Our national parks system turns 100 this August. If you ever needed an excuse to visit a national park—besides just being alive—this is your moment. And if you play your cards right, you might be able to do it without taking time off from work.
A couple of caveats: Of course, not everyone has the sort of job that they can do on the road. And it would be a fair criticism to say that you shouldn’t sully something as special as a trip to a national park with the tedium of, say, answering email. But if you can manage it, working while traveling can give you the flexibility to see places you wouldn’t have time to see otherwise.
I’ve logged tens of thousands of miles over the last couple of years while staying connected to work—for better or worse—including a recent 5,000-mile, two-week trip from New York to the Grand Canyon and back, and I’ve picked up a few strategies and accessories that have kept me moving and relatively sane.
The best and worst part of working from the road is managing your own time. It’s great to be able to pull over to take in a vista or pop into a roadside antiques shop in the middle of the day, but you’ll never be able to completely turn off your work-brain.
Let’s say you’re going to work from a national park for a week.
Before you leave for a trip, try to minimize the number of meetings and other time- and Internet-dependent events on your calendar. Ask your colleagues to attend in your stead, if possible, and send you a brief if necessary. But if it’s a question of calling into a meeting or pushing into the next week, just do the meeting—this is a camp/work trip, and you don’t want to return to double the workload.
These sort of camp/work trips are also great opportunities to knock a few backlogged items off your to-do list. Camping out, for instance, tends to give you a lot of unplanned hours after dark, and you can only eat so many s’mores. Before you move on to the campfire cocktails, you could spend a couple of hours answering emails or writing up a report under the stars. (I personally do a lot of draft writing while out in the woods or desert, as well as organizing the various projects that will need attention later.) Take some time before you leave to carve out a few of these projects that you could get done. You might even be able to take something off your co-workers’ plates.
Now that you’ve got a list of can’t-move meetings and work projects, sit down with your calendar and map out your trip. I’d suggest picking a single destination park, with maybe a stop on the way or the return. One destination won’t sound like much for an entire week, but I’ve found that getting ambitious with stops ups the chances for mid-trip misery. Plus, depending on which park you decide to work from, there should be plenty to explore from your base camp. (Camping spots in many national parks are already booked several months in advance, too, so finding more than one place to camp for several days in a row will be chore enough.)
There’s another reason you’ll want to keep your camp selection simple: you won’t really know what your Internet situation will be like until you arrive. Some campgrounds have Wi-Fi. If you’re lucky, your cell phone may still have LTE coverage, which you can use for tethering to your other devices like a laptop. But you’ll never really know until you get there, and the single bar of coverage that is enough for a phone call may not be enough to download a big PDF from your email. That will mean trips to local coffee shops or restaurants that have Wi-Fi.
In general, most highway corridors these days have decent cell coverage, so you’ll probably have Internet access up to the entrance of the park, but not necessarily inside. (Most parks are big and wild!) Some newer cars have LTE hotspots with bigger antennas that you can activate for an additional charge; you could also add an aftermarket cell signal amplifier, but I wouldn’t suggest one unless you’re doing camp/work trips frequently. Instead, just find a friendly place near your camp site that you can fall back to if you need solid, faster Internet.
The same goes for phone meetings: If you’re on a relatively flat interstate, you’ve got a good chance to be able to take a meeting while driving without the call dropping. What I try to do is find a good place to stop—a parking lot, highway exit, or rest stop—at least a half-hour before a call, just in case I find myself in a radio-less valley when it’s time for the meeting to start. (I once did an interview for Co.Design with a U.K.-based car designer while parked next to a Walmart to use their free Wi-Fi; I had stopped an hour earlier and done a couple of test calls, giving myself enough time to find a better option if their Internet had been flakey.)
That said, I still take quite a few short calls while driving, and I’ve found that a good CarPlay or Android Auto integration makes the experience a million times more pleasant. My pickup truck didn’t come with a touch-screen radio (even though it’s a 2012), so I installed a head unit from Pioneer (an AVH-4100NEX, the predecessor to the AVH-4200NEX that launched in March) that plays nicely with my iPhone. Being able to use Siri to dictate text messages or look up destinations while keeping my eyes straight ahead is awfully nice, although being limited to just a small set of apps while using Carplay—what I wouldn’t give for Waze in cities or more robust off-road GPS apps—is annoying. (Apple is opening up Carplay a bit with the next version of iOS 10, though, so here’s hoping more developers will hop on board.)
If I can give you any advice for a camp/work trip, it’s this: always make your meetings. Your coworkers will feel a lot better about your crazy idea to work from a national park for a week if they can rely on you to be available when you’ve promised you’ll be.
Here’s everything you’ll need:
The National Park Service offers the “America The Beautiful” pass for $80 annually that gets you and up to four total adults entrance into all the parks. (Kids are free.) What’s even better is that if you’re unsure that you’ll use it, you can keep the entrance receipts and apply them towards the $80 if you decide later that you want the full pass. I buy one every year, even if I just end up visiting a single park; I consider any possible overspend a worthwhile donation to the parks system.
I’ve got more battery packs and solar chargers than I know what to do with, but on my last trip I consolidated almost everything into one device: a Goal Zero Yeti 400 Solar Generator ($400). The Yeti is basically a fancy car battery with an 110-volt inverter, USB power outlets, and a 12-volt plug with enough juice inside to recharge a laptop several times, or a phone a few dozen times. The “Solar Generator” part is a bit of misnomer—you’ll need to plug in one of Goal Zero’s solar panels into it to turn sunlight into Snapchat—but even without a solar refill, a fully-charged Yeti should get you through several days of work time. On my recent Grand Canyon trip, a Yeti kept a 13-year-old and 10-year-old’s tablets, flashlights, and other ignore-the-view gadgets fully charged for three days in the woods, while also powering a small Sony pico-projector for nighttime movies. A battery system like the Yeti is a bit overkill for a one-off trip—you can also buy a cheap inverter that uses your car’s electrical system—but it can also do double-duty as an in-house battery backup for emergencies when you’re not on the road. It’s a durable, well-designed piece of equipment, and while it’s heavy—there is a big battery in there, after all—it doesn’t take up that much space in a car.
While many park campgrounds and truck stops have showers available, I added a new piece of equipment to our setup this year: a Nemo Helio pressure shower ($100). Folding up into a bag about the size of a taco salad bowl, the Helio can be filled with hot or cold water which is then pressurized with a foot pump. An attached hose terminates in the same sort of trigger-spray as you’ll find in most kitchen sinks. And while it’s designed for use as a shower, we ended up using it for kitchen clean-up as much as we did for wilderness stink removal. It can be slightly awkward to fill and move around when full, but no more than any bag full of water, like those old fashioned gravity-fed solar showers. It’s a decent compromise for the car camper who doesn’t want to delve into the world of heavy duty RV-class plumbing for a simple backwoods trip.
This one is completely essential to a camp/work trip: a stainless-steel, insulated beer growler. (Okay, maybe only mostly essential.) Made by Miir, it can hold up to 64 ounces of liquid—and by liquid, I mean beer—and will keep it cold for up to a day. It also comes in a lovely powder-coated blue. Since most national parks happen to be located in areas of the country that are also home to some of the best breweries our country has to offer, a tough growler of a cold sour or I.P.A. can be your campsite companion. And if you keep the growler in a nice cooler, like one of these stainless steel jobs from Igloo, you can probably keep your beer chilly for another extra day or two.
Doing a camp/work trip is an indulgence, but one that I can’t recommend enough. Our national parks system is the envy of the world, and spending time outdoors—even with the flurry of work projects taking up space in your mind—can be a uniquely restorative experience. There is no better office than a park.
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[Cover Photo: via Unsplash]