access from the parking lot. Once we ran out of our hot spot, we commuted over from our spot in Planet Fitness to this library every morning and worked there until the end of the work day. While this certainly isn’t our ideal work setup, it was convenient and the parking lot was relatively quiet, with trees to give us some shade from the hot Phoenix sun.
Once we arrived back in Tucson after our week in Phoenix, we had a harder time finding scenic places to work. Our best option turned out to be old faithful, Planet Fitness. We were only in Phoenix for two days and we spent those days working from the Planet Fitness parking lot. Again, not ideal. But it worked out fine and we still got to check out some climbing after our work day was over.
Our office setup unfortunately took a pretty dramatic negative turn when we arrived in El Paso on February 25. The Planet Fitness where we planned to stay during the week didn’t have fast wifi so we had to resort to our worst case scenario… McDonald’s.
We spent Thursday and Friday working from a McDonald’s parking lot nestled between a noisy highway, a Carl’s Jr, and a Wienerschnitzel. The smell of greasy french fries and the sounds of a nearby busy highway made our office setting for the rest of the week.
Luckily, we were able to escape from the city for the weekend as we stayed at a campsite at Hueco Tanks, a world-class climbing spot just outside of El Paso. Our next blog post will be all about our two glorious weekends at Hueco Tanks. But for now, back to the everyday grind.
Feeling mentally refreshed and physically wrecked from our weekend of climbing at Hueco Tanks, we found ourselves back at the McDonald’s parking lot. This time, my computer decided to totally give up on charging and my IT coworker recommended that I do a complete wipe and reset to get rid of any bugs. This meant that I needed to be plugged in, preferably to an AC outlet, rather than our 12V plugs in the van. The only option nearby was a Starbucks patio. A Starbucks patio may not sound too bad, but this particular patio was right off of the highway and, typical of the desert, alternated between uncomfortably chilly and windy in the shade to brutally dry and hot in the sun. I spent the next 8 hours on that Starbucks patio as my computer labored through this reset.
Quick note: This blog post may sound like complaining, but that is not at all our intent. We truly are living our dream to be able to travel full time while still making a living and we are so grateful to be doing what we’re doing. Most of the time, life on the road is wonderful and we are so excited that we’re really doing this. But sometimes, we find ourselves stuck in a McDonald’s in El Paso for days on end or having a minor break down on a Starbucks patio. We want to be sure to share these real-life moments alongside the many magical moments to capture what this trip really looks like.
When I was in the middle of my Starbucks-patio-breakdown I called my parents for a little distraction and pep-talk. When they heard what was going on, my mom said that it sounds like I might just be at my “low point” and recounted her low point on our family’s Big Trip we took back in 2007-2008. We were in Norway and all five of us were crammed into a hotel room which consisted of four twin beds and a crib for the “baby”, my six-year-old brother Benji. For some reason we couldn’t find anything or anywhere to eat so my mom found herself feeding the family lukewarm Spaghettio’s from a can and then spending the night squashed into one of the twin beds with Benji, who refused to sleep in a crib. 12 years later, we can look back at that moment and laugh because we know that those little trials were necessary to allow us to have that incredible adventure.
In the same way, I know that someday I’ll get a whiff of greasy McDonald’s fries or I’ll drive past a Starbucks patio off the highway, and I’ll be reminded of this wonderful adventure together in our first year of marriage, trials and all! These moments of difficulty are just part of this life that we’ve chosen. We went into this journey knowing that we’d face challenges and we wouldn’t change our choice to pursue this road for anything.
We also know that as time goes on, we’ll find out how to mesh van-life and work-life a bit more elegantly and hopefully soon we’ll find ourselves working with a view of the mountains, or the ocean, or anywhere else that we find ourselves. For now, we’ll keep on figuring out how to make it work.
Working on the road, we don’t love when you make us spend entire days smelling (and smelling like) greasy french fries or trapped on a Starbucks patio, but we do love that you allow us to live this exciting life. Along We Go!