What to expect when living life on the road
A few friends and acquaintances have brought to my attention that I’ve done a horrible job of posting tips, advice, and info about what life is like as a digital nomad, and what they can expect if they transition to this lifestyle. So, this is the first of what will become many posts about day-to-day life as a truck camping digital nomad, which will include tips/advice based on my experiences.
What should you expect a typical day to be like?
The answer depends on how much you travel…
One of the first things I’d like to point out is that the answer to this will be different depending on how much you move/travel. For the last 9 months, we covered 1000s of miles (from Chicago, to Key West, to Seattle, to the Arctic Circle, then back again). We were moving so much that most days were different. On one level, not having 2 identical days for 9 months sounds like a dream come true. It is, but it’s also exhausting. Although having many daily routines and habits can become stifling and monotonous, having no daily routines gets time-consuming and exhausting since everything from bathing to sleeping to where/when/how to use the restroom must be not only planned, but negotiated with your travel partner. As I expected, this was the most difficult part of transitioning to this lifestyle (for me). For the first few months, this made me very exhausted and frequently cranky. After the first 3-4 months, though, the lack of routine started feeling like a routine (mind-blowing, I know), so I was able to better set my own expectations and feel much less tired and frustrated.
Tips & Advice – One way to minimize stress when transitioning to life on the road is to travel less and stay places longer. It’s much easier to research, choose an area or place to stay, set aside a day or days as ‘travel days’ to get to that place, and then take a travel break while hanging out in that area for weeks or months. If you want to ease the transition, don’t do what we did and try to cover most of a continent as your first foray into this life (LOL). Ease into it by choosing a couple areas to ‘live’ in for a few weeks or months, and then decide if you want to travel more frequently once you have the hang of truck/van/camper life.
The answer depends on how much you work…
If you’re considering switching to this lifestyle, your typical day will depend not only on how much you move, but also on how much you work. Roughly 2 years ago, Patrick and I started LyteYear, our digital marketing consulting company. If I’m honest, I expected us to struggle to keep our clients and continue growing the business when we started traveling full-time. This was mainly because I thought we’d struggle horrifically to find internet/service, and that most new clients wouldn’t be willing to work with us after I told them that (A) the 2 co-founders were dating (scandalous!), and (B) were also living like homeless hippies out of a 20-year old Tacoma with a pop-up camper shoved on the back of it. Turns out, I was wrong. Most of our clients and partners think our lifestyle is “super cool,” and business has grown by 3x since we left. I also decided to start my sustainability brand, RePrint, right as we were leaving. Sooooooo, what I’m trying to say is that there are a good number of weeks where we work a whole, whole lot more than I expected us to have to work. This is another reason I struggle to describe a ‘typical day’ because our days and plans change a lot based on the workload we have (both planned and unexpected).
Tips & Advice – If you have a full-time job, you will never have full control of your schedule no matter how much you try. Expect there to be struggles and frustrations as you work out the kinks, and try to take them in stride. I’m building a whole post on what it’s like to work while truck camping where I’ll go into detail on what to expect, and ways to minimize problems and stresses, so stay tuned for more!
The answer depends on if you want to live ‘off the grid,’ or mainly in campgrounds…
Patrick and I tried to camp for free as much as possible as opposed to staying in campgrounds. This often meant hunting for the nearest place to park that was most likely to have cell service. Outside of cities, this meant using FreeCampsites.net to find: BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, a Forest Service road, a pull off on a scenic road, or a rest stop that allowed overnight parking. (Note that it’s pretty easy to find free camping in Canada (even in cities), but a little harder in some parts of the US. More on the best places to camp for free in future posts…). In cities, finding the next place to park meant looking for a Wal-Mart, casino, Cabela’s, truck stop, or (in Canada or Seattle) any city street where other vans /RVs/ trucks were clearly parked and camping or living. If you’re trying to stay in campgrounds, this process will be much simpler. You’ll just do a Google search for campgrounds in the next area you’re heading, book one for the dates you’ll be there, then show up.
Tips & Advice – When you first start out, book a few campgrounds. You can find really cheap BLM campgrounds (think $10 per night) in a lot of places if you don’t want to spend much money. The stress of constantly finding a new place to stay is a lot to deal with at first, and can put a major damper on the experience. (However, if you start off in the US southwest, US west, or Canada, you won’t need to move each night if you find a good spot on BLM or Forest Service land. You can usually stay there for 14 days or more at a time). We also found it was worth paying for a campground when we had a lot of work. Once we found one with good cell service in a good location, we’d often book it for a few nights to give us time to catch up on work before taking off again.
The answer depends on how frequently you need to shower…
Let’s just address the elephant in the room. When we’re on the road, we don’t shower most days. We rinse off and take care of personal hygiene in other ways, but we don’t shower. This is pretty common for van/truck/camping lifers. If you really must shower most days, and are completely unwilling to try going without, then I suggest staying largely in campgrounds where showers are available (Note that most cheap BLM campgrounds don’t have showers). However, if you aren’t spending most of your time in campgrounds, there are 4 reasons you won’t want to shower all the time:
(1) Even if your rig has a shower, you’ll probably find that you use a large portion of your water tank each time you use it (We have an outdoor shower; We stopped using it because it used 1/3 of our tank for us both to shower, no matter how hard we tried to conserve water). If you don’t want to fill your tank frequently, or if you’re in the desert where water is precious, you’ll end up prioritizing saving your water for drinking and food prep.
(2) It takes time to find a shower, and time will become very precious for you. You can’t just strip off your clothes and walk into the room down the hall to get clean. You have to find a place near you with paid showers, see what hours they’re open, pack up all your stuff, drive there, sort your shower gear, pay, shower, drive back to wherever, then unpack and set up again. The process can be a bit long and annoying, so you’ll end up wanting to do it only when really necessary.
(3) There’s a lot you can do to clean yourself that doesn’t require a full shower. I made my own dry shampoo powder that worked fantastically (Even after a day of hiking), and that I’ll soon be selling on RePrint. This helped tremendously. It also was a great body odor eliminator, so it was somewhat of a lifeline for me over the past 9 months. Facial and body wipes are also very helpful. Finally, you can rinse off in natural water sources, such as lakes, rivers, and the ocean. If you have lake safe soap, you can even wash off a bit in some of them (Although most soaps aren’t lake safe, even the natural ones, so it’s best to use a bucket. I have this one). Also, once you stop showering as often, your body will gradually start creating less oil, so you won’t feel ‘gross’ as frequently.
(4) No one really notices or cares. We all think everyone is looking at us and judging, but most people are so focused on themselves and their lives that they hardly notice anyone else. The only thing you can’t always make look clean without bathing is your hair, and a hat can easily fix this issue. Also, you’re going to be around other campers, travelers, and hikers most of the time, so everyone else will be as dirty as you are.
Other factors (such as pets)…
The answer depends on a lot of things, some of which aren’t mentioned above. I tried to focus on the key things that I believe will affect the day in the life of most people interested in this lifestyle, but there are some clear ones I missed, such as pets. If you have a dog or dogs, you’ll need to plan your day and lifestyle around the pet to make sure you’re working, staying, hiking, and socializing in places that the dog can go. As an example, dogs can’t be on trails in most National Parks, so you probably won’t spend as much time at National Parks (They have no cell service, so – if you’re working full-time – you won’t spend a lot of time there anyway).
Things that were easier and harder than expected
Instead of walking you through a sample day in Patrick and my lives, I’ll discuss a few things that were easier than I expected them to be, and some things that were surprisingly harder than I expected them to be. Hopefully this will help you set your expectations properly.
Easier than expected…
Finding cell service / internet – I thought this would be the bane of our existence, but it wasn’t nearly as much of an issue as I expected. Even in Alaska. In most rather remote areas, it was rare for us to have to drive more than an hour to find cell service. That said, here are some areas where you can expect to have no service at all (So you need to plan around this if you’re visiting one of them):
- Anything above Fairbanks in Alaska – You can pretty much expect to have no cell service anywhere north of Fairbanks.
- Upper Yukon in Canada – We never lost service for more than an hourish or so at a time in the Yukon, but I assume you can expect it to lose it once you drive north above Kluane. Cell service along the Alaskan Highway and Trans-Canadian Highway is overall pretty good.
- Canyonlands & the US Southwest – Don’t expect much cell service around Canyonlands National Park. It’s a monstrous park, and one portion of it (The Maze) is the most remote area in the lower 48 states. Although we found service to be pretty reliable in New Mexico, there are a lot of areas in Utah/Arizona where service is unreliable, so you need to plan travel around this fact when checking out these areas.
- Southeast Montana – South/East Montana had shockingly unreliable service. We started driving during a work day expecting that I (the passenger) could work, then service cut out for 4 hours, so our plans clearly went awry.
- National Parks – Expect the national parks to have no service once you enter the park. You can’t work and stay there during the week unless you take time off.
Living and working together 24/7 in a tiny space – To the surprise of myself and most people, living and running a company together out of a tiny space wasn’t nearly as difficult as I expected. Sure, it took some adjustments at first, but if you have a good relationship with your partner and you both want and enjoy this lifestyle, then you’ll get used to it (And most likely start to enjoy it). I always tell people that it’s like moving from a house into an apartment. At first you think you can’t do it and will hate it. And you do struggle with it for a bit, but then, like all things in life, you adjust. Before too long you no longer think of it as a ‘different’ situation that you’re ‘getting used to,’ and simply consider it life. Believe it or not, it’s brought Patrick and I much closer together, and improved our relationship.
Discovering unique breweries / restaurants / coffee shops / bars – For the last 10+ years of my life, I’ve lived and vacationed almost exclusively in big cities. I thought I’d really miss having access to all the trendy bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and events that happen in large cities, like Chicago. I was extremely surprised to find that we discovered breweries, coffee shops, restaurants, and bars with tons of character in basically every small town and smaller city we visited. I’m writing this while back in Chicago for a week, and I’ve been missing the places we discovered along our way (Even while checking out my favorite places in Chi-town!). I can honestly say that I prefer many of the places we discovered in little towns like Smithers, Canada (shout-out to Smithers Brewing) and Girdwood, Alaska (Girdwood Brewing & Double Musky Inn), to most of my favorite haunts in Chicago.
Meeting cool people that I connect with – I thought it would be hard to meet people I connected or had a lot in common with while on the road. Not only was I wrong, but now I struggle to connect with people living more ‘normal’ lives. Each time we head out for a drink or food in the midwest, I find myself wishing we were at one of the breweries in Alaska/Canada/Colorado/Montana/Washington talking about our next destination, hike, or truck repair with our fellow dirty, bearded travelers.
Harder than expected…
Using the restroom – We don’t have a toilet in the Tramper, so I expected using the restroom to be tricky, but it was a little harder than I thought it would be. This was mainly because we had to camp in Wal-Marts/Cabela’s/civilized areas more frequently than I expected. We spent a lot of time feeling judged for the sheer number of times I had to use a Wal-Mart restroom throughout the day…
Showering – For similar reasons to those I stated above, showering was trickier than I expected. I thought we’d be able to use the outdoor shower more than we could. Having to find a paid shower or river (or whatever) every time I needed to immerse in water wasn’t something I’d planned on.
Dishes / Cleaning / Water Use – Notice a theme here? Water becomes sacred when Tramping because filling up is a time-consuming annoyance. I knew we’d need to conserve water, but we got really into maximizing our tank as much as possible to increase time between fills. One trick we started using was to share our dishes (So Patrick finishes his yogurt parfait, then I eat mine out of his bowl so we only have to wash one bowl), and to eat most meals out of the pans we cooked them in. Gross? Not really when you kiss each other anyway. We also generally used much less dish water when washing dishes, and used as little rinse water as possible. It’s not that hard once you get the hang of it (Now I do it instinctively even when staying in a house or apartment, which prompts a lot of teasing from friends).
Keeping track of everything – You’d think you would lose fewer things in a small space. It’s not true. At all. I still feel like I spend a significant portion of each day looking for some random thing that’s ‘lost.’ The thing is almost never lost; It’s always just misplaced. I still haven’t fully fixed this issue, no matter how many times I reorganize. I think it’s one of those things that you just have to realize will happen, and try to take it in stride.
The positives outweigh the negatives
We’ve had a few people point out that we spend more time discussing the stressors/negatives than the positives of our current lifestyle. This is mainly because we’re trying not to come off as constantly ‘one upping’ or bragging to everyone about how much we love our life, the places we’ve seen, or what we plan to do next. If you’re interested in this lifestyle, I say go for it. All the struggles and difficulties are more than surpassed by the amazing things you get to do and experience each day. You may be tired, dirty (sometimes really dirty), and cramped, but you won’t be bored, stuck in a rut, or wonder if you’re ‘wasting your life.’