A woman stands on top of her van at sunset.

What to know about becoming a nomad from women who’ve done it

For Women’s History Month, we wanted to talk to women travelers who have taken on new and exciting travel challenges. And as this past year has sparked a renewed interest in finding alternative ways to experience the world, we linked up with women who’ve swapped their daily grind for a life on the road.

 

Nomadic living has been having a moment. Search the hashtag #vanlife on Instagram and see countless insta-ready shots of color-coordinated interiors with Pinterest-worthy hacks for space-saving and minimalist living. But while van-dwelling has a ton of perks, it’s not just a carefully curated aesthetic – it’s a way of life.

The recent film “Nomadland” gives a moving view of the reality of modern-day vanlife from the perspective of a woman who becomes a nomad out of necessity. The film also casts real-life van-dwellers in supporting roles. And as the movie shows, it’s not necessarily a glamorous lifestyle, but it provides an unmatched opportunity for freedom and exploration.

Curious about what it takes to live a nomadic life? We asked women living life on the road to share the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Everyone’s path to vanlife is different.

There is a reality to vanlife that we need to acknowledge: the women we feature here have made a conscious choice to live a nomadic life. We realize for other nomads, that is not always the case.

But while the women who shared their experiences with us all chose this lifestyle, they arrived at this choice in different ways. Some from a personal upheaval, others out of financial concern and some from the desire for new challenges and experiences. For many who choose this lifestyle, it begins with the need to make a change.

Morgan left her digital marketing job in 2018 for a nomadic life. She was 33 years old at the time and just didn’t feel excited about her future. “I had run out of milestones and required a new goal—something unexpected to get me out of this rut and create some unique challenges.” That’s when she stumbled upon a blog about life on the road. Now she helps to inspire others with her blog The Home that Roams.

Hilary, who blogs about van life on a budget and has been a full-time van dweller since May 2020, felt similarly: “My life was comfortable, easy, repetitive. I had great friends, hobbies and a good job, but I found myself thinking, ‘is this…it?’”

Lisa was a lawyer with a corporate job, but losing her mom to cancer prompted her to embrace the moment. “Her loss sent shockwaves through my universe and made me realize that life is so short and all we have is this moment.” So she quit her job, bought a van and began living and working remotely in 2018. Now she shares her experiences on Instagram and on her blog Vacay Vans.

Jenny, who shares her full story here and blogs about her travels at Adventures from the Van, had originally planned to enter vanlife with her partner. But when the relationship ended she had a decision to make. “We had created this dream together, so the thought had never crossed my mind to do it alone.” Fast forward and she now lives full-time in her van with her dog, Dakota.

And, oftentimes, finding a cheaper way to live in the face of rising city rents is the catalyst for women who make the move.

Brittany, an Air Force vet who shares inspo and tips for vanlife on her YouTube channel and Instagram, was first introduced to the concept of vanlife on the search for affordable housing. “I became mildly obsessed with it. Within a few weeks of research, I decided this was the lifestyle for me; I took the leap, and the rest is HERstory.”

Kristin, Owner, The Wayward Home, has lived a nomadic life since 2016. While she’s currently sharing her story from a sailboat in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, her foray into nomading came from necessity after being laid-off from her job as a news reporter in San Francisco. “It was really hard at first, but I refused to go into debt just to pay rent.”

That said, it’s not necessarily cheap – but it can be.

While many nomads turn to the lifestyle as a way to live cheaply, vanlife isn’t necessarily synonymous with budget friendly if you don’t make the conscious effort to live frugally.

“I know plenty of other vanlifers, myself included, who still manage to spend upwards of $2000 a month on basic living expenses,” Jenny shares. “There are ways to live off less than that and ways to spend a lot more, but vanlife is far from free.”

However, if you have a budget and stick to it, you can certainly live cheaply. According to Hilary, “you don’t have to pour your life savings into trying this.” She bought her van for $6,000 because she didn’t want to invest too much before she was sure she’d like it.
Create a budget and stick to it. And, if it’s possible, have some savings set aside for unexpected expenses like unplanned van repairs.

How you start will depend on your skillset.

 

While the elaborate builds you see scrolling through the #vanlife hashtag are pretty, building a van is not an easy task. According to Lisa, “don’t expect to be able to build out your van home if you’ve never worked in construction.” Lisa built her van with a partner, but both had years of experience. And she emphasizes that it was still no easy feat.

If you do plan to build your own van, plan accordingly. Brittany, who converted a small school bus, suggests being thoughtful about timing and making a plan. “With a realistic timeline, you will be able to enjoy the building process, and alleviate stress, impulsive decisions and avoidable errors.”

Luckily, there’s no shortage of resources online for building and maintaining your van. Do some research, put time into learning necessary skills and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And, if all else fails, beginners may be better off buying an already-renovated van that can be adjusted as needed. But it’s still important to learn the basic skills needed for on-the-go maintenance).

Traveling light is hard – but worth it!

According to Kristin, “Getting rid of your stuff can be one of the hardest parts of becoming a nomad, [but] I’ve noticed that as soon as I get rid of something, I don’t remember I ever had it in the first place.” She suggests storing special keepsakes with a friend or family member, or renting a small storage unit.

Morgan agrees that downsizing your belongings is key. Her advice? Once you start seriously considering vanlife, create lists of what to keep, sell, store and giveaway. Another way to save space? Digitize paper, books and other entertainment. This is a huge space saver, while not sacrificing the entertainment you’ll likely want on the road.
Selling your larger or unnecessary items before you set off can also earn you a little money to set aside for that emergency fund.
Your fears are likely worse than the reality.

Once you’ve decided that you want to give vanlife a try, parts of your brain will likely try to talk you out of it. It’s a big move, after all, and one that comes with a lot of unknowns. “It’s safe to assume that your fears about vanlife are going to be much, much worse than what your reality would be,” Hilary shares. “I remember thinking I’d be scared of sleeping alone on public lands and worrying about loneliness. I started sleeping in hotel parking lots a lot, but now, I prefer public lands.”

Assess your fears and come up with compromises. Take baby steps and be gentle with yourself – getting started will likely be the hardest part.

As Lisa shares, “you don’t know what to expect and so your mind can wander all over the place.” Her solution is to remind yourself that you’re always in control. If you’re lonely, you can park in a friend’s driveway. She reminds, “Worrying is energy spent on ideas that do not exist.”

Small decisions become big decisions on the road.

Life as a nomad comes with a whole new set of challenges that you might not think about before you set off. And oftentimes it’s the little things that you’ll spend the most time stressing over. Whoever said ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ obviously never lived vanlife.

“Every decision you take for granted in a home now becomes a daily micro-decision,” according to Hilary. “Do I have enough food? Do I have propane for using my camp stove?”

Brittany agrees and emphasizes how these challenges might be different each day. “One day, your biggest challenge might be finding clean drinking water or finding a safe place to sleep at night.”

Have a plan in place to tackle these tasks, but be prepared to deviate from it. For Morgan learning to be flexible was key. “In this lifestyle, plans are never set in stone. Things change, and you need to have the right mindset to deal with problems as they arise.”

Just because you’re solo doesn’t mean you’re alone.

While life as a nomad can be lonely, it’s not hard to find connection if you want it. Especially in the age of social media. While Kristin admits that living in a van can be isolating, there are easy ways to meet like-minded people. Kristin suggests Facebook groups for van-dwelling women or joining the Escapees, an RV Club that offers support to nomads and hosts meetup events.

Morgan is also a supporter of the communities you can find on Facebook. “People in these groups will keep you motivated, can answer your questions and show you a lot about the day-to-day of the lifestyle.”

This sense of community is important to Hilary. “Even though we’re all different, there’s an underlying similarity in that we all appreciate the freedom to live our lives to the fullest,” she shares. “That’s a really empowering feeling.”

Staying on campgrounds or attending vanlife gatherings can also be great ways to meet people in the community. Kristin recommends downloading the iOverlander app to find boondocking and off-grid places to stay. The app features reviews from other van lifers along with pictures.

There are a few ways to make a living.

While the women featured in this article are working remotely, there’s more than one way to make a living as a nomad. Seasonal work is also an option and will allow you to see a new place every few months.
But for those hoping to do the digital nomad thing, Lisa suggests finding and starting remote work a couple of months before hitting the road. “Remote work is amazing, but it’s a transition you need to get used to before adding the extra elements of constant travel and the endless search for cell service or WiFi.”

If you’re considering becoming a digital nomad, here are our tips.

It can be as rewarding as you imagine.

For all its challenges, vanlife comes with many rewards. And sometimes the challenge and rewards are the same. For Hilary, “the hardest part is also the most rewarding – all of the unknowns.”

“I love everything about this unpredictable lifestyle,” Brittany shares. “The freedom it provides, and the mild chaos it brings, BUT I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Morgan acknowledges that it sounds cliche when she says, “the most rewarding part of this nomadic journey is the experiences. When you take yourself out of your comfort zone, it opens up opportunities to do things you might never do otherwise.”
The most rewarding part for Lisa is the freedom. “I can stop and go whenever and wherever I please,” she shares. “If I feel like staying somewhere longer, I have the freedom to make that decision in the moment.”

There’s no right time.

If you’re considering vanlife or another nomadic lifestyle, don’t wait, start planning. There’s always going to be a reason not to do something. And if this is a choice you’re making, you can always change your mind. Hilary mulled the decision over for nearly two years before making the move. Her advice: “Don’t wait for the right time because there is no such thing as one.”

While getting started won’t be easy, there will be moments when it’s all worth it. According to Brittany, “There is no better feeling of being at one of your favorite campsites, standing inside of something you created with your own hands. Having this sense of pride, like ‘GIRL, YOU DID ALLLL OF THIS!!’ That’s the best feeling in the world!”

A few ways to get started now.

  • Follow the #VanLife hashtag on Instagram, but remember that the day-to-day life will be grittier than the picture-perfect aesthetic on the ‘gram.
  • Join a Facebook group now to learn more and get inspiration, encouragement and tips from like-minded women in the community.
  • Rent a van or RV and take the lifestyle for a test drive. Start by parking it in your own driveway, or the driveway of a loved one, if you’re nervous.
  • Read Jenny’s story and learn more about how she went from her life as a teacher to life on the road as a solo female van-dweller.
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