forks in the road the cookbook

Download the Free ebook now!

Buy us a beer

  1. Quick facts
  • Total days on the road: 586
  • Currently in: USA
  • Miles Driven: 36821
  • Countries Visited: 17
  • Days Camping: 389
  • Days Indoors: 202

   See all the stats here!

  1. Get Updates via Email

Delivered by FeedBurner

Seven Really Awesome Essential Gadgets for Digital Nomads

Written by Jessica on September 13, 2012

gear we love

We’ve been getting a lot of emails from soon-to-be digital nomads planning to drive down the PanAm. Not that I’m complaining about emails. I love them. It makes me feel famous.

However, I have answered the same “what gear do you most recommend?” question at least three times this month and that leads me to believe there’s some people out there that would really appreciate if I’d put all our really awesome digital nomad gear, particularly for overlanders, in one neat little list. I do understand that reading through our entire Central American Packing List is not a fun experience.


Wifi Extenders

Alfa wifi extenderWhat does it do: Most importantly, it increases your ability to pick up wifi signals from a distance. Secondly, it is a backup wireless card.

Why it is awesome: Because campsites are never near the wifi access point and wireless cards never seem to play well with routers when you need them too.

These small and relatively inexpensive extenders come in very handy, especially if you are going to camp. If you need wifi, but don’t want to sit in a cramped, smoky restaurant all day long, this is your ticket. We’ve also found them to be very helpful when troubleshooting connection issues. Very frequently one of us has connection problem and nine times out of 10 the problem is fixed by switch to the extender.

Recommendations: Alfa brand is the most popular and highest rated. The gigantic antennas aren’t worth the extra cost in our opinion.

How much does it cost: $37

Unlocked 3G USB Modem

unlocked usb modemWhat does it do: This little device is a modem that plugs into your USB port that takes a SIM card, the same that GSM cell phones use. To set up a modem you have to buy a prepaid SIM card, add some prepaid minutes, and sometimes sign up for an internet packet. Check out our Costa Rica wifi report for detailed information on setting up unlocked modems.

Why it is awesome: It allows you to get online from your computer using cell phone networks. It’s unlocked so it will work with almost any cell phone company in any country, saving you the cost of buying a new prepaid modem everytime you cross a border. Because cell phone networks are virtually everywhere, it allows you to stay connected all the time, even when driving down the highway. Need to look up a hotel? Need to email a client last minute? It also comes in handy when the hotel internet goes down, or the power goes out.

Note that in all Central American countries except Costa Rica, it is possible to buy a prepaid modem for less than $50 which usually comes with a month of free data time. For us, it was often easier to buy a prepaid modem than to deal with the hassle of setting up our unlocked modem. However, in Costa Rica they do NOT sell prepaid modems. And in Colombia and Ecuador the cost of a USB modem skyrockets (more than $100) and they no longer include any free time. In these three places especially, it is worth bringing an unlocked USB modem. Read our country wifi reports for more info on connections and costs.

Recommendations: Make sure it’s quad band and accepts the frequencies of the countries you are going to visit. Not sure what frequency your destination uses? Check out this list. We have used this Zoom modem with great success.

How much does it cost: $50

Unlocked Smartphone

jess on the unlocked phoneWhat does it do: It does everything a regular smartphone does, but it is unlocked so you can use it with prepaid SIM cards around the world. This means you don’t need to pay ridiculous roaming rates on your domestic plan. After buying a SIM card you add money to your prepaid account at convenient recharge locations everywhere. You can spend your balance right away by making calls or surfing the web on a pay-per-kilobyte basis. Or, you can ask about packets and sign up for larger amounts of calling time or internet data for a much better rate.

See our Phone and Wifi Reports for more information on phone specs and calling rates.

Why it is awesome: If you take your US contact cell phone outside the US and access the internet, it will cost exactly $20 per megabyte of data. If you buy a prepaid SIM card in Mexico and use the internet there, it will cost you $20 per gigabyte. That’s 1000 times cheaper.

Prepaid plans around the world are always a cheaper alternative than bringing you cell phone from home. It may take a little while to get the SIM card set up, but the savings will be huge.

Recommendations: Buy quad band! Check the frequencies used by the cell phone companies in the countries you are going to visit.  If you are driving the PanAm you must have a quad band phone because Costa Rica uses a very strange frequency. Also, CDMA (i.e. Verizon Wireless) phones won’t work. It’s a GSM world. If you phone doesn’t take SIM cards all hope is lost. We've used this Andriod phone throughout the America's with great success. We’ve seen it sold in many stores throughout the Americas, so getting it fixed or picking up a spare battery should not be a problem.

How much does it cost: $100-$600

3G Router

wifi routerWhat does it do: It turns wired into wireless for both regular ethernet cables and also works with a 3G USB modem.

Why it is awesome: When we have good 3G signal with our USB modem, we can plug it in to our router and all three of us can surf the web at the same time. If you have more than one computer, or more than one person that needs  to be online, we recommend you invest in one of these. It saves having to pass a USB stick around all day and petty squabbles over who went over their allotted internet time.

Additionally, if you happen to be in a hostel without wireless, you can rig it up real fast and make things easier for everyone in the place. They do get kind of grumpy when you decide to leave though.

Recommendations: Make sure it can support a 3G modem. We bought a Zoom brand, the same as our modem, so we knew there wouldn't be issues.

How much does it cost: $50

Extension Cord

What does it do: Makes the power reach the table and makes one outlet into three.

Why it is awesome: Because fighting over a power socket isn’t a good way to make friends. And there is always a shortage of power outlets. Frequently the outlet is behind the counter, across the room, under the fridge, out the door, or any number of other inconvenient places.

Recommendations: Just take the one that you’re currently using for your alarm clock. This isn’t rocket science. If you really need an example: here you go.

How much does it cost: $5

Ground Plug Adapters

ground plug adapterWhat does it do: It allows you to plug your three-prong electronic devices into an outlet that doesn’t have a ground.

Why it is awesome: Because taking a pair of bolt cutters to the ground on your laptop cord so you can charge it definitely voids your warranty.

More than half of the places we have worked through Central and South America did NOT have a grounded outlet. These little adapters allow you to charge things even if the outlet is not up to code.

Recommendations: Buy more than you think you need. These things grow legs.

How much does it cost: 5 pesos

Kindle – The Free 3G Version

kindleWhat does it do: Obviously, it allows you to read books. More importantly it comes with free internet that works almost everywhere by connecting to cell phone networks.

Why is it awesome: It works around the world on almost every cell phone network. And it’s free. If you’re in a pinch, your phone or USB modem doesn’t get signal and the hostel doesn’t have wifi, this can be a life saver. It’s an easy failsafe to send last minute out of office messages. Don’t plan on doing any serious work on it though. The browser is still experimental and only very basic browsing is supported. Some countries aren’t supported, specifically Belize and Costa Rica. See the coverage map for details.

Recommendations: You must buy the 3G version with a keyboard. The new Touch versions advertise free 3G, but will not let you use the 3G to browse the internet. It’s up to you if you want the $50 discount for looking at ads on the bottom of your screen every now and then.

How much does it cost: $139-189

Disclaimer: Some of the links above utilize Amazon's affiliate program, meaning if you purchase the item from Amazon we receive a small commission. See our full Web Site Terms and Conditions of Use for more information.


#13 Jessica@LifeRemotely 2014-03-22 11:15
Hi Michelle,
Yes, you can just use your phone as a hotspot rather than getting a mifi device. Actually I would recommend this. You'll notice that mifi devices aren't even on this list. We'd perfer a 3G modem that is powered through your computer's USB port, or, as you mention, a cell phone that can become a hotspot.
#12 MichelleCliffe 2014-03-22 11:14
We are planning to travel with an unlocked iPhone. Can't this just be used as a WiFi hotspot using cellular? Rather than buying a separate MiFi device?
#11 Victoria 2013-08-31 22:21
Just came back to this post as we're finishing up gathering our tech for our trip, so helpful, thank you! And regarding the lightbulb adaptors, about a year ago I thought it didn't exists and perhaps had come up with a new invention... a quick google search revealed that yes they exist, and yes, they are awesome! We have two of them on our back patio and will definitely be bringing them with us! Thanks again for all your helpful information!
#10 Jessicam 2012-12-27 14:54
Hey Juergen. Good info. We did look into these before we started our trip in Oct 2011, but then the technology was pretty new and the reviews were terrible (not to mention the price tags). Back then they all had the problem of short battery lives, and not being able to work as hotspots when they were charging. It seems that these issues have been mostly resolved though. I'll be curious to see how this works for you. Keep us posted.
#9 Juergen 2012-12-27 01:51
Your tip with the 3G USB modem PLUS a 3G router is a little outdated. We just bought a MiFi-WLAN Hotspot, which combines the 2 into 1; you can connect up to 5 WiFi devices to it.
Best brands seem to be the Huawei E586 (which I bought on Ebay - easy to unlock!) and the ZTE MF60 (which seems to be faster, but a trouble maker when it comes to unlocking). These things are also available with 4G LTE, but due to so many different LTE standards around the world not yet an option for travelers.
Heads Up & Happy Travels in 2013!
electronic news
#8 electronic news 2012-12-15 10:01
#7 jessicam 2012-10-02 18:11
Hi Clayton!
I think Movistar has been the most common so far in South America, and Claro is second. But I'm not sure ifyou can use a locked movistar modem from one country in another (even if it is the same company). We tried this in central America with Claro and Tigo and the modems did not work across the border. A new prepaid modem had to be bought in each country. We are also finding it more difficult to setup the unlocked modem in South America, we tried in Ecuador with no luck and also with Claro in Peru and it did not work. Sorry I don't have more helpful info. Good luck.
clayton scicluna
#6 clayton scicluna 2012-10-02 02:34
hey guys,man you rock, im am so impresed by your site, so To get across the darian gap with my dog umi we took ponga boats.. what a storie! any way I am colombia it is amazing, I am looking for a usb adapter and cannot find a unlocked one, is there a company that you have found to be in most of the countries so far south or here...clairo? so greatfull to find out, many thanks to you all. thank you clayton
gadgets electronic
#5 gadgets electronic 2012-09-21 02:43
Your article very useful,this all things is essential!
#4 jessicam 2012-09-15 21:28
How the hell did we not know about the lightbulb adapter thing. Seriously? Sending Kobus on a mission to find one. Then will add it to the list. Thanks guys!
Ruined Adventures
#3 Ruined Adventures 2012-09-15 17:12
Great info guys. Along the lines of adapters for electrical plugs, honorable mention should go to the light-bulb adapter found in any hardware store down here. It basically turns a light socket into a light socket w/two-prong plug. There's so many times that there's been no electrical plug, but plenty of lights available. Of course a power strip/surge protector is always good protection for your electronics considering the sketchy power systems down here.
#2 Jonas 2012-09-14 04:41
Great post! Some great info here. :)
#1 James 2012-09-13 20:11
Good stuff here, guilty of ripping out my ground port on my laptop charger :-x

Might want to throw in one of those Transformadors for the 220v->110v conversions. I just picked one up the other day, Brads coffee grinder almost rocketed into outerspace using 220v

This content has been locked. You can no longer post any comment.