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.
What 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
What 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
What 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
What 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
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
What 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
What 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
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