You can boost your cell signal when camping by either (1) using an antenna, or (2) using a signal booster. Both can yield similar results, though the former, the antenna, is often cheaper. Technically, the latter, the signal booster, works better in most situations. However, each has their advantages and disadvantages when it comes boosting cell signal.
How to Boost Your Cell Signal When Camping
Getting good Internet access while camping is becoming more important for many boondockers. Antennas and Signal Boosters are equally as effective, though each has its advantages in varying situations. Signal boosters can cost between $500.00 to $750.00, while antennas can run between $100.00 to $150.00. Antennas work great whether you’re in a low-signal area or high-signal area. However, signal boosters tend to only work effectively in low-signal areas.
As of this writing, antennas can work with 3G, 4G, or 5G technologies. However, most signal boosters can work with 3G or 4G technology, while some are limited to 4G.
How Cell Phone Antennas Work
Antennas work by capturing as much cell signal as possible and funneling into a router. Most boondockers use hotspot devices as their routers. These antennas typically require two wires, one for outgoing signals and the other for incoming signals. This is often referred to as “MIMO antennas” (multiple-in, multiple-out). Hence, to make this work effectively, you need a router with dual antenna ports, one for, “in” and one for “out”. Routers or hotspot devices without antenna ports will not work with antennas.
Once you have the antenna connected to your router or hotspot, your devices can connect via Wi-Fi. Your phone can also connect via Wi-Fi, and you can place phone calls through the router or hotspot.
The best antennas are directional antennas. These are intended to be turned towards the nearest cell tower. Because of this, these antennas can only be erected while parked or camping. If you need an antenna while driving down the road, you will need an omni-directional antenna. These are intended to be mounted securely to a vehicle, and will capture cell signal from any direction. Directional antennas, however, do a much better job at capturing signal.
Yagi antennas are the most effective of directional antennas. These involve two separate antenna units, one for outgoing signal, and one for incoming signal. One of the antennas has to be turned and mounted at a 90-degree angle from the other antenna to avoid feedback (see photo). Yagi antennas are usually sold one a-piece, and each can be used either for incoming or outgoing cell signal.
Most antennas offers anywhere from a 5 decibel gain to 15 decibel gain.
The higher you raise an antenna into the air, the more signal you can capture. Hence, it’s best to mount the antenna units on a long, metal pole.
It’s also best to create an electrical ground for the antenna. This improves the strength of the cell signal. This means mounting the antenna to a metal pole, and then mounting the pole into the Earth itself. Or, you can connect a ground spike to the pole. If you cannot do either of these, then at least connect the antenna to the metal chassis of your RV.
How Signal Boosters Work
A signal booster simply increases the volume of the cell signal so that your phone, tablet, and hotspot device can “hear it better”. Cell phone signals are audio signals that are too faint to be heard by the human ear, and are transmitted on high frequencies that our ears can’t detect. Signal boosters literally make these sounds louder.
As a result, signal boosters also increase the noise. If there is too much noise in the signal, your device will continue to re-request the same packets of data from the tower until it finally gets a clean packet. This could result in slow service. If you’re camping in an area with good to excellent cell signal, then a booster will actually slow down your service due to increased noise. In that case, it’s best to shut off your booster. Antennas, on the other hand, do not increase noise.
A signal booster uses an outside antenna to connect to a cell tower, and funnels that signal into a boosting unit. The boosting unit then increases the volume of the signal, and sends it to an inside antenna. Your phone, tablet, and hotspot, will connect to this inside antenna. The outside antenna and the inside antenna usually have to be 8 feet apart to minimize feedback.
Most signal boosters advertise a 50 decibel gain to a 65 decibel gain.
Which is Better, Antennas or Signal Boosters?
- Signal boosters work better in places with weak signal. Antennas can also work in areas with weak cell signal, but work even better in areas with moderate to excellent signal.
- Signal boosters should be turned off when camped in places with good to excellent signal to avoid boosting noise. Antennas, however, can be utilized anywhere.
- Antennas do not require any power to function. Signal boosters, however, have to be connected to a power source.
- Antennas can cost between $100 to $200 when you include the cost of the pole, mounting hardware, coaxial cable, and connectors. Signal boosters can cost between $500 to $750, but usually come with everything you need to mount and install.
- Signal boosters can be left mounted to the RV or vehicle while driving. Antennas can also be left mounted while driving, depending on how tall the pole is. Generally you want a taller pole for antennas, but must take it down while driving.
If you want to get geeky with improving your cellphone signal, go with an antenna. There are far more choices in antennas, poles, low-loss coaxial cable, and grounding solutions. Signal boosters generally are limited to self-contained units that don’t offer much flexibility in customization.
If you want something already configured and designed, get a signal booster. You get everything you need in one box, and generally works for most camping situations.
Which Brand of Antenna or Signal Booster Should I Get?
Antennas – Proxicast is the leader in cellphone signal antennas. Amazon sells lots of Proxicast stuff.
Signal Boosters – WeBoost (Wilson Electronics) is the leader in signal boosters. Winegard is another brand that’s catching up to WeBoost. We recommend sticking with these two brands because Amazon is flooded with worthless Chinese signal boosters.