Are you the type of person who likes to go camping to switch off all electronics and just enjoy nature at it’s best? If so, this article probably isn’t for you, but if you want to find the best way to stay connected online when camping in the woods, then read on!
There are two main ways to get wifi whilst camping; using a portable Wifi hotspot or camping on a campsite that provides Wifi for you and your devices. The most reliable method of camping Wifi is a portable hotspot.
Many more campsites now are offering Wifi services as part of the pitch fee, or as an added extra, and this is by far the easiest method of ensuring you’ll always be online.
In our experience, however, most campsite wifi systems are absolutely awful and barely able to cope with the odd email, let alone keeping up with your Netflix playlist. This is especially true, we find, for smaller and quieter campsites run by the more elderly owners!
The Case For Staying Connected
Wifi and internet connectivity has become a hugely influential part of our everyday lives, so much so that without internet connection we may feel a little lost!
Of course, there is always going to be the argument that going camping should be a time to be at one with nature and “off-grid”, but as someone who runs many businesses that are fully online, and a self-employed freelancer, being contactable for me is a really big deal.
I’d love to say I completely switch off when I’m camping, but the truth of the matter is that I like being connected and being online.
Many of my businesses and jobs also involve photography and videography, these files can take up a lot of hard drive space so I need to be connected so I can back up footage and photos to the cloud regularly, this saves me carrying loads of SD cards and hard drives!
Campsites With Wifi
One of the biggest problems I’ve always found with Campsite wifi is that it is generally too slow, especially if the campsite is busy with lots of campers and caravanners.
The more people using a connection, the slower it will be, and most campsite wifi, we find, isn’t usually that good, to begin with.
A campsite we stayed on in Wales advertised free wifi, and we thought that was great, but it was so slow we could barely check emails let alone back up video footage. Even Instagram failed to load more than two photos.
This is really frustrating because it means you’re left with very few options if on-site wifi was your only option. It also leaves a very bitter taste in your mouth when the site has advertised “free wifi” that is basically unusable.
The bigger issue with that week was that the Wilds of Wales also has pretty awful phone signal on most networks. There were three of us, me on 3, my sister on EE and a friend on Vodafone, only our friend’s phone had some signal and even that was flaky.
Good signal is something we all really rely on, and we were really annoyed to have little to no connection for the whole trip.
If you’re going to be camping on a site that offers Wifi (free or otherwise) and you know you’ll be a ‘heavy user’ (streaming video, uploading data, etc) then it’s best to give them a call in advance to check the speeds.
Some campsites will offer truly awful Wifi for free and allow you to pay for a better connection, and very few will have incredibly fast free wifi as standard!
My advice is to always check in advance. If your chosen campsite doesn’t know, I’d take this as a red flag that it will probably be very slow and unusable.
Is It Possible To Get Portable Camping Wifi?
Have you checked with your chosen campsite and their wifi offering is either too slow to use or nonexistent? Don’t worry, you have other options!
It’s worth noting here that the other options we’re going to explore are likely to cost money. ‘Is it possible to get free portable wifi?’ you ask, sure it is, but this involves some setup and nothing is truly free, you’ll just pay in another way.
So what are your options for portable Wifi?
There are really two when it comes down to it: tethering your current mobile phone to create a Wifi hotspot, or buying a second contract and Sim card to use in a portable Wifi hotspot device.
Tethering is usually the easiest and, most of the time, the cheapest option, but both have their pros and cons.
Tethering Your Smartphone
Let’s tackle tethering your smartphone first because it’s easiest.
In very straightforward terms, tethering your smartphone means turning it into a wireless hotspot and sharing your data allowance between your phone and any device that connects to it.
Your phone’s wifi hotspot is accessed by any device just as a normal wifi hotspot would be, and you can set passwords and security to ensure it’s not a completely open hotspot.
If all you want to do is have your phone on and working but occasionally check your email on your laptop, then tethering is probably your best option.
There are some pros and cons to using this method, so let’s explore them:
Personally, this is the method lose to get with, when camping because I have an unlimited 4G contract. I don’t have to worry about going over my data allowance.
On the trips where I will be taking my laptop to upload footage, I will always have an electric hook-up too, so I don’t need to worry about the drain on the battery of my phone either.
Portable Wifi Hotspots
Another great option for campers is a portable wifi hotspot.
These are small devices, usually around the size of an average pack of playing cards, that contains a SIM card and acts as a Wifi hotspot.
Most of these devices have an internal battery, meaning you can keep the device charged for those wild camping experiences!
If you’re camping in a group, either with friends or in a family group, these portable Wifi devices (sometimes called Mi-fi) are a great option, but just like using your phone, there are some pros and cons.
Although this isn’t a method I use personally, I do think it’s an excellent idea. When I get my caravan (hopefully 2022!) I’ll probably be investing in one of these.
I think the biggest bonus about these devices is that they come unlocked and can work with any cellular mobile network. This means you could easily shop around for both the best deal and the best network coverage.
This is important because I’m on 3 and have unlimited 4G data, but 3’s signal in rural England, Wales, and Scotland is, quite frankly, dreadful. Having the ability to swap networks is a real plus.
The downside of that big plus is obviously the cost. The devices themselves will run you anywhere from around £30 up into the hundreds. Most of these devices are around £70-£100 just for the device, then you’ll need to get your SIM and pay for either a contract or pay-as-you-go data.
SIM card selection is a personal choice, and different networks are always doing deals that may be worth looking into.
If you’ll be travelling in the EU or anywhere else in the world, you’ll also want to check the fine print of your selected network and contract, some will limit or throttle you overseas and, in some countries, your network just won’t work.
When I was travelling in Ukraine in 2019 and China a few years before, I needed to get a local SIM to be able to access the internet because 3 just didn’t work at all in either country.
Travelling in Portugal a few years ago I was happily using my phone with great signal (better than the UK!) but found out later that 3 had really messed up the contract and it almost cost me £200+ for using my phone abroad.
Luckily I didn’t have to pay because it was their issue, but it’s always worth checking the fine print, and screenshotting any text messages you get from your service carrier if you’re going abroad!
Some of these devices also limit the number of connections which may be an issue if you’re in a big group with multiple devices sharing the one hotspot.
Public Wifi Options
Another option for campers is to use public wifi hotspots, either available at your campsite (Campsite wifi aside) or while you’re out during the day.
There is definitely a good argument for this option, stopping at a pub or cafe for lunch that has WiFi could kill two birds with one stone as it were, but this isn’t a great option for those of us who may need to spend a few hours uploading videos or working.
One of the public wifi options I don’t see mentioned very often is wifi through your home service provider, such as BT.
If you’re a BT customer, you can use millions of BT Fon or BT Wifi hotspots.
MILLIONS of households across the world act as Wifi hotspots, meaning there’s a strong possibility that you may have a BT Fon or BT Wifi hotspot near your campsite that you could tap into.
Of course, the downsides of this method are that you can’t be sure there will be a public hotspot near your campsite (or near enough to your pitch for you to use). Fon does have a coverage map but the reliability of it can be a bit hit and miss.
Wifi Boosters And Antennas
There is a way to boost your signal to get access to Wifi hotspots that are further away, and that is to use a signal booster.
Signal boosters usually require fixing to something solid and a continuous power source, although there are a few options on the market that are smaller and battery-powered, and for this reason, they may only be suitable for caravans and motorhomes.
Having a signal booster means you are able to tap into Wifi out of your normal reach, be that public wifi, such as a local cafe or BT Fon/BT Wifi hotspot, or even boost your campsite’s wifi if you are particularly far away from the router and there are no boosters.
Wifi boosters can be a great option if you know the onsite wifi will be too far away, or you can be sure that there is a public hotspot within reach of the booster, but they are reliant on the original speed of the internet package the owner has.
If the original internet connection is really poor, you won’t see any improvement by using a booster.
A huge bonus to using a booster, regardless of speed, is that it can be an extra layer of security.
Your devices will be logging into ‘your’ hotspot, meaning no others will be able to log into your hotspot, and you may be able to install firewalls and filters that suit you or your family’s usage.
DIY Portable WiFi Hotspots
If you’ve come this far you might still be wondering what options there are that don’t have massive downsides or cost an absolute fortune?
The truth is, there are many downsides to all of these options. I feel, however, that the DIY method is probably the best option I’ve come up with!
Along similar lines to the portable wifi hotspot method, it is perfectly easy to make your own. All you’ll need is an unlocked old smartphone (go for one that can at least get 4G) and a SIM card.
From here you can set your old smartphone up as a portable hotspot with whatever sim card you choose and have great camping wifi!
There are lots of apps that can track your data usage and many smartphones also have dual SIM card trays so it’s possible to have two cards to cover as much data coverage as possible, just make sure you keep it charged and it’s a great way to get portable camping wifi without having to get a second device, and you can connect as many devices as you like!