What you need to know to hit the road.
When I was young and visualized the kind of life I wanted, that vision included tons of travel to all kinds of places. In high school, I gobbled up books about hitchhiking around the country or hopping on trains. After, I fantasized about developing a craft that would allow me to pack my whole existence into an RV or a van and wander around the country.
It took me longer to get mobile than I expected. I got married, I had kids. And, we decided that a stable childhood was more important than traipsing around seeing the world.
When they were old enough to be on their own, my husband and I decided that now was the time to transition toward a mobile lifestyle. We left behind our rented house and started to spend all of our time traveling on our sailboat.
We took things slow. At first, we stayed very close to our starting place because we wanted to make sure that we were close by for the kids if they needed us. Also, we wanted to make sure that we were ready for the challenges of tiny living and mobile life.
We’ve now been travelers for a few years, albeit over far less distance than we’d originally hoped (global pandemic puts a kink in things).
But, we’ve definitely learned a lot, including a bunch of stuff that surprised me. A few of the big ones:
It’s Hard to Live in a Tiny Space
All those Instagram-perfect #vanlife photos? It is very unlikely that that will not be your life. Unless you are a championship-level minimalist, you’re probably going to constantly battle clutter. On my current boat, I have more living space than my last one, but almost no storage. What storage there is can be hard to access, which I’ve found is a recurring theme on boats.
If you are traveling with someone, it has to be someone who you can share space with nearly all the time. When a severe car accident followed by safer-at-home orders pushed me and my husband into 24-hour-a-day close contact, that made the boat sometimes feel very small.
All that said, 99% of the time I love our tiny space. Even on land, I tend to gravitate to the same couple of places in my house, so a big property is wasted on me. Being on the boat is like having a tiny private clubhouse. If you were the type of kid who spent a lot of time building forts and hideouts, tiny living may appeal to you, too.
You’ll Have to Give Up Things You’re Used To
I don’t have an oven or a freezer. My refrigerator is about the size of a small suitcase and I have to walk up the dock to take a shower in a bathroom I share with six other people. I’ve pared down my wardrobe to half a dozen shirts and shorts, a couple pairs of leggings and two dresses. I only own one pair of shoes.
The thing is, I don’t miss the things that I thought I’d miss. The first year or so we lived on the boat, we didn’t have a refrigerator at all. Before moving on, I made all sorts of intricate plans that involved a weekly ice budget and multiple special-purpose coolers. In the end, it was just easier to go without refrigeration altogether. I didn’t miss it.
You Don’t Have to Be Mobile All the Time
Many people seem to think that the digital nomad lifestyle means jetting off to a new city every week. But honestly? That sounds exhausting.
Plus, it’s very hard to get to know a place during a one-week visit. Over the past year, I’ve lived in three separate areas, and that is a lot more my speed. I get to know the local lifestyle. I can take in the touristy stuff I want to see, but can also experience what it’s really like to be a part of the community. And, since I don’t have to cram in everything all at once, I can really take the time to relish it all. When I cram too much into too short a time, it all tends to blend together.
It’s Not Like Being on Vacation
Last Saturday, I rolled out of bed at my usual time. I got up, made some coffee and tooled around the internet for four or five hours. My husband sat on the couch on the other side of the salon and we occasionally paused our scrolling around to tell one another something cool we read or to send a meme. We streamed a half dozen episodes of Reality Z, did some laundry, ate some lunch.
Basically, we wasted the whole day the same way we would have if we were back in our old house.
But, that isn’t some sort of failure. Living nomadic isn’t a constant vacation. It’s your day-to-day life. While there are definitely plenty of people who are always on the go, you don’t have to be one of them if you don’t want to.
I like spending some days out seeing my new place, but others I just want to be a homebody.
Work Takes Up a Good Bit of Your Life
I definitely work less on the boat than I did when I was maintaining the costs of a house. But, I still work. Like I mentioned before, it’s not like being on vacation.
But, that’s okay. Work gives me some purpose and some structure. I’m a freelance writer by trade, and I really enjoy what I do. I’m pretty versatile, so I’ve spent time writing everything from simple web content, to ghostwritten business books, to romance novels. I learn a lot and I’m rarely bored.
You Can Start Building Your Nomad Skills Now
If you are considering going nomad at some point, start learning about the things that will help you now.
As a freelance writer, I can work anywhere I have an internet connection. My clients are always right there on the other side of the screen, whether I’m booting up in the Florida Keys or a friend’s spare room in North Carolina.
If you’re on this site, chances are you are already working on building a freelance writing career. You can also find plenty of other mobile, casual gigs that can earn you enough to keep you fed.
Speaking of fed, I knew that the foods I ate on the boat and the ways I’d store them would be different. I researched and tested before I ever moved on board.
Living on the boat, most of our power comes from solar. Our potable water is filtered and stored in tanks. Learning about how to maintain those and other systems meant that all of this was more tenable.
In the end, flexibility, openness and curiosity will be the qualities that make this sort of lifestyle pleasurable and workable for you. Read everything you can from people already doing it in the way that you want to travel. Explore resources. Be willing to let go of your assumptions about what you need. If you can do all of this, you can find a path that works for you.