As we pass the two-year mark of road-tripping around the U.S., we thought we’d finally give a look at what it’s like to live as a nomad. When it comes to a roving lifestyle, the possibilities are endless. You can travel by luxury RV, campervan, tow-behind travel trailer, car. You can tent camp or do short-term apartment rentals. It pretty much all comes down to your needs and wants. What creature comforts do you require, and what little luxuries are you willing to sacrifice? For us, nomad life currently looks like this:
We’ve once again just packed up and moved onto our next adventure in the Canadian Rockies. Consequently, we thought it was the perfect time to give an in-depth look at our lifestyle for those of you starting to brainstorm your own life of wandering.
Is everything perfect? No. Is it always easy? Not so much. But for now, we’re enjoying it… and we feel like we’ve finally got the whole thing down to a science that works for us. After traveling the world with just two backpacks back in 2016, sometimes it feels like we have an unreasonable excess of crap. Other times, I think of how much more outdoor equipment I wish I could squeeze into the car. So what does living out of a Subaru look like for two forty-year-olds and a dog?
As of February 2022, we’re cruising the country in a 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness Edition. From June 2020 to December 2021, we were rocking a snazzy orange Crosstrek. While we loved the Crosstrek, we needed just a smidge more cabin space. I think Stephan first made that decision during a sleepless night of car camping in Montana’s Flathead National Forest. While the capacity of our car increased with the Outback, the amount of crap we were hauling remained largely unchanged (save for a slightly larger cooler). The main difference is, with the additional cargo space, we are no longer saddled with an un-aerodynamic roof box that roars in the highway wind and worsens gas mileage.
We have one suitcase and one backpack for all of our clothes, running the spectrum from shorts and swimsuits to winter jackets and warm weather gear. When it comes to things like socks, underwear, and t-shirts, we’ve each got about a week’s worth. That was how we backpacked several years ago, and it seems to still work well. It saves space, and doing a load of laundry every week is certainly an easy enough task.
Though we always select AirBnb units with full kitchens, there are a few things I can’t live without. It all fits in one large storage bin:
In reality, we could probably do without the kitchen bin. However, it’s super hard when you’re a vegan living an active lifestyle and can’t (or don’t want to) habitually rely on eating out. That said, the vegetable peeler has proven an invaluable tool. It’s amazing how every host seems to have a corkscrew lying around, but forget about peeling carrots and shit.
Outdoor equipment & camera gear
Our second large storage bin is dedicated to outdoor equipment. It houses hiking gear, water bladders, and extra shoes. For the record, we each carry four pairs of shoes: flip flops, water shoes, running shoes, and hiking boots. There’s also a yoga mat that doesn’t quite fit inside the bin, so it inevitably ends up floating around the backseat.
For those who know us, we carry quite a bit of camera gear. That said, it’s all fairly compact and we both recently made the switch to more portable mirrorless cameras (Nikon Z5 and Z7). My clothing backpack my look bulging (see photo above), but the bottom half is actually dedicated entirely to camera gear. Our remaining photography equipment is confined to one small bag, a pouch for Stephan’s 500mm, and a tripod that fits in our ‘outdoor equipment’ bin.
For a twenty-five pound former street dog, this little girl can be surprisingly high-maintenance. First, we haul around her carefully-chosen Tall Tales Dream Chaser bolster bed – size large. Because, you know, every svelte little dog that sleeps curled up in the tiniest of donuts needs a bed made for 40- to 70-pound dog (but that’s a story for another day). Luckily, the bed and accompanying fuzzy bone pillow can be squished perfectly into a duffel bag for easier transport.
Sanchez also travels with a 16-pound bag of ‘frugal fish’ (Purina Pro Plan), as well as a single backpack filled with all her worldly possessions: treats, poop bags, comb, nail clippers, dental chews, heartworm & flea/tick meds, collapsible bowls, and an assortment of fuzzy toy weasels (the accompanying flirt pole is shoved in the wheel well). We also travel with four ultra-plush blankets. You know, LL Bean, Berkshire Blanket… the level of luxury no dog can live without. What can I say? Our little Thai princess loves the snug life. All kidding aside, though, they are perfect for covering the furniture at all our rentals.
While we are fairly skilled at planning our pantry so we have very little left come moving time, there are always a few things left over. Since we’re not big on food waste, we inevitably have a small amount of perishable goods moving with us (not to mention snacks/meals for long road trips between stays).
In addition to a medium-sized cooler, we usually have one bag of extra food: seeds, beans, grains, snacks, baking supplies, etc. We also carry a small storage bin of spices since we cook our own meals the vast majority of the time. If we’ve got anything that doesn’t fit in the one bag (e.g. my vast supply of tea), we’ve also got an insulated cooler bag for overflow. That baby was a $6 Walmart purchase in Kalispell, Montana and was worth every stinkin’ penny.
You can’t be a digital nomad without the digital. We travel with two small bags that house our two laptops, Stephan’s portable monitor, and a small electronics organizer for cords, chargers, batteries, memory cards, headphones, and a Garmin. We also have a portable carbon monoxide detector… safety first!
Toiletries are confined to a single reusable shopping bag: shampoo, conditioner, face soap, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, mouthwash, dog shampoo, and other everyday miscellany. And of course, since COVID still exists (in our universe, at least), we also have a spray can of Lysol and bottle of 70% ethanol-based hand sanitizer. Stay safe and clean, kids!
The strange & superfluous
Most of the stuff we travel with is absolutely necessary – either everyday essentials like clothes and toiletries or gear that is indispensable for our hobbies (e.g. hiking, photography). The more random bits and pieces are probably not high on everyone’s priority list. But hey, we’ve all got our vices and indulgences:
- A couple strings of fairy lights. When it starts approaching the holiday season, sometimes you just need some friggin’ holly jolly.
- My cast iron teapot. My brother bought this for me at least twelve years ago, and I adore it. I’d go as far to say it’s my prized possession. I use it at least twice a day for green tea, and it’s the one material possession I own that brings me the most joy in life. Plus, the tea you brew in this thing is far superior to any tea bag. Along with the kettle, I am typically traveling with anywhere from two to six bags of loose leaf teas from Arbor Teas. The super cool company is based in Ann Arbor, MI and specializes in organic, fair trade teas. Needless to say, I am obsessed.
- My immunology textbook. I’m a scientist. Janeway is my bible. Enough said.
- A calendar of family photos and magnetic frame with a picture of my niece. Okay, this one’s not strange, but merely superfluous. I certainly don’t need to hang pictures on my AirBnb fridge, but it sure is nice to see these faces every day.
- An inflatable paddle board. I intend this to be my 40th birthday gift to myself this summer. Anyone have any recommendations on a budget-friendly model?
- Camping gear. Namely, a tent and two sleeping bags. Sometimes a day hike just doesn’t cut it and we want more. Also, I feel like Sanchez might love it.
Pack it up, pack it in
Adding it all up, we travel with about nine bags, one suitcase, two storage bins, and a cooler. And of course, the four dog blankets and stray yoga mat. All in all, it fills the Outback to the point of being full, though we aren’t overstuffed and can see out the back.
Although we sometimes feel like it’s a lot, other friends and strangers who have seen our stash have suggested otherwise. Indeed, just a few weeks ago when we crossed the border into British Columbia, the border agent remarked that it didn’t look like we had enough for six months – as he eyed the back of our car while Sanchez barked with disapproval. But I guess it’s all subjective.
If you’re looking at ways to pack and organize efficiently, check out some of our top travel essentials. These helped us achieve our minimalist packing goals on our year-long backpacking trip, and we are still using them all today.
Hopefully, there was a grain of something useful in there. If not, maybe you could at least chuckle at some of the surplus shit we haul around the country. Nomad life will certainly look different for everyone. What’s important is that you try to make concessions where you need to, and find a level of comfort that works for you. Because after all, that’s what will make this lifestyle sustainable.