Weird fact: The cubicle was invented in the 1960s, and even the fella who designed them came to lament them. We were never meant to work fenced in by walls.
And many of us don’t like being hemmed in by hours, cities, or even countries or continents, for that matter.
A research review showed that in the United States alone, about 7.3 million people identify as digital nomads. And about 16.1 million more aspire to be nomadic someday. So, the digital nomad lifestyle is definitely taking off.
But what is a digital nomad, exactly? A person is not nomadic just because they are self-employed or have the ability to work remotely from the comfort of their couch. Many of us are doing that already as a result of the pandemic. Instead, a digital nomad also has lifestyle mobility and actively engages in moving from one place to the next.
At Greatist, we asked to hear from a variety of digital nomads to find out how they became nomadic, what spurred their wanderlust, how they make a living, and what it’s like not being attached to a home base and a bunch of material possessions.
So, here are seven takes on the digital nomad life, along with a few reality checks.
Todra Payne: Slow travel coach, travel writer, luxury home sitter
“I’m an African American, middle-aged digital nomad,” says Todra Payne. “I’ve enjoyed it more than anything I’ve ever done.”
Before becoming a digital nomad, Payne was doing the acting hustle in Los Angeles. Although she describes her former apartment there as “lovely,” she says it was also teeny and expensive.
“When Trump became president,” Payne says, “I was exhausted with America. I needed a time-out — maybe permanently. I wasn’t sure when I left if I’d ever go back.”
She and her partner sold all their things and bought a one-way ticket to Sweden. “That was 15 countries ago,” Payne says. “The pandemic slowed our adventures, so we’re currently sheltering in place in an apartment on the beach in beautiful Budva, Montenegro.”
Before going overseas, Payne and her partner did what she calls a trial run of nomadic life. They embarked on an open-ended road trip from L.A. to Vancouver, British Columbia. “We ended up staying on the road for 3 months,” Payne says, “and it was glorious. By the time we returned to our apartment in L.A., we didn’t fit in that lifestyle anymore.”
Payne, a travel writer, describes her nomad style as “slow travel,” and she even coaches others on how to do it. “We’re not hopping from place-to-place to get social media pics,” she says. “We often stay about 3 months in a location.”
Before the pandemic, Payne and her partner operated as luxury home sitters. “We lived well for nearly no money, ” she says. “We had an amazing house, a car on loan, sometimes gifts like theater tickets or wine tours provided by the host family. Sometimes, they covered airfare as well. That meant a better quality of life than we had in the United States,” she adds.
Right now the couple is renting a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on the beach in Montenegro for $650 a month while they ride out the pandemic.
“I think people romanticize this lifestyle,” Payne says, “but it takes being comfortable with uncertainty to actually embrace it.”
Hilary Bird: Solo van-lifer, freelance marketer
After nearly 7 years in the corporate marketing world, Hilary Bird started having anxiety attacks. She quit her job, and temporarily moved back in with her parents. She and her dad spent the next 5 months building out a 1999 Ford E250 cargo van, which she uses to travel the country and live in full-time.
“Sometimes I think it’s funny that sleeping in the middle of nowhere by myself has actually stopped the panic attacks,” Bird says. “I typically save my remote work for the nighttime hours when it’s dark. Having this level of control over my day-to-day has removed a level of stress I never even knew was there.”
She says her van build was unplanned because she actually bought a built-out vehicle. But when she brought the van home to her parents’ house, Dad wasn’t having it. He found numerous safety concerns. “It was a miracle the van hadn’t gone up in flames yet,” Bird recalls.
So, she gutted it one morning, and they got to work. “Both of us were working 24/7 on the van,” she says. “And it was an incredible bonding experience. There were tears, incredible moments of success, hugs, lots of laughter, lectures, disagreements, and many random bursts of dancing.”
While becoming a van-lifer, Bird made the leap from the corporate world to freelance. “All my jobs come from previous connections,” she says. “And, it’s amazing to be so transparent about my schedule with them. I leverage my marketing skills to build out my brand and website focused on small van life.” She’s even got a podcast.
Although Bird says she loves traveling solo (with Ernie as cat co-pilot), she says too much alone time can have its drawbacks. “When I first hit the road,” she explains, “it was easy to get lost in my head after about a solid week of being solo. Solo time is great for being reflective, but there’s such a thing as being too reflective!”
When she gets in her head too much, she jumps on Instagram to find other van dwellers for meetups. “There’s something warm and welcoming about the van-life community,” she says.
The digital nomad trend will ebb and flow, Bird predicts, with van life having a big appeal and becoming easier to execute. “It took me 2 years to overcome safety, loneliness, and financial stability fears before committing,” she says. “That being said, there are more and more van-build companies popping up, so the easier it is for people to try van life, the more popular it will become.”
Mikah Meyer: Promoting LGBTQ+ safe spaces and equity in the outdoors
For 3 years after the loss of his father, Mikah Meyer traveled the United States in a van, visiting all the 400-plus National Park service sites. And during that time, something became clear.
“I heard from thousands of LGBTQ+ people who shared that they often don’t feel welcome in the great outdoors as their authentic selves,” Meyer says. “It was straight people looking at them in funny ways, making homophobic comments, or the heteronormative norm that is expected when you’re miles from the nearest gayborhood.”
Meyer understood the feeling on a personal level, as well. “If I hold another man’s hand on a hiking trail,” he explains, “I get side-eyes, whispers, and people telling me not to ‘rub my lifestyle in their faces.’”
These are all prime reasons why Meyer created the Outside Safe Space program. He made a symbol that allies can wear in rural and outdoor spaces to change the anti-gay narrative, and he started a hashtag (#AdventurePride) everyone can use to show their support digitally. The symbol and hashtag are also meant to promote racial equity in the outdoors.
“As a cisgender gay white man,” Meyer says, “I benefit from a lot of privilege. I’m only one step removed from the apex of American societal privilege: straight white men. I can’t claim to advocate for LGBTQ+ people if I don’t specifically include racial equity in that work. LGBTQ+ people come from every part of the world, every race, and every background. And in the United States, historically marginalized LGBTQ+ groups face an extra level of discrimination.”
Part of Meyer’s efforts as a digital nomad have involved taking outdoor brands to task for their lack of inclusive advertising. “For years, I’ve tried to share with outdoor brands the benefits of LGBTQ+ marketing, and kept hearing, ‘It’s too risky. We’d offend too many people,’” he says, “When the biggest brands can’t even tap into one of the most lucrative demographics — DINKs (double-income no kids) — you know it’s because they’re afraid their base of people will be turned off.”
Now Meyer has brands like Eddie Bauer, Brooks Running, and Schwinn backing him for his nomadic adventures planned for 2021. Whitewater rafting, anyone?
Alexia Taylor: Marketing consultant for sustainable brands
In February 2020, Alexia Taylor needed a break from freelancing for big corporations and fashion brands. She left her home base in London to go on a 6-week surfing trip in Sri Lanka. Then the pandemic hit, and she was suddenly “stuck” on vacation.
“I’m an avid surfer, snowboarder, and I enjoy being active overall,” Taylor says. “Naturally, I’m also a big fan of sustainability. I often read reports on the subject and research ethical brands. But earlier, I never gave much thought to combining these elements into work. In my mind, these things and work lived in separate worlds.”
Unable to land her usual type of freelance work back in London while still in Sri Lanka, Taylor pivoted to finding clients who prioritized sustainability and who needed help building their affiliate programs and setting up partnerships. “I love the freedom and the satisfaction of working for brands I truly believe in and [with whom] I share values and a vision,” she says.
Taylor has no plans to return to her old life in London, and she looks forward to when travel restrictions are lifted so she can head to more surfing locations or go to the mountains. But she acknowledges that her new lifestyle of being her own boss isn’t always peachy keen. It has it’s challenges.
“Some days are tough.” she says. “Pitching to new brands and not getting them, putting proposals together and not hearing back, or even losing a client you really like is all part of this digital nomad life. But I wouldn’t change it. Most days are great: I get to surf in the morning and work in the afternoons. I get to choose which brands I want to work with. What a privilege! And, I’m slowly building something that’s mine and that I’m proud of every day.”
Sara Teghini: Advertising and communications for a sailboat charter
In addition to freelancing for consulting companies in Italy, Sara Teghini handles the advertising and communications onboard the sailboat charter her partner captains and owns. The pair charter the boat for cruises in the Mediterranean in the summer and the Caribbean in winter, and Teghini manages reservations, blogging, and social media along the way.
“I have a 60-liter duffle bag for a full year of traveling and living,” she says, “plus a backpack with my office and space for 20 to 30 books on the boat’s shelf. You get used to it and really learn to let go of things.” Sometimes the thing she has to let go of is internet connectivity, which can be a challenge when working as a digital nomad.
But the simplicity of living at sea, is what draws Teghini to the lifestyle she’s been enjoying for 6 years now. “No shoes, no nonsense, no malice,” she says. “There is a deep and honest solidarity among sea people: We always help each other out since we all know very well that what goes around, comes around. You go back to essential needs and don’t need to take care of much more. As long as the boat is safe, you are well.”
But that simplicity should not be mistaken for easy. “Although we are used to very glamorous pictures, the sea is a fundamentally hostile element for us humans. You have to be always on some kind of alert, do a lot of maintenance, and most of the time, you have to rely on your capabilities: There’s no electrician or mechanic to call in the middle of the ocean if something doesn’t work,” Teghini says.
Denise Macuk: Chef and food blogger
In 2018, Chef Denise Macuk and her husband had been evacuated from their Southern California home because of the Woolsey Fire. They’d just learned that the wine tasting room on the corner of their street, along with the two homes next to the establishment, had burned down.
“We had no reason to expect the next two homes would still be standing, our home being the second in line,” Macuk says. “We prepared ourselves for devastating loss.” From their hotel room, they calmly decided to become digital nomads.
The fire somehow spared their house, but over their month-long evacuation while living at a friend’s home, Macuk says, they were amazed at how little of their material things they actually needed. So, throughout 2019, they dealt with insurance matters and sold their 14-year-old meal-service business and their home.
“We had a lot of stuff,” Macuk says. “We had a 3,600-square-foot house for two people: Four bedrooms with full closets, four bathrooms, and a three-car garage that could only fit one car. Many people in our area lost homes, so we emptied the house quickly, and we felt good about giving our stuff away.” They stashed sentimental items in storage and then temporarily moved in with her parents during the pandemic.
Right away, Macuk got to work on what she always wanted to do: create a food blog. She secured sponsorships and opportunities for recipe development with brands as she prepared to kick off a big journey.
Now, Macuk and her husband are driving across the United States in their Honda CRV, staying with friends, in a few hotels, and occasionally in their tent, along the way. In May, they have flights booked out of Washington, D.C.
“The loose plan is to start in Paris and visit as much of Europe as we can in a year,” Macuk says. “I’ll blog about my culinary experiences, including the food culture, regional must-try dishes, restaurants, agritourism, street food, food markets, food tours, and anything that a foodie or food lover would want to know when traveling to these places.”
Rae and Jason Miller: RV experts
Rae and Jason Miller, along with their dog Carmen, have been traveling the United States for almost 4 years now in their RV, a Grand Design Solitude. But life wasn’t always as carefree as an open road stretching before them.
“Without knowing how we got there,” Rae says, “we found ourselves caught in the game of keeping up with the Joneses, working 50- to 60-hour weeks, barely seeing each other, and trying to soak in every minute to ourselves each weekend before the Sunday dread sank in. We found ourselves exhausted and at a crossroad.”
The Millers’ plan was to take a year off of work and travel overseas. But then they decided Jason could still work remotely in his industry if they remained stateside. So, a fresh idea blossomed. “Once we researched this topic more, many things appealed to us about being digital nomads in an RV. At the top of our list was visiting as many cities and towns as we wanted to,” Rae says.
First, came the big purge of stuff from the home they were renting. “We slowly got rid of things in 6 months,” Rae says. “And now, we have a rule for the RV that follows one in, one out, meaning every time we buy something new, something else has to go.” Then they canceled their lease, and the Getaway Couple officially got away and launched their brand.
Along with their travel blog and YouTube channel, they also co-launched (with fellow digital nomaders) an RV digital strategy agency and an RV Masterclass to help others enjoy life on the road. July 2021 will mark their 4-year “nomadiversary.” And they hope to inspire others to take the plunge. “Why work in an office when you can work from a National Park or a different city each week?” Rae says.