Full Remote Hardware Engineer Vanlife (Part 2)

In my previous post I gave a brief introduction to my life as a traveling hardware engineer. It generated enough interest that I was inspired to make follow-up posts to cover the many questions I received regarding my setup and my lifestyle. In this follow-up post, I’ll show a bit about my travels and do my best to reveal a realistic take on what this lifestyle is like. So without further ado, please enjoy the second installment of my engineering vanlife adventures. As always, I encourage you to send questions and I will do my best to answer them.

The Travels in the Past Year

Travels of the Past Year

Seven National Parks, 29,000 miles, zero incidents, countless memories. On the work front I managed to submit three patents, contributed to the launch of one product while defining the architecture of another. I worked from Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, libraries, gas stations, quiet roads adjacent to parks, and three satellite offices of my company.

Reality of Working and Living in a Van

Full disclosure. I don’t prefer doing heavy work sessions from the van. What I mean by a heavy work session is when I need four to six hours of unbroken concentration or if I am doing an important presentation. I don’t mind the small space but truth be told the ergonomics are acceptable but far from great. Also, depending on where I am parked, the cell signal may not be reliable and there may be outside noise that bleeds into the van. I find working in the van is acceptable for very light days where I am just checking and responding to email, taking a quick 1:1 with a coworker, or banging out a bit of documentation. Anything more than that and I will make sure to find a quiet workspace in a cafe or library. I know shared workspaces such as WeWork are available as well but they are expensive and I haven’t utilized them.

Given that working from the van isn’t optimal, it takes a bit of planning to ensure work goes smoothly. The strategy is simple; do most of the driving on weekends. This allows time for me to scope a new cafe, library, or quiet parking area on Sunday for use during the upcoming week. During the week, I stay put, take in the local area, try the local digs, and get some high quality work in. On Friday, I hit the road again. Also, since I am fortunate that my company has offices all over, I use those locations as a temporary home base and get a normal office experience. I’ve worked from my company’s satellite offices in Massachusetts, Colorado, Texas, and California and they have been pleasant and productive experiences. Another feature that I’ve designed into my van-life working strategy is that I spend weeks at a time at my home office. I use it as a homebase to rest, resupply, see friends, and get that ever important facetime with my coworkers. I’ve found that this approach is the most sustainable in terms of balancing adventure with a demanding work schedule. 

In summary and in order of preference I work from

  • satellite office locations
  • libraries
  • cafes (Starbucks is everywhere)
  • quiet streets with great cell reception (need to find them)

Very occasionally I will work from a Walmart or a Mcdonald’s parking lot if it’s an emergency and I can’t find anywhere else.

Sleeping, Parking, Stealth Camping

A van or a Class B RV has the benefit of being compact and stealthy enough to enjoy a wide range of overnight sleeping options. Where I sleep and camp overnight depends on numerous factors and an oversized portion of this decision is dictated by what travel mode I am in. The three overarching travel modes are as follows:

  1. At my homebase: Homebase is what I consider to be my home city. It’s where my home office is and where I return to to rest, resupply, and take a break from moving around. It’s both familiar and comfortable and I know the streets, parks, restaurants, and amenities like the back of my hand. At my homebase I have half a dozen safe, quiet, and comfortable parking spots that I can rotate through. I also park in my company’s parking lot occasionally and so far have had no issue with security after showing them my employee ID badge. When the weather gets inclement I book a campsite at the local city and state parks and usually pay a small fee to enjoy the benefit of water and electricity hookups so that I can run my AC or heat without fear of draining my batteries and propane. 
  2. At a destination city or place: Destination cities or places are locations where I want to spend a bit of extra time. An example of this would be Estes Park just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park or Redondo Beach in Los Angeles County. Destination cities are anchored by close proximity to a library or cafe. In medium sized cities, I also look for Planet Fitness locations and try to stay close by if possible. Well lit areas at the border of commercial and residential areas or adjacent to a park are choice areas for overnight parking. I take care to respect residents and not park in front of houses but I take a bit more liberty when parking in front of an apartment complex. My vehicle is still brand new, well taken care of, and inconspicuous. So far I have had zero issues with parking in the many cities I have been in using the aforementioned common sense guidelines. 
  3. On the road: When I am traveling from point A to point B and don’t really care to spend time taking in the locale I will overnight at Walmart, Cracker Barrel, or a Pilot Travel Center. All three of these locations are both abundant and relatively safe locations to overnight. I do avoid highway rest areas because they are usually in remote locations and poorly lit. Also, there is power and numbers and many other weary travelers utilize the places I just mentioned.  

Real Shots of the Inside

The view from the cab looking backward toward the bathroom.
The view from the back looking toward the cab.

It’s not glamorous. In fact there is usually clutter and mess and these are pictures of a real lived in space. You’ll see stuff hanging all over the place on hooks. Pillows strewn about randomly. My electric tea kettle working overtime brewing up earl grey and sometimes instant coffee. My laptop perched on a swingout table with questionable ergonomics. It’s no home office but some how, some way, I manage to get shit done and I justify the inconvenience with the absolute freedom that I have.

Why it’s Worth it

It’s hard to express the sense of unbridled freedom that I feel and explaining with my own words feels lacking. Rather than trying and falling short, I’ll share a few images and conclude with the words of Thoreau.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Henry David Thoreau

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