Staying Connected


Connected to Wales - 13.5 miles away

WiFi on the Road

Spending months on end travelling about in a camper for a person who works and plays online presents problems of internet connectivity that must be solved.

Many campsites provide WiFi connectivity these days, but often the signal is only available in or near the office, or some other central location. The nicest spots to stay are usually the furthest away from the office. Wild camping, staying overnight in places other than traditional campsites makes the problem even more difficult as the available hotspots are fewer and often very far away.

13.5 miles connected from Exmoor I recently spent a few nights on Exmoor, a beautiful National Park in southwest England. The views are fantastic and in April there are hardly any other people around, so you have a lot of nature to yourself.

Even in this remote location I was able to find 11 WiFi signals. Two were encrypted and therefore unavailable. The other 9 were open and available through membership or by credit card payment.

The strongest signal was from the Fontygary Caravan and Leisure Park in Wales, 13.5 miles away, across the Bristol Channel. Most of the time the coast of Wales was not visible due to the haze and distance, so I was surprised to find several hotspots in Wales visible to my WiFi adapter. Fontygary offered a public connection for a small fee on an hourly, daily or weekly basis. Sign up online and pay by credit card.

This tutorial will introduce you the equipment I use successfully and some of the techniques I use to find and use open hotspots wherever I travel.

WiFi Adapters

Your laptop computer probably already has a WiFi adapter built in. It will work perfectly when the WiFi signal is strong. If you are inside the McDonald's restaurant with a free hotspot, it will work fine. McDonald's provides free WiFi in the US, UK, France, and many other countries. In some cases you are limited to 30 minutes or one hour of connection per 24 hour period. In other places, the connection is unlimited. Usually the hotspot is only available when the restaurant is open.

AWUS036H Adapter If you want to connect to the hotspot from inside your camper, in a nearby carpark, you will usually need a better antenna than the one built into your notebook computer.

There are many adapters available in your local shop, or online from places like Amazon and eBay.

The principal advantage of an external adapter is the ability to use a separate antenna which can be positioned for optimal reception of the WiFi signal. The antenna itself can be one with additional gain or directionality, further improving the signal to noise ratio available.

Additionally, some external adapters can transmit with higher power than the built-in adapters. This is less important than the improvements in antenna efficiency as it only affects the signal in one direction, but can be important when there are many competing or interfering signals near the hotspot.

For the past few years I have used the Alfa AWUS036H which uses the RTL8187 chipset. There are many clone adapters available using this chipset. Some are just as good as the Alfa model, but, alas, some are poorly constructed, cheap imitations.

WiFi Antennas

Alfa The main advantage of an external adapter with a separate antenna is that it can be moved to a location away from other metallic and electronic objects, so it has a clearer view of the WiFi hotspot and less interference from nearby.

Just hanging the adapter in a window with its short antenna aligned vertically will provide a much better connection than any laptop internal WiFi system.

External antennas can be constructed to have gain. Gain is obtained by making the antenna directional, so it will work better when pointed at the hotspot and worse when pointed in any other direction.

If you think about this, there are advantages and disadvantages of directionality. The antenna can be positioned to maximize the signal from the hotspot and minimize any interfering signals from other hotspots, routers, micro-wave ovens, etc. This is good. But, you have to know where the hotspot signal is coming from to point it. Generally speaking, when travelling, you don't know where the hotspot is. Although if you are parked at a scenic overlook and there is only one village in the distance, you might be able to make an educated guess. But you might be wrong, and there is always the possibility that the strongest signal is actually the one bouncing off something in a different direction.

Omnidirectional antennas have gain in all directions. They manage this by having gain in a 360 degree plane around the antenna, and being inefficient in the up and down directions. This makes good sense. Most of the time, the signal will be coming from somewhere close to horizontal.

OmniDirectional Antenna Gain is measured in dbi. Decibels as compared to an isotropic dipole antenna (one which is equally bad in all directions). More is better. But don't believe the figures in the ads, they are stunningly optimistic. Perhaps they are based on the theoretical gain of the antenna being offered for sale, but it is rare to see an antenna that performs as well as promised.

My current favorite antenna is a 9 db Omnidirectional Antenna on a Magnetic Mount with a 6 foot (2 meter) cable. This antenna has provided reliable connections in most locations with a minimum of hassle.

Normally, I plunk it down on the cookstove, the only flat steel surface in the van. My van is plastic - this will not work in aluminum or steel campers. In most cases, if it is inside, it will work better in some directions than others because of the mass of plastic, wiring, people, and other obstructions between the antenna and the hotspot.

Magnetic Mount In some cases, depending on the location, and the direction the camper is parked, it is useful to put the antenna outside and higher up. To facilitate this, I have glued a small metal plate to the flat surface above the back door. I can open the door and slap the antenna onto this metal plate without going outside. Because it is above eye level, the plate is totally invisible. It is made of galvanized metal so it won't rust. Additional beading was used around the cut edge to keep water out.

This particular antenna was not made for permanent outdoor installation, but they are available, and some users mount a permanent external antenna on their campers.


Cantenna One of the simplest high gain antennas with strong directional properties that you can easily build yourself is the cantenna. This has been a popular WiFi antenna for many years and I have used it with great success.

Once it is correctly aimed it is superior to the omnidirectional antenna in gain and in reducing interference from other signals and RF noise generators. However, it does require careful aiming, so I only use it when necessary.

My cantenna is made from an empty apricot tin can, but almost any can of the appropriate size can be used. There is a convenient calculator web page to tell you where to drill the hole. I punched a hole the right size for the stub antenna that came with my adapter. A few turns of electrical tape are used to protect the antenna from repeated insertions into the rough hole.

Cantenna Nothing could be easier to build, or cheaper. Yet the performance is better than many professional antennas on the market. I have compared mine with manufactured yagi antennas and flat panel antennas and not found one that is significantly better.

Another convenient antenna I have used successfully is the Windsurfer parabolic reflector. The advantage of this reflector is that it can be made of a flexible foil backed cardboard and easily flattened for portability. It slips easily onto any stub antenna and maintains its shape. I use these on my home router to direct the signal in the desired direction. Simple, cheap, and efficient.


Something not mentioned in most guides to WiFi operation is the loss in the cable between the adapter and the antenna.

Most of the antennas found on eBay come with RG-174U coax to connect the antenna to the adapter. The loss of this coax is about 2dB per meter. So a few meters of cable will waste all the extra signal picked up by that high gain antenna.

For a permanent installation, you should use LMR-400, low loss coax, which only wastes 0.22 dB per meter at WiFi frequencies, and high quality connectors.

The simplest solution is to keep the cable between antenna and the adapter as short as possible. Use a USB extension cable to move the adapter further away from the computer if you need more length. USB 2.0 cables are specified work up to 5 meters. There is no loss between the adapter and the computer, regardless of cable length because you are extending the digital connection to the adapter, not the RF signal.


Alfa For many years, my main tool for finding hotspots was NetStumbler, a powerful software program that will list all available WiFi signals and show which ones are encrypted and other useful parameters. If you have a GPS connected to your computer, NetStumbler can collect the location of WiFi hotspots as you drive around so you can map them and easily return later.

Recent versions of the Alfa adapter come with an impressive utility program that does everything I need.

Visible WiFi hotspots are listed on the Available Network tab with their signal strengths, encryption and authentication method (if any), type and supported speeds.

Once you have connected to a network, a profile is kept so you will be automatically connected in future. To delete the profile, simple select the Profile tab and choose which ones to delete. This is useful to prevent automatic connection to hotspots that don't actually work for you.

Alfa Utility Once you are connected, the General tab shows the quality of the connection and allows you to adjust the transmitter power of the adapter. Lower power saves your batteries and creates less interference for others.

Very useful in the Alfa software is the display of your IP address and the Gateway address that has been asssigned. If you don't have an IP address, you are not really connected. If the Gateway shows as, you are connected to a local network, but it isn't connecting you to the internet. Sometimes renewing the IP address will resolve that. Other times, the network itself may not be connected - the HotSpot DSL modem may be off, even though the router is on.

If your software doesn't show this information, you can obtain it from the Windows Command Prompt window by entering the command ipconfig -all.

The icing on the cake is the Virtual WiFi software access point. This allows you to share your connection locally using the internal WiFi adapter in your notebook. The Alfa adapter is used to create a long distance connection to the hotspot, then it creates a local hotspot that can be used by your friends, or to connect your iPod or iPhone by WiFi. I use this mainly for Skype and for transferring music and books to my iPod.

The Alfa LAN Utility is available for free download on the Alfa site and works with many other RTL8187 based adapters.

Finding Open Hotspots

By far the easiest to find and the most reliable open WiFi hotspots are to be found at McDonald's restaurants. POIs for McDonald's with WiFi can be found at poi-factory and by googling for specific countries. Or just keep your eyes open for their ubiquitous road signs.

If you are in a town or city, it is useful to carry an iPod or other small WiFi enabled device that will let you check for open HotSpots as you stroll around. You can use them directly on the iPod at the time, or note the location and return later with your computer.

Fon has been spreading rapidly recently and making reciprocal agreements with DSL providers such as British Telecom and SFR in France. If you are already a BT subscriber, for example, you can use the BT Fon hotspots around the UK and other Fon hotspots around the world. Check with your internet provider for these kinds of arrangements in other countries. I found Fon hotspots everywhere I went in the UK because BT has included Fon in the default routers they supply to their customers.

If you provide a Fonera hotspot in your home, you will get free access to Fon hotspots around the world. This worked extremely well for me in the UK. In other countries, I have not found as many locations, but further expansion of the network should make it more useful.

Other open WiFi HotSpots are available at cafes and campgrounds. Sometimes it is necessary to sign in after purchasing something, other times a credit card payment is required, often it is open and free.

In Italy, until recently, it was illegal to operate an open HotSpot as operators were required to collect ID information from all users or face prosecution under the terrorism act. This law ended in 2011 and should lead to a wider availability of connections in that country.

In eastern Europe, I found quite a few open routers in the towns I visited. Almost every small town library and many of the tourist information centers also provided WiFi for visitors.

Different Country - Different Channels

Different countries have different regulations regarding which channels (frequencies) can be used for WiFi. It is important that your adapter be configured correctly for the country you are visiting.

Many adapters default to the FCC Channel plan used in the US which does not have a Channel 13. Many French HotSpots are on Channel 13. To see all of the available HotSpots, select the correct band plan for the country, or configure your adapter to use all channels.

In the Alfa software, this setting is under the Advanced tab. Note that the HotSpot operator may also have a misconfigured router, so it is useful to check the illegal channels for activity sometimes.

Tips on Connecting to HotSpots

Regardless of the software you are using, the steps for connecting to a HotSpot are the same. If you see a network that you have a password for, choose that one from the list of available signals. Otherwise, choose the strongest network that is not encrypted, listed as Open or None depending on the software in the encryption column.

Once the network is connected, in most cases, indicated by green bars or a signal strength, it is usually necessary to login before using it for email, Skype, Kindle access, or web browsing. This is an important step. Many new users connect and then immediately attempt to receive their emails. In most cases, that will not work. It is necessary to first launch your web browser and attempt to connect to Google (or any other site). Instead of Google, you will get the login screen. Be patient, it is not unusual for it to take longer than you might expect. Once you have the login screen, follow the directions, which may be as simple as accepting the Terms of Use agreement, or may require a confirmation email before getting further access. In many cases, access requires payment by credit card.

If the first site doesn't work, try the next strongest and so on. If you find that your web browser aggressively caches sites, use a different URL to get to the login screen. In other words, sometimes after failing on the first network, the web browser doesn't even try to load the web page on the new network but immediately fails. Connecting to Yahoo or some other reliable site will bypass the cache and get you the login screen, in this case.

In short, always make sure you can connect and communicate with Google before trying to do anything else through the new network connection.

3G Adapters

3G Dongle When WiFi is not available, a good internet connection can be made using a 3G Wireless Adapter, often called a 3G Dongle. A 3G data connection can also be shared using a smart phone configured as a mobile hotspot. Some plans or providers prohibit connection sharing in this way, so check before buying your SIM or choosing a plan.

Adapters connect to the 3G mobile telephone network used by smartphones and allow you to get your email or surf the internet. A SIM card is required for each country and prices vary greatly. In some locations they are expensive to use, but allow a connection from virtually anywhere that has cellphone coverage.

Prices have dropped a lot for 3G, 4G, and LTE data connectivity and several providers have reasonable roaming plans. My current favorite (2016) is the Google Project Fi SIM card which provides data connectivity in 135 countries at reasonable rates and a single number to reach you wherever you are. I configure my Nexus 5X phone as a mobile hot spot to share the connection.

As with WiFi, the range can be extended by locating the dongle antenna away from your laptop. I tend to use the hang-it-in-the-window technique.

In France, I have been using (2011) the SFR USB Modem(Clé 3G+), which has worked well, but is a bit expensive so it is necessary to understand the various data plans and use the correct one depending on what you expect to do online.

In Spain, I am now (2012) using the Carrefour USB Modem, which is a particularly good deal. For 1 euro a day you get 100 MB of data. Or for €29 you get 3GB that has to be used within 30 days. The modem costs only €19 and comes with 5 days credit. This is cheaper than internet access at some campsites. Speed has been acceptable in the Costa del Sol, but that is an area with very good 3G coverage. When you use up your data limit for the day, you can still connect at 128kbps, fast enough to check your email and browse simple web sites. Some details in English: Olive Press Review.

Available services and rates are changing rapidly for 3G wireless internet. For up-to-date information, check with some locals on one of the internet forums before you arrive.

Useful Links

Original content 2011. Updated 2016.

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From Gibraltar to Estonia. From Turkey to the UK. Everywhere I went I took pictures. If you take enough pictures, one or two will turn out.

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