Six weeks on the road – lessons learned

toy beetle on map of france

I’ve just returned from a six week working holiday, touring france (and a bit of spain) with my wife and son, in a beetle, living in a tent and working as a freelance web developer at the same time. I thought i’d write up some of the lessons learned, both about camping/ touring and working.

camping

Fridge

Without a doubt the thing we missed most was some kind of fridge. We had a cool bag and some ice blocks (not all campsites will let you use their freezer, plus you need to remember to swap them frequently when you are allowed), and also tried using a bucket of water – both failed miserably. Various options are available for powered coolboxes, ranging from 12 volt only, 12v volt + mains and electric/ gas combos. This is something i’ll be looking into – expect a lengthy post on this some time in the future!

Quechua pop-up tents

The Quechua tents were brilliant – we had one Quechua base “full” and two pop-up tents which docked up to the base as bedrooms. All survived storms and we loved being able to pitch them and pack them down in minutes. Having owned various tents over the years, I can’t imagine going back to a tent with poles – it’s just not worth the hassle when touring.

Unfortunately the zip on our 3-man tent is now broken. This is fine when it is docked up to the base, as the inner door still works, but it is now fairly useless as a standalone tent. However, I remain impressed enough with the general quality of the tent, so I’ll replace this at some point and may consider adding another base tent to use as a kitchen area or bedroom (with the optional inner).

Bedding

Due to car space considerations we skimped on pillows – big mistake! Travel pillows and cushions don’t cut it for long term camping. If we had more room, i’m sure a better mattress (we had self-inflating mattresses, which are good, but i’d still wake up with a dead arm now again) would have been welcome, as would duvets instead of sleeping bags.

VW New Beetle as a touring car

Is possible – just! This car is basically just a MK4 golf with a silly/beautiful* shape and much less boot space, so it is fine on the road for long journeys (over three and a half thousand in the this case), if a little thirsty. Even though it is ten years old with 100K+ miles on the clock, the only mechanical problem we had on the trip was the air conditioning breaking, although it was already faulty I suspect. With roof bars/ bag we managed to carry a surprising amount of kit, but packing the car was a work of science. I’m investigating options to be able to carry more for future trips – trailers, tow ball mounted load carrier, big roof box – no doubt i’ll write about my findings on that at some point. The biggest plus for the car was the smiles it got when we arrived on a campsite fully laden 🙂

mobile working – kit

Solar power

My experiments with small solar panel and battery pack combos – the solargorilla/powergorilla combo and the SolarSupra showed that it is possible to charge a laptop with solar power in France during the summer, but only for occasional use. To get consistent full working days would need a more sophisticated setup – larger panels and bigger batteries. I’ll be continuing these experiments in the UK, and doing a side by side comparison of the solargorilla/powergorilla and solarsupra.

Spare batteries

As an afterthought I packed the battery from my spare macbook. This turned out to be the most useful of the “gadgets” I took with me. I’ll probably buy one or two spare batteries before my next trip, plus a standalone charger. It’s a pity the new macbooks and macbook pros don’t have a removable battery – they may have better battery life, but it is really useful to be able to carry a few spares.

Electric hookup

Most of the sites we went to had electric hookup, but not always on all of the pitches. This means that if you don’t rely on electric hookup, there is more choice if you just turn up without booking during busy times. I wanted to see if I could charge my laptop with no reliance on an electric hookup, with very limited success. Also we saved somewhere in the region of £200 by not paying for electric hookup. However, I hadn’t realised the extent to which we would miss a fridge, and even though i’ll probably buy one with the ability to run from gas, electricity is going to be the most convenient way to run it long term. I’ll be buying some electric hookup kit for the next trip, but I don’t want to rely on it to the point that I would turn down a pitch if it didn’t have electric hookup. It’s worth noting that there are two different types of electric hookup – the caravan hookup type socket, and some that are just northern european plug sockets. I’ve been told that the polarity is often wrong on these sockets, which doesn’t stop devices working, but will make surge protectors useless – and surges are common, especially during storms!

Proper leisure batteries

The Halfords powerpack I have previously referred to as a leisure battery, isn’t actually a leisure battery at all. A proper leisure battery has much higher capacity, and can be discharged to a higher level without damaging it. The main obstacle to carrying a leisure battery is our tiny car, but if I can find a small enough one, i’ll probably get one for the next trip, and leave the powerpack. My main worry about not having any type of 12 volt battery on board is for when I accidently happen to flatten my main car battery, although this didn’t happen at all on this trip, so maybe i’ll just buy a decent set of jump leads and improve my french vocabulary to include “gis a jump start mate!”, rather than lugging a battery around.

Macbook and Netbook

My main weapon of choice is a macbook. Not a macbook pro, but the older plastic one, with the removable battery. I actually have two, and they do the job. I like the fact that as they are a few years old now, i’m not as paranoid about them as I would be a brand new macbook pro. I’ve been happy using the macbook to do all kinds of different work, ranging from python and php code to photoshop. I decided to buy a netbook as a spare machine, rather than carry the second macbook as a spare. In reality I didn’t use the netbook much at all, as it is so fiddly to use, particularly the trackpad, but it was still nice to know it was there if something happened to the macbook. I think i’d do the same again, although if I got a chance I may try it as a hackintosh, to see how useable it is.

Mobile working – discipline

Scheduling work

In my last post I discussed how difficult it can be juggle work and holiday. I haven’t really quantified how much work I managed to get done over the trip, but I suspect it falls short of covering costs. I think our next trip will definitely involve an extended stay in a particular location where I do a set number of days work on a particular project, then limit working on the rest of the trip to emergencies and short maintenance jobs here and there. I think this way i’ll know in advance how much money i’m likely to earn and manage my client’s (and my family’s!) expectations better.

Working offline

This deserves a post of it’s own, but probably on my main web development blog. I spent a lot of time working disconnected from the net and this had knock-on effects for the way I work on projects. This blog is actually written on an offline text file based blogging engine I knocked up in a vw dealership while waiting for my car to be fixed a few months ago, and it turned out to be very useful, and I learned a few other lessons that I will endeavor to write about in more detail.

* delete as applicable – I think it’s the latter 🙂

Work/loaf balance

work/ loaf balance

Sometimes I get bullied and cajoled by my family and friends into doing social and exciting stuff, just as I need to do some work, or just as i’ve finished work and want to bury my face in a book/ice cream/beer (or preferably all three) – poor me, what a hard life etc. etc…

Taking an extended road trip like this depends on me working for part of the time, both in terms of keeping my existing clients happy and earning enough money to pay the bills. I’ve been experimenting with different ways of doing this.

The first few weeks revolved around my experiments with charging via solar or from the car, so I would do sprints of work when I had a full battery – which usually meant a couple of hours a day.

On longer stays on a wifi equipped campsite, when i’ve paid for a day pass on the wifi, it often works out better to take whole days in the campsite bar, plugged into the mains. I use the term “whole day” loosely – it has been rare to start before ten, and there have been frequent breaks for a dip in the pool, keep my son entertained, socialising, trips to the supermarket etc. – the usual things you might expect to do on holiday if you weren’t trying to make a living at the same time.

Other days we might be traveling, or taking a day trip, there’s not much opportunity to get any work done, albeit answering emails on my iphone.

It hasn’t always been ideal – sometimes the days, or part days where i’m trying to enjoy the holiday i’m left in “work mode”, really feeling like I should be getting on with something, other days i’m working away when I really should be going for a swim or reading a book. I’m not sure what the solution is yet, maybe it’s just getting better at switching between work and play, or maybe it’s longer work days with a stricter emphasis on work, or several days in a row on and several off.

Maybe the real solution taking a shorter road trip next time and not trying to do any work at all, but i’m enjoying this too much – how many people get the opportunity to spend this long having an adventure with their family? So i’m making the most of it – i’ll make it work somehow!

(The pop-up tent in the photo above is a Quechua Base Seconds)

One night in Spain

cabo mayor ticket

It’s seven o’clock in the evening and i’m being led on a wild goose chase round Santander in the north of Spain, by the very out-of-date “points of interest – cash dispenser” option on my satnav. I’m led to a building site, a car park and, worryingly, a cliff, before finally spotting a bank that wasn’t on the list. I park the car illegally in a spot reserved for motorbikes and run a lost tourist flip-flop sprint to the ATM to secure some cash for the evening. Camping Cabo Mayor – the campsite that we didn’t really want to stay – where i’ve left my wife and son setting up camp, informed me they only accept payment in cash, and we haven’t got food for the night either.

We’ve driven well over a hundred miles to get here from Biarritz. The whole european trip has been pretty much unplanned, but so far we’ve always phoned ahead to check availability, but after being greeted by spanish answerphone messages and total failure of online booking, we decided that with a list of campsites hastily scribbled in felt tip on a notepad the last time we had wifi, that we would chance just turning up. In the second week of August – “peak season” apparently. The first site we tried, 20 miles or so east at Noja was manic and full, the next one at Suesa we didn’t even stop to enquire, as we could see from the road it was full to bursting and it wasn’t what we looking for. We ended up at Cabo Mayor on the hills above Santander, somewhere i’ve stayed before, on the first night of my “Spanish Adventure”* 13 or so years ago.

We’ve obviously been spoilt by the campsites we’ve stayed at in France – on this site we are crammed in like battery hens, with barely room for our car and only able to put up part of our over-elaborate tent arrangement. After carefully locking all things of value out of site in the car, we take a walk up to the Cabo Mayor lighthouse and have a beer looking out over the sea. Annoyingly, it’s chilly – that’s not how I remember it. We then retire to the bar down the road from the campsite, where things are more relaxed and I get to practice some of my rusty Spanish – not very much really, but considerably better than my french.

Things were a bit different last time I was here. Back then as a young and single hippy in a beaten up van, I slept in carparks, down side streets, on beaches, in the woods and basically anywhere I thought I could stay for the night without getting moved on by the police. Back then I was also trying to earn a living as I went, but busking rather than coding – I think I am having slightly more success with the latter. Not far from where i’m standing is the spot where I first ever dared to sing in public – I played a lemonheads song to some random tourists and earned a few pesetas, leaving me on a high for days.

Back at the campsite we feel slightly marooned – there’s not even room to sit outside the tent to enjoy a drink. We don’t want to stay more than one night on this site. Without having somewhere in mind, it becomes obvious that carrying on further into spain the next day might be counter-productive for what we want to get out of this trip. We decide that we are going to make an early start the next day, back the way we came – a 280 mile trip back to our new favourite french site at La Romieu – we’ll have to save exploring Spain for the next trip, when we’ve done a bit more planning, maybe next time taking the ferry to Spain and starting the trip there. Meanwhile i’m happy knowing that back at La Romieu with wifi and a plug socket for the week I can get some work done and earn back the petrol money from our weekend detour.

*My Spanish Adventure is something that I always meant to write a novel about, but if it hasn’t been written yet, I doubt it ever will. Also, the things I thought would make interesting reading in my early 20’s, are probably less so now, but there must be at least a blog post in there!

Three days of cloud and rain = back to mains


raindrops on the tent


I had been doing really well keeping stuff charged by solar power alone in the good weather, but three days of cloud and torrential rain resulted in me borrowing a mains adapter from the campsite reception and turning the boot of my car into a charging station.

The final straw was torrential rain yesterday afternoon leaving us huddled in the quechua base tent watching a film on the laptop. A nearly flat macbook was topped up with a half charged powergorilla (the result of 2 days solar charging) and we just made it all the way through Tom Hank’s “Big” with a few minutes battery time left.

It was only sheer luck that we happened to be on a pitch with mains hook up – most of the sites have more choice if you don’t need electric, but we ended up on a pitch with mains. I need to get hold of a proper electric hook up lead – I wasn’t sure if UK/Europe mains hook up leads were the same or not, and the leads I looked at in the UK were very bulky, so I decided against it.

I’ve just returned from the campsite bar after unsuccessfully trying to use the campsite wifi – it keeps going offline because of power surges apparently. I guess I should be getting a lead with a surge protector built in. Meanwhile we sit out the storm with a medley of films, and frequent dashes to the car boot charging station to swap chargers over.

On a brighter note, the Quechua tents are holding up a treat in the rain 🙂

Sweat, Flies and Flying Glass (but living the dream)

working on the balcony of les o kiri

The temperature gauge in my car says it is 28 degrees centigrade in the shade. I spent most of the day working on the balcony of a campsite bar, using my very little french "Une cafe noire sil vous plait" to procure coffee, because I really shouldn’t start on the beer yet, and the french don’t really do tea. Despite my appalling pronunciation, each time I receive an espresso in a glass or cup, and know (from the change rather than the spoken response) that these cost me 1 euro 20 each time. Occasionally one of the bar staff speaks to me and I nod and smile – hoping that what they are saying is good, rather than “can you please leave now?”.

From the balcony I can see the “beach on the mountains” – a sandy beach on a turquoise lake, with the French Pyrenees as a backdrop. In the water are a load of kids (one of them my own), having a riot with an inflatable roundabout in the shallow part of the lake. At lunchtime I wander down and have a picnic lunch in the shade with my wife and son, then I wander back up to the bar. Although my solar charging experiments are showing some promise, I plug into the mains to enable me to work for a decent stint without the “plate spinning” needed to swap round partially charged batteries, while I get others charging.

If I wasn’t working, now might be time for a beer, but I stick with the espresso. It’s hardly “chilled” here, i’m being accosted by flies, I can barely see my screen, even in the shade. Some workmen take the table next to me and start talking far too loud, and seem to be enjoying themselves far too much at my expense, (or maybe that’s just my “not speaking the language” paranoia). To top things off, someone drops a whole tray of empty glasses and a splinter of glass pings off my arm. It doesn’t draw blood, but adds to the feeling that this isn’t exactly the ideal working environment. But then I look at the view again, and see my family enjoying themselves in the sun, and I know that i’m earning enough through working part of the day each day (or a whole day every other day) to justify the extended holiday, and that I am in fact living the dream.

Experiments with mobile internet abroad and charging on the road

SolarSupra solar panel trickle charging a leisure battery

We’ve been on the road in france for a few days now. I have an iPhone with t-mobile sim, and was offered (via SMS) one of a few data roaming bundles when I drove off the eurotunnel in calais. I opted for a 30 day/ 200mb bundle for £40, which should be plenty enough for checking email and the odd bit of remote working. At the first campsite we stayed at in the town Jumièges, the phone was showing a strong 3G signal through Orange France, but it was struggling to download webpages, via the phone or tethered to my macbook. Sometimes they loaded, sometimes they didn’t – mostly the latter. I wasn’t planning on doing any serious work on the first day anyway, but it wasn’t encouraging.

The campsite was shady and the clouds were grey (followed by thunderstorms and lightning), so it would have been pointless to try solar charging! The battery on my casio elixim camera had gone flat (probably accidently left switched on in the bag), and the only way I have of charging this is on the road is using the 240 volt inverter on the leisure battery. This is very inefficient, so took quite a chunk of charge out of the leisure battery. Packing up in torrential rain the next morning everything was a bit frantic, so I missed an opportunity to get some charge from the car while we drove the next 200 miles south.

The second campsite near the town of Ligueil in the Loire valley, had free wifi which stretched as far as our pitch a good 200 metres from the office, which was really useful. From there I did a couple of hours work, caught up on email and launched a few new features on one of the sites I look after. There was plenty of sun, so I plugged the SolarSupra panel into my leisure battery via the 12 volt connection to top it up. I haven’t got an accurate way of working out how effective this is, but I have to presume that it its a minimal trickle charge, so would require days of trickle charging to have any useful effect. When I am stationary for a longer period of time, i’ll try to to leave this hooked up for a few days to see how it fares.

Back on the road heading south to St Emilion, I plugged the leisure battery into the 12 volt socket conveniently located in the boot of the beetle, and by the time we reach the campsite it was fully charged – if only I could get that kind of charging power from nice clean solar power. Also along the way, stopped at a services near Tours my mobile data connection allowed me to check my email no problems, so i’m thinking it will just be a lottery, but at least I know where will be a good bet when we head back up this way.

Meanwhile i’m going to try to charge my iPhone exclusively from the SolarMio for a while to see how I get on with that. I can’t help but cheat a bit as every time I plug the phone in to the laptop to get photos off it, it charges a bit!

The site i’m currently on – Camping Domaine de la Barbanne in St Emilion, has wifi but I need to go and pay for a time period, and the signal doesn’t reach our pitch. This means I need to work offline, then probably before I leave, will pay the minimal amount to check my email (i’m getting no data connection here) and upload some work. I think this will be the case for much of this trip, so i’ll make note of any useful lessons as I go.

It is also worth noting that I had given up getting a data connection on my iPhone, until I switched off 3G and rebooted – I have been getting a slow but working data connection eversince – good news.