I Used Wi-Fi While Camping and I Liked it

Maybe wi-fi in the wilderness isn’t all bad, if you can work from the side of a river. Or maybe it is. The jury’s out.

First, and while this goes without saying, it should be remembered that there are many different styles of and reasons for camping. Many times we’re looking to get deep and high into the backcountry, hoping to challenge ourselves physically, and trying to get far away from people and electric things, especially if they make lots of noise (the people or the electric things). Sometimes we just want to sleep under the stars by a campfire, but also with a group of friends and bottles of wine and really great food. Then there are the moments we fear that we’ll go completely nuts if we can’t just get out of the city, even for a couple days, so help us god, no matter where we end up, but since we’re buried in work, we’ll just have to bring our work with us to the outdoors.

That last one was me recently, so I did something I’ve never even considered before. I camped where I knew I could use the internet.

Not like a wi-fi-enabled campsite, mind you, though I wouldn’t be shocked if that was a thing very soon (maybe it already is?). Instead, I bought a mobile hot spot internet device thingy and made sure to find campsites that had a good enough cell signal so that I could work from the side of a river, a forest-ringed meadow, or by an alpine lakeshore. It worked great. Find a campsite with 4GLTE coverage (admittedly, these are typically roadside, but midweek they’re often near-empty), turn on my little internet brick, and presto, instant connection, turning my truck bed into a mobile office.

Oh boy, I think I might be hooked.

In the mornings, I’d roll out of the back of my truck, fire up a pot of coffee on a propane stove, and, just like I was home, go online to research and write articles (and buy stuff and waste time on social media and geek out on gear). During the middle part of the day, I’d hike a little or fly-fish or drive to a new campsite. In the afternoons and evening, it was back to work. Not really a whole hell of a lot different than my typical work schedule. The only real change was that rather than look wistfully out the window from home or a coffee shop and wish I was looking out at soul-stirring views of snow-capped peaks and a babbling brook, I lifted my head and actually looked right at those snow-capped peaks and babbling brooks. Then I went right back to working, soul sufficiently stirred.

This presented a quandary: I’ve always been a staunch no tech in the backcountry kind of person, completely against the intrusion of the digital world—well, GPS devices are okay—in the great outdoors. My little experiment forced me to transform myself from a poo-pooer of the bluish glow of a computer screen at a campsite to the guy sitting in a camp chair, or swinging in a hammock (difficult, but not impossible) while typing on an iPad.

And while it’s true I couldn’t completely forget the evils of civilization while work-camping, I still felt like I was connecting with the wilderness in ways I simply can’t while at home.

The really crazy part is that I know of spots deep-ish in the northern Sierra backcountry that somehow get crystal-clear 4GLTE cell signals. I could do this work from camp thing even when backpacking in some areas. I promise, however, that if I ever try this, I wouldn’t dream of doing so if I thought a backpacker camped across a meadow or lake from me could possibly see my screen. I’m not a monster.

Am I compromising something by bringing the internet—and work—into the wilderness with me?

Honestly, I’m not sure yet. This is a new experience for me. It may flame out terribly and end with me cleaving my iPad in two with a hatchet and striking off into the bush.

But for now, it’s an intriguing option to bring internet connectivity into the camping equation. It allows those of us with jobs that allow is to work remotely and who have a deep love of the outdoors to connect the two in ways that were impossible just a few years ago.


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Showing 12 comments
  • Douglas

    I too am guilty of working while out there. I had a scheduled vacation to portrero chico but there was no one trained to cover my job. So I found the campground with the strongest wifi and set up a home office in…Mexico. My experience was very similar, wake up follow my usual workday routine, but on what would have been my lunch break instead I hustled up a few pitches and came back to answer end of day emails and re-sort my rack. After signing out I would manage a longer route and be down in time for a meal with a side of mezcal, from the source not from the dusty bottle I’ve been nursing since my last trip to Mexico. Sure having to work put a little cramp in my dirtbaggery but isn’t total wifi coverage what allows most of the dirtbag bloggers, videographers and mountaineers to send us a constant stream of stoke from the source. Without it I would have been looking at a missed season and photos of friends wishing I was there…

  • K. Moore

    Makes sense, and if some don’t like it they don’t have to do it… I work from home 100% of the time, and I often think how nice it would be to do this if even just for a day trip in the local mountains. I agree though that you must be considerate of others. No speaker phone conference calls at the camp site. If it refuels you and clears your head, it’s all good…

  • Shane

    I think this makes perfect sense. I had a job that allowed me to do this, and started to stay in state parks in Michigan rather than staying in hotels while visiting clients. Nothing better than leaving the campsite in a suit, well maybe turning in the $25 receipt on my expense report. Visit clients, stop at a brewery, back to camp to finish up my paperwork, then climbing a dune to watch the sunset on Lake Michigan. When it comes to a backpacking trips, or any trip specifically planned for getting away, I power down and leave it at home.

  • Captain Tyler

    Camping is great, because the distraction of cell phone reception & wifi is gone. No constant checking of the phone or passing time with mindless internet swiping. With this said, if I had work that could be done while at a campsite (and the boss gave the approval) I would jump on this train.

  • David D

    Hum, I am highly suspicious of this. To me the example is as follows. A TV producer may need to watch TV for their job, but that is rarely the case for most people. If you telecommute, and work at a campground, by all means, connect. For example a journalist covering a demonstration in a remote location, may need to upload an article while at a campground. But I believe that the internet is an addiction, and connecting at a campsite is not much different then an individual watching satellite TV inside their RV at Yellowstone.

  • Scott

    I think the whole question of electronics outdoors depends on why you’re outdoors to begin with. I mean, even before the Interwebs you’d inevitably find someone who hauled in a boom-box to the backcountry (typically their buddy hauled in the beer-laden ice cooler too). Or, I’ve been in campgrounds where the neighbors set up satellite TV to watch basketball playoffs until late into the night. The only thing separating me from their TV was a thin veil of canvas or coated nylon tent.

    I first encountered campground-wide wi-fi in 2011 at a Louisiana state park of all places. http://www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks/frequently-asked-questions/index#WiFi
    Since it got dark around 6 p.m. or so on that winter trip, we watched a streaming movie in our tent.

    I teach college. For a little extra cash I often teach a 4-week “Maymester” class online. In the past I’ve taught it from “on the road” camping, but had to stop at coffee shops and the like to keep up with my class. Usually that meant not straying too far from wi-fi connected coffee shops which are typically in more suburban/urban areas. With today’s more ubiquitous Net access it’s easier to teach from more off-the-beaten path locations like Douglas mentioned and I can be out camping in May before it gets too hot here in Texas. So, Justin, rock on with your wi-fi connected self.

  • Aaron Teasdale

    I’d suggest “Wilderness” is used here too broadly to be useful. Car camping is not wilderness. Car camping with a computer may be fine, if your goal is to get work done in a natural environment (but, yes, sensitivity to the aesthetic desires of fellow campers is important—to some people camping on the side of the road is as close to wild country as they’ll ever get and seeing fellow campers on laptops could erode their sense of communing with nature).

    To us nature geeks, and those that care about precision of language, wilderness means the backcountry. It’s here that computers, phones, anything with screens, contaminate and diminish our experience. We all need quality time away from tech to be healthy and if we can’t get that in true wilderness we might as well give up and plug our technology-addled brains into the matrix for good.

  • Mike P.

    As long as you know the difference between “going away to work” and “working while you’re away,” and then do the former in full consciousness, it’s ok with me.

  • Devin

    I just spent a week work-camping in northern Michigan. The campground was on a bike trail that was ~3 miles from a small town with a coffee shop. Wake up, head to work (coffee shop), work until lunch, then off to play for the remainder of the day! It was glorious and I will definitely do it again. I just need to sort out the mobile hot spot thingy so I am not tethered to the nearest wifi spot.

  • Mark Sevenoff

    At our company that does week long backcountry bike trips we often times give the pre trip speech to our guests about respecting others space in the out of doors. Many use their cell phones as cameras only which of course is fine, but when the phones start ringing around the campfire or calm sunrise coffee time, is it crossing the line? Some folks totally understand and talk in privacy, but others don’t seem to have a problem with it. With cell service getting “better & better” there’s fewer places we can go to truly escape their reach. Of course you can always shut them off and claim no service. A week long #digitaldetox is a very powerful and rejuvenating cleanse. I highly recommend it.

  • Marko Koskenoja

    Good for you Justin! You get to experience the best of both worlds at the same time! Get a cellular booster kit for your truck to expand your work horizons.

    I live and work (my own cellular/wireless telecom business) in a wilderness setting in the mountains off the north east shore off Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. I get to spend more time outdoors since I am usually connected with my big 6″ Nexus phone. When I don’t want to be connected I go into do not disturb or just turn my phone off.

    Sure beats my former life living in downtown Toronto working for AT&T.

    • Justin Housman

      Can you recommend a cellular booster kit?

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