Live, work, travel, enjoy gorgeous nature sceneries, try mountain hiking or sunning on a beach while sampling exotic cuisine. This could be the motto of modern American nomads. Living full-time in a motor home or camping trailer is the preferred way of life for many modern Americans, myself included. I am in the process of moving into a motor home, and I plan to live "on board" for at least six months a year, possibly longer. Many "full timers" live in a motor home or camping trailer 365 days a year.
NOTE: Those in the U.K. and several other countries refer to recreational vehicles as "caravans" and to those who live in them as "caravaners." Whatever the terminology, today we all have options that were unavailable to our ancestors.
In today's high-tech world, many workers may continue to hold regular jobs that do not require a physical presence. Writers, photographers, graphic and web designers, software developers, copywriters, translators, consultants, and many others can continue to work as they always have. In many cases, all the nomadic worker needs is a cell phone, a laptop computer, and an occasional Internet connection. When physical goods must be exchanged, a FedEx truck does the job. In some cases, full-time professionals continue to earn salaries that equal what they commanded when they had to appear daily at an office.
In an interview on the BBC in 1964, inventor, futurist, and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted telecommuting, telemedicine, and mobile phones – long before any of these existed. Today, we enjoy Clarke's predictions without thinking about how much the world has changed in recent years. Today's nomadic American employs many advances that were almost undreamed of only a few years ago.
NOTE: You can watch Arthur C. Clarke's fascinating 1964 BBC interview Part #1 on YouTube at http://youtu.be/KT_8-pjuctM and Part #2 at http://youtu.be/XosYXxwFPkg
Is the life of a nomad suitable for you? Indeed, you must be prepared mentally for many new challenges. You must first evaluate the present state of your life and start removing any remaining obstacles.
Perhaps the most important factor is the attitude of your spouse or partner, if you have one. Is he or she willing to join you in this adventure? Or perhaps willing to stay at home while you travel alone? An uncooperative partner probably will become an insurmountable problem to any change in lifestyle.
Children present an even bigger challenge for many people. Families with school-age children will need to work around scheduling of the school year and the children's activities. However, spending the summer in a recreational vehicle can teach geography and history in a much better manner than any classroom lessons ever will.
Once you resolve these issues, you must conduct extensive planning. Financial planning is perhaps the most important. If you are already overwhelmed with credit card debt, a change to a gypsy-like lifestyle is probably not a good idea. However, if you have a bit of a nest egg as a financial cushion, you have earned a lot of flexibility in your personal life. In the case of recreational vehicles, you will need to determine how much you can afford per day for campground fees, restaurant meals (if any), gasoline, admission fees to points of interest, and other expenses. Advance planning can prevent later disappointments. Of course, any plan can be modified as you gain experience, assuming you had a plan to begin with.
You also need to mentally prepare for almost any possibility. What if you become sick? What if there is an accident? Health and travel insurance covering your damage liability is indispensable. Perhaps nothing is worse than becoming sick in a strange city except perhaps becoming sick in a strange rural area with the nearest city (and major medical center) some distance away. You need to be prepared for ambulance fees, hospital stays, and any other major financial impact.
Indeed, there are numerous "what ifs" to be considered by the prudent nomad. What if your relatives need to contact you in a hurry while you are traveling? Should you sell your present home, if you own one? What if you change your mind and later decide to settle down in one location? Do you have an exit plan? Probably none of these scenarios are insurmountable; but, as the Girl and Boy Scouts’ motto has taught us, you always need to "Be Prepared."
The fact that you are reading this online newsletter provides evidence that you will not be just any nomad – you will be a digital nomad! As such, you certainly will need a good laptop computer for communications with the outside world. Also keep in mind that travel is tough on computing equipment with the jostling and perhaps even occasional dropping of a laptop computer. Even rain or a burst water pipe can render an expensive computer worthless. You always need to be prepared for equipment failure.
I doubt if you will need TWO laptops, one as a primary machine and a second as a backup. Indeed, your "backup" computer could be the one that you haven't yet purchased. Prices on laptops keep dropping, so the concept of purchasing a second system in advance of the need seems financially foolhardy. It is cheaper to wait until the moment you need it, then to stop at a "big box" store (Best Buy, Costco, Walmart, the Apple Store, etc.) to purchase the second system at today's lower prices only after the first one is dead. Most retailers, including Apple, also can supply a new system to almost any remote location in the U.S. via overnight air freight. In many cases, it will be faster and easier to order a new computer remotely with delivery by FedEx than to drive to a strange city and try to purchase one there.
Of course, using Best Buy or Costco or Apple as your supplier of backup computers means that you must always have a method of transferring your important data from your now-dead system to the newly-purchased computer. That could be difficult if the first computer is physically damaged. I have even heard of people accidentally backing up a motor home over a laptop computer!
Frequent backups are critical, including both local backups to an external hard drive or to flash drives as well as online backups to "the cloud" that are accessible from any location with an Internet connection. You need to be able to recover your important data quickly and easily to a newly-purchased system on short notice.
You also will want to secure at least your most important information, if not the entire hard drive of your laptop, in case the system falls into someone else's hands. If you do not yet have such a product, take a look at TrueCrypt at http://www.truecrypt.org/. TrueCrypt can encrypt an entire partition or storage device, such as USB flash drive or hard drive or only a partition. Encryption is automatic, real-time (on-the-fly), and transparent. TrueCrypt is available free of charge for Windows 7/Vista/XP/2000, Macintosh OS X, and most versions of Linux. Once your data is encrypted, no one else can view it without knowing the required encryption key (similar to a password).
Connection to the Internet is important for a digital nomad. Wi-fi connections are now available at most commercial campgrounds, as well as at some state and national parks, although extra fees are sometimes charged for the wi-fi connectivity. For many of us, having an Internet connection can spell the difference between an enjoyable stay and a disaster. However, many of the campgrounds have wi-fi available at the main building or store, but when you move to a more distant campsite, signal strength drops off quickly. Even though the campground advertises that wi-fi is available, always be prepared for the possibility that it will not be available at your campsite. For casual checking of email in good weather, it is easy to grab the laptop, walk to the central building, and log on for a few minutes. However, if you are a web designer who needs to be logged on to your client's site for hours at a time, the lack of signal at your campsite can be a major problem.
Another solution is to obtain a 3G or 4G wireless modem from one of the cell phone companies. These compact devices will supply Internet connections within a few miles of each company's nearest cell phone tower. However, there are two caveats: (1.) many campgrounds are in rural areas that are too far from the nearest cell tower to work reliably, and (2.) these devices are expensive to use. Most of the cell phone companies provide data plans with a maximum "cap" of one to perhaps five gigabytes per month. If you exceed that data allowance, the extra fees mount up quickly. Admittedly, five gigabytes is a lot of data if you don't download movies, videos, or large graphics.
Another factor is the coverage supplied by each company. In some areas of the country, one company may provide better coverage than another. However, if you pack up and move to a different location, the coverage areas may be reversed. I do not know of any single company that supplies reliable 3G or 4G data coverage everywhere in the U.S.
After experimenting with several brands of 3G and 4G wireless cell modems, I have had the best luck by enabling "tethering" on an Apple iPhone. "Tethering" is the use of a cell phone as a wireless modem. Not all cell phones support tethering, and not all cell phone companies allow it, even on phones with the capability. Check with your cell phone company for details before making a purchase.
NOTE: In the U.S., AT&T and Verizon both allow tethering on an Apple iPhone 4 or 4S – but for a fee of an additional $20 a month. Data caps also apply on both. Long-term AT&T customers are "grandfathered" in with cheaper rates than what AT&T offers to new customers. Again, check with AT&T for details.
For most U.S. customers, “tethering” a cell phone will be a cheaper solution than purchasing a separate 3G or 4G wireless modem and paying an additional $40 to $60 a month for data service. This will probably be true even if you have to purchase a new cell phone or switch cellular providers. However, details may vary widely from one cellular provider to another.
Any nearby computer can connect to the cell phone/modem via wi-fi wireless connections if the appropriate user names and passwords are used. The iPhone also offers (optional) connections via Bluetooth or via a USB cable. Other brands of cell phones may do the same.
When tethering a cell phone, I'd suggest purchasing extra charger cords that plug into a vehicle's power socket as well as another charger that works from commercial power. Using a cell phone as a wireless modem can deplete the battery quickly, but leaving it plugged into a power source avoids this problem.
Cell phones have become indispensable to travelers. You won't want to leave home without a reliable cell phone, preferably one of today's "smartphones." However, with even the cheapest calling plan, frequent use of cell phones can be expensive. You will probably want to supplement the cell phone with Skype or some other VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service that will work when you are in range of a wi-fi Internet connection. Skype has an option allowing the user to call normal telephones and also to receive calls from normal telephones at prices that are a fraction those of the cell phone companies. You probably will want to use that option whenever possible. Details are available at http://www.skype.com.
NOTE: Most “smartphones” can (optionally) install Skype's free software. You can use the normal cell phone when outside the reach of wi-fi networks, then switch to Skype when wi-fi connectivity is available. You can do this without switching handheld devices!
Another great service is provided by Google Voice. Google will provide a free, brand-new telephone number in the area code of your choice. You give this number to friends, business associates, and relatives. When anyone calls that number, Google Voice will SIMULTANEOUSLY ring all the telephones you specify: your cell phone, the phone back home, your spouse's cell phone, the phone on your desk at the office, or any other phone numbers of your choice, up to five numbers. All phones will ring at once, and you can answer on any of them. Your caller does not need to know where you are or which of several phone numbers to call. One phone number always reaches you, regardless of your location or the phone(s) you are using.
One advantage of Google Voice occurs when using that number for business purposes. Since the area code can be almost any of your choosing, your customers do not need to know that you are on the beach in Galveston or enjoying the fall foliage in Vermont. The single number gives the appearance that you are at work at “the office.” Your customers always dial the single number you selected, and you always answer in the normal manner. The customers will never know where you are unless you tell them.
NOTE: I have read of entrepreneurs who run mail order businesses from a Winnebago, using a web page and a telephone answering service to take orders and a distant fulfillment service to pack and ship the goods. Customer service is provided by the entrepreneur, using any telephone available at the time.
Another example is described in the best-selling book, The 4-Hour Workweek. Author Timothy Ferriss ran a very profitable mail order business while traveling worldwide. He didn't live in a recreational vehicle. Instead, he lived in hotels and on airplanes, flying from country to country all over the world. He had no employees but contracted the work out to different companies to perform the different functions. Despite the book's title, Ferriss does admit that the business required more than four hours a week for the first several months. However, once the business was established and running smoothly, his workload for that mailorder business decreased to about four hours a week. He then launched additional businesses.
Several of Arthur C. Clarke's predictions have already come true: time and distance are no longer obstacles for many of us. Retirees and many working folks alike can live wherever they wish, even pulling up stakes and moving daily or weekly or monthly as they prefer. Earning a living while traveling is now a realistic possibility, as proven by thousands of mobile Americans.
Centuries ago, the human race led a nomadic lifestyle. Many of us have since returned to those roots, traveling wherever and whenever we please. It is not the perfect choice for everyone. I suspect that only a minority of people will want to live "on the road." However, if you are a member of that minority, you now have options that did not exist even a few years ago.
Have you ever lived as a digital nomad, even for a short while?
If not – how do you like the idea?
If you’re an experienced digital nomad – any tips for the rest of us?
Please enter your comments below.