How to Live Nowhere
An online book about nomadic living for twenty- and thirty-somethings.
How to Live Nowhere is about living life without a fixed address. It’s for those who:
- Haven’t yet found a place where they want to live year-round — or wonder if such a place even exists
- Feel most alive when moving, traveling, exploring, and making new connections
- Want to create a location-independent lifestyle that’s mentally, emotionally, financially, and romantically sustainable
I’m Blake Boles, and I wrote this book to share what I’ve learned from living nomadically for a full decade.
At age 22, I finished college knowing only one thing: I didn’t want to stay in one place. I wanted to take full advantage of my precious freedom to travel, explore, and adventure in the outdoors.
I began by taking a series of jobs in the world of summer camps and outdoor education, migrating between seasonal work gigs of two to five months each. Two years later, feeling burnt out, I bought a one-way ticket to South America, where I spent three months clearing my head and figuring out my next move.
At this point, my story is not especially unique. Many recent graduates spend a few years bumming around in their early twenties, and then — like normal young professionals — they choose a place and stick with it. At age 24 my peers were moving to big cities, signing 12-month leases, and starting grad school or their first “real jobs.” I could think of nothing I wanted less.
As I reflected in South America, I realized that I was deeply in love with the outdoors, and the notion of working inside an office in July seemed ludicrous when I could otherwise be in the mountains. I felt strongly about continuing the seasonal lifestyle that allowed me to jealously guard the summer months that were perfect for backpacking, trail running, swimming, and working at summer camps. I also began to realize that I relished the constant transitions of the permanent-traveler lifestyle — knowing that a new horizon awaited me every few months motivated me to make the most of my short time in whichever place I found myself.
Returning to the United States, I took a job at a ski resort and continued to research my options for building a seasonal outdoor existence. I thought I’d reached mecca when I found a “gap semester” program for 18- to 20-year-olds that was seeking international trip leaders. I successfully navigated the multi-week interview process, feeling optimistic about my prospects. Ultimately I wasn’t offered the position, but by that point I’d convinced myself that international trip leading was what I wanted to do. I wrote the director of the program and asked if he’d help me start my own little trip-leading company. To my undying surprise and delight, he said yes. Thus was born Unschool Adventures, my travel and education company for teenagers.
Through Unschool Adventures I took groups of motivated teenagers abroad for four to seven weeks at a time. I designed trips around international destinations that I personally wanted to visit or revisit, like New Zealand, Argentina, and Nepal. I tailored trips to fit my seasonal schedule (always leaving the summer open), and I hired trusted co-leaders from my camp and outdoor education communities. Crucially, as a business owner, I began to earn higher wages than any employer in the field could offer me.
Starting my own company became my ticket to successfully living nowhere. Soon after starting Unschool Adventures, I was able to make enough money with half a year’s work to finance the other half. During these relaxed periods I traveled, did short-term living experiments, and explored new and intriguing areas in the western U.S. I continued to work at summer camps that inspired me, enjoyed lots of outdoor adventures, began a part-time career as a writer, and found plenty of time to stay connected to my friends and family scattered across North America.
Seven years later, in early 2016, I traveled to Guatemala for a month and penned the first words that would eventually become this book. At age 33 I was still in love with the nomadic life, but I’d also come to see how complicated and messy it could be, especially in the realm of human relationships. I wanted to seriously assess how this lifestyle served me (or failed to do so) and share what I’d learned along the way.
If you’re getting excited about the nomadic lifestyle, this short book will serve as a primer for navigating its most common stumbling blocks. If you’re already a nomad, you may find things in here that resonate with you, validate your experiences, or offer a new perspective. And if you currently live “somewhere” but feel curious about nomadism (and I’m willing to bet you do), then the following chapters will help you decide whether it’s a lifestyle that’s right for you.
What Does It Mean to Live Nowhere? (Ch. 1)
What makes a nomad? Are they impoverished drifters, globetrotting party-hounds, or laptops users on Thai beaches? Are they Zen-like minimalists, or is it a club of rich people who own houses on every continent?
The word “nomad” has the potential to conjure many different images and stereotypes, so let’s begin by dispelling some common misconceptions.
Living nowhere is not about constantly traveling to exotic international destinations. That gets old, fast — as well as expensive, overwhelming, and exhausting. It’s not the same as vacationing, international backpacking, or vagabonding, all of which assume that your lifestyle is temporary and that you have a “home” to return to.
It’s not about constant migration. The nomadic lifestyle doesn’t demand that you live in your car or move somewhere new every single month. You can live somewhere for a few months or even a year while still “living nowhere.”
It’s not about giving up home, community, or a sense of place. Instead, it’s about turning each of those singulars into plurals. You trade a home for homes, a community for communities, and a sense of place for a sense of places. Many nomads choose this lifestyle to strengthen, not sever, their connections to people and places.
It’s not just for rich people. Nomadism isn’t a lifestyle reserved for trust fund babies or the independently wealthy. Living nowhere is possible with a normal (or even low) income. As we’ll see in Chapter 5, there are many ways to earn a living without a fixed address.
It’s not just for poor people. Conversely, living without a fixed address doesn’t automatically turn you into a bum. A permanent residence is not required for financial security.
It’s not about going off-grid or removing yourself from “the system.” You can be a perfectly respectable member of society while still living nowhere.
It’s not about avoiding long-term commitments. Nomads do tend to avoid 12-month leases and location-dependent jobs. But long-term relationships, work commitments, and even mortgages (gasp!) can all be a part of the lifestyle.
It’s not forever. The truth is, it’s hard to live this way when you’re raising kids, pursuing traditional career goals, or caring for others. Most nomads are in their twenties and thirties for a good reason, and will eventually settle down when they get older. That’s okay! The lifestyle doesn’t have to be forever; it’s a ride that we enjoy while we can. (Although there are many older, family-oriented or retired nomads, that’s not the phase of life that we focus on in this book.)
It is about choosing a lifestyle that makes you feel fully alive. Are you a more creative, adventurous, happy, and courageous person when setting out to horizons unknown? Does waking up to the summer sun in January (because you’re in the southern hemisphere) motivate you to make the most of the day? Do you relish the chance to constantly make new friends instead of hanging around the same social circle all the time? Do you like the nomadic version of yourself more than the home-bound one? Yes? That’s the point of living nowhere.
Who Lives Nowhere? (Ch. 2)
Living nowhere isn’t for the faint of heart: it requires an act of courage, a willingness to defy expectations, and a constant logistical battle. It’s a challenging path that each person has to walk herself.
So nomads are highly individual, but they’re also shockingly alike, sharing many common personality traits, aspirations, values, backgrounds, and weird hang-ups. However much we think we choose this lifestyle, the lifestyle also chooses us.
Here are the most common features I’ve observed in those who live nowhere.
Craving for novelty. Nomads aren’t content to live in the place where they were born (or otherwise ended up by circumstance). They see the world as a giant place to be explored, and they crave the stimulation that comes from new people, places, languages, and experiences. They are insatiably curious.
Life-long thirst for adventure. At some point in a nomad’s young life, someone introduced him to the concept of adventure — i.e., willingly placing oneself in a state of discomfort in pursuit of a grand goal — as a positive and desirable thing. And the idea stuck.
Die-hard individualism. Nomads want to feel like masters of their lives. They want to do things their own way. They scorn those whose authority feels unearned or undeserved, and they’re fundamentally skeptical of large organizations and bureaucracies.
Fear of commitment. Nomads are deathly afraid of getting stuck somewhere (or with someone) they really don’t like. Many had a formative experience of feeling “trapped” in their young life that they never want to repeat. They keep their options open as long as possible, sometimes to their detriment.
Future orientation. Nomads live in their heads much more than the average person does. They’re always plotting their next move, trip, or project. This helps with long-term planning but hurts with experiencing and appreciating the here-and-now.
Countercultural bent. Nomads are skeptical of traditional careers, received wisdom, and whatever else the larger culture tells them to do. They’re attracted to nonconformist ideals and alternative lifestyles, even if they don’t personally believe in or practice them.
Early experiences with travel. Whether it was a road trip, international adventure, exchange program, or summer at grandma’s, most nomads were gifted with a positive travel experience early in their lives: something that showed them that the world is much bigger and more interesting than they previously thought. Their parents were probably travelers too.
Privilege. World travel and the freedom of migration have always been the domain of the privileged. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, just something to acknowledge. Nomads are overwhelmingly white, middle and upper class, able-bodied, and the citizens of Western nations (with passports that allow unrestricted entrance to most other countries). Male nomads enjoy the privilege of safe solo travel in more places than female nomads do. And most nomads enjoy the privilege of being raised in an individualistic culture that embraces the idea of personal development, instead of one that shames and condemns those who leave behind their family and homeland to explore the world.
Entrepreneurialism. Many nomads have an entrepreneurial parent (or other significant figure) in their lives: someone who convinced them to blaze their own path through the world.
Financial savvy. Travel presents a million ways to spend one’s money; therefore, a nomad will not remain a nomad very long if she lacks financial discipline. Those who live nowhere are typically better at managing money than their friends and peers.
Self-directed learning. Living nowhere demands constant self-education, whether you’re finding new places to live, adapting to new cultures, and devising creative ways to earn a living. Nomads are de facto self-directed learners. They’re typically great at googling their own questions, they relish any chance to do independent research, and they’re voracious readers.
Liberalism. Liberals and libertarians are more likely to be nomads than conservatives. As the moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt explained in his 2008 TED Talk, “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives”:
It really is a fact that liberals are much higher than conservatives on a major personality trait called openness to experience. People who are high in openness to experience just crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, travel. People low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe and dependable.
Sensitivity to climate. Many nomads change locations in order to follow a certain type of weather that energizes them. For me it’s hot, dry, and sunny weather: the same kind that I grew up with in California. Others are drawn toward snow, humidity, ocean breezes, or a specific season.
The Light and Dark Sides of Nomadism (Ch. 3)
A nomadic life isn’t automatically healthier or more productive than a traditional rooted life. There are good and bad reasons to live nowhere that can both help and hurt you.
Think of it as the Light Side and the Dark Side of nomadism.
The Light Side of Nomadism can help you:
- become more adventurous, independent, interesting, and social
- connect with new and interesting people
- stimulate your creativity
- escape the distractions that prevent you from focusing on important work
- reflect deeply on your life and remember what’s important
- leave behind unhealthy routines at home and build new positive habits
- prioritize experiences over stuff
- spend less money on unnecessary junk
- learn from new cultures and increase your appreciation for your own culture
- get to know each new place you visit (because you know your time is limited)
The Dark Side of Nomadism can:
- be used as an excuse to run away from your problems
- complicate or prevent long-term relationships
- make you too social, thus distracting you from important work
- distract you from “adult stuff” like developing a career and building financial security
- drain your bank account through frivolous travel-related expenses
- deplete your energy through constant transitioning
- promote a radical individualism that ultimately makes you lonely
In a decade of nomadic living, I’ve definitely had my Dark Side moments. I’ve felt deep loneliness. I’ve let travel interfere with relationships. And I’ve seriously wondered whether all my moving is really just a form of extended adolescence as I fail to build a foundation for adult life.
But whenever I sit down and seriously assess my lifestyle, the highs outnumber the lows. The balance tips in favor of the Light Side. This is how (I think) I know that I’m continuing to make the right decision.
If you find yourself choosing nomadism for the right reasons — keep it up. But if you find yourself living nowhere for the Dark Side — maybe it’s time to stop. Don’t become a nomad just because it seems sexy or glorious. Do it because it actually serves you.
Redefining “Home” (Ch. 4)
When I first became a nomad, I roamed the west coast in search of a home.
I wasn’t looking for a physical home, but rather a feeling of belonging and a sense of place. I searched passionately for somewhere that made me want to set down “roots,” somewhere I could see myself for the “long haul.”
I migrated to Portland and Ashland. I pilgrimaged to Bend and San Diego and Lake Tahoe. I flirted with San Francisco and Seattle. With enough driving, exploring, and Craigslist room rentals, I felt confident I’d find my place.
But no matter where I went, I found myself wanting to leave again.
I lasted four months in Portland and six in Ashland. San Diego and Bend were mere flashes in the pan. San Francisco and Seattle never even had a chance to sink their hooks in me.
Lake Tahoe and I found ourselves in a passionate, tumultuous affair of loving, leaving, and longing. I returned there more than anywhere else, but even she never inspired me to stick around for 12 straight months.
My mental checklist, I realized, was impossibly long. I wanted a place with the culture of a city, but also direct access to nature. A place with posh coffee shops, but also a lack of pretension. A highly affordable place, but also a popular destination that would inspire my friends to visit.
Even when I found a place that satisfied my checklist — Asheville, North Carolina, for example, where I moved to be with a long-term girlfriend — I found myself anxious and restless when I stayed for more than half a year. Part of me craved the cool, dry California weather (North Carolina’s summers crushed me with their humidity). But mostly I felt constrained by simple fact that I was limiting my world of experience to a single geographic location.
Chalk it up to impatience, impulsiveness, or irrational wanderlust, but whenever I tried to settle down, I soon found myself in a state of malaise best described by the writer Alain de Botton:
[Home] finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.
My own habituation period was far briefer than de Botton’s, who felt underwhelmed after a full decade of living in one place; in half a year I already felt that I was becoming blind to my new home. However unreasonable these feelings were, I could not deny that their truth and consistency.
After years of searching in vain for my mythological place, I gave up. I still craved a home, but I realized I’d probably never find it in a single location.
Traditionally, “home” is what we associate with:
- Family: the original force that binds us to a place.
- Friends: those whom we know, trust, and want to live near.
- Tribes: larger communities of people who share our core values. Many young people move to Portland to join a perceived tribe of hipsters, and many entrepreneurs move to Silicon Valley to join a perceived tribe of other entrepreneurs. We surround ourselves by tribe members in the hope that some will become our friends and lovers.
- Work: our means of subsistence and, in many cases, our primary tribe.
- Love: that which drags us across cities, states, and borders — sometimes gently, often violently.
- Comfort: a state of peace, security, and mental equanimity; that feeling of plopping onto a comfy bed or sofa after a long day.
- Sense of place: connection to a physical landscape
These are the reasons why we move and why we stay. When we find a place that offers enough of these factors, we tend to stick around and start calling it “home.”
But why do we link home inextricably to a physical location? As most adults know, a place that feels like home one moment can suddenly feel alien after the loss of a job, estrangement from a tribe, or a big break-up.
A single place is a poor substitution for what we’re actually seeking when we think of home, which is not really a place, but a patchwork of feelings. Home includes feelings of:
- sustained connection to friends and family members
- tribal community
- connection to a significant other (or at least the possibility of that connection)
- a relaxed, peaceful, and emotionally stable state of mind
When we seek to maximize and sustain these feelings, the tyranny of geography ends — and nomads can enjoy a sense of home wherever they find themselves.
Easier said than done, of course. Choosing the nomadic lifestyle means choosing to face some very hard problems head-on: How do I sustain deep friendships and long-term relationships? How do I become a likeable person who can find (or build) community wherever I go? How do I build a livelihood that makes me feel financially secure without having to stay in one place all the time? How can I enter a peaceful state of mind no matter my external circumstances?
Nomads face the same challenges that other people face: the challenges of building and maintaining community, relationships, career, and mental health. The big difference is that we don’t assume these challenges are always solved by staying in one place. We realize that rootedness has the same potential to help and hurt our relationships, careers, communities, and mental health.
Finally, what about “sense of place”? By not living in one place all the time, do nomads automatically relinquish their bond to culture, land, and geography?
On the contrary, my nomadic life has provided me with more than just a sense of place. I feel that I have multiple senses of place — with New Zealand, Argentina, and the Western United States. Each of these places feels like an old friend, like someone I want to stay in touch with, revisit, and deepen our connection whenever possible. Were I unable to visit any one of them ever again, I’d grieve. While admittedly I don’t have as strong a connection to any of these place as I would if I lived in only one of them all the time, the sum total of the connections is quite hefty.
As with friendships, I believe there’s a benefit to having brief-but-intense experiences with places: the relationships are more memorable, and we suffer less chance of becoming, in Alain de Botton’s words, habituated and blind to them.
Funding a Nomadic Lifestyle (Ch. 5)
At age 24 — the same year I renounced year-round jobs and 12-month leases — I had $3,000 to my name.
I earned little from my work in outdoor education (less than $8,000 the previous year), but I spent even less. I never took significant money from my family, though I did enjoy family health insurance and a one-time gift of a used car and laptop upon graduating from college. Perhaps the greatest privilege I enjoyed was freedom from student loan debt, as my dad paid for my public university education.
From the beginning of my nomadism, I paid for my own rent, food, and travel. I did it without a trust fund, family bailouts, or some incredibly well-paid job. I don’t say this to gloat, but rather to say that the permanent-traveler lifestyle is not reserved for the extremely privileged. While most of those who live nowhere do come from middle- and middle-upper class backgrounds, it’s possible to join the nomad club no matter your starting point.
Income is an under-discussed part of the nomadic lifestyle. Too many blog posts paint an unrealistic vision of glamorous travel without seriously discussing how to make ends meet. In this chapter I offer five models for funding a nomadic life, followed by principles relevant to every nomad.
Five Funding Models for Living Nowhere
Between short-term jobs, 100% location-independent jobs, starting your own business, and more extreme lifestyle options, there’s never been an easier time to fund a life without a fixed home base.
But that doesn’t mean that it is easy. Creating a location-independent livelihood requires an entrepreneurial spirit, comfort with uncertainty, personal budgeting savvy, working long or strange hours, and a willingness to embrace weird, unproven, or alternative lifestyles.
But all that comes after simply understanding: How can I make money without tying myself to one place year-round?
Let’s explore some common models for funding the nomadic lifestyle:
- The Alaskan Fisherman Model
- The Digital Nomad Model
- The Masseuse Model
- The Passive Income Model
- The Earn Nothing, Spend Nothing Model
The Alaskan Fisherman Model
The basic idea: Work short-term, intensive jobs. Save most of what you earn. Enjoy big periods of time off between gigs.
- Commercial fishing boat hand
- English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) teacher abroad
- Traveling nurse or physical therapist
- Wildland firefighter
- Outdoor/experiential educator
- Cruise ship, yacht, or resort employee
- Ski patroller
- International nanny (“au pair”)
- Hostel employee
- Summer camp instructor
- Tour guide or international trip leader
- Holiday retail worker or delivery truck driver
- Seasonal produce picker
- Event worker (e.g. music festival worker, Christmas tree seller)
The Alaskan Fisherman Model is the one that I’ve employed the most in my nomadic life. I spent the first four years after college stringing together seasons as an outdoor educator, summer camp instructor, ski resort employee, and restaurant employee. These gigs were two to five months long and offered gaps of weeks or months in between, which I filled with travel, exploration, and mini-adventures. Then, in 2008, I started my own international trip-leading company, which has allowed me to continue living the Alaskan Fisherman Model to this day — albeit with higher pay and less total work than if I were employed by a similar company.
Alaskan Fisherman Model jobs are often sexy, adventurous, fulfilling, and they provide genuine periods of free time. But most significantly, many offer free room and board. For the young and broke, this is a game changer. In my outdoor educator life, I usually got paid $1000 a month, of which I only spent about $200 (because my room and board was covered, and my main hobbies were hiking and frisbee). Doing that for four months provided $3,200 in savings, which is a respectable chunk of change for any 22-year-old to use to fund travels, invest in a used car, or squirrel away for the future. Even when I was getting paid less than poverty-line wages, I felt richer than many of my peers, because I had the time and savings to do something like take off to South America for three months (which I did).
Seasonal jobs that don’t offer room and board make it more difficult to save money. If you’re working as a ski instructor in a posh mountain town or a holiday delivery truck driver in a big city, getting paid minimum wage, and shelling out market rate for housing, then you might not save any money at all — which defeats the whole point of the Alaskan Fisherman Model. With such jobs you either need to figure a way to spend radically less on housing and food, or the job should be so awesome that it’s worth it to just break even for a little while.
The long-term challenge of many Alaskan Fisherman Model jobs is that they’re so physically intense, mentally intense, low-paid, or all-consuming that having a personal life is rendered impossible. Burnout is common, and most people treat these careers as temporary. Or they move into a year-round, administrative role in the company — sometimes with chagrin over losing their nomadic freedom.
Find links, articles, and other helpful resources for the Alaskan Fisherman Model (and each of the other models) online at http://www.howtolivenowhere.com/resources.
The Digital Nomad Model
The basic idea: Work for a company or as a freelancer doing computer-based work that’s 100% location independent.
- Website designer
- Writer, copyeditor, proofreader
- Graphic designer
- Social media consultant
- Photographer, videographer, illustrator
- Life coach
- Professional poker player
- Language tutor
The Digital Nomad Model is hot right now. You get to work from your laptop and set your own hours from anywhere in the world (anywhere, at least, with a decent Wi-Fi connection). My own experience with this model is limited to a little freelance web design during college, plus some private education coaching for teenagers.
If you google “digital nomad” or “remote work” you’ll find plenty of articles about location-independent livelihoods. Most digital nomads are smart people who work exclusively on the internet, thus there’s much to be found about their lifestyle online.
A warning: The Digital Nomad Model makes no promises of meaningful or fulfilling work. Many of these jobs are essentially corporate cubicle work, minus the cubicle. There’s a lot of money to be made in these fields, and the lifestyle is awfully attractive, which leads some people to take these jobs even if they have no love for the work.
Most digital nomad jobs require a background in computers, programming, design, or other relevant skills. If you don’t have these skills but you’re willing to learn, there are many self-paced courses available online. There’s also a booming market in short-term coding boot camps that often guarantee job placement after graduation (though not necessarily a location-independent job).
The Masseuse Model
The basic idea: Develop a skill that you can easily turn into part-time paid work in each new place you move.
- English language tutor
- Restaurant server
- Yoga instructor
- Academic tutor
- Dance teacher
- Gardener, landscaper, handyman
- Massage therapist
- Tattoo/body artist
- Jewelry maker
The Masseuse Model is attractive because it lets you work while traveling and set your own hours (which are often part-time or flex-time). This model makes me think of my traveling friend Cameron who brings a typewriter wherever he goes, sets it up on a small table, and writes poetry about passersby for donations. He earns himself a pretty penny on nice days at downtown pedestrian malls in cities like Burlington, Asheville, and New Orleans.
Masseuse Model jobs typically don’t earn enough to sustain full-time travel on their own, but they’re great for slowing the depletion of your savings account, making new friends, and connecting you to local communities during your travels.
The Passive Income Model
The basic idea: Create a business or make an investment that earns you a monthly income and requires only minimal ongoing maintenance on your part.
- Rental property owner
- Online or location-independent business owner
- Published author
- Dividend-bearing stock owner
- Software/app publisher
So-called “passive income” is a perennially attractive idea because it promotes the fanciful notion that you can get something for nothing. But the word “passive” applies only to the end of an extremely time-intensive and grueling process of building a business, piece of creative work, or investment that will pay you dividends down the road.
My own experience with the Passive Income Model is through writing. Besides this one, I’ve self-published two books and had one traditionally published. A book is a great example of this model: it requires an incredible amount of up-front and unpaid time and energy for an unpredictable outcome. In the case of my first book, which was traditionally published, I received a $5000 advance (standard for a first-time author) and then the book never sold enough copies to earn me a cent of royalties. So I got paid $5000 for what I conservatively estimate was 500 hours of work, so essentially, minimum wage.
But my second and third books, which I crowdfunded and self-published, have paid me $400-$800 each month through Amazon sales since mid-2012 — roughly $25,000 total at this point — and they show no sign of stopping. (The crowdfunding campaigns also netted surpluses of a few thousand dollars each, which I considered my self-published “advances.”)
To be clear: I’m not sitting on my laurels today and just counting my book sales. I write regular email newsletters, maintain an active Facebook presence, and stay connected to my audience through speaking gigs, summer camp work, and my teen trips. If I stopped doing this stuff, I’m positive that sales would slow to a trickle, in the same way that a poorly managed business or investment portfolio would eventually stop paying out. There is no such thing as truly “passive” income — just “less work now than in the beginning.”
I enjoy writing because it makes me feel like I’m contributing to the world, but there are certainly simpler ways to generate passive income. If you have access to a big pool of cash, investing in a rental property or dividend-bearing stocks can provide an immediate, location-independent income. (Yes, some of those who live nowhere are also homeowners with mortgages!) You can follow in the footsteps of Tim Ferriss’ popular book, The 4-Hour Work Week, which advises readers to create a product, and sell it through a highly automated and outsourced business model. Or you can dive into the wild world of online application, software, or e-course creation (blurring lines with the Digital Nomad Model, except that you’re working for yourself). Each of these paths requires some incredible up-front investment in the form of time, money, and commitment.
If you can make passive income work, it can be amazing. You get all the benefits of self-employment (most notably control of your time) without the requirement of being physically present at your business.
The Earn Nothing / Spend Nothing Model
The basic idea: Radically reduce your cost of living through volunteering, work-trading, dirtbagging, and voluntary poverty.
- Farm volunteer
- Climbing bum
- Wandering hippie
- Long-distance hiker/biker
- Crusties and gutter punks
Finally, we arrive at the most countercultural strategy for living nowhere: making a radical lifestyle shift toward spending nothing, which obviates the need to earn anything.
Most who consider this lifestyle won’t actually aim to spend nothing (as Daniel Suelo does in The Man Who Quit Money), but rather to spend virtually nothing, on the order of $100-$500 per month, which can be easily funded through one of the other models. I’ve lived this way for various brief periods of my life, usually while wilderness backpacking. In my early twenties, such periods were often a financial necessity.
A time-honored way to live this model (without experiencing total squalor) is through volunteering and work-trading at farms, private homes, and hostels, where room and board are provided in exchange for four to six hours of work a day. New Zealand, for example, is a hot spot for people who bounce between opportunities like this, which can be found through popular networks like HelpX, Workaway, and WWOOF.
Those who don’t have room and board provided for them tend to reduce their cost of living by cooking all their own meals (camping-style) and sleeping in their cars (as a prototypical rock climbing bum does) or in tents (in the case of a long-distance hiker or biker).
Living simply in developing countries where costs are incredibly low — Bali and India are classic examples — can cost you almost nothing after you foot the expense of getting there (provided that you remain strong enough to ignore the temptations of the local tourist café as you cook your hundredth straight meal of rice, beans, and yucca.) With creativity, you can even lead a similarly low-cost lifestyle in a developing country. My friend Nathen lived on almost nothing for a year on Maui by alternating between sleeping on the beach, work-trading for a tent space in a horse pasture, and splitting rent on a house with three friends.
Crusties, gutter punks, and other bare-bones wanderers are masters of getting by on almost nothing. You can find them most reliably at Rainbow Gatherings, Food Not Bombs, hitchhiking, and dumpster diving. You may not share their same vision of “living nowhere,” but it’s folly to ignore or stereotype them. You and they are living two versions of the same dream.
The Earn Nothing / Spend Nothing Model is primarily the domain of the young, broke, and highly adventurous or eccentric. Its main issue is financial insecurity. If you’re living hand-to-mouth, you limit your ability to deal with emergencies, migrate to new places, and live a life in which you have actual choices. Having fallback savings makes this lifestyle a safer bet and better experience; most often it serves as a temporary adventure between more reliable funding models.
Principles for Every Nomad
Having seriously experimented with these models for more than a decade, it’s clear to me that each is appropriate for different sets of skills, personalities, desired income levels, and life priorities.
That being said, every nomad can benefit from following these final principles:
Always begin by reducing unnecessary costs. This might sound like trite financial advice, but it’s real. Don’t pay rent for a place where you’re not really living. Don’t buy pricey clothing, food, and experiences just because your peer group expects you to. Separate needs from wants. Bad spending habits ruin any lifestyle, not just nomadic ones.
Have a budget and fallback savings. When you forsake the dependability of a year-round paycheck, having a budget to forecast your finances for the year ahead becomes a non-negotiable. I use a simple spreadsheet to track my income and expenses. Fallback savings are also a non-negotiable part of the nomad lifestyle — inconsistent incomes lead to unexpected lean times, and those without emergency savings won’t remain nomads for very long.
Be comfortable with long periods of unemployment and negative cash-flow. While some people can handle the financial reality of a nomadic lifestyle, they struggle with the psychological reality. There is a cultural validation that comes with a full-time job (even if this job makes you unhappy, and even if you’re in fact knee-deep in debt). Because this is the proverbial water we’ve been swimming in since birth, even the most die-hard nomad can feel deep anxiety when flouting conventional work habits and norms. It’s simply difficult to explain your periodic unemployment and lack of year-round income to those who have never lived this way. But with personal budgeting, a savings cushion, and the ongoing support of those who understand your lifestyle, such anxiety subsides.
Beware the “I’ll save money and then quit my job” Scheme
Finally, let’s tackle the most common way that potential nomads sabotage themselves: by telling themselves that if they simply work a lot (in their current undesirable job), save a lot of money, and then quit — at which point they’ll begin their new nomadic life.
It’s an attractive plan. Let’s imagine you work “just” 12 more months, save $1000 every month, and then quit and begin your nomadic life with a $12,000 buffer to help you figure out your next steps. That seems reasonable, right? But doesn’t it also seem reasonable that during those 12 months you will:
- begin to look at the big pile of cash you’re accumulating and create excuses for spending it?
- succumb to the fear that quitting your job will irrevocably damage your life and career?
- begin to believe the doubting voices of your co-workers, friends, and family members who don’t understand your dreams?
- get involved in a relationship of convenience?
- get involved in a high-quality relationship (perhaps a good reason to stay put, but still something that prevents you from following your nomadic dreams)?
- accumulate more personal possessions that become a hassle to deal with?
- become attached to the creature comforts of a fixed-location life?
- forget why you wanted to live nowhere in the first place?
The save-and-quit scheme ignores the most important part of sustainable nomadism: having a viable model for financially supporting yourself. Without this, as soon as you run out of savings (and probably much sooner) you’ll revert to the path you know best: finding another fixed-location job.
Yes, savings are useful. But instead of focusing primarily on saving a boatload of money, concentrate first on creating a location-independent livelihood. Experiment with the five funding models. Create an income stream that doesn’t bind you to one place for very long. Then you can sustain life on the road for as long as you see fit.
The Practical Problems of Life on the Road (Ch. 6)
At the beginning of my nomadism I owned exactly one box of books, one tub of clothing, a set of backpacking gear, two shoeboxes of memorabilia, a daypack, and a laptop. Everything fit nicely into the back of my little 1990 Honda Civic.
Now, at age 33, I own more clothing, more books, more memorabilia, a lot more backpacking gear, two boxes of business documents, kitchen gear, a printer, a guitar, a snowboard, tree climbing gear, and a bike. And it all fits nicely into a five-by-ten-foot storage unit for which I pay 32 dollars a month.
Your strategy for dealing with stuff will depend on how much you own, your lifestyle, and the goodwill of the friends and family in your life. Three approaches to consider:
- Take everything you own with you, everywhere you go
- Keep unused possessions at your parents’ or friends’ houses
- Keep unused gear in a storage unit
Taking everything you own with you works well for minimalists who 1) own a car and 2) find themselves migrating between different work locations where they can let their possessions explode into each new living space. I did this for four years as an outdoor educator. When I wasn’t living a car-based life, I left my car (and all my stuff) at my parents’ house. This strategy doesn’t work if you don’t own a car or if you need to park your car in high-theft areas.
Keeping stuff at a parent’s or friend’s house is a straightforward and inexpensive storage strategy when you’re getting started as a nomad, but I don’t recommend it in the long-term. Why? Because I think you can compromise the relationship with your parents or friends by using them as a storage depot. They might generously offer the space in the beginning, but down the line, they may no longer know if you’re visiting because you actually want to see them, or if you really just want to access your stuff. For this reason, I’ve only stored belongings at other people’s houses for brief periods of time.
Keeping stuff in a storage unit is the most honorable long-term strategy and the logical next step after you’ve realized that your nomadism isn’t a passing phase. A 5-by-5 or a 5-by-10 unit will do the trick for most people. Prices vary wildly, trending with the local cost of living. I’ve paid $25–$100 per month for 5-by-10 units in California and Oregon. With a storage unit, you always know where your stuff is, you know that no one is touching it, and you’re not bothering anyone when you come and go.
A few more strategies for dealing with your stuff:
Follow the Car Rule for as long as you can. Restrict yourself to only owning what can fit in your car. This makes migration between locations or storage units a much more reasonable prospect. Follow this link to see how I packed all my stuff into my Subaru Forester in 2014: http://bit.ly/blake-subaru.
After the Car Rule, follow the 5×10 rule. Don’t own anything that can’t fit into a storage unit. After a decade of following the car rule, I finally graduated to the 5×10 rule. It was the bike that pushed me over.
Avoid owning bulky possessions like furniture that make self-storage expensive and migration difficult.
Ruthlessly trim your possessions that 1) you haven’t used in the past year and 2) aren’t deeply significant memorabilia like photos or love letters. For me, this means periodically donating my accumulated books and clothing to charity.
Digitize all important documents like medical records, passport, tax documents, birth certificate, etc., so that you don’t need to return to your storage unit to access them.
Dealing with a Car
Unless you’re spending all your time traveling abroad, hopping between Alaskan Fisherman Model jobs, or migrating exclusively between dense urban areas, you’re going to need a car. Most nomads consider it a crucial part of their personal freedom (I certainly do). Here are a few strategies for dealing with one:
Don’t worry about registering your car in a new state until you’re sure you will be there for a long time. I’ve had out-of-state plates on my car for three to 12 months at various points. Technically you’re supposed to register your car within 30 days of moving to a new state, but what does “moving” mean if you’re only going to be around for four months or so? I’ve never gotten into trouble for failing to register in a new state, nor has any other nomad I know. One exception: if you’re going to park it unattended on the street (e.g., outside your parent’s house) for a long time, neighbors will get more suspicious if it has out-of-state plates.
When you leave your car with a friend or parent for a long time, ask them to drive it once every few weeks (for the health of the car) and, if it’s living on the street, to re-park it in a noticeably different location so that neighbors don’t think it’s abandoned. Lastly, call your car insurance company to see if you can save money by downgrading your coverage — but remember that if someone else will be driving your car, you need to maintain at least basic liability coverage because insurance follows the car, not the driver.
Having (or Faking) a Permanent Address
Perhaps the easiest way to make a nomad squirm is to ask for their “permanent address” or “physical address.” What an antiquated notion, we protest! But until we enter the age of fully-digital identities, we’ll need to continue appeasing the banks, government agencies, and other institutions that want to designate a single point on this earth where they can send us angry letters if we really piss them off.
Here are some ways to deal with this:
Go digital/paperless whenever possible. If you’re receiving paper bank statements or cell phone bills, you’re giving yourself an unnecessary headache. If you read magazines, get the digital version. There’s very little in this day and age that must happen via postal mail.
Use a mail forwarding service’s address as your permanent address. (I explain what a mail forwarding service is just below.) All of my banks, credit cards, and the IRS send mail to my forwarding service, which I can access from anywhere in the world.
For state-based business registrations, provide an in-state address (of a friend or family member) but designate the mailing address to be your mail forwarding address. Alternatively, hire a “registered agent” to act as your in-state address for legal purposes (google that phrase to learn more).
When you must have a physical address, use a parent’s or trusted friend’s address. I’ve only had to do this with the DMV and state-based healthcare, neither of which will let me designate an out-of-state mailing address. Oh well — can’t win them all. Thanks, dad.
The Power and Magic of Mail Forwarding Services
I initially received my (very minimal) mail at my dad’s house. Later I had it sent to a friend’s house in Oregon that I visited a few times a year. I didn’t ask either my parent or friend to play postmaster and notify me anytime something new arrived; they simply accumulated the mail, and I picked it up every once in a while. This works for a lot of nomads, and it worked for me for a long time.
Then came the IRS debacle.
In 2011 my business accountant made a simple error, and the IRS sent me a letter demanding thousands of dollars that I didn’t actually owe. This letter sat at my friend’s house in Oregon for months while I was leading a teen adventure in South America. The IRS became increasingly irate, sent more letters, and began threatening interest charges for late payment. When my friend finally noticed and forwarded me a scan, I suffered a few days of terrible stress at the prospect of financial armageddon.
My accountant cleared up the mistake, but this wasn’t a situation I ever wanted to be in again. I needed more control over my postal life, and I didn’t want to ask my friends or family to vet every letter that showed up in their mailbox. I wasn’t compensating them for this not-very-fun task, after all, and as with storing my stuff, I didn’t want to visit them only to collect my mail.
That’s when I discovered mail forwarding services — one of the most useful tools in my nomadic life. I use a company called Mailbox Forwarding; another company, Earth Class Mail, is their main competitor. Both cost around $20 a month.
Here’s how these mail forwarding services work. First, you sign a one-page U.S. Postal Service form that gives the company legal permission to accept and open mail on your behalf. They give you a street address (mine’s in Michigan) with a private mailbox number, and you start having your mail sent there. When a new piece arrives, they scan the front of it and email you the scan. Then you can ask them to open the mail and scan the pages inside, which they also email you. How cool is that!? You can also have them forward your mail to any address in the world for a small fee, shred mail, and even deposit checks for you. And they filter out junk mail automatically.
Mail forwarding has enabled me to stay on top of my mail wherever I am in the world. It’s proven invaluable for receiving, digitizing, and confirming paperwork sent to me for my teen adventure trips. It means that I’m not giving my parents’ or friends’ address out to the world and potentially subjecting them to junk mail on my behalf. Obviously, I’m a convert. That’s why I say: If you get a lot of mail, and you can afford a forwarding service, get one. Good nomads don’t shove the practical responsibilities of life — mail, cars, and stuff — onto other people.
Meeting People and Making Friends on the Road (Ch. 7)
I wrote this chapter in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where I spent January of 2016 brushing up on my Spanish, visiting a good friend who lives there, and trading the harsh North American winter for Central America’s sunny, 70-degree days.
Another reason I went was to make new friends. Quetzaltenango is a small city with a big reputation for attracting expats, long-term travelers, non-profit workers, and serious Spanish students: the kind of people with whom I feel at ease striking up a conversation.
Lo and behold, after only a week I found myself greeting new friends on the street, joining parties where I already knew half the crowd, and going out for meals and drinks with interesting people who only a short while ago were total strangers.
At this point in my nomadism, I’d figured out some of the secrets to making new friends. But in the beginning of my time on the move, I found myself wondering: Are these new people really “friends”? Am I deluding myself? Am I creating a life of paper-thin relationships that dissolve immediately with time and distance? And most dramatically: Are nomads like me ultimately destined to become friendless loners?
While the challenge of making and keeping friends is real, living nowhere comes with friendship benefits, too. Here’s how I look at the situation.
Accept that building lasting friendships is always hard. It’s important not to compare the nomadic lifestyle to the kind of idealized social life we see in TV shows like Friends. Most people we meet — no matter who we are — remain acquaintances or drift away after a short time. It’s simply hard to find people who share our core values, interests, hobbies, and lifestyle. For those who live in one place year-round, many so-called friendships are geographical conveniences that quickly dissipate when one person moves to a new neighborhood or changes jobs. Those who live nowhere and those who live somewhere share an equal amount of challenge.
Meet lots of new people in order to make a few really good friends. Much like dating, making new friends is largely a numbers game; you need to meet a lot of people in order to find the ones who really stick. Luckily, the nomadic life lends itself to this approach. By roaming between different locations for a few months at a time, we meet lots of new people along the way (who probably chose those locations for like-minded reasons), giving ourselves a better statistical chance of meeting the rare individuals with whom we deeply connect.
Because time is limited, focus on high-quality experiences and no-bullshit conversations. If you’re only around new friends for a few months or weeks, then you have no time to waste. The best way to figure out whether someone is friend material is to minimize (or altogether cut) the small talk. Avoid fractured conversations in noisy bars in favor of deeper, small group or one-on-one connections. Go on mini-adventures, jump straight into the big topics (e.g., relationships, career trajectory, spirituality), and otherwise create lasting memories that might serve as inspiration for a later reunion.
Become Facebook friends with everyone you meet. Sometimes we don’t have time to invest in someone we just met, or we prematurely put someone into the “acquaintance” category when they actually have friend potential. This is why it’s smart to become Facebook friends with pretty much every interesting person you meet. Facebook gives you a glimpse into people’s lives (both past and present) that helps you make a better choice about expending the energy to reconnect with them.
Don’t stress about staying in touch with most people. It’s an impossible task. Embrace your new friendships in the here and now — and then let them go. Most new people you meet will remain acquaintances, and that’s okay. You don’t have time for dozens of new friends in your life, anyways. You can stay in touch casually with most of the people you meet by searching Facebook whenever you go somewhere new and then reaching out to reconnect face-to-face.
Actively stay in touch with the “keepers.” If you’re doing it right, the big payoff from nomadic living will come in the form of a handful of close, high-quality friends whom you should actively communicate with until you meet again. These are the people who left such an impression on you that you’d travel to another country just to get the chance to hang out with them again. Keep those friendships alive by actively initiating contact via email, Skype calls, or social media. These are the people who may become your future housemates and partners in business, travel, or romance.
Non-Awkward Ways to Meet People While Traveling Solo
Now, onto the challenge of how to actually meet people as a nomad.
When you travel solo, some well-meaning people will suggest that you should just “be friendly” and “say hi” to new people that you meet. I don’t like that advice. Why? Because introducing yourself to a total stranger in a café, bar, or bus can be really awkward, bordering on creepy.
Yes, striking up conversations with total strangers does work sometimes, and it’s a valuable skill to develop. But if you’re like me, you usually want some context before breaking the ice. You want to know something about the person, have a common subject of conversation, or, ideally, have already corresponded (through a website or email) before meeting. With such a context established, you feel more prepared, confident, and relaxed when meeting someone new.
Here are the best non-awkward ways I’ve discovered to meet new people while traveling solo, whether internationally or in your own country.
Couchsurfing. The first time I Couchsurfed I had just landed in New Zealand, for a few weeks of solo travel. (Note that Couchsurfing with a capital C indicates the use of the official Couchsurfing.com network, which is different from just temporarily crashing at a series of other people’s homes.) My two hosts picked me up from the airport, drove me to their apartment, put me up in their guest room, fed me dinner, suggested a few places to check out the next day, and gave me my own set of house keys. Obviously, I was sold. Since then I’ve stayed with hosts in Peru, the Netherlands, and the U.S., and I’ve hosted a handful of travelers myself. (Find me here: https://www.couchsurfing.com/people/blakebo)
Couchsurfing hosts are some of the coolest and most generous people on earth. The best ones are also in high demand, and so it’s important that you have an honest, compelling, and verified Couchsurfing profile and write a courteous and detailed request to “surf” with a host.
But Couchsurfing isn’t limited to hosting. The most powerful way I’ve found to tap the network is to directly message other Couchsurfing members in your area. Use the “Find Hosts” tool — making sure to check the “Wants to Meet Up” box to include locals who aren’t hosts — and write direct messages to anyone you’re interested in meeting. For best effect, include a specific request: “I see that you love frisbee. I do too! Want to toss a disc around a park?”
Once, when I was living in northern California, a Couchsurfing member from a nearby city messaged me out of the blue. He noted our many common interests and invited me join a free live music event in the area. We struck up a long conversation and hung out many more times. It felt really good to get an unsolicited message from someone interesting who just wanted to hang out with me!
Finally, Couchsurfing is a forum for meet-ups, parties, and other events (use the “Find Events” tool). In my experience, these gatherings are hit-or-miss. I once attended a meet-up in Amsterdam with about 40 incredibly friendly travelers from all over Europe; another meet-up in Madrid felt less friendly and more like a glorified pub crawl.
Facebook. For better or worse, Facebook is the dominant social network in the world, and that makes it incredibly useful for finding people to meet abroad. Start by searching for “my friends who live in [destination city or country]” to see who you’re already connected to in the area.
Next, do a search for “friends of my friends who live in [destination]” to find interesting people to whom your friends might introduce you.
Before going somewhere new, write a simple Facebook post with your travel plans and dates (e.g. “I’ll be in Barcelona for the first half of May — know anyone I should meet?”). You might be surprised by the incredible people (or organizations, or destinations) to whom your preexisting social network might connect you.
Partner dancing. Blues, salsa, swing, and Argentine tango: the world of partner dancing is robust, inclusive of beginners, and a shockingly easy way to meet new people in almost any large city. In my own life, I’ve met interesting people of all ages through Argentine tango classes in Oregon, California, and Buenos Aires (of course).
Group classes are the most accessible way to get started as a beginning dancer. Googling your location and a dance keyword will reveal most opportunities. Not all dance styles will be available in any given city, so be willing to immerse yourself in whatever the local favorite may be.
Although it isn’t “partner” dancing per se, I know people who make new friends wherever they go through 5Rhythms, Open Floor, Ecstatic Dance, and drum circle events — public, improvised group dances that are usually followed by socializing.
Meetups. On Meetup.com you can find free group activities organized by local people. It’s best used in large cities, and like Couchsurfing events, Meetups are very hit-or-miss.
Pickup sports. Connecting with people who share your love for a sport is a no-brainer. Soccer, ultimate frisbee, running, rock climbing, and other sports that can easily include new members of various ability levels (without much equipment required) are the best bets.
A quick Google search for your preferred sport plus your location name will typically reveal what’s available. Pickup sports groups also tend to appear as Couchsurfing events, Meetup events, and Facebook groups.
Online dating. The key thing to know about online dating websites and apps like OkCupid and Tinder is: you don’t have to use them for dating! If you write an honest profile that explains that you just want to explore the area and meet locals, you can use these tools to genuinely connect with neat-looking people who share your interests without other expectations.
Of course, dating is also a good way to meet new people; go on a few dates with a local and you’ll soon be connected to their world of friends and activities. But of course, don’t lead someone on just for their social network.
Language classes. Group language classes are great for meeting fellow travelers, but more crucially, they enable you to better communicate with the actual locals. You can either pay for an official course or look for free language exchange meet-ups (most often advertised at hostels, on Couchsurfing or Meetup, or via location-specific Facebook groups).
Volunteering. There are countless ways to get involved as a volunteer wherever you travel in the world — and consequently meet local hosts and other volunteers — but my favorite is Help Exchange (helpx.net), through which I’ve found high-quality volunteering gigs for solo travelers, couples, and groups. Workaway (workaway.info) is another highly regarded option.
Coworking spaces are hubs for entrepreneurs, freelancers, digital nomads, small business-people, and anyone else who wants to rent a little chunk of office space with reliable Wi-Fi and bathrooms so they don’t have to camp out in coffee shops anymore. Coworking spaces are great for doing focused work while traveling, but they’re also helpful for meeting like-minded travelers and locals. Most spaces have community social activities that you can discover via online event calendars or email newsletters.
Conferences, gatherings, and festivals. If you have a niche interest — like electronic dance music, ultramarathons, yoga, or Python programming — do a quick search to see if any big events are scheduled in the area where you’re traveling.
AirBnB. If you use AirBnB in your travels, considering staying in a private room in a shared house. Like Couchsurfing, AirBnB tends to attract some of the coolest hosts on the planet, and many of them actively want to hang out with you.
Hostels. Travelers go to hostels because they want to meet other travelers, which makes them one of the least awkward places to strike up a random conversation. Do this by hanging out in the common rooms and kitchen, offering to help cook a group meal, joining a social event set up by the hostel, or just sitting in the lobby reading an interesting-looking book.
Homestays are wonderful because 1) you’re instantly connected to a group of locals, and 2) those locals typically want to introduce you to their friends. Research a potential homestay beforehand to make sure that it includes people around your own age, who share some of your interests, and who will actually hang out with you. (In other words, make sure it’s not an elderly couple who’s just renting a room to make money and won’t talk to you outside of meal time.)
Keeping Old Friendships Alive (Ch. 8)
All nomads come from a more settled life, and they bring with them the close friends they’ve made through work, school, and community. How is it possible to sustain and grow these friendships while continuing to migrate every few months or years?
I’ve dealt with this challenge for a decade — mostly successfully, I believe — and here’s what I’ve observed. Much of it pertains to family relationships, too.
Deep friendships are hard to sustain no matter where you are. I spent a recent summer living in the heart of San Francisco, surrounded by long-time friends and my extended college network — and they were all so busy that I hardly saw them. The plain fact is that as people get older, friendships take a back seat to work and romantic relationships. Lots of people become desperately lonely even when living in the same place with the same friends year-round. And there’s no telling when a good friend might pick up and move across the country. The challenge of sustaining friendships affects everyone today, not just nomads.
When you do live in the same place as your friends — and they’re available — it’s fantastic. Having the privilege to meet your close friends (or family) for spontaneous walks, talks, meals, drinks, and group activities is truly wonderful. Such brief, ongoing, day-to-day interactions lead to deep connections. This is why college, workplaces, and local communities can hold such significance in our lives. When a long-term nomad finds herself in a particularly rich social scene, she should definitely consider sticking around longer to reap the benefits. There’s no shame in shaping your nomadism to make room for high-quality connections.
But quality can matter more than quantity. Nomads might only see certain friends once or twice a year, but when they do, they have the incentive to make these interactions more intense and memorable (think: a big dinner, road trip, or outdoor adventure). In my experience, such rare but high-quality experiences can do just as good a job of maintaining friendships as less intense but more frequent day-to-day interactions. The worst-case scenario, of course, is infrequent and low-quality, unmemorable experiences. That’s what leads to the dissolution of once-strong connections.
You need to be the initiator. Whenever you’re going to be in the same area as your friends, reach out and let them know ahead of time. Suggest a meeting and then follow up a few days before to confirm. You’re the one who’s moving all the time and hard to track, therefore it’s your responsibility to initiate communication and meet-ups with your friends.
If you decide to live somewhere for a while, choose a place that your friends will want to visit. I spent a recent summer living in South Lake Tahoe, California, which is a world-class outdoor destination. Despite the fact that Tahoe is three hours away from San Francisco, I had way more Bay Area friends visit me than I did when I lived in San Francisco itself. (It gave my non-Californian friends a big incentive to visit, too.) Choose the right location and your friends will come to you.
Nomadic Dating and Long-Term Relationships (Ch. 9)
Let’s say that you meet someone you like. This person probably lives in a place with a job and a lease. (God forbid, maybe then even have a pet.) How are you supposed to date them? Even if they miraculously get a few weeks off work to join you on your travels, what comes next?
The challenge of dating as a nomad is indeed difficult, but it’s not fundamentally different from other kinds of dating. We want to meet someone who appreciates our lifestyle, respects the choices we’ve made, and wants to share experiences with us. This takes time, patience, and lots of little experiments.
In this pursuit, nomads enjoy a number of advantages:
If dating is a numbers game, then nomads have an edge. While everyone else is limiting themselves to meeting the fish in their local pond, we nomads are hopping between different ponds, ever-increasing our odds of meeting the right person.
You have a better story to tell. An interesting life story is an extremely attractive thing. Your decision to lead a life of permanent travel can communicate a story of courage, ambition, adventure, and willingness to flout convention. That’s sexy.
You have a better chance of meeting a fellow traveler. If travel and exploration are some of your primary values, then the right person for you will probably hold them too. Many people say they want to live a life of travel but never take real, committed actions toward that end. By actually traveling, you give yourself the best chance to meet others who are living out their values as you are. Your next romance might be sitting in the same long-distance bus, co-working space, or café as you are right now.
You’re less likely to tie yourself up in a relationship of convenience. Perhaps the greatest advantage of nomadism is how antiseptic it is to low-quality relationships that we enter into for the sake of comfort and convenience. It’s not that nomads aren’t susceptible to such casual relationships; it’s that the relationship is doomed to end as soon as the nomad moves on to their next location.
The struggle makes you stronger. There’s a good chance that you simply won’t date much as a nomad, because most other people want someone who is physically present in their same location for 12 months of the year. Look at this way: a life of permanent travel gives you extensive practice in finding peace with being single. And when you lead a life of fulfilled singleness, ironically, you become even more date-able.
Sustaining a long-term relationship may be the most challenging part of living nowhere, and it’s one of the main reasons that many of us quit the lifestyle.
This is understandable. Long-term relationships are one of life’s great experiences. A life of permanent travel without the experience of a deep, meaningful, committed relationship would be a life wasted.
But don’t give up hope quite yet. I’ve witnessed many different approaches to this problem; below I present all of them.
Solutions I Don’t Like and Don’t Think Are Helpful
Do permanent long-distance. If you’re like me, you don’t like doing long-distance in a relationship for any more than a brief span of time, with a clear end date. Even highly independent people want to be around their partner for at least two-thirds of the year. Permanent long-distance, in my observation, leads to loneliness, resentment, and eventually cheating.
Become polyamorous. Dating multiple people in different states, countries, or continents simultaneously might sound sexy, but it also has the potential to spread your attention thin, weaken your primary relationship, and turn all secondary relationships into de facto flings. Ultimately I think the tortoise approach (slow, patient) of giving your total emotional attention to one person at a time is superior to the hare approach (fast, scattered) of giving it to many. I speak only from my plain-vanilla, monogamous, straight male perspective, of course.
It’s impossible, give up. In other words: Bury your feelings, stay single, and only pursue flings and short-term relationships that match your travel schedule. If you’re genuinely on the market for a long-term relationship, then this is just a defeatist path that will ultimately lead to frustration, unhappiness, and depression.
A Solution I Don’t Like but is Probably Valid
Stop living nowhere. Give up your nomadic lifestyle, move to where your partner is, and be with them. If you have the power to choose your location, why not use that power? View this choice as your next big adventure and attempt to continue traveling and keeping feeding your wanderlust in smaller ways.
I don’t like this answer because, by sacrificing a core part of your personality and the lifestyle that inspires you, I imagine that you’ll also become a less happy person and therefore a worse partner. But perhaps not. Perhaps the benefits you’ll get from a rooted relationship will far exceed the benefits of being nomadic, and you’ll become a better person in the balance. As I mentioned, pursuing a great relationship is one of the best reasons to end your nomadism. You can always return to your wandering ways if it doesn’t work out.
Solutions I Like and Strive for Myself
Wait to meet someone who has the means and desire to travel full-time with you. Focus your search on the elusive Great White Buffalo: a partner just as nomadic as you, who possesses a complementary amount of location flexibility and work flexibility, and who happens to want to spend time in the places that you want to spend time in, too. Yes, we are shooting for the moon here, and yes, there’s a good chance this person doesn’t exist. It doesn’t stop a romantic idealist like myself from trying.
Wait to meet someone you admire, and who admires you, enough that you’ll happily modify your plans for each other. This, I believe, is the best long-term relationship goal a nomad can aim for. Date widely and wait to meet that person whose life fascinates you and makes you a little bit jealous. Someone who you think is really cool and you’d love to hang out with even if these pesky romantic feelings weren’t involved.
If the connection feels genuine, and your partner feels the same way about you, then go for it! Dive in and design a life together. Be excited to adapt to each other’s lifestyles and borrow the best parts from each. If your partner loves ski patrolling or summers in New York, find a way to make your life work in those places. Be clear, honest, and up-front with your partner about your lifestyle wants and needs; you’ll only make successful compromises if you both lay your cards on the table. Don’t hide or change your priorities in the pursuit of being loved.
If your partner is heavily rooted in one place — with a job, home, or community that they simply will not leave for any meaningful amount of time — then the chance of equal compromise falls precipitously, and you’ll land back in “stop living nowhere” zone. Unfortunately, I believe that it seldom works out between hardcore nomads and heavily rooted folks. That’s why I, for one, will wait for a partner who is at least a little bit nomadic.
Afterword: Settling Down
Some nomads continue their migrating forever: pairing with another nomad, raising a family on the road, changing home-bases every few months. But many other nomads choose to settle down, whether for a relationship, work opportunity, to raise a family, or to better know a single place (i.e., to become geographically monogamous).
This is natural evolution, and nothing to be ashamed of. But a word of advice: if you do decide to settle, commit to it. Don’t lead a double life as a happy homemaker and a restless traveler. Indulge your nomadic impulses as deeply as you can for as long as you can. Exploit every chance, freedom, and privilege granted to you. Only then, after a long and satisfying ride, when opportunity or circumstance require that you narrow your definition of “home” to a single place, will you do so happily.
Living nowhere helps you see the world as a place filled with possibility, adventure, and new friends around every corner. If we take this attitude with you, you will remain a nomad no matter where you end up.
Appendix: What 10 Years of Nomadism Looks Like
The following entries are from a Google Spreadsheet I keep called “Life by Season.”
I find that three-month seasons are the easiest way for me to remember where I was and what I was doing. I’ve abbreviated the names of my friends and exes (who serve as excellent memory anchors).
The spreadsheet begins at the end of college — I graduated in December of 2004 — and goes through the writing of this book.
Thanks for reading.