These days when someone joins the Airstream community (tribe? cult?) one of their first interests is figuring out how to get online while they're camping or traveling.
I understand that. As a person who has been required by my work to be frequently connected to the Internet, I've certainly done more than my share of working from an Airstream. This has kept me well-versed in the current technological options for getting online, which I'm happy to share with you.
But because I've spent too many hours staring at a screen or poking at my phone when I would have rather been disconnected and freely roaming the outdoors, I'm also usually the first person to encourage people to not make it too easy to get online. I believe a primary goal when traveling by Airstream should be to get away from screens, social media, and bleeping notifications.
Having said that, let's look at the best options for being connected when you need to be connected—and perhaps a few ways to be disconnected when you need a mental break.
It's an open secret amongst campers that this is the least reliable and most annoying way to get online. Most campground wifi stinks because it's usually overloaded, especially in the evening. It only takes a few people to start streaming Netflix or Hulu to slow the entire Internet connection for the campground to a crawl.
[Campground etiquette tip for newbies: Even if you can stream a video or movie, please don't. It hogs the bandwidth for your fellow campers. Kind of like putting your airplane seat all the way back so the person behind you can barely use their tray table.]
Sometimes campground wifi works well, especially at newer campgrounds and "glampgrounds." But because you never know for sure until you get there, and performance can change from hour to hour, it's not a good idea to rely on it if you really need it for work.
I generally ignore the campground wifi, except when I have no other choice.
Cellular phone or "hotspot"
You can use the built-in hotspot from your cell phone, iPad, or a dedicated hotspot (Jetpack, Mifi, etc) to get online pretty easily. The big advantages of cellular is that the cost is often built into your phone plan and it works everywhere that your cell phone does. There's practically no setup, and as a bonus it works while you're in motion, too.
The downside is that a lot of great camping spots lack good cell signal. A rooftop antenna and a booster can make a big difference in marginal areas, but nothing can help when there's just no signal to be found. And if there's no signal for the hotspot, you've got no Internet.
Starlink is an interesting up-and-coming way to get online. It is very fast, reasonably reliable, and works almost everywhere in the United States. (There are a few exceptions like near the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the Great Lakes, and the National Radio Quiet Zone in Virginia.)
The major downside of Starlink is that it's expensive at $139 per month + a one-time purchase of a $599 terminal. You can turn it off and on monthly, so you don't have to pay the monthly fee when you're not traveling, but still it's not cheap.
The other major downside of Starlink is that it requires a clear view of the sky above, in a 100 degree cone, and even a few tree branches can stop it from working. This is often difficult to find in a campground situation, so owners have taken to using very tall poles and long cables to allow the Starlink antenna to be placed where it will work.
Another limitation is that Starlink uses a lot more electricity than a cellular hotspot or phone, so if you're in a boondocking situation you will want to consider the impact on your battery power.
We'll have a more detailed article about Starlink in the Winter 2022 issue of Airstream Life magazine, so if you're a subscriber you can look for that.
Tips for disconnecting
At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I feel obliged to say that social media, email, text messaging, and news alerts have become American addictions, and they're not good for us. Your Airstream gives you a chance to rejoin life in the real world (or "IRL" as they say)—why squander the opportunity?
I view my Internet connection in the Airstream as a big bag of potato chips: best enjoyed in moderation. Here's how I limit my screen time when we're off for a weekend:
- Turn off notifications on the phone. If the phone's bleeping, pinging, and vibrating all the time, it's too easy to give into the temptation to "just take a look". I definitely don't want to know when I've gotten email, or when somebody has posted, or there's a news flash about something political. All that stuff can wait until I'm back at my desk.
- Change up the rituals. In the morning at home I usually pick up my phone early in the morning while tea is brewing. But in the morning at the campground, I make a point to leave the phone in a drawer or somewhere else out where I can't see it, and instead set up the Zip Dee chairs under the awning and talk to my wife or look at wildlife through the binoculars.
- Be present. That means remembering that everything that is happening in the Airstream or in the present moment is the most important right now. A mobile device messes up your perspective. You can't experience what's happening to you if you're always being distracted by what's happening to someone else. This is based on the concept of "mindfulness" which is a great practice for all of us.
- If all else fails, and you can't trust yourself, pick a campground where there's terrible Internet. Seriously. There are a lot of them still out there. You can research any location in the US here.