By Dominic Jeff
The vanlife hashtag makes it all look so glamorous: sunny beaches, stunning mountains, gorgeous people in board shorts and bikinis… If you can work remotely, it’s the perfect lifestyle.
Well, maybe. The reality is not always so glamorous. And yet the nomadic way of life is a real possibility for remote workers, and many are doing it across Europe and America. So what’s it really like?
As a freelance writer, I have worked out of my old Renault Trafic home-converted camper van for up to six months at a time, travelling in Spain, France, Switzerland and Germany. Most of the time, it really is a fantastic lifestyle. And it can be good for business too.
Motivation and inspiration
Working from home is great but it can also be tough to maintain energy and concentration levels. There are petty distractions everywhere and depending where you live, life can be grey and dull (I’m looking at you, Northern Europe).
One of the major advantages of vanlife is that you can go anywhere. And the pictures don’t lie: most people gravitate to sunshine and beautiful scenery. If you’re a creative remote worker, this can be the perfect tonic for waning inspiration. Personally, I found the winter sunlight in the hills of Catalunya extremely uplifting. I went about my work with renewed enthusiasm and produced some of my best writing.
I was also highly motivated to hit targets; to get work done. Because I’m a keen rock climber and I had some of the world’s best cliffs on my doorstep, I wanted to make time to go climbing during the day. This meant getting a productive morning session under my belt before going out for lots of fresh air and exercise, and then working in the early evening as well. I was a happy worker and never looked at Facebook.
As home workers, we are often torn between the desire to make the most of our freedom, and a craving for normality and professionalism which involves working regular hours that fit in with friends and family. In the van community, getting out to have fun in the sun is the norm.
Pros and Cons of Vanlife
It goes without saying that there are good aspects and bad aspects to the van lifestyle. On the plus side, apart from being able to visit a never-ending list of magnificent places and indulge your passion for extreme sports or photogenic yoga, there’s the fact that it’s cheap. On the whole, running a van is cheaper than paying rent.
On the downside, vanlife can be so impractical. Finding laundrettes in strange towns; sitting out rainy weeks in increasingly damp conditions; and struggling with basic bureaucracy: these aspects aren’t usually featured on Instagram but are a reality nonetheless.
From the point of view of the remote worker or freelancer, access to power and WiFi are usually crucial. The key to this is to plan ahead and be prepared. I learned this the hard way on my first trip, when I relied on campsites and local cafes to charge my phone and laptop. Rural Spanish bars aren’t like Starbucks. I remember one joint that displayed a sign saying: “We don’t have WiFi – if you want to network, talk amongst yourselves”.
I love that. And they did great tapas. But it’s disastrous when you’re in the hills where the mobile coverage is poor, and you have a deadline to meet.
Technology to the Rescue
Some campsites are equipped with everything the home worker needs, but you will find yourself spending more money than you do on rent. So if you want to enjoy characterful bars and the best locations, you need to get the most reliable mobile Internet you can. This is getting better and better every year, but there are still places where it won’t work.
It’s not always easy to know what coverage and WiFi will be available in any given village. One good approach is to arrive at new places on a weekend. That way, you can scope out the best coverage spots in advance.
Power is easier to solve: many camper vans have a leisure battery, and increasingly van dwellers are adding solar panels to provide electricity even when they are parked up for days or weeks. I upgraded to a solar system, but also found it useful too ditch my thirsty old laptop and work on an iPad.
If you’re the kind of person who is willing to trade a little discomfort for a lot of freedom, then van life – whether permanent or temporary – has never been more accessible. The same technologies that are fuelling the boom in remote working mean we can be digital nomads. But if you like to be really remote, you’d better know where to find some Internet!
Dominic Jeff is a journalist who has worked on The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Plymouth Herald. Since leaving the newspaper industry in 2015, he has worked closely with award-winning PR agencies and ambitious early-stage companies to produce great websites, exciting press releases, and closely-followed blog series.
His own writing can be seen at https://www.dominicjeff.co.uk