Top 10 Tech Tips for Full Time Van Life

Life on the open road, downsizing and the minimalist lifestyle seems all well and good, but let’s face it: there’s no getting away from tech. Whether it’s finding that perfect camera to take photos with, being able to work from the road or just finding your next camping spot, having the right bit of kit at the right time can make things much, much easier!

This blog focuses on the hardware: Phones, camera drones, laptops and so on. Find our top travel app recommendations here. This post does contain affiliate links, meaning we’ll get a small commission if you click through and buy any of these products. That being said, you won’t pay anything extra and we aren’t being paid to advertise these products – this is purely the result of research and living with these products for the last twelve months.

Think about the gadgets that you use during your average day at home. Before you even walk out the front door in the morning, you’ve probably used half a dozen tech shortcuts; alarm clock, electric toothbrush, coffee machine and so on. The first tip is that you probably don’t need to take everything with you!

Waiting for that perfect shot

Back in Jersey my pride and joy was my custom built gaming PC and the sound system that it was hooked up to. I’ve read about people who have similar things with them, but they often have batteries dedicated to their machines. I now stick to a laptop and a portable speaker, which does the job whilst being a lot more economical on power and space. Things like electric heaters, microwaves and hairdryers use a lot of power and are difficult to run unless you’re on a site with 240v (“mains hookup”).

Make a list of everything that you use on a daily basis, cross off everything that you don’t explicitly need (let’s be honest, you can probably get by making your coffee with a kettle instead of a nescafe machine) and then find low-power alternatives for everything else, where possible.

Which leads us to…

Essential Gadget One – 2x 120AH Leisure Batteries
Every piece of tech that you decide to take with you is going to be limited by how you can charge it & therefore how much power it draws. We were lucky as our motorhome already had a solar panel and inverter installed, however if you’re looking to install from scratch, our friend and fellow Jersey Bean Ben from KombiLife has a brilliant guide.

Before we started travelling, we invested in two 120AH AGM leisure batteries. They are more expensive than your average lead-acid batteries, however I can honestly say that they’re one of the best upgrades that we’ve made to the motorhome.

I could talk all day about the research that went into these specific batteries, it came down to three things. Firstly, the batteries are “deep cycle”, meaning that you can run them down much further than traditional batteries without damaging them. Secondly, the batteries are underneath our living space – if you’re doing the same, make sure that your batteries are “sealed” (rather than “vented”) to avoid any fumes in the cab. Finally, we figured out our power consumption and then calculated approximately how much power we needed for a week.

It’s worth keeping in mind that you’ll probably use more power when the weather is bad (staying inside watching Netflix) in addition to any solar panels you have. being less effective. It’s a very good idea to “budget” 20-30% extra power consumption, rather than be caught out in the wild with no power.

Top Tip: Get 12v chargers (the sort that plug into a cigarette lighter in a normal car) for as many things as possible. Your batteries will supply 12v as a standard, whilst your average charger will take 120-240v, meaning that you’ll need an inverter which will result in some power loss. I find that charging my macbook using my 12v laptop charger takes about the same amount of time as the standard charger and gives us an extra few days on the road.

Essential Gadget Two – SIM Cards
Whenever we talk about our life on the road, there are certain questions that come up time and again, such as “how do you make money on the road?” and “how do you get internet?” The subject of making money is a big topic that deserves it’s own post, but access to the internet is a little more straightforward.

Our Jersey SIM cards didn’t include roaming in Europe, however I had a UK GiffGaff SIM that I had used for short trips previously. Soon after leaving Jersey, I was told that I had been away from the UK for three months so they were stopping my SIM. After doing a bit of research, it seems like a lot of companies do this after 90 days outside of the UK, so if you’re planning to use your UK contract on the road, be careful and read the small print!

Top Tip: As most of Europe counts as domestic for roaming (meaning that you can use a Spanish SIM in France, Germany or Italy as though you were in Spain), we recommend shopping around for the best deal (supermarkets will usually have pre-paid SIM cards, if you don’t want to look for a phone shop). I currently pay €20 per month for 35GB, whilst Phil pays the same amount for 25GB plus unlimited social media. This does us for a month of work, social media and some light streaming, but we do take advantage of Netflix’s Offline mode to stock up when we’re on WiFi.

Essential Gadget Three – Mobile Phones
A while ago, a photographer friend of mine told me that “the best camera is the one that’s in your hand”, and that’s proved to be true. Just before we left, I was looking for two phones, one for each of us. I needed to find a phone that gave the right balance between price and camera quality and eventually settled on the Samsung Galaxy A9.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Matching phones? You’re one of THOSE couples?!” Here’s the thing though – matching phones take matching photos and videos, which makes it easier to splice content together when we’re editing. If one of us sees a good shot, it’s always the same quality. If we’re recording video and one of us runs out of battery, the other one can take over. Having matching phones (with different coloured cases, naturally) also means that we know that a mount, grip and accessory that works with one phone will work with both.

Whenever we go out adventuring my rucksack always contains a selfie stick, a GorillaPod Tripod and a pair of bicycle mounts so that they’re on hand. The phones take the same charger and they both have the same features (such as the time-lapse function that we use for many of our driving videos). We also have a camera mount on the windscreen for those driving shots.

Top Tip: Get cases and shatter-proof glass for your phone as soon as you can. Being on the move, you’d be stunned at how often phones get knocked or dropped and it’s much cheaper to replace a cracked screen protector than it is to replace an entire screen. Phil learned the hard way in Greece when she dropped her phone in a thermal pool and we had to track down a Samsung dealer in Athens!

Another stunning sunset in Austria

Essential Gadget Four – Camera Drone
Speaking of photography, another important part of our kit is our camera drone. We’ve been to so many awesome places and being able to take to the sky to capture the landscape has given us some unique photos and videos during our trip. It’s a good idea to get large SD cards for anything that you’re going to be taking photos from, trust me, you’ll be glad you did later! We use 128GB for our phones and the drone, get as much memory as your device will take.

We started off with a DJI Spark, due to its size and relatively low cost. I was looking for a beginner drone that I could carry easily in a rucksack and the Spark filled that role perfectly. The camera wasn’t the best and neither was the battery life, but on a relatively calm day I could get 90 minutes of footage recorded before needing to recharge the three batteries included in the Fly More package.

In February 2020, our van was broken into and the drone was taken, along with SD cards, laptops and lots of other things (thanks, whoever you are!). Since then, I’ve upgraded to a DJI Mavic Air. It’s a slightly more expensive than the Spark, but with more features and a better camera, it’s worth the upgrade if you know that you’re going to be taking lots of aerial footage.

Top Tip: If you’re taking your drone up, don’t be tempted to rush things before taking off. In the first month of flying, we both broke propellors crashing into trees by flying without prop guards. I’ve also had more than one scene ruined because I’ve taken off and framed a beautiful shot, only to realise that the SD card was still in my laptop, not in the drone. Take your time, make sure that you have everything properly set up before you take off and be aware of your surroundings.

A drone can get those shots that you couldn’t otherwise

Essential Gadget Five – Laptops and tablets
Working from the road, the laptops are essential. We both have MacBooks, although that is primarily because the programs that I need for work (as a Digital Marketer) are best suited to MacOS. A larger screen is also useful for planning routes, editing videos and streaming, so even if you’re not planning to work from the road, I would recommend taking an extra device with you.

Phil swears by her Fire 7 Tablet. When I’m working she’s usually watching videos or reading ebooks on her tablet. It’s compact, charges quickly and has good battery life, although other tablets are available.

Working on the road, the world is your office

Essential Gadget Six – External Hard Drives
Taking all of those pictures and videos will start to clutter up your laptop/phone quickly and before long you’ll be staring at the dreaded “SD Card Full” screen. Usually you’d back the photos up to a cloud account somewhere and delete them, but that can be a painful task when you’re on the road. Do you spend some of your precious mobile data to do it, or do you wait until you get somewhere with WiFi and hope that it’s good enough for a backup?

The answer is to carry an external hard drive, which plugs into a USB port and can be used as storage until you have reliable WiFi. When we lost the drone, the laptop and the SD cards, I lost a month’s worth of footage because I hadn’t backed up since we arrived in Spain. Learn from my mistakes and back everything up as often as possible.

Top Tip: It’s also worth buying small “thumb drives” in case you need to swap footage with people or hide digital versions of passports etc around the van. You can get small-volume storage for about £2.90 per drive, meaning that if one gets lost or damaged, it’s easily replaced.

Essential Gadget Seven – Adaptable chargers
Modular chargers are the future, and you can quote me on that. As long as you have USB leads for every device that you own, you should be able to charge any device, anywhere.

We carry a UK “6-gang” extension (a white extension lead with six UK plug sockets), an EU socket converter and a handful of USB AC Adapters, meaning that we can use our UK appliances wherever we are. Keep in mind that if your device comes with a specific charger, you may get better results using it, however in most cases there is very little difference between plugs.

Another essential mod that we made to the motorhome is installing two 12v sockets above the bed (plus the one in the front of the van, which has a three-way USB splitter). The sockets above the bed allow us to charge our phones overnight, whilst remaining highly efficient & the ones in the front mean we can charges devices as we drive.

So you’ve heard about the things that we couldn’t live without, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows – what about the things that we should have left at home?

Unnecessary Gadget One – MiFi Box
We also regularly get asked about mobile routers (or “MiFi boxes”), which take a regular SIM card and sends out a WiFi signal for other devices. Although we have a Huawai E5330 we don’t really use it, as all of our equipment tethers to our phones.

Some networks limit or disallow tethering, so make sure that you have a solution that works for you!

Unnecessary Gadget Two – Motorhome Satnav
In September, we were very worried about getting stuck whilst driving the motorhome, so we went out and bought a Tomtom GO Camper. The idea is that you program your vehicle dimensions into the satnav and it will automatically route you around low bridges or tight lanes. In practise, we found that it hid small lanes on the map (not much good if you’re looking for “the third left”) and generally didn’t help that much.

We now just use Google Maps or Waze on one of the phones whilst the other one plays music, takes phtos or films our journey. There have been a few tight squeezes, but for every tight lane we probably shouldn’t have driven down, we’ve seen a hundred amazing things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. If you feel like you need the extra reassurance go ahead, but personally, I wouldn’t bother.

Unnecessary Gadget Three – Satellite Dish & TV
Our motorhome came with a satellite dish and TV already installed, and in the year and a half that we’ve owned it, we haven’t used it once. Not once.

A large part of that comes from the way that we travel. We move around a lot, we’re rarely in one spot for long enough to set up a signal and if we’re wildcamping, it attracts attention (which we usually want to avoid). When we’re on a campsite (and it’s less risky to have a satellite dish up), we usually also have WiFi so we stream movies instead. We didn’t really watch terrestrial TV at home, and that hasn’t changed since we’ve been away. You might be different, we just haven’t made use of it.

Bonus round: It’s-unnecessary-but-it’s-cool Gadget Four – Projector & Screen
I couldn’t round off this list without an honourable mention for my ELEPHAS Mini Projector

I specifically installed a roller-blind screen in the van to use as a projector screen, and I’m gutted to say that it hasn’t been used as much as I’d hoped. The ELPHAS is a good projector; it’s small, lightwight and does everything you could want a projector that’s the same size as a disappointing sandwich to do.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot of faff to set up and take down. You need a cable for the video input, another for the power and a third for the audio (unless you want to use the relatively quiet on-board speakers). Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some amazing movie nights with friends where a laptop screen just wouldn’t have done. We’ve even projected scary movies onto the side of the motorhome during a Halloween party in Croatia! It’s been really cool, but it just hasn’t been… essential.

Would I recommend that everyone gets one? Definitely not. Would I give it up? No chance. It’s a cool talking point and I love being able to casually project movies onto a screen larger than the average home TV. If you’re a massive geek like me, 100% get one, otherwise stick to watching Netflix on the tablet.

Halloween movie night in Split, Croatia

So there we have it, Ten Tech Tips (plus an added bonus). Is there anything that should have made it onto the list that didn’t? What gadget couldn’t you live without? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, I’m always keen to find a new toy!

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