(from a beginner with some good experience)
I have just recently started to live the full-time life of traveling. January 2016 I was fortunate enough to start an amazing job with Lindblad Expeditions as a chef aboard their U.S vessels. This job has taken me from the majesty of southeast Alaska all the way to Costa Rica and Panama and many places in between. When I started the job I knew that it was an amazing opportunity to fund my desire to travel full time, at least for a few years, while having a steady income (and full benefits). However, when I started I was still on a lease and paying for an apartment that I now only used at most half the year. I was splitting the cost with two roommates, but I had my own room for all my adventure stuff and a place to keep my car, so it wasn’t a huge loss but it was very much preventing me from traveling as much as I would have liked to. After my first two month rotation on the boat, talking to the other people on my rotation who have been with the company for years, I found out that most people live the vagabond life and had some great insight and tips for me. So, I started thinking about how to do it. My mom was a great backboard, keeping me focused and not blowing all my money right from the start. Eventually, I figured out the cost of switching to a storage unit, PO Box, and a new car that I could live out of and realized that depending on how I did it it was cheaper to just a little bit more expensive than my current situation. So I started getting more into it.
Come September I was no longer on the lease (but I was still living there), so I had that on my plate, I could leave whenever I had the chance. Next was finding a storage unit and PO Box that fit my budget. So come February/March 2017 after my rotation ended I put my plan into place. Luckily I had used a storage unit a few years ago and knew their cost so I went there (plus they are 100% energy independent because of solar panels, GreenBox Self Storage in Denver) got my unit for about $1400 for the year (equal to 4 months at the apartment). Then got a box at the local UPS store for about $350 for the year (1 month at my apartment), so I figured it was a good enough deal (I went with the largest box because that was all they had, but I could make due with a smaller one in hindsight). So storage and mail, check. Next, I sold my car (a 2006 Nissan Sentra with 113K miles that had some damage and couldn’t handle the tiniest bit of snow) and moved everything into storage. That break I rented a minivan for a week and traveled Colorado to test out the whole living out of a car thing (hint, it worked great!). Went back to work for 2 months came back and finished my plan.
When I got back to Denver May 2017 I bought a 2016 Subaru Forester and officially started living the nomad life. And that’s where I am at now. Even though I have not been living the full-time nomad life for honestly more than about 3 months, I’ve learned a lot the last year and a half from my coworkers, other vagabonds, and have plenty of experience hiking, backpacking, and traveling through my years in Boy Scouts that translate to this lifestyle pretty well. So, in a bout of inspiration, I have haphazardly put together this list of tips, and lifestyle modifications that I believe will help anyone thinking of getting into the nomad life full time. So enjoy (or don’t, I don’t really care).
Have a job
A lot of people who follow the vagabond/van-life/and nomadic people of our day on social media see mostly the highlight reel of their life. They look at them traveling all over, seeing all these things, taking all these pictures, and think man, I could do that, but only if I quit my job. However, the vast majority of these traveling folk have jobs in order to sustain their lifestyle. Some travel on their lots of time off from well-paying jobs, some are able to work remotely and just travel from wifi to wifi, fewer are traveling freelance writers, artists, photographers, etc., and even fewer still are paid to travel. However there is a group of vagabonds who do work seasonally and travel in their offseason, as well as the group who work for a while, save up, and just travel after quitting a job (that last one isn’t very sustainable unless you’re Tom from Myspace). The main point here is that for the vast majority of the people you follow on social media who are living this glorified life of a digital nomad, they have some source of income to sustain themselves (gas money is a real thing).
On a related note to having a job or a source of income, save as much of that money as you can. Figuring out a budget system for yourself is one of the most important things you can do in your life (for traveling or not). Knowing your base expenses like rent, car payments, weekly gas average, food, phone bills, and the list goes on and on, is the first step to saving. Once you understand how much you spend essentially just living in this word, then you can compare it to your income and figure out how much you can save each week, month, year, or whatever. If you want to live the nomad life, and currently are not, it will more than likely take a decent chunk of money up front (for a liveable travel vehicle, your first plane ticket, new gear, etc). But figure out your budget, be realistic with yourself, do you enjoy the weekend beers at the bar? Factor that in, or cut it out if you have to. Figure out what it is you will need to start the travel life, price it out in a spreadsheet, and figure out how long it will take to make that money (and then some).
In addition to saving in order to start the life of a traveling digital hippy, you need to save for after it too. You always want to leave yourself some cushion in case something goes wrong (and trust me something will go wrong). My first rule of thumb is to never plan a trip that will use all of my money. The heavy costs are usually plane tickets and lodging, then food, then local transit, then other stuff. Try and get a feel for those large costs before you go, will it work with how much you have saved? If not, you may want to shorten your trip, or go somewhere else, or even wait a few months and save a bit more. Alway having money saved is also a good way to remind yourself that you can always travel again later. Too often I hear people talking about taking that one or two year trip to everywhere on all of their life savings. If that’s your thing, and then you will just sit at a desk the rest of your life cool, but for most people interested in the nomad life, travel is something they want to do for the rest of their lives. So take it slow at first folks. Travel close to home, go for a weekend or week long trip somewhere new within driving distance and test it out (it’s less expensive than a week on a whim in Paris or Tokyo).
If you’re doing the van life, then you will need that backup money for repairs when they happen. When your car is your house, you pay extra attention and care to it because a new one is expensive. But also, in the van life, after you shed your apartment, it is quite hard to go back and get a steady 9-5 job (even for a few months) to make some quick backup cash (not that it is impossible, just tough). If you’re doing the world traveler thing, plane tickets are expensive, and sometimes your flight gets canceled and you don’t get a refund. So if you just blew all your money on your couple month trip in Europe, and your flight home isn’t there, then you’re left in a tough bind and hope you have some badass friends back home who will chip in for you.
Your type of job will definitely affect your ability to save. If you’re doing the part-time traveler during time off from work, be it seasonal, rotational, or a badass desk job (Virgin Group), you will have the easiest time-saving. If you’re commission based or self-promoting like a photographer, videographer, personal/private caterer, coach, or the like, saving can be quite hard if you do not have a consistent customer base. So for you, I recommend taking it slow at first, build both aspects of your life at the same time, and make them harmonious. It’s possible, and plenty of people do it, but it can be very tough at the beginning. If you’re the type of person who is going to work a basic minimum wage type job for a few months or a year, then quit to travel, definitely be really good at saving, because you never know how easy or hard it will be to find a new job (and/or place to live) whenever you stop traveling. This last way of doing it can be quite stressful for some people, but I know people who do this quite successfully and are quite happy with their lives. Then there are the sponsored people, this is both a blessing and a curse. It depends on your type of sponsorship (some give money, some give things, some pay for travel), but all of them can pretty much get taken away at a moment’s notice (check your contract). It is definitely a dream (even of mine) to be sponsored in some way because it is a source of passive income or product that you use daily, but it is a tough bargain to put all of your faith in that.
Saving for the future is a type of planning ahead that transcends all lifestyles (it’s just a good idea). However, planning ahead in regards to where you will be traveling to and from is always a really good idea, you don’t and shouldn’t plan every little detail, but some level of planning is good. It may seem like many other people living the nomad/vagabond lifestyle do everything on a whim, but they don’t. The highly successful ones have plans, even if it is to be at or near a certain location by a certain point. Having these dates/locations help to coordinate with people you might stay with, help you figure out food/water etc rations (and also to keep you stoked about traveling, new places are always fun). Looking at your major start and end points and deciding where to go in between is a perfect start, and honestly pretty much all you need if you have enough time. Doing this allows you to know what is available to you along your route. If you need a last minute hotel, where the campsites are (free and paid), where to restock food and water, where to get gas, fix your vehicle, etc, you have a general idea where to look and stop. Another reason to plan this way is to give yourself the opportunity to connect with people who are from those areas as far ahead of time as possible so that you are never “alone” in a new place. Plus it is nice to see familiar faces while traveling. Getting in touch with people along your route, even if you don’t meet up can inform you of the nature of the situation you are getting into. Whether or not campsites or roads are open that time of year, where the best places to go are, and even their secret hole in the wall restaurants that will be a great reprieve from eating out of your car.
One of the best reasons to plan out where to stop, and generally look ahead at where you are headed is that this can help you save money, by knowing where you can get groceries instead of eating out, wash your clothes for cheap, stay at a free campsite or a friend’s house. In addition to looking ahead on google maps, it is a good idea to buy physical maps of where you are going, just in case your phone dies, or there is no service. They can help in more ways than one. In general though, planning ahead where you are going to stop and just looking at what is between you and your destination can help keep you focused and get you out of tricky situations should they arise.
Planning is great, but if you try and plan every day with no wiggle room, you will be stressed and always pressed for time, never able to enjoy the life of travel. Try to always give yourself an extra day to get where you are going, especially if you are driving or taking public transit. You never know what will happen. Sometimes the best adventures are the ones that weren’t planned, but because of your plans, they fit in perfectly to your timeline.
As the Boy Scout motto states, “Be Prepared,” always be ready for the worst situation. If you plan to only be out of civilization for two days, try and have enough supplies for three. You may end up finding somewhere really cool, and if you have the ability to stay an extra day before needing supplies, it can result in some amazing experiences. Have a backup plan. If you are outside of the normal timeframe for campsites in your area, have a few in mind near each other just in case your first choice isn’t open. Also, always make note of the local camping and roadside stopping rules. Often times you can just pull over to the side of the road and at least sleep in your car worry free. Even if it is the middle of summer, in the desert, have a set of at least slightly warmer clothes. You never know what type of weather will roll in. Always have rain gear, warm clothes, sun protection, first aid kid, and backup water at least, especially if you are by yourself. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. In this digital age, that means always have a way to charge your phone, even if it is just a car charger. Large backup batteries work great as well.
Know your limits
Know where you are physically able to go and where you can’t. Don’t go for that 5-mile hike starting at 2 pm if you don’t know what you are getting yourself into. Know the limits of your vehicle or mode of travel.
Just because the body can go a while on minimal food intake, don’t push it. Traveling full or almost full time takes a large toll on the body, especially when flying. If you need, carry some protein powder with you and some meal replacement bars as some backup or emergency supplies. But really try and focus on having regular meals and snacks, it will keep your immune system strong, and allow you to be at peak performance all the time. If you get injured or are sick for a long period of time, get it checked out as soon as possible. The last thing you want is for something simple to become something that will cut your travels short, sometimes in a not so great area. If you can, find a general practitioner/internal medicine doctor you can come back to whenever you are in the area to get regular checkups and go to with anything that came up while traveling.
Always try new things. Keep the spirit of travel alive as much as you can, and don’t get stuck in a rut. Traveling the world (or even just the country) will always bring you to new places and present you with new experiences.