How To Write Code From The Back Of A Van (in relative comfort)

How To Write Code From The Back Of A Van (in relative comfort)

I have a strong love for my camper truck, really it was the first thing I ever did on my own accord that worked out for me. I learned how to build, craft, tinker and repair and it turned into a passion for DIY that I draw from heavily now.

But this post is about something else: How my other passion of programming feels when done from the back of a van or truck. Like a lot of people I spent a long time ogling camper vans online, thinking about the location independent life and how great it would be to no longer pay rent – and now that I have my van and this quarantine going on I wanted to give the whole idea of working from it a reality check.

I already established that playing with the truck is a dream come true, as is sleeping in it and waking up in the morning surrounded by nature, taking a swim in a lake before anyone else is even awake – those things play out just like you think from the pictures online.

Working is a slightly different ballgame however, which is what I want to talk about today.

Comfort can only ever be relative

The simple truth is that you won’t achieve the same kind of comfort, speed and productivity as you get from a large screen at home, a mechanical keyboard letting you type twice as fast and a great, comfortable seat.

That is basically a given and anyone who has ever written code on a train or on the floor of a meeting room will attest to the way your productivity changes fundamentally.

That being said you can definitely make things work, at least to a certain degree that is still faster than most people work at.

Try to ignore the mouse

This is general life advice to begin with, each time you reach for your mouse is ten, twenty seconds just wasted compared to knowing the shortcut. It only gets worse from there if someone is computer-illeterate and uses the mouse to select text, copy and paste etc.

I have a full guide written on becoming a true keyboard warrior, I really suggest anyone read this because it can save you many hours each month.

This problem however is greatly worsened whenever you work on uneven ground, have a laptop in your lap and no real place to put your mouse. Everything becomes a hassle, you waste time and it will be an all around unenjoyable experience.

Trackpads are slightly more usable in these conditions, but if at all possible you should rely on the keyboard and typing – which then becomes quite enjoyable.

Find a good place to sit

Most vans don’t really have space built in for a proper desk – but you can easily have a folding desk and put it outside with a chair. That is a big comfort plus.

If at all possible I recommend you build yourself a chair from an old car seat with some legs or something like that – those folding camping chairs suck hard for prolonged sitting.

Sunlight is a bitch

You never quite realize this so much when at home or at an office, but sunlight can absolutely devastate any attempt at productivity. Sure, you can find shadow, if your van has curtains you can use those – but you won’t be working well sitting at the beach.

All my devices suffer from this, my phone, my iPad and my notebook all can barely be used even on the highest brightness setting once direct sunlight is involved. This is completely different to e-book readers that work great in the sun due to their e-ink displays.

Speaking of which: I would pay good money for an e-ink notebook, that sounds like a fun novelty if it can ever be pulled off.

If possible try to work without internet

Many coding tasks don’t really need internet connectivity if you think about it, but under normal conditions you are still connected to chat apps, package managers, all those things can really eat into your data plan.

Now I pride myself on getting by with the 7€ phone plan that gives me 2 or even 3GB of data these days – which is more than enough for me unless I use my phone as a hotspot.

Certain kinds of coding work better than others

I would say that any coding task you would normally use VS Code instead of regular Visual Studio for works a lot better than those where you really rely on your IDE’s more powerful features. Those tend to also profit from a bigger screen, internet connectivity and a larger keyboard.

But anything that fits on a screen well and is more focused work rather than jumping around between five open projects and constant lookups of function definitions works pretty much the same as it would at home or on the train.

For me this includes most website work that is content-focused or can be run on localhost, those tend to be small, tedious changes with lots of thinking in between.

Or planning, writing documentation, answering to emails – those things work really nicely.

Pick the right kind of laptop

Laptops are highly individual, but I would assume that having the 15 inch kind (or the 16 inch macbooks) have a clear advantage over the 13 inchers that are so enjoyable for writing work.

Personally I used an old 15 inch laptop that my mum had lying around for my private stuff and also got some work done on my work-issued Dell precision – which is also 15 inches wide.

Having a larger screen and a decent or great keyboard are really the defining factors in my opinion – plus of course operating systems depending on your liking.


Summary: I would only recommend this partly

I have taken to writing more than coding when I’m on the road now – no matter if I’m on a train to and from work or in my van. The most important lesson I took away from this adventure was that the van is pretty comparable to the train when you come at it from a work-angle – but everything else is much better.

I also want to add that I occasionally see van builds that include full desks, large screens and such – but for me that goes against what I want to get out of my van.

At the end of the day I prefer to work on this blog here, write for medium (follow me there) and do freelance writing work because those can all be done with just about any kind of hardware you can get your fingers on.

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