Gear for Digital Nomads: Everything You Need for A Portable Office

Shawn Forno

The lines between “work” and “travel” are disappearing faster than you think. According to Forbes, freelancers make up 35% of the US workforce, so if you’re not already at least a part-time freelancer, get ready to start working remotely—and soon—because freelancers and “digital nomads” are coming, and they’re efficient as heck.

Thanks to smartphones, cloud storage, and collaboration apps like Asana (we use Asana here at Tortuga), more people are logging hours from all over globe. If you build the right mobile office setup, you can be one of them. Here’s everything you need for a (kick ass) portable office.

Portable Office Essentials

  • Wireless Hotspot
  • Laptop
  • Triple USB wall charger with extra long charging cables
  • Portable battery or battery phone case
  • USB car charging adaptor
  • 256GB memory stick
  • Laptop compatible backpack
  • Noise cancelling headphones (w/ mic)
  • 100GB+ Cloud Storage plan
  • International outlet adaptor

Optional Portable Office Add-Ons

  • 2TB Portable hard drive
  • Travel powerstrip & surge protector
  • Packing cubes
  • Eye mask
  • Compressions socks

 

Mobile Hotspots vs. Wifi USB Sticks

Remote work starts and ends with the internet. Sure, it’s nice that you can “work offline” in Google Drive, but none of that matters if you can’t deliver on a deadline. Wifi can be hard to find on the road, so skip the crappy connection at the cafe and bring your own mobile wifi hotspot.

There are two types of mobile wifi devices—sticks and hotspots. They both provide wifi, but each has pros and cons.

Wifi Hotspot

  • Provides wifi to multiple devices (phones, tablets, computers)
  • No special software, just connect, enter the password and go
  • Great for teams and heavy phone users
  • Yet another device to charge and carry around
  • Up to 20% latency speed vs USB direct device

USB Wifi Device

  • Smaller & lighter
  • No battery or charge to worry about, just plug and play
  • Requires special software on your laptop
  • Only provides wifi for one device (computer)

Aside from size (hotspots are bigger and heavier) and battery life (USB sticks don’t need to charge or plug into anything other than your laptop), the biggest difference is how many devices you can use on the same signal. A wifi hotspot can support a bunch of devices at once (although it slows down with each phone or laptop on the network), while a USB stick is just for your computer. It’s an obvious distinction, but worth mentioning, especially considering how much we do with our phones.

If you’re old school and do all the heavy lifting on your laptop, a USB wifi device do the trick. They’re smaller, easier to use, and inexpensive. If you and your team need to get online with laptops, tablets, and phones (and you don’t have the T-Mobile International Plan), a hotspot is your best choice. Here are some great mobile hotspot devices.

Panda Wireless USB Wifi Adaptor ($15)

The Panda is not as robust as other USB wifi devices, but you just can’t go wrong with this price tag.

Worth it for short trips especially.

Mobile Unite Explore Hotspot ($49)

AT&T has been the gold standard for mobile wifi for years. This device continues the legacy.

AT&T’s LTE network is robust, the battery life is fantastic (18 hours), and it just plain works. Splash-resistant and light (6.3 oz), this hotspot will let you get the job done.

 

The My Webspot 4G Pocket Wifi (€10/day)

The go to choice for mobile wifi in Europe. It accommodates up to 11 devices at once (although you’ll feel the lag). While the 6 hour battery life is a little short, the lack of any upfront device or network costs makes this hotspot perfect for short trips to Europe where work is necessary but secondary to the trip itself.

HooToo Wireless Router & 10400mAh Travel Charger ($39)

If you want to combine the speed of a travel router with a portable battery, the HooToo Wireless Router & 10400mAH travel charger ($39) is awesome. A great travel router and a massive travel charger with 10400mAh of power (that’s enough for five iphone charges) that lets you choose from three different wifi modes:

  • AP (ethernet cable)
  • Router (connect to a modem)
  • Bridge (split a wireless connection into a safe channel)

Work from multiple devices or connect external drives via the USB ports for a mobile media center anywhere. This hub will help you transfer files, photos, videos, and more from your phone, or device, to the cloud or storage device, and at only 8 ounces, the HooToo travel router is very travel friendly.

Laptop: 13” Macbook Pro

Your laptop is the workhorse of your portable office. It’s your mobile command center, your hub, and your money maker. I can’t tell you what to buy, only that you get what you pay for. I’ve worked on Google Chromebooks, tablets, smartphones, as well as budget laptops, and I can say with confidence that nothing ruins your chances of making it as a digital nomad faster than a crappy workstation.

Invest in your laptop. Buy a computer that you’ll use at home, not just something cheap and light “for the road.” You’ll hate using it, and all that lost time buffering on slow wifi connections won’t just be lost time and money, it will mean exponential amounts of frustration at working on the road and missing all the perks of living on the road. You’re not a “digital nomad” if you spend all day hunched over a crappy computer. You’re an idiot.

The 13” Macbook Air ($999) is light, kind of inexpensive, and easy to use. I recommend it for writers and part-time traveling digital nomads. However, this computer, while powerful, has trouble standing up to heavy render times for video editing, photo editing, and heavy usage on the road. The 13” Macbook Pro ($1299) while more expensive and heavier (4 pounds) is just simply a better machine for getting work done. It’s faster, better, and stronger.

The battery life is great (10+ hours), retina display is awesome (perfect for photo and video editing), and it’s just a mean machine. If you want to wait for a better version, Intel just announced their new 8th generation chip, and it’s expected to be a significant jump up in terms of processing speed and power. Seriously, expect next year’s computers to outpace your laptop by 40% on day to day browsing and processing, and 10x that when it comes to heavy usage stuff like 4k video rendering and editing. If you’re waiting to upgrade your computer, now is the time.

Call me an Apple fanboy, but if you want to get work done, a Macbook Pro is the way to go. Make sure you back this up with a portable hard drive for more storage (more on that in a moment), but you can get a heck of a lot done with just your phone and your laptop.

Smartphone Accessories

You already have a phone, so this is not going to be a smartphone review. What I will suggest are smartphone accessories like a battery case and custom charging cables.

Mophie Phone Battery Case ($99)

The key to working on the road in a carry on bag is integration. A true digital nomad doesn’t have to “pack” for a business trip, because they’re already working from an extremely portable office set up. They back their data up in the cloud, collaborate across time zones on co-working platforms like Slack and Asana, and carry their portable office gear with them at all times.

Case in point—your phone case (see what I did there?). Unless you’re a savage, you already have a phone case to protect your mobile command center (your phone).

Why not upgrade this already existing piece of gear into something that doubles your phone’s battery life and protects your most precious possession?

The Mophie phone case battery packs are a no brainer, especially if you’re going to be away from reliable charging for most of the day, and/or you’re a heavy phone user. Not all apps are created equal, and depending on your workflow, you could be out of juice faster than the competition. Integrate your portable charging into your everyday phone usage and cut out an extra obstacle to productivity on the road.

ASUMI 3-Pack Nylon Braided Charging Cables ($11)

Don’t be that rookie huddled by the outlet at the airport charging your phone with a fragile, frayed cable. Get a cable that can take a beating and that actually reaches all the way to your seat.

The ASUMI charging cables are wrapped in braided nylon so they’re designed to flex and bend. This 3-pack (3ft / 6 ft / 10ft) lets you choose the length that’s right for you. The 6-foot cable is a solid everyday cable, but the 10-foot cable, while a tad bigger, more than makes up for it with the ability to charge your phone—and still sit in bed and use it—from just about any outlet in any room. Love these things.

Power & Charging

Triple USB Wall Charger ($9)

Forget dual USB wall chargers, snag this triple USB wall charging port and charge your phone, battery, and GoPro all at the same time.

This charger is lightweight and compact, and the ability to get everything back to 100% in a single socket is a digital nomad hat trick that’s hard to come by, especially for under $10.

Belkin Power Strip & Surge Protector ($17.50)

If you need to recharge every night or work all day, this power strip features two independent USB ports on the side and a unique swivel design with four locking positions. The Belkin 3-outlet surge protector is compact and rugged enough to keep your expensive gear safe in any socket.

At only $17.50, it’s worth it.

Aukey Dual USB Car Charger ($10)

Rental cars are great, but never make assumptions when it comes to slick features like built-in USB charging.

Bring your own cigarette lighter dual USB charging hub and never worry about GPS draining your phone battery again.

Portable Battery

I’ve written a lot about portable batteries, and while I have my favorites, every digital nomad has different needs, work restrictions, and tastes.

For more external battery chargers, read the full battery pack review here.

 

Flux Charger Plus (10,000mAh – $59)

If you’re seriously mobile, is the way to go. It packs enough punch for three full phone recharges on the go, holds a charge for weeks, and it’s tiny (7 oz). Even better, it features built in cables, so you’re always ready to charge, even if you’ve forgotten your cables. Toss this in your bag and forget about it until you need it.

Aukey 30,000mAh ($60)

If you’re a heavy mobile user this portable battery charger is the tank you need to keep everything—even your laptop—charged up. It’s got enough juice for many phone charges, and features 3 USB B and 1 USB C connection which means it can even charge multiple devices at once, including your computer. Invest in this heavy hitter.

Homebase Backpack

Obviously, the whole point of creating a portable office is so that you can travel anywhere with all the gear you need to get paid. Our brand new Homebase Collection is designed with that sole purpose in mind (the Tortuga team includes digital nomads, we get it, and we scratch our own itch).

The Homebase backpack is designed to carry the essentials for travel and work and is ideal for digital nomads. This ultra-light bag goes seamlessly from a travel day to a portable office around town, eliminating the need for a secondary day bag. This bag is going to be the thing you carry around every single day on your trip. It will hold all your valuables, your laptop, camera, etc. at every coffee shop and co-working space from home to Timbuktu. Pair it with the duffle case for the perfect lifestyle travel & portable office combo of gear for digital nomads.

Data Storage

Cloud Storage: Google Drive

Nothing is easier to pack than cloud storage. Shifting your workflow from the physical world to the cloud is a game changer for digital nomads in terms of efficiency, security, and just plain ease. A 2TB hard drive is great for backing up my video footage on the go, but cloud storage is the ultimate backup to my backup—and I don’t have to carry it around everyday.

I ditched Dropbox a few years ago, and while they’re still the gold standard for a lot of companies (I still have a free basic account to download the occasional shared folder), I rely on Google Drive for all my cloud storage and remote work.

Every Google account comes with some free cloud storage, but honestly, it’s not much. However, you can upgrade your storage plan to 100GB for just $1.99/month. That’s awesome. 100GB is plenty of space for sharing files and articles, and even backing up a trips’ worth of photos. I regularly organize and clean out my Google Drive storage for long trips, but the built-in functionality with my main workflow tool (Gmail), makes Drive storage a home run. Upgrade your storage for $2/month. Just do it.

Evernote

Leave the Moleskin behind and embrace the power of the cloud with Evernote. Evernote is more than a note taking app. This powerful idea storage tool is packed with features and tech that can make working on the road a breeze.

Evernote was already great for notes on the go, but they recently added insane functionality like keyword searchable notes, and image to text transcription, as well as geotags and time stamps to help you keep everything in order no matter how you work. What that means is that you can take a picture of some hand-written notes you jotted down on a napkin in Paris last year and Evernote can tell you where you were, when you took that picture, and even translate the words on that napkin into keyword searchable text.

That’s a game changer. Leave the paper and pen behind and keep all your ideas, photos, and travel history in one easy to search digital repository.

For a full list of great apps for digital nomads, check out 15 apps to amp your productivity.

SanDisk 256GB USB Thumbdrive ($60)

Unless you’re a videographer, you don’t need a 3TB hard drive. You just don’t. If you’re obsessed about backing up your work or your photos, pick up a SanDisk 256GB thumbdrive. That’s enough storage for 13,000 photos, and it fits in your pocket, can take a beating, and you never ever have to charge it.

Relaxation on the Road: Portable Office Comfort

Even the most driven freelancer needs down time to collect their thoughts, decompress, and shake that jetlag. You can’t squeeze every ounce of work out of every spare minute of time. Sometimes it’s nice to just close your eyes and listen to a podcast, instead of updating your social media queue on Buffer. Here are a few “portable office items” that will keep you sane while you build your online empire on the road. 

  • Sleep Mask — Catch a few zzzs any time of day (even in Iceland) with the Dream Essentials eye mask and ear plugs ($10).
  • Neck Pillow — It really depends on you, but if space saving is an issue, REI has self-inflating pillows that only weigh a few ounces and collapse down to nothing.
  • Compression Socks — Keep the blood flowing by land, air, or sea with Sockwell Compression socks ($25).

Bose Noise Cancelling Earbuds ($249)

Headphones are one piece of “relaxation gear” that’s actually pretty important for getting work done on the road. In addition to the thing you use to ignore people at the cafe and listen to your spotify playlist, a good pair of headphones are your microphone when you make calls to clients and friends and family back home. Make sure you have a pair you can rely on.

Apple earbuds (the originals, not those bluetooth pieces of garbage) have a built-in mic, and they work just fine if you’re on a budget. Plus, you probably already have them. But if you’re looking to upgrade, Bose Quiet Comfort Noise Cancelling Earbuds are the gold standard for travel headphones.

At $250, they’re on the pricey side of things, but you get what you pay for—top quality comfort, sound, and noise cancelling technology from a leader in the audio field. If you want to focus on work in crowded public places, and hear everything your most important clients have to say, these are the headphones for you. Taylor Coil, Tortuga marketing manager and former Remote Year participant, calls these headphones “a game changer.” And she knows what she’s talking about.

Optional Travel Office Gear

Bluetooth Keyboard ($18)

The Nulaxy Pro Bluetooth keyboard ($18) has really impressed me. I pair it with my smartphone for banging out drafts on the go, and it’s kinda great. There’s very little keystroke lag, and while this keyboard is smaller than a standard QWERTY keyboard, it doesn’t feel smaller.

I rarely miss a keystroke, and I’m approximately 1000x faster on this compared to my thumbs. If you have to knock off a couple of longish emails, this keyboard will save you time. Bonus: it holds a charge for days, and the magnetic case features a stand to lean your phone against for a simple, hyper mobile office. 

However, if you’re doing a lot of browsing, linking, tab switching, or uploads and formatting, a bluetooth keyboard isn’t going to compare to your laptop. I love the keyboard for truly mobile situations—crowded flights or busses, coffee shops when I’m just replying to emails, and quick weekend trips when I know I don’t need my laptop—but this is not a true substitute for a quality laptop. A bluetooth keyboard is a great supplement to your gear list for truly mobile work trips, and I’m glad I have one.

TL;DR

The only thing you really need for a portable office is your phone, computer, and an internet connection. Everything else lubricates the digital nomad experience, but won’t make you a success. Find a way to streamline your office gear as much as possible while making the little obstacles—charging, wifi, storage—as easy to overcome as you can. When it’s easy to get work done, you’ll make more money and have the time to enjoy your “crazy” life on the road. 

  • Wifi is everything; invest in a hotspot that works
  • Cloud storage is one less thing you’ll have to worry about (or pack!)
  • Your laptop is key; don’t skimp
  • A phone battery case is just a good idea
  • Bring a few creature comforts: If you can’t get any sleep, you’ll never get any work done