Full Remote Hardware Engineer Vanlife (Part 1)

Newport, Rhode Island

Introduction. I’ve been working as a hardware engineer (CPU/GPU power architect) from a fully decked out van since March of 2021. At the time of writing this it is April of 2022 so that makes for thirteen months of living fulltime in a vehicle while being gainfully employed. For context, that includes countless state parks, seven national parks, twenty-two states, and a whopping twenty-four thousand miles on the odometer. I crammed a lifetime’s worth of travel into one year.

Before I dive into this, I’ll address the burning question that most of my fellow ECE’s must have. How can a hardware engineer work remotely? Hardware engineers typically, but don’t always, have some lab aspect associated with it. For the uninitiated, lab work means being physically present to interact with hardware prototypes or test boards. The short answer to how I was able to work remotely is that I aligned my work to be primarily pre-silicon to minimize the need for my in-lab presense. Secondarily, I have hardware test boards that I can remotely connect to and can do most of my work with an Internet connection.

Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

The Motivation. The chrysalis of the idea of moving into a van began five years ago as scheme to stop paying rent money and start throwing all the money saved onto the stock market. At the time I was shelling out close to 30k in rent and living expenses in Downtown Austin and rather than throwing it into the ether, I’d put those dollars to work. The rationale was that I could tank momentary discomfort to have more freedom later. This type of today-for-tomorrow transaction is very much on-brand for my personality.

As my inner-engineer started scoping out the type of vehicle I’d need, the temperatures I’d endure, the logistics of servicing nature’s calling, parking, and general hobo-life minutae the quicker I realized how insane of an idea it was. I first imagined a large-ish hatchback with a bed built out in the back but quickly graduated to more comfortable setups as my good sense overtook me. I scoped out minivans and low-roof cargo vans (the stereotypically creepy kind). Eventually I began entertaining expensive custom builds with bathrooms, kitchens, and electrical systems, and then finally started looking at fully built-out Class B RVs. The slope was indeed slippery and I found myself barreling down it headfirst.

Then the pandemic happened. The world shutdown and I was shut in my apartment for months. The idea of living in a van took on a new life as a pandemic escape capsule. It became less about the pure financial practicality and more about getting out of the confines of the apartment before my mind ripped apart from the tedium of pandemic lockdown. The shutdown of corporate campuses and subsequent remote work policies made escaping in a van and hitting the road for a long term adventure possible. Also, I constructed a plan to purchase an expensive rig with all the amenities while making it net positive to my financial aspirations. If this gains enough traction I can cover how I made this possible in the next part of this blog post.

My Remote Work Setup

The Rig. The battlevan. The Home. The office. The ticket out of pandemic lockdown madness. I had narrowed down to two options; 1) A custom build by a professional vanbuilder here in Austin and 2) a full blown Class B RV which is a van chassis that is converted by a big RV manufacturer.

The basic requirements that I had for a mobile office were:

  • enough battery to keep my laptop charged
  • bathroom
  • shower
  • table for a workstation
  • kitchen
  • air conditioning that is separate from the chassis AC

Both custom builds and Class B RVs are pricey and when you include all the amenities necessary for a fully functional mobile office, I was looking at a price tag upwards of 100,000 dollars. Luckily, there was an unexpected narrowing function that helped the decision along. Custom van builds had wait times upwards of, I kid you not, two years. Class B RVs had a wait time of six months. I wasn’t willing to wait two years for a build so I decided to find an RV that would suit my needs.

Class B RV shopping was incredibly difficult because pre-built layouts tended to have design compromises. For example, in one van you’d have a nice office area but the bed and kitchen would be extremely cramped. In another, you’d see the exact opposite where the bed and kitchen area is expansive but the work options were cramped. In the end, I steeled myself and pulled the trigger on a more open layout at the expense of a sub-optimal work station. The rationale was that sleep is paramount and work can be done in cafes and libraries. I’ll expound on how this all worked out later. Long story short, I settled on a Coachmen Nova built on the Ram Promaster Cargo Van chassis.

I’ll conclude part one of my remote work vanlife journey here. For the next part, I plan on covering the reality of working and living in this rig as well as the financial aspects. I also need to meditate on the future and come up with a few blurbs about how long I expect to live in this van.

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