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Portable office

We are often asked the same questions about our life over and over again, which is not a surprise. But it does surprise me that I am asked more often about how we get Netflix on the road than I am asked about how I manage to work. Most people don't want to talk about work in the same conversation as RV'ing, I guess.

I'm actually rather proud of my portable office. After all, I run the operations of a quarterly magazine, in addition to writing, photographing, and editing it, all from a hundred different locations each year. Ordinary "road warriors" no longer impress me -- sure, it sounds glamorous working from a Business Class seat on an airplane or from the comfortable hotel in Tokyo, but try doing it while crouching outside a closed coffee shop at midnight in Las Vegas while skateboard punks roll by. Or on a picnic table in the dark somewhere in Virginia. Or in 103 degree heat in Death Valley. Then you'll be talking my language.

If you saw the movie "RV" with Robin Williams recently, you might recall the scene where he takes his laptop into the campground bathroom to upload some files. Like most of the rest of the movie, it was a fanciful idea. I remember thinking as I watched it, "Come on, Robin! You'll never get a signal inside that concrete blockhouse!" My mobile worker instincts kicked in and I was silently urging him to get outside and perhaps find a picnic table to stand on.

You've got to be flexible to work on the road 365 days a year. I mean that in the literal sense (try balancing a laptop on one knee while typing with the other and trying not to topple over into the mud), and the figurative sense (dealing with constantly changing environments).

Just as importantly, you need to be extremely efficient. I've often talked about my efforts to eliminate paper in order to cut weight and bulk in the trailer. By scrupulously scanning almost everything into Portable Document Format (PDF), I can keep the amount of paper on my "desk" to no more than ten sheets of paper at a time, usually.

So my "desk" is actually a backpack that I picked up at a Florida flea market a year or so ago. It contains a zip-up organizer with room for loose paper, CDs, a pen, and a pad; my laptop, charger, and Verizon aircard in a padded case; and in the outer pockets there are business cards, cables, a mini letter opener, phone charger and a few other odds and ends.

When I think of the desk I left behind two years ago, I am amazed at how things have changed. My old desk was littered with paper, tape, Post-It notes, a stapler, file folders, a multi-line telephone with headset, and fax machine. Beneath it was 50 pounds of paper in two file drawers. In the closet behind me were shelves of office supplies, discs, more files, more cables, and obsolete office equipment of every possible description.

The laptop and the Internet are responsible for most of the change, of course, but a strong desire to be light and fast has been the key. With my blue backpack I can quickly move from trailer to cybercafe to a friend's house -- and even to a concrete bathroom if I need to -- in minutes. On a big day, I'll also tote along the backup hard drive, scanner, and camera, but that's rare.

During the Lewis and Clark expedition, Captain Lewis brought a considerable quantity of something called portable soup along. It was an emergency concentrate of boiled and defatted meats with egg whites, and it apparently didn't appeal to the men of the expedition. When it came down to starving or eating the portable soup, they would take a vote and decide to eat one of their valuable horses instead. I mention this only to point out that sometimes people will choose a self-destructive course rather than change their ways. In talking to people on the road, I've found that portable offices are sometimes viewed with the same distaste as portable soup.

No question, it's a tough concept if you've been in traditional offices for a long time. It's easy to go portable for a day or two, but going longer takes a certain obsession. I've been working from the road for over two years, so I guess I'm one of the obsessed ones. It has become such second nature to me that I will probably never bother to set up a permanent office again. I like the atmosphere of change that comes with getting shoved off the dining room table at dinnertime, and relocated to the bed where I have to sit cross-legged while I type. The constant change of scene reminds me of the excitement of travel, and it forces me to remain as efficient as I can possibly be. Beyond that, being fully portable precludes the possibility that I might have to dust my office someday.


I read your post with interest as I'm just getting set up in my new-to-me RV to take my website work on the road with me. Thanks for the great ideas and info about what works for you. I'm curious if you have a scanner you'd recommend taking in an RV. Also, any recommendations for a printer?

[Rich replies: We use the Canoscan LiDE 60, which is USB powered. Use the blog "search" tool to read more about it (search for the word "scanner"). We use an HP laserprinter but I can't recommend it because of its size. Too hard to store.]

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