Full-Time Wanderer: My 3-Year Experiment as a Digital Nomad

As a full-time software engineer at Kapwing and full-time wanderer, I've learned a few things about how to be a digital nomad.

Full-Time Wanderer: My 3-Year Experiment as a Digital Nomad

A few years ago, I got a knock on my door in the middle of the workday. It was Bill, one of the guys who worked on the ranch. “A cow we didn’t know was pregnant just gave birth,” he told me. “We’re naming it after you.”

Now, that might be a typical day in the life of a rancher. But I’m not a rancher.

I’m a full-time software engineer. I’m also a digital nomad and have been since 2020.

Why I became a digital nomad

Working at Kapwing, which has a flexible remote work policy, I’m able to work from anywhere—so I do.

The way I see it, there’s so much natural beauty in the world and only so much time. Without being anchored to any one location, I can get out into nature more often, see the mountains and beautiful views, and do it without taking a ton of PTO. If I’m going to spend the workweek, well, working, I might as well do it somewhere pretty.

That said, the logistics of digital nomadism can be challenging.

Not just in terms of figuring out your set up and routine. But relationships become harder, too. When people in my life have big life events that I want to show up for, I’m often not near an airport and have to figure out how to get back to whichever part of the country they’re in. Wedding season in particular is difficult (IYKYK).

Truthfully, becoming a digital nomad required a lot of trial and error on my part. Along the way, I'd say I tried out three different “styles” of nomadic lifestyle:

  1. The Airbnb Nomad
  2. The Vanlife
  3. The Full-time Wanderer

There are stark differences and pros and cons to each. So I’ll break down each approach, how things went for me, and share some lessons I’ve gathered over the last three and a half years.

Option #1: Become an Airbnb Nomad 🏠

This is how I got started.

I was living in Philadelphia in early 2020, working remotely in the music industry. A few months after the onset of COVID, I decided to ditch my lease and hit the road. I started by booking 4-week stays, the minimum length required to get the 30% monthly discount, at different Airbnb properties, traveling on the weekends and working during the week.

Eventually, I bought a Tesla Model Y to save on lodging costs during longer trips between locations. The Model Y has plenty of space for sleeping and can be outfitted with a custom-fit mattress pad, so it’s actually quite comfortable.

There’s enough space in the Model Y to haul a mattress and my desk setup.

Why I like the Airbnb Nomad lifestyle

This is probably the easiest way to get started as a digital nomad. There aren’t any huge investments you need to make up front, you still have the comforts of home at each Airbnb, and you can try it out without too much risk. You don’t even need to break your lease if you just want to test-drive nomadic life for a month or two.

Another reason I really liked the Airbnb route is that you have a built-in local guide to hang out with, thanks to your host. I met a lot of cool people traveling around this way (and had at least one cow named after me). Plus, there are lots of great spots in rural places you might never typically visit that open up to you with this method of traveling.

Charging up the car at my casita Airbnb in Tombstone, Arizona

What you need as an Airbnb Nomad

Like I said, this method doesn’t require much in terms of upfront costs or purchases, however there are a few things that I highly recommend.

1. An ergonomic desk set up. I quickly learned that I needed an ergonomic chair and a good desk in order to make this work. As a software engineer, I’m sitting at my computer all day. A hardback chair and dining table at the Airbnb just aren’t going to cut it. Fortunately, my Tesla has enough room to bring both my desk and chair with me from place to place.

2. Supplementary WiFi. This might not be necessary at every Airbnb, but if you’re picking places out in the middle of nowhere, consider bringing a backup connection.

3. A vehicle equipped for car camping. Having a vehicle large enough to sleep in really increased my range of travel when moving between Airbnbs while still keeping costs down. Plus, you can travel more on the weekends with your Airbnb as home base.

Option #2: Become a Vanlifer 🚐

After a while, I realized that sleeping in the Tesla was perfectly comfortable and gave me way more freedom. That’s when I moved from being an Airbnb Nomad to being a Vanlifer. Although I never had a van. Just my Tesla.

If you haven't heard the term, car camping (or "vanlife") is when you rely on the public for amenities like showers, food, and a place to work. You can replace the bed in your Airbnb with your car camping setup, but you still need to find a place to shower, eat, and make a living. Luckily, it’s pretty common to find towns, even rural towns, that have a Planet Fitness, coworking space, and even an EV charger.

Why I like the Vanlife

As a full-time employee, using coworking spaces is the most convenient way to be a digital nomad. Depending on what kind of setup you have, you might find vanlife even more appealing.

With just the Tesla, I was saving quite a bit of money on lodging, but spending more on food because I didn’t have a cooking setup, which was a definite drawback. Plus, you get tired of eating out after a while. If you have a full van build-out, though, you might have a kitchenette that suits your needs just fine.

Although I found it somewhat annoying needing to be near a city at all times during the work week, the increased mobility made up for it. I was able to move daily if I wanted to because everything I needed was self-contained within my car. I also didn’t need to reserve the weekends for traveling between locations, anymore, which meant I had more time for exploring.

Off-roading with the Tesla in Dotsero, CO.

Working from a coworking space or coffee shop, I’d get all of my human interaction during the week, then on the weekends I had the range and off-road capabilities to get out into the wilderness and just be alone in nature.

What you need as a Vanlifer

Here’s my recommended starter kit for becoming a vanlifer as a full-time employee.

1. A suitable vehicle. I’m calling it vanlife, but you don’t actually have to buy a kitted out Sprinter van to make this happen. I did it with just my Tesla Model Y. At minimum, you’ll need a car, truck, or van that you can comfortably sleep in.

2. Planet Fitness (or similar) membership. Unless you have an RV or Airstream, you need somewhere to shower. When I was all-in on vanlife, I had a membership to Planet Fitness, because those gyms are just about everywhere, which made for easy shower and bathroom access wherever I went.

3. Access to a coworking space or place to work. This is more a logistical consideration. Does the city you’re headed to have a coworking space? Sometimes you can get a membership, although then you’re even further restricted to that specific coworking franchise’s locations. I recommend just sticking with the day rate. If there are no coworking spaces, you can always post up in the local library or coffee shop.

4. Access to car charging or RV hookups. Depending on what kind of vehicle you have, you might need to take this into consideration, too. Driving the Model Y, I needed to make sure there was always an EV charging station in the cities I visited.

Casual glacier views in Hyder, AK.

Option #3: Become a Full-time Wanderer 🥾

The final evolution of my digital nomadism, at least so far, has been full-time wandering with a trailer setup.

Setting up camp outside the Valley of Fire

While vanlife was convenient, I found that I missed being able to get out and away from the cities for extended periods. While I enjoyed my minimalist setup with just the Tesla, I decided towing a trailer would give me that extra self-sufficiency I was looking for.

Why I like the Full-Time Wanderer lifestyle

Similar to when I was doing long-term Airbnb stays, it’s nice to have all my creature comforts with me wherever I go. My daily routine looks pretty much the same as most people’s now, because my trailer has all the typical home amenities.

My trailer setup with solar panels outside of Monticello, Utah

I have a kitchen, a full bathroom with a shower, two beds, and even a whole office space inside the trailer.

One thing that’s not super optimal, unfortunately, is that I’m towing my trailer with an electric vehicle, something it’s not really designed for.

That means my range while hauling the trailer is pretty limited. With the extra weight, a charge will only last about 60 miles, rather than the standard ~300 it normally gets. That means moving from location to location takes quite a bit longer, so I reserve that for weekends. Recently, I was hopping back and forth between Grand Junction, CO and Moab, UT—a distance of 113 miles. I had to go about halfway, stop, unhitch the trailer, then go back and charge the Tesla up again before finishing the trip. It makes travel days very slow.

I like lingering in one place longer anyway, so I don’t have to move the trailer all that often. Plus, with the Model Y I still have the option to go car camping with the Tesla. I just drop the trailer as a home base and can make multiple little trips around the area or even further afield.

Sometimes I just set up my desk outside, wherever I am and work in nature.

Recently, I’ve added some solar panels to my setup. I don’t generate enough power to charge the car, but it will run my trailer’s electrical plus my internet, which makes being self-sufficient much easier. I tend to follow the sun to optimize my solar panel usage and a few other logistical reasons, so it’s always pretty good weather wherever I’m going which is a nice bonus.

What you need as a Full-time Wanderer

Your experience with the full-time trailer lifestyle will probably vary if you’re not trying to tow it with an electric car, but there are a few essentials you’ll need:

1. Reliable internet connection. With Airbnbs or coworking spaces, you typically have access to fast, reliable internet. Taking the self-sufficient trailer route, though, you’ll need to supply your own. I use Starlink, which meets my needs most of the time. I’ve learned to have a few redundancies in place, though. Cell signal to power a hotspot is ideal, but not always available. Starlink is a little more temperamental but it’s faster and great for areas where you can’t get a cell signal.

2. Temperate weather. There are seasonal limitations to living out of a trailer. Specifically, you can’t let the pipes freeze. I spent the summer and autumn visiting the more extreme climates, but as soon as temperatures started to dip I took the trailer to a more temperate area. Currently, I’m just outside of Las Vegas.

3. Access to a water fill station. Part of self-sufficiency is having access to running water inside your trailer, which means you need somewhere to fill up your water tank. I’ve found that I can fill my tank on the weekends and that will last me a whole week with enough water for showering, cooking, and drinking.

Digital nomad setups I’ve tried that didn’t work

With nearly four years of trial and error, there are bound to be some things that didn’t work for me. Here are a couple of failed experiments from my time on the road:

1. Using my car as an office.

I thought maybe the Tesla display could work as an extra monitor, but the chair isn’t in the right position for hours of work. I’ve mentioned before that I literally hauled around my own desk and chair to different Airbnbs because an ergonomic setup is so important in my line of work. And working from my car just wasn’t ergonomic at all.

You can see how cramped the workspace setup was in the front seat of the Tesla.

So, yeah, skip the Tesla display when building your digital nomad battle station. Your back will thank you.

2. Building out a floating office.

At one point, I tried building a floating office onto my tow hitch, my thought process being that it would free me up to travel farther with just the Tesla, since I would have a mobile work station. I got as far as a working prototype before realizing that it wasn’t going to work. At least, not without way more effort and customization than I was willing to put in.

The main problem was that I couldn’t reduce glare, wind, and weather enough for functional work, despite the various umbrella configurations I attempted. It also wasn’t ergonomic—my feet would kind of hang in the air while I was sitting at the desk, so not a good long term solution.

Believe it or not, I drove down the highway with this contraption affixed to the back of my car.

It was around this point that I started looking into just getting a trailer.

What’s next for me as a digital nomad?

I’m currently waiting out the winter season with my trailer parked here in Nevada, planning to travel around a bit without the trailer. Next summer, I’m taking the trailer all the way up to Alaska.

With so many different ways to be a digital nomad available to me, I don’t currently have any plans to go back to a single, permanent home base. It's a somewhat unique lifestyle that takes work to pull off, but it's one I'm really enjoying.

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