For many who travel full-time, maintaining constant cell connection is a top priority. Whether you work remotely, you’re a gig worker, or you run your own business, there are many reasons you might need to have connection at all times.
One of our most frequently asked questions, is “How do you have signal when dry camping?” (or “Boondocking”) In this post, I’ll share some of the tricks we’ve learned after being on the road for one and a half years.
The most important step to maintaining connection is simply good planning. It may seem obvious, but it really is important. We do a fair amount of research before moving to an area, and then only plan to stay places where we are at least 80% sure that we will have workable reception.
Below are the tools that we employ when doing research on an area’s signal ahead of time.
Campendium is generally a fantastic resource for discovering dry camping locations. Yet specifically, it’s location reviews feature allows other users to share their reception experiences across all major carriers for every location in the Campendium database. We use this as our first stop for locating places to dry camp with reliable reception.
Occasionally we’ll find a location on Campendium which looks amazing or is nearby something that we are trying to see but does not yet have reception data from other users. In these cases, our next step will be to consult the Coverage? app to reference what the coverage might be in the area.
The app overlays a colored layer representing coverage for each of the big three carriers over Google Maps. You simply search the location for which you want to see coverage data, select which carriers to display, and then see what you find.
A third reference we’ll use is the OpenSignal app. OpenSignal has a similar coverage map feature, however, theirs is user aggregated. This means that their coverage maps are built by the signal that OpenSignal users have received in the area. This also means that their coverage maps are also more real-time and better reflect changes in coverage, should towers go up or come down.
Another handy feature of the OpenSignal app is their cell tower map. With this, you gain visibility into where exactly cell towers for each carrier are physically located. This can come in handy for determining if you will be able to have reception or not.
Once we have arrived at a dry camping location, if the signal ends up being weaker than we expected, we’ll deploy our second line of defense: our WeBoost Signal Booster.
Signal boosting is not magic. Unfortunately, you are not going to be able to trek as far out into the backcountry as you want, fire up your signal booster, and then catch up on Game of Thrones.
Signal boosting mainly does one thing, and it does that thing quite well. Turning weak reception, into strong reception. We’ve witnessed our booster turn 1 bar of extended into 4 bars of LTE.
As I mentioned, boosting is not wizardry. Rarely will a booster be able to pick up reception where your device was not receiving anything. You would have to have just crossed out of the conventional coverage zone in order for your booster to be able to pick up coverage where there was none.
Another thing that a booster cannot do is turn slow, overloaded signal into workable signal. When you encounter the overloaded tower issue, your booster isn’t going to provide you with faster, workable signal. All that it is going to do is grab you more of the overloaded signal.
General boosting tips:
- (WeBoost models) If any of the bands on your booster begin flashing red, instead of a solid green, shut it off, and then move the signal antenna, the unit, and the broadcast antenna further from each other before power. Additionally, make sure that neither of the antennas is facing each other or the unit.
- (WeBoost models) In the case of our particular unit, performance is best when the device being boosted is in close proximity to the broadcast antenna, or optimally resting directly against it.
- Mind the heat of your unit. The process of boosting signal generates a lot of heat waste. It’s important to manage this heat to prevent your unit from overheating, which will burn out its internal circuitry. (trust us?) If you permanently install your unit, be sure that it is against a surface which allows adequate airflow around and behind the unit, and that it will not receive direct sunlight.
Sam and I travel with unlimited data plans on both AT&T and Verizon.
This is not a necessity, and one could certainly do fine full-timing with only one or the other of these two big carriers. Yet, having both goes a very long way in giving us as many options as possible when choosing dry camping locations.
The majority of the sites we stay at have reception on both carriers, but fairly often we will find sites which only have coverage on one or the other of the two carriers. Another situation where having both comes in handy is when we expect to have coverage on both carriers, but when we arrive, we find that we only have coverage on one. Or, when a site has coverage for both carriers, but one carrier is simply unworkable.
Tips for on-location
We’ve also picked up some tricks and best practices for ensuring strong, workable reception when you arrive at your dry camping location.
If you are finding that you are picking up enough signal, but it does not seem to have any workable speed, we’ve found that moving around can sometimes fix this. Don’t be afraid to walk or drive your device around a bit while constantly testing to see if speed is improving. It may sound silly, but this has actually worked for us.
Know where the tower is
If you are having trouble getting reception, it can be very helpful to know what direction your signal is coming from. The open signal app can easily provide this.
Once you know what direction your signal is coming from, you can make sure you have not positioned yourself behind any obstacles that could be blocking the signal. Obstacles could be things like hills, dunes, rocks, and other land features, trees, structures, or even other rigs.
This one could just be speculation, but we’ve found that being farther from clusters of other campers can ensure better speeds. I definitely can’t point to any scientific evidence for this one, so this may just be us overthinking things.
While this tip is not specifically related to reception, it can help to prolong the life of the devices that you use to connect to the internet.
Similar to the signal boosting devices mentioned above, hotspot devices and phones that are hotspotting create quite a bit of heat. Remember that the more devices concurrently using a hotspot device the hotter the hotspot will run. Similarly, the more data flowing through a hotspot device, the hotter it will run. One device syncing cloud storage can be enough to get a hotspot very hot. Also, remember that these devices are very responsive to ambient temperatures as well. Always consider the climate you are in. When in hotter climates, hotspot devices will overheat easier.
If our hotspot is running hot, we’ll pop the battery cover off and flip the device upside down. This helps the device to vent and breathe more efficiently.
Let me tell you, there is nothing like traveling full-time and relying on cellular data to make you miss your broadband back at home. Connection on the road can be a real struggle, but if you follow the tips we’ve outlined here, you should find yourself having an easier time maintaining consistent connection. In reality, connection struggles are a small price to pay to have office views like these.
We certainly have not learned everything there is to know about full-time cell reception, so if you have any tips or tricks to add, please be sure to leave them in the comments below! We’d love to learn what your reception secrets are!