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The nomad life is the life for me, and for many years I would have fought anyone who suggested it might be anything less than perfect. I have been happy to take the good with the bad, because even the inconveniences were a part of the adventure. In recent months, however, perhaps I’ve started to experience the effects of travel burnout. I’m in a place of reflection where I’m able to write a more balanced pros and cons review of solo nomad life and full-time travel.
What is Slow Travel?
“Slow Travel” means spending weeks or months in each travel destination instead of hopping from place to place on a tighter schedule. The idea is to try to have a more thorough experience to strengthen your understanding of day-to-day life in the region, looking beyond the main tourist sights, but it’s also a more restful way to travel. While slow traveling, nomads (or slomads) might shop at local grocery stores to cook their own meals and have days where they stay in their accommodation to binge watch Netflix. This helps with longevity for people who want to stay on the road indefinitely (or is supposed to help – not the way I do it). Personally, slow travel is necessary for me because I work remotely while traveling full time. Trying to find a new suitable place to work every single week would wear me out much quicker.
Some people say they’d hate to work while on vacation, but the alternative is to never go on vacation. Americans don’t get that many days off annually. I can’t afford a house so I am “losing” money on rent regardless of whether I spend it on the same apartment month after month, or on accommodations in different cities every month. At least as a nomad, that money gets invested into memories.
Slow Travel Methods
For background context, I’m about five years into solo nomadic living, except for a year-and-a-half interruption when I was stuck in one place because of COVID restrictions.
For the past two years I’ve been living nomadically by alternating between short term furnished rentals and living in my truck camper for a sort of pseudo-vanlife experiment. I usually spend about two months in each place I visit, give or take. A few times when I was in transition, I’d stay somewhere for only a week or two, but overall slow travel has been necessary for me. As a digital nomad, I always need to find a home base with solid wifi where I can be certain of my ability to clock in for work on time.
Before that, I still lived nomadically but through seasonal jobs at national parks, hostels, and ski resorts. I had free employee housing. In my off seasons, I would go hitchhiking or backpacking for a couple months. All combined I’d say I did that for about two years.
(Before the seasonal work, I alternated between living in New York City and Los Angeles where I worked more straightforward jobs for 1-2 years at a time. When I was in college in Boston, every other semester I worked in NYC and LA too. I’m never sure if I should count that time as part of my nomad history. I haven’t spent more than two years in a place since I was 18yo. Coincidentally that’s when I got my “Boxcar Life of Style” tattoo; I had no idea it was a prophecy).
This post is mainly about my time living out of the truck or out of short term rentals, but if you’re more interested in seasonal work, I’ve written about how that compares to remote work here and here.
Benefits of Nomadic Slow Travel
Quite honestly the benefits of slow travel for digital nomads are so obvious to me that I expect you to bypass this section and head straight to the negatives if you want to read anything truly helpful.
Affordable Cost of Slow Travel
Slow travel is a cheap option for solo travelers. You get extended stay discounts when you book an AirBnB for a month or longer; many months I’ve paid the same or less than I was previously paying for regular rent. Having kitchen amenities where you can cook your own meals is also cheaper than eating out every meal. When I live out of my vehicle, Bureau of Land Management campsites are free and I can stay for up to 14 days before I have to find a new spot. If I don’t feel like paying “rent” one month, I can just car camp instead.
Adventure and Personal Growth
I often hear cliches like “you’re running away from your problems,” which I think are ridiculous and not very profound. People who don’t have the adventure bug say this because they’ve heard other people say it, but it has no meaning.
First of all, I objectively don’t think I even have many problems, I’m pretty blessed. Secondly, travel and adventure are valuable for their own sake. Why does there have to be some outside reason to enjoy them? I like to see new things, learn about different cultures and ways of living, hike in scenic landscapes around the world, and revisit history. Would you tell a history major they’re “running away from their problems” by picking that topic of study? The world is my classroom.
Life is kind of a raw deal overall, if you really think about it. We don’t ask to be put here, and then we contend with hunger, cold, injury, illness, and heartbreak. In the modern era, we have to work our lives away to afford things that grow on trees. This is only the best case scenario; some people will go through unthinkable traumas beyond this.
However, the earth itself is our birthright, especially for those of us with passport privilege or a driver’s license. There is so much to see and do, so much happening all over the world and your country, at every single moment! There are mountains, caves, canyons, rivers, and oceans. When I hike in a landscape that feels mystical and supernatural to me, I can’t believe what a gift our home is. How can such places exist? Travel is an exercise in gratitude and a source of awe.
I love not knowing what to expect from my day. On a road trip or a hike or while wandering the streets of a new city, anything could happen. The possibilities are endless! For someone who grew up in a small town where nobody really did anything or went anywhere or pursued any goals, the idea of possibility is precious. I vowed never to be stuck again.
Through travel I am always learning; this includes bookish facts, survival skills, and empathy. Travel reminds me of how good I have it in many ways, and how self centered I am, which is a healthy lesson. When I speak to people from other countries about things that are normal in the States, they sometimes have to remind me that it’s not the same for everyone around the world.
I am not content to only have these experiences in short bursts once or twice a year. As a nomad who prefers slow travel, I can chase adventure and enlightenment full time, which I believe is the point of living.
Freedom to Pursue Interests Without Compromise
I can pursue my hobbies with full dedication as a nomad. I choose the places I travel to because they have inspired me in some way; I often write about chasing a muse. My travels feel very purposeful, and I don’t have to ask anyone for permission or provide anyone with notice.
Hiking is my fondest pastime, and I can decide to go to an epic hiking destination at the drop of a hat. Sometimes I’ll see photographs of a landscape and it burrows so deep into my bones that I simply have to visit for myself, and I need extended time to hike multiple trails and really sink my hands into the dirt. Slow travel gives this to me.
Other interests come into and out of my life with the seasons. If I develop an interest in an event from history or suddenly get obsessed with some book or film or song, I can randomly take a trip to visit the relevant setting and learn in a hands-on way. I can take a pastry class in Paris or try surfing in Costa Rica. Slow travel allows me to be a Renaissance woman.
I can also move with the seasons to avoid Arizona summers or Wyoming winters. The history of nomadic indigenous people in North America confirms that this is how people were meant to live on this continent.
The ability to pick up and go at a moment’s notice spells freedom to me. Very few things hold me back. While I don’t make much money and I don’t own a home, I only spend my money on things I actually care about.
Drawbacks of Nomadic Slow Travel
Organizing the Perfect Conditions for Remote Work is Exhausting
I’m not able to work in public spaces like libraries or cafes because my job involves taking customer phone calls, which can be disruptive.
In the beginning, I was surprised and encouraged by the fact that I could actually find solid signal at dispersed Bureau of Land Management campsites in order to work remotely with my Verizon MiFi Hotspot. I didn’t need to invest in Starlink or pay for campsites with more amenities! I became more and more confident with my ability to pre-determine which campsites would have good signal, and with my Jackery power station I was able to keep my devices charged. If I was ever concerned about the wifi situation (or the weather, since extra bad weather or extreme temperatures can affect me when living in the car), I would get a furnished rental instead.
However, it turns out I can really only live and work out of the truck camper for about a month tops before my body gets cramped. It is not spacious like a van. If I am able to spend my afternoons in a coworking space like I did in the Smokies, then I can expand that to two months. I also learned that AirBnBs or rentals with normal wifi installations are not reliable. The description of the accommodation will say the wifi is fast, but upon arrival it’s not always sufficient for my work needs (this is mainly due to the terrible phone queue app my work uses. Anything I need to do on my laptop is usually fine, but the phone call situation is the issue).
I end up constantly turning things over in my mind when looking for the next place to stay. Are there any free dispersed campsites that look like they’ll have good enough signal? Are these campsites in bear country and therefore I’m going to be paranoid about having food in the car? Is it going to be too hot during the day or too cold at night? Where’s the closest gym or other kind of shower situation? If I need to get a rental instead, how much am I willing to spend this time? Do I want my own private place or am I willing to have a roommate? Is the other person living there going to be weird or demand a lot of my time and attention? Are the cheapest places also the farthest away from the hiking trails I want to do? Will this accommodation’s wifi and cell signal be as good as they claim, or will I end up driving around town looking for better signal and working out of my car during the day anyway?
I go through this line of questioning every few weeks. At first I liked the puzzle of it, but this enjoyment has tracked like a bell curve – over time it’s just become mentally exhausting and contributed to travel burnout.
This autumn I could really go anywhere I want to. I considered the northeast so I can see the changing fall colors in Maine and Vermont, or maybe returning to Flagstaff to hike Humphreys Peak, or Yosemite since I’ve never been there, or the badlands of South Dakota since they’re so close to where I’m currently based in Montana. The prospect of any of these options should sound fun and exciting, but after two years of this, it just sounds draining. At the moment I don’t feel inspired enough to deal with finding a place to stay and worrying about making all the logistics work.
Perhaps I’ve been burning the candle on both ends. I rarely recognize that I’m stressed, but I must be. Not only do I travel full time on quite a low dirtbaggy budget, I also work full time and I pursue hobbies rabidly, like hiking as much as possible, trying to regularly go to the gym, and working on my blog. It’s a lot to do while on the move with only variables and no constants.
Can’t Commit to Regular Routines
On one hand, one of my favorite parts of arriving in a new destination is figuring out my life there. Where will my gym be? Where’s my grocery store? Where’s my coffee shop? I really get a kick out of learning what my life would look like if I was a resident of this new place, and falling into a little routine for a couple months. Do you remember when everyone was doing the Ancestry AI Time Machine application to see what they’d look like in different eras throughout history, as a Viking, a flapper, a cowgirl, or an Egyptian queen? Being a nomad means I can actually try different lives on for size.
On the other hand, it’s mostly a surface level farce. I can’t sign up for any ongoing classes or become a regular of Meetup groups. When I was in France, I joined a language class but it only met weekly, so I got three days out of it over a month and then never saw those people again. It was probably more effort than it was worth. In fact, the whole point of going to France for the summer was to focus on language immersion…but for what? I’ll never be fluent unless I live there.
I struggle to keep up with gym routines because I know in the back of my mind that if I’m not going to have access to a gym in the next location, what’s the point of making progress in the current location?
I shy away from involving myself with the local community because I know I will leave soon. Occasionally a roommate at one of my rentals will invite me to parties or to participate in local events, but it will be much easier to rip the bandaid off if I make sure not to become attached to anyone. I also fear that becoming involved in a community will distract me from my original purpose in visiting the destination; perhaps instead of completing all the nearby hikes I wanted to do on my days off, I’ll end up going shopping with my temporary friends instead. I only have so much time to achieve what I want and may never return to that location. So I remain reclusive and focused, and my departure from town is a tiptoeing Irish goodbye.
Sometimes I don’t know how long I’ll stay in town, so I can’t even commit to events happening in the next couple weeks. Similarly, the lifelong friends I have in Texas, New York, and California will sometimes ask me where I’ll be during some future timeframe because they’re having a birthday or other celebration, and I can never answer the question. I’m not a reliable friend and I am not up to date on their lives.
Through slow travel, I get to learn places much better than if I only spent a weeklong vacation there during my paid time off, but I still never fully learn a place. I can brag all I want about being more informed than most tourists, but I am still not a local. Recently I remarked to someone that two months is typically my limit before I get tired of a place and want to move on. From a nomadic slow travel perspective, I always thought two months was a lot of time, but his indignant reaction of “….two months?” made me realize this is a ridiculous amount of time to not be able to stand still. I felt like a true vagrant, which is all I ever wanted to be and what I’ve sacrificed to be in the name of freedom, like Kerouac or Bukowski or McCandless or Rolf Potts, but for the first time in that moment I felt more shame than pride.
Author Chloe Cooper Jones said her peripatetic father described himself as “like a motorcycle, unstable while idling but stable on the move.”
Finding a Balance Between Slow Travel and Stability
My challenge moving forward is to decide on a strategy for living a balanced life that combines frequent travel with more stability. While I don’t see myself throwing away the habit of staying in places for extended time periods, I do see myself not organizing these stays back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I sometimes toss around the idea of having a base I can return to between excursions, though the issue of affordability persists. I slow travel nomadically instead of having a base because I can’t afford both at the same time.
I know I love Arizona. I suppose I could become an Arizona-and-sometimes-other-places blogger. The thought of it both warms my heart, because I know there’s a lifetime of beauty to be found in Arizona, and disgusts me, because I’d only be able to give a few more weeks of my life to the rest of the world.
I also think about trading the truck for a van so I can be more comfortable and expand the amount of time I can stand to be in the vehicle, but my vision for my life changes so frequently that I hate to commit to such an investment. What if next year I decide to apply for a visa to move to Italy?
Some of my stress comes from needing to clock in at set times for my job and needing to use a call queue application instead of being able to just work on my laptop alone. I’m curious if other digital slomads have an easier time of it because they are freelance or self-employed.
I haven’t discovered the ultimate solution yet, and I know whatever I choose to do can never be perfect in every way. I’d like to prioritize freedom alongside self-care. I have a few ideas brewing, but I’d love to hear from other travelers – what works for you?
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