The best solution for me is to use a Verizon mobile hotspot and an AT&T phone for tethering. The best WiFi internet for your camper van will largely depend on where you travel, your internet needs, and your budget.
Before starting my van life adventure, my biggest question was “Am I going to have reliable internet?” My income requires that I have a stable internet connection. I lived in my van full-time for eight months and can say “yes!” My van’s internet is just as fast and reliable as any connection I’ve had living in a house or apartment.
For this article, I’ve used my own experience and researched what other van lifers are using to solve their internet needs. Since no two van lifers are the same, I’m going to go over the various considerations so that you can determine what makes the most sense for you.
I’ll cover the following categories:
- How Will You Use The Internet?
- Free Public WiFi Hotspots
- Paid WiFi Hotspots
- Cellular Data
- Mobile Hotspots
- Data Caps
- Cellular Coverage
- Cell Booster
- WiFi Extender / Repeater
Keep reading to figure out the best internet setup for your van.
How Will You Use The Internet?
Taking a moment to determine how you’ll be using the internet is a great first step in determining your optimal setup. Consider if you’ll expect to:
- Work remotely (Zoom video calls, email, uploading large files such as photos or videos)
- Stream videos, music, or podcasts
- Conduct your route planning (research, loading maps, making reservations at campgrounds or RV parks, checking weather forecasts)
- Play video games
- Road-school kids
- Post and view social media
- Download eBooks or audiobooks
- Make FaceTime video calls with family and friends
- Manage your banking and personal finances
Getting an idea of how you’ll be using the internet will help you to determine how fast your internet connection needs to be. Email doesn’t need as much bandwidth as streaming a movie for example. Additionally, this will help determine how much data you’ll need. Downloading big work files will probably need a larger data cap on your cellular data plan than checking a few weather forecasts.
Free Public WiFi Hotspots
The first option for finding an internet connection on the road is free WiFi hotspots. They are in a variety of locations that you’re probably already familiar with:
- Fast food chains
- National park visitor centers
- Truck stops
- Coffee shops
- RV Parks
Public WiFi is extremely hit or miss. Some have incredibly fast speeds where you can download several movies while sipping your coffee. Other times you can barely get your email to load. Additionally, the speeds can fluctuate with the time of day because it’s dependent on how many people are using the network at any given moment.
Campgrounds and RV parks often have free WiFi, but in my experience, it’s rarely any good. Some offer paid upgraded WiFi plans as well. I use public WiFi hotspots as a sort of last resort if I can’t get internet any other way. It’s also valuable if I’m planning to download movies, tv shows, music, or podcasts for later.
Public WiFi is easily hacked so you should be careful with what you choose to do on these networks (i.e. avoid doing your banking). A great security measure is to use a VPN such as NordVPN or ExpressVPN.
Paid WiFi Hotspots
Some companies such as Xfinity, Spectrum, and Boingo offer paid WiFi hotspots throughout the US. I’ve used some of these and in my experience, they’re not significantly better than using free public WiFi hotspots. So I avoid them. They’re also susceptible to the security concerns of public hotspots. Coworking spaces are an exception as they generally have reliable speeds. But since it’s a public network you still want to use a VPN.
The most common method I’ve seen of getting internet on the road is using cellular towers. You can tether your device (i.e. laptop, tablet, etc) to your phone or connect to a dedicated mobile hotspot.
Most smartphones and some tablets today offer the ability to make it a personal hotspot. This creates a WiFi network you can use with your other devices such as laptops and eBook readers. Many van lifers use this method as their only way of getting internet in their van. It’s one of the most affordable options as you don’t need to buy any extra equipment. Plus, you’re already paying for this data on your regular phone plan.
The potential problem with tethering is that it drains your phone’s battery quite quickly. Especially if you’re connecting more than one device to it. Tethering a laptop will also use more data than simply browsing the internet on your phone. When on your phone you’re seeing the mobile version of a website which often has compressed images and uses less data.
A mobile hotspot is a separate device that creates a WiFi network where you connect your laptops, tablets, and other devices. These devices come with a separate data plan from your phone but often have higher data caps and faster speeds. Some mobile hotspots even allow you to use several cell networks so you have greater coverage.
There are many benefits of using a mobile hotspot as they allow you to connect many devices and it won’t drain your phone battery. Tethering speeds can get slow if you’re connecting more than one device and some carriers limit you to only a single connection. The downside is that you need to buy the hotspot (usually $200-$250) and pay for an extra data plan.
Many data providers offer trial runs where you can return the hotspot after a week or two if you’re finding that it’s not meeting your needs.
The most popular mobile hotspots are:
- Verizon Jetpack – This is what I use and what most of the other van lifers I meet use. As long as I’m in an area where Verizon has service, I see no difference in speed from a WiFi network I’d use in a house or apartment.
- Skyroam Solis – This was really appealing to me as I did my initial van internet research. It uses towers from various network providers and has coverage internationally. I didn’t end up going with them as they were back-ordered on the devices.
- Netgear Nighthawk – I’ve never used this device but several van lifers say it works well with the AT&T and T-Mobile networks.
Each of the cellular networks offers different data plans that give you a certain amount of data before they slow down your connection. It’s pretty expensive to go over your data cap so it’s worthwhile to figure out how much data you need.
One way of determining how much data you use is to experiment and try it out. Try tethering your devices to your phone for a few days and use the My Data Manager app to see how much data you’re using. After a day or two, you can extrapolate from there to get a rough estimate of your data needs.
The other big consideration of which network you use is their coverage. Since you’re getting your internet from the cell towers, you’ll want to research what towers are available in the areas you expect to be adventuring. The best way to determine coverage in the areas you’ll be traveling is to use the OpenSignal app.
The major network carriers are:
T-Mobile is quite a bit behind the other two in their coverage. They are good in cities and suburbs, but they’re very hit-or-miss in rural areas. You can check out their phone plans here and their mobile hotspot data plans here.
Other than these big three there are others to consider, but I’ve met very few people that didn’t go with one of the carriers above. If you’d like to explore other options you can check out:
A common practice for van lifers that need reliable internet is to use two methods, often with two different networks. I use a phone plan with AT&T and have a Verizon jetpack mobile hotspot with a separate data plan. I primarily use the jetpack but if I’m in an area where Verizon doesn’t have great service, I can tether to my AT&T phone. This means I’m covered by two separate carriers.
Starlink is a satellite internet system developed by Elon Musk. Connecting to satellites in low earth orbit, Starlink provides extremely fast internet speeds in a broad area.
Starlink works in many areas where you wouldn’t otherwise have a good cell signal and has unlimited data. The downsides to Starlink are:
- It’s inconvenient: You need to carry the satellite around and set it up each time you want to connect to the internet. You’re not able to use Starlink internet while you’re moving.
- Setup: You need a largely unobstructed view of the sky, meaning you can’t park in a valley, near trees, or near buildings.
- It’s expensive: The dish costs $599 and the monthly ongoing service is $135 per month.
- Power consumption: Starlink typically draws 50-70 watts.
You’re also susceptible to weather as this could impact your internet service. I don’t use Starlink as my cellular plans meet my internet needs. I would consider it if I frequently found myself in areas that didn’t have cell coverage.
There are two pieces of equipment that have the potential to improve your van life internet.
Your cell reception might be weak inside a large metal box such as your van, so many van lifers decide to use a cell booster. A cell booster is an antenna that mounts outside your van, multiplying the signal and sending it to another antenna inside your van. This won’t create a cell signal where one doesn’t exist, but it can easily turn one bar into three, greatly improving your internet speeds.
The two most popular cell boosters are:
I have a WeBoost cell booster on my van and it’s worked incredibly well.
WiFi Extender / Repeater
A WiFi extender will help you improve the connection to a public WiFi hotspot. If you’re getting a weak connection at a campground, RV park, or parked in a Starbucks parking lot, this should help improve your signal. I never ended up using one of these as it’s yet another piece of equipment I would need to carry in my van.
There are other things you can do to ensure you’ll have reliable internet throughout your travels.
- Plan ahead: By planning your route in advance, you can check apps like Campendium, Coverage?, OpenSignal, and AllStays to confirm that you’ll have reliable internet when you get there.
- Download what you’ll need when you have reliable WiFi. When you find yourself with fast WiFi, download movies, tv shows, podcasts, eBooks, maps for offline use, or anything else you’ll need when you have a reliable connection.
- When finding a spot to park for the night, use the SpeedTest app to check your connection before you park and settle in.
- Check the settings on your apps if you’re finding that your connection isn’t great somewhere or that you’re using too much data on your data plan. Most video players offer the ability to stream at a lower resolution. Email clients offer the ability to switch to basic HTML, using far less data. Turn off background refresh and cellular data on smartphone apps that don’t need it.
This article has hopefully shown you that life on the road doesn’t need to mean life without an internet connection.
Now that you’ve got your van life WiFi covered, go check out our ultimate beginner’s guide to van life.