Most, if not all articles on digital nomadism focus on the international traveler (globetrotter). Though what we’ve shared here can be applied to ALL manner of digital nomadism, this article is geared towards the domestic (North America) overlander.
WHAT IS A DIGITAL NOMAD?
A digital nomad is an individual who uses technology to earn an income while traveling. Now, I know that’s a very broad definition. So in this article we’ll break down the myriad of ways one can become a digital nomad.
Our Digital Nomad Story
Noami and I have been living full-time on the road since April, 2016. We’ve been digital nomads essentially the entire time, though when we started out we didn’t even know that term existed.
Prior to life on the road we both worked 9-5 corporate jobs. Noami was an environmental biologist and I was a construction project manager. We were both caught up in the rat race and were miserable for it. So we decided to resurrect an old dream. We bought a van, sold most of our things and set out to travel the country. Initially we gave ourselves a year – New Orleans to Alaska and back, exploring every National Park along the way. About six months in we realized this would not be a short-term adventure. Something had awakened in us and we knew we had to find a way to sustain it.
Why Become a Digital Nomad
The digital nomad lifestyle comes with many perks. For Noami and I, our driving force has been the ability to travel and spend as much time in nature as possible. And escaping the corporate world and the confines of the daily grind has given us the space to pursue our passions and create the life we want to live.
Truth is, there are many reasons why someone would want to be a digital nomad – location independence, freedom to travel, flexible schedule, be your own boss. For some, being a digital nomad means forging your own path and never looking back. For others, it means being able to spend more time with family and travel part-time.
Traveling, spending time in epic places, and never having to report to a boss are certainly appealing reasons to join the digital nomad movement. But there are many other tangible reasons why working remotely is not only a viable option, but an increasingly necessary one.
In our previous lives, Noami and I owned two cars and we both commuted to work, an hour each way. That’s two cars commuting two hours each per day, five days a week. You do the math. The environmental impact of so many cars on the road is astronomical. Not to mention the stress caused by those traffic-filled commutes.
You might think that giving up a two car commute for traveling the country in a campervan is just switching one environmentally detrimental habit for another, but we drive far less than we did before. Add in the fact that we’re no longer burning fossil fuels for heating & cooling a home and office, and we have significantly reduced our carbon footprint.
Remote working has become a trend in recent years. And if the COVID-19 pandemic has proven anything, it’s that the ability to work remotely is incredibly valuable. On the recovery side of the pandemic, it’s likely that more companies will recognize the viability of remote work. More and more jobs are done entirely online, which makes the overhead associated with a traditional office seem like an unnecessary expense. Not to mention the time and productivity lost by commuting to and from the office. It’s not a stretch to say that remote work is the future of the workplace. It would be a good idea to get ahead of that curve now.
Challenges of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle
The lifestyle of a digital nomad certainly sounds appealing – work from anywhere, travel and stay as long as you want, create your own schedule. But digital nomadism is not without its challenges.
- Working from anywhere often means working from less than comfortable places like noisy coffee shops, or camping out in a Walmart parking lot so you can get a good cell signal.
- A flexible schedule means it’s difficult to establish a routine.
- Traveling anywhere you like can lead to loss of a sense of place or belonging.
- Stepping away from the corporate world means having to pay for your own insurance and losing other benefits like 401k.
- Working from the road means sacrificing face time with clients and colleagues.
- Leaving behind the 9-5 can mean a pay cut and having to work harder than ever to maintain the lifestyle you’re used to.
Benefits of the Digital Nomad Lifestyle
Though the digital nomad lifestyle is not a one-way ticket to the easy life, we still believe the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
- It’s true that we sometimes have to spend time at coffee shops and libraries for a WiFi connection, and we’ve spent more nights in Walmart parking lots than we’d care to mention. But more often than not we’re working from beautiful locations in nature.
- Establishing a routine as a digital nomad takes intentionality. But once you have it down, daily life becomes much smoother.
- With technology like Zoom, Skype and FaceTime, it’s easy to connect with loved ones, clients and colleagues no matter where you are.
- There are other options for health insurance and retirement savings. (More on that later)
- While you may take a pay cut leaving your 9-5 career job, you’re likely giving up a lot of expenses as well. And having the space to create your life can lead to greater financial opportunities. And that, my friends, is why you’re here. Is it not? So let’s jump in.
HOW TO EARN AN INCOME ON THE ROAD
How much money do I need to live a nomadic life on the road?
How much you need largely depends on your lifestyle. However, we’ve found that $2,000 per month is the average amount needed to sustain life on the road.
The monthly budget for two in the above example is actually our average budget during our first year on the road. As our digital nomad skills have increased, so has our income, and we now live a bit larger than before. We splurge on a nice restaurant from time to time and occasionally we’ll get a hotel room with a jacuzzi tub when we really want to treat ourselves.
We’ve found this budget to be very doable, because we did it, for at least a year on the road. The budget for one is an estimate, but we’ve spoken to numerous solo vanlifers who live on very similar budgets.
Of course, your budget may differ from ours based on your lifestyle, preferences and commitments. But the beautiful thing is, how much or how little you spend on the road is largely up to you.
If you’re able to save up some money before you hit the road, that’s great. We’ve found nomadic living to be much less stressful when you have a cushion, a ‘rainy day fund.’ How much you ‘need’ is entirely up to you but a good minimum to aim for is one month’s expenses (i.e. $2,000).
Saving money in preparation for hitting the road is simply not an option for many people due to the high costs of rent and stagnant job market (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic). If you are unable to save up enough money, don’t let that stop you from hitting the road. If you have a source of income, even if it’s part time, move into your rig and save what you would have paid in rent.
Pro tip for saving money on the road: travel slow.
How much money do digital nomads make
The truth is, the answer varies widely and depends on a number of factors, including your skills, how well you market yourself, as well as what your priorities are. If your goal is to travel for a while and earn enough of an income to sustain yourself while spending as much time as possible exploring and recreating, then you can get by with minimal work, perhaps just a part time gig or seasonal work like a farm hand or ski bum. If your intention is to create a sustainable income that allows you to secure your financial future, then you’re going to need to work much harder to establish yourself and/or your business.
The people that are doing road life now are the 20% that put in the work without an immediate return.Chris Penn @theoffgridskoolie
Odds are, you’re probably somewhere in-between these two. You want to develop a sustainable income while still enjoying your life on the road. After all, you’re not getting into road life to spend 60 hours a week in front of a computer screen. Which is why developing a work/life balance on the road is probably one of the most important (and difficult) skills to master. (More on that later).
In this guide we’ll show you how to generate an income on the road, whatever your goals may be.
Primary Income vs Secondary Income
Primary income is the work you do to pay the bills. It’s likely the job you have now or a remote position similar to the job you have now. You may not love the work, but you already have the skills for it, so you don’t need to spend time learning new skills for something you’re not passionate about. Bonus points if you don’t hate it.
Secondary income is something you do on the side (your side-hustle). Take your passions, your hobbies, your interests and find a way to make some money off of them. It may not be much money at the beginning, but that’s ok, that’s what your primary income is for. Your goal should be to grow your secondary income, your side-hustle, until it surpasses your primary income and becomes enough to sustain you. Then you can put all your effort into doing what you enjoy.
Passive income is money being earned regularly with little or no effort on the part of the person receiving it. This should be your ultimate goal with your side hustle. It’s a long-term strategy that requires a lot of work on the frontend with little to no monetary gain for several months or years. For example, establishing a successful blog with plenty of evergreen content that earns revenue from affiliate marketing, advertising, or both may take years to establish and move up in the rankings on Google, but once established it requires little work to maintain and the revenue grows exponentially.
How to establish passive income while maintaining primary income?
We’ll dig deeper into examples of potential side hustles later. For now, let’s focus on strategy. You’ll want to figure out the minimal amount of time you need to spend maintaining your primary source of income. If working 20 hours a week is enough to cover your bills and expenses, do it, and dedicate the rest of your working time to your side hustle.
Ideally, your primary income is something you don’t have to think about after you ‘clock out.’ That should allow you to focus your creative energies into your side hustle. This is what you should be talking to people about, researching, thinking about when you can’t sleep at night. That’s why it’s important that it’s something you love and are passionate about. Don’t neglect your primary income, just don’t let it rule your time. This is another reason why time management is so important for digital nomads.
Create a diversified revenue stream
Work as a digital nomad is far less stable and predictable than the 9-5 you’re leaving behind. That’s why you should be looking to diversify your revenue streams. As we mentioned, you’ll need at least one source of primary income while you develop your side-hustle. But, as the saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket (that may be one of the biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 pandemic). For us, the point of digital nomad life is to allow space to pursue our passions.
Whatever it is you enjoy doing, you should always be thinking about how you can make money doing it.
Remote Work & Freelance
What’s the difference between remote & freelance?
A remote worker is a full or part-time employee of an organization who works from home or from any remote location away from the company’s office. Remote workers still fall under the category of traditional employee, the only difference is the work location.
Freelance jobs are usually project based, come with a flexible schedule, and typically end once the project is over. Freelancer’s are self-employed whereas remote workers are employed by an organization.
Finding Remote Work
So we’ve broken down primary, secondary, and passive income. But let’s dive deeper into number one. You need to make money now and get your primary income going, otherwise you’ll never be able to make it to number two.
The first option is to parlay your current job into a remote position. I was fortunate to be able to parlay my pre-vanlife job (in construction project management) into a remote construction estimator position. If you have the right type of job and the time to commit, create a strategy to transition into a remote position. Start by taking your work home with you, then convince your boss to let you work from home a day or two per week.
Performance is key, if you can prove that you are just as effective working from home as you are in the office, you’re more likely to keep it going. Finally, make a push to take your position fully remote. If that fails, at least you’ve proven that you’re capable of working remotely. If your job is not a position that can be done remotely (as mine wasn’t) perhaps there is another position in the company that can be done remotely such as a support role.
My full-time role was construction project manager, which is not something that can be done remotely as I was often required to meet with clients and visit job sites. I was able to transition into a support role of construction estimator which can be done entirely online. This particular role was not a position I would have wanted as my full-time job. But my goal was to maintain an income while establishing my side hustle, not to climb the corporate ladder in the construction industry. Plus, this new role required far less of my time and mental energy than my previous role, allowing me to focus more on my side hustle.
If parlaying your current job into a remote position is not an option, the next step is to find something you can do remotely. Chances are, there’s something in your field that can be done remotely. Think of jobs similar to the one you have now and search for positions in that field that offer the potential for “working from home.” I recommend seeking a job you can do competently that does not require too much time learning new skills. That way any new skills you learn can be geared towards your side hustle and/or your hobbies and interests.
Find what your good at (or at least what you’re qualified for)
Many people may not have the option to land a long-term remote job. And, in fact, many people may not want to be in a traditional employment arrangement. That’s where gig-based freelance work can be the gold to drive your digital nomad dreams.
Freelance gigs offer a ton of flexibility, putting you in control of what jobs you take and what hours you work. And companies are often quicker to hire a freelancer than a remote worker as the freelancer comes with much less risk to the company.
Don’t get me wrong, freelance work isn’t a ticket to easy money. In fact, you may have to work twice as hard in the beginning to earn what you would make from a traditional job in your field. But the rewards are more than worth it, and the flexibility of working as a freelancer can allow you more time to pursue your passion projects and develop your side-hustle. Plus, by living nomadically you’re avoiding paying rent or a mortgage, so you can typically get by on much less.
How to find freelance gigs
As with remote work, there’s a good chance the skills you have now can translate into viable freelance skills. If you can, explore these things before you hit the road, try to land a few freelance gigs even if the pay is less than you would like. Your goal should be to hone in on what types of gigs are out there that meet with your skill set.
Search sites like Upwork.com and Fiverr to see what kind of freelance gigs are out there. There’s a good chance you’ll find something you’re capable of doing that you never thought was an option. Build your profile/resume on these sites around your skillset. Gear it toward the jobs you’ve found that you feel confident you can do competently without having to learn any (or minimal) new skills.
A condition of my remote job was that it would be temporary until my boss could hire and train my replacement. So I quickly began building my profile on Upwork. Recognizing that I could do construction estimating remotely, this is what I built my resume around. I began bidding on jobs and taking on clients while still working my original remote job. This did take away from my side hustle focus, but I was hedging my bets and setting myself up for when my remote job ended.
The pay wasn’t very good in the beginning and the hours were more than I wanted, but it allowed me to build up a job success score on Upwork. Once I had several positive reviews under my belt, I was able to submit higher bids, and found a higher success rate. It wasn’t long before clients were coming to me with invitations to bid. Ultimately, I was able to land a gig that turned into another part-time remote job just before my original job ended.
Marketing your skills
Using your current corporate skills isn’t the only way to make money on the road. In fact, if you can do something you enjoy as your primary source of income, you may be able to build it into your long-term solution, bypassing the side hustle altogether. Perhaps you have a background in art or web development that you left behind in lieu of a shiny 9-5 corporate job. We’ve all been tempted by that carrot. Now is the time to dust off those skills. Graphic design and web development are two of the most common jobs for digital nomads. The market for these jobs is great and the best part is, they can be done entirely remotely.
If you hope to find success as a digital nomad, you need to think of yourself as a personal brand. Finding work as a digital nomad isn’t as easy as sending your resume to a slew of companies and hoping for a reply. This lifestyle is unconventional so your approach must be unconventional as well. Since we are talking about the digital world, you’ll want to make yourself stand out online. Your personal brand is a manifestation of who you are, so you should craft an online persona that reflects your personal values and professional skills.
Start by building your online presence. Chances are you’re already on social media, so the first step is to update all of your social media accounts. Remove any old, irrelevant, or questionable content – pretty much anything you wouldn’t want potential clients to see. If you’re already active on social media and have built up a following, you’re two steps ahead. If you only use social media sporadically or would like to keep your personal accounts private, consider creating separate profiles for your business.
Find your niche. It’s much easier to market yourself if you can narrow your focus to a specific field or topic. When we started out in vanlife, the content we shared was directly related to our lifestyle – vanlife and the outdoors. As we progressed we branched out, taking on topics of environmentalism, sustainability, and social justice. You are much more likely to find success if the content you share is organic to you, your lifestyle and your passions. And don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through. Ultimately, you want people to see you for who you are.
Build a website. Even if it’s just a simple landing page with links to your social media, it gives potential clients something to find when they Google you.
Types of Freelance Work & Potential Side Hustles
There are a ton of ways to earn an income on the road. This list is far from exhaustive, and ultimately the more creative you are with your pursuit, the more likely it is to turn into a sustainable side hustle. And don’t be afraid to try something new. If it doesn’t work out you haven’t lost anything but time and you’ve likely gained some valuable insight in the process.
Learning what you don’t want to do can really help you to hone in on what you do want.
Here are some of the most common types of freelance work we’ve encountered on our digital nomad journey. Many of these can be either your primary income and/or your side hustle.
Graphic Design: Graphic design is a field that’s always in high demand. If you possess that awesome combination of artistic & tech savvy, this could be an excellent way to go from side-hustle to primary income to full-blown business doing something you enjoy.
Blogging: There are many reasons why you should start blogging. For starters, it’s a great way to organize your thoughts. Writing about your experiences can help you to learn from them and grow as a person. One of the reasons Noami and I got into vanlife was to find space for personal growth, and writing has played a crucial role.
Sharing your story is a great way to market yourself. It allows people to develop a personal connection with you which will come in handy when turning connections into business relationships.
Blogging can be a lucrative business. Granted, it can take several months or years to earn income from your blog. But if you put in the time to nurture and grow it organically, you can find yourself with some sweet semi-passive income. I say semi-passive because you will always have to maintain your blog.
There are a million and one articles online about how to start a blog, so I won’t dive too deep into it here. But I will say that, as with anything, the first step is getting started. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed with all the how-to blogging articles out there, know that all you need to get started is a simple blog page that you can set up in a couple hours. There are many website builders out there that make it simple to build a basic website. We started out with Squarespace, which allows you to easily create a great looking website in minutes without having to learn a new skill. However, Squarespace lacks the advanced functionality that we were looking for as our website grew, so we eventually migrated to WordPress. Now, WordPress does have a bit of a learning curve and can take quite a bit of time to master. If I had to do it over again though, I would do it the same way. Start with something simple to get your website off the ground and get your feet wet. You can always grow and move up from there.
How to Earn Money From Your Website
Once you’ve got your website off the ground, you can start looking at ways to monetize it. Again, this should be a long-term strategy. Be wary of articles and “get rich quick” schemes claiming to turn your website into cash in days/weeks/months. At worst they’ll scam you out of your money, and at best you’ll waste time trying to implement money strategies rather than creating genuine, evergreen content. Your focus should always be on creating great content. The money will follow in due time.
To give a quick overview, there are three main ways to monetize your website – affiliate marketing, ad revenue, and product sales. The most common way for a new-ish website to earn revenue is through affiliate marketing.
Social Media Influencing: This is the golden goose in the eyes of many people seeking to break away from the daily grind and earn an income while traveling the world. And why not? Just look at all the insta-famous models living the easy life thanks to social media and their gajillion followers.
The truth is, social media influencing isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. It takes a lot of time, dedication and work to establish yourself as a credible authority in your niche. And you’ll likely be doing this work for free for years before anyone is willing to pay you for your posts. And getting your page up to X number of followers offers no guarantee of a payday.
If earning an income from your social media is something you aspire to, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, as with website revenue, there is no get rich quick scenario.
Treat your social media as your side-hustle. Do it because you’re passionate about it. Keep it authentic to you, share your story, and watch it grow organically. Remember, the goal with your side hustle is to earn an income doing something you love, not something that feels like work. So do it with love and keep at it, the benefits will be self-evident.
All Things Tech: The majority of tech jobs can be done remotely. Chances are, if you have a background in tech, you already know this. Jobs like full-stack developer, product designer, and software engineer typically require education and experience. But there are other options for the tech-savvy digital nomad. Web designer, web developer, data entry and technical writer are a few examples of tech jobs you can learn if you’re willing to put in the work. Though, as I mentioned earlier, if you’re going to invest your time into learning a new skill, make sure it’s something you’ll enjoy.
Photography: The creme de la creme of remote work for vanlifers. (Have camera, will travel).
Nowadays everyone with a smartphone is an amateur photographer. But for those precious few who truly have an eye for capturing the beauty around them, the secret to loving your side hustle is just a shutter click away.
Well, it’s not quite that easy. Photography is an art. And just like any art, it takes lots and lots of practice to produce what folks would call ‘good.’ But we got out from behind our desks and moved into our tiny rolling homes so that we could experience the joys of an ever-changing landscape, amarite? So while you’re out there, you might as well capture the moments.
I’ll be honest, it’s unlikely that you’ll stumble into a photography career by sharing your iPhone shots on Instagram. But if photography is a passion for you, and you’ve got the coin to invest in some decent gear, you may someday find that folks are willing to pay you for your shots.
There are many avenues to earn an income as a freelance photographer.
- Adventure wedding photographers hustle up seasonal work and travel to where the money’s at.
- Adventure landscape photographers travel to epic locations to capture images of those rare, hard to get landscapes.
- Brand photography is a niche that may not be as exciting as adventure photography, but it can bring in a steady income.
Videography: Many brands will pay big bucks for masterfully done videos. But, as with photography, this is not something you can just stumble into. A great videographer is someone who dedicates most of their time, energy and resources to their craft.
Aside from the passion and dedication, you’ll need the right gear, editing software, technical knowhow, and a lot of patience. But again, if it’s something you’re drawn to, by all means pursue it. That’s what most of us got into this lifestyle for in the first place.
Creative Writing: Here’s another potential gig that falls into the “art” category. Creative writing is always in demand, and you can find heaps of job listings on the aforementioned freelance websites. If you have a knack for writing, consider taking a creative writing course. Apply your trade on your social media and blogs and use these platforms to hone your skills and display your talents.
Part of being a digital nomad is thinking outside the box and figuring out how to combine your skills and passions to earn an income. Many of the potential side hustles I’ve listed here go hand-in-hand with one another. As I mentioned, a website can be the number one tool of a successful digital nomad. And many of the above mentioned skills will be required to create a great website. Though, chances are you won’t be versed in every one of these avenues, which means you’ll need to outsource some aspects of the work. If you need a web designer, or someone to create a logo, or a writer to craft the perfect copy for your site, consider hiring a fellow digital nomad and pay it forward.
Other Types of Nomad Jobs
While this guide is focused on how to become a digital nomad, there are many other ways to earn an income on the road. If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty and being stationary for brief periods, this work can supplement your online work or potentially fully sustain your travels.
The Traveling Gig Economy
Stepping away from the “digital” part of digital nomadism, the traveling gig economy is a tried and true way nomads have been earning an income on the road long before the internet was even invented.
There are many ways to earn money no matter where you go, as long as you’re willing to work hard and don’t mind getting your hands dirty.
Plan your travels according to harvest season and you can pick up farm work as you go. This is a great way to meet new people, get to know the locals, and keep gas in your tank and food in your belly. One way to find farm gigs is to check the local bulletin board when you arrive in town, or try the “Gigs” section on Craigslist. Noami and I like to visit local farmers’ markets wherever we go. Strike up a conversation with the locals who are selling their produce and you’re sure to find someone looking for helping hands.
There are also organizations that connect nomads with farms on a volunteer or paid basis.
- WWOOF.net is a popular organization connecting nomads with organic farmers around the world. Though WWOOF’ing is volunteer based, it offers a chance to learn organic farming while providing you with food and lodging. This can be a fun reprieve to take a break from the road, recharge your batteries, and learn new skills that may translate into paying work down the road.
HOW TO START A BUSINESS ON THE ROAD
When Noami and I started out in vanlife, we didn’t give much thought to creating a viable business from the road. In fact, our goal was to spend a year traveling the US then return to our “normal” lives. About six months into vanlife, we realized this would not be a temporary adventure.
Once we made the decision that vanlife would be a longer-term lifestyle for us, we had to consider how to make it sustainable for the long-term. Up to that point our goal had been to earn enough cash to pay our bills, keep gas in the tank and food in the fridge, while exploring as much as possible.
As our goals shifted, we began seeking ways to diversify our revenue stream.
I began seeking alternative freelance gigs in my field and Noami started marketing her writing and photography. Money started coming in slowly, but it was coming. Our optimism was high. However, it wasn’t until we filed our taxes following the first year that we learned about self-employment tax. That was a rude awakening.
We began doing research and consulting experts. We learned that forming a legal business entity could not only mitigate our tax burden, but would also shield us from potential liability.
If you’re self-employed you DO NOT have to register as a business entity. At tax time the IRS will treat you as a sole proprietor. As I mentioned, you will be subject to self employment tax which is currently 15.3% on top of your regular tax rate. That’s a hefty chunk. If you were to register your business, you would have some options to mitigate that tax burden.
Choosing the right business structure
Let’s break down the different types of business structures. We are not tax professionals and cannot advise you on which type of business entity to choose. We recommend you contact a professional accountant who can guide you through the process.
- Sole Proprietorship: The default business structure. This does not give you any legal protections that come with other types of business entities. If you do not register your business the IRS will view you as a sole proprietor.
- Partnership: Similar to a sole proprietorship but with two or more owners.
- Limited Liability Company (LLC): This is the most common type of business entity and it’s the one we chose for Irie to Aurora. An LLC is easy to set up and relatively inexpensive to maintain compared to other corporations. An LLC protects your personal finances and assets should someone sue your business. This type of entity is also very flexible, allowing your income to be taxed as a sole proprietorship, S-Corp or C-Corp.
- S Corporation (S-Corp): More complex than an LLC. Profits and losses are passed through directly to the owner’s personal income without being subject to corporate tax rates.
- C Corporation (C-Corp): This is the largest and most complex type of business structure, usually reserved for major corporations.
Where should I register my business?
Typically businesses are registered in whichever state they operate. Being that you are a digital nomad, you have the option to register your business in whatever state you like, with a few exceptions. States like South Dakota, Wyoming, Texas and Nevada do not have income tax and, therefore, are attractive options for registering your business. You may have to jump through a few hoops first, such as establishing residency and obtaining a driver’s license. But these aren’t difficult to accomplish. Talk to your accountant to explore your options.
How to register your business
Registering your business is a pretty straightforward process. There are websites such as legalzoom and incfile.com that will take care of all the paperwork for a fee and will even connect you with a registered agent. However, since the digital nomad lifestyle is unconventional, we recommend hiring a professional who you can actually speak to over the phone. A professional accountant can walk you through all the intricacies and advise you on best steps for registering your business as well as bookkeeping practices and when and how to file taxes.
I don’t have an address and one seems to be required for everything
Wouldn’t it be great to be completely untethered? Free to roam without any attachment to the “default” world. Unfortunately, if you’re gonna earn a legit, government recognized income on the road, a physical address is necessary. Fortunately, there are several options for digital nomads to have a legal address and even get mail on the road. See below to learn how to get mail on the road.
- Friend or Relative: This is the easiest option if you have a trusted friend or relative that will allow you to use their address and receive your mail.
- Registered Agent: If you choose to register your business you will be required to have a registered agent. This is someone who receives legal correspondence on your company’s behalf. There are many companies that offer registered agent service and they typically cost around $100 per year. Unfortunately this only works for legal documents, they will not accept your personal mail.
- Virtual Mailing Address: This is the best option we’ve found, call it your virtual office. For a fee you can have an actual address and the company will receive and scan your mail and forward it to you at your request. They can also receive and forward packages. We use our virtual mailing address as our business address and a family member’s home as our personal address.
Running your Digital Nomad Business:
The beauty of being a digital nomad is that you can run your business from anywhere. All you need is an internet connection or a WiFi signal. But there are some logistics you need to keep in mind if you want to be successful, stay organized, and keep on the up-and-up with Uncle Sam.
Finances: You’ll want to keep your business finances separate from your personal finances. This will help you maintain a better picture of your financials and help avoid any potential IRS entanglements. I recommend opening a business checking account as soon as you can. A business checking account will also make you look more legit to your clients.
Taxes: This should go without saying, but remember to file your taxes. It’s best to file quarterly to avoid any penalties. We strongly recommend that you hire a professional accountant. Online tax software is cheaper, but we’ve found that it’s really only useful when filing as a traditional employee. And it’s beneficial to have a real human being to answer your questions and offer guidance. Our accountant is also a digital nomad – gotta keep it in the community.
Business Insurance: In our experience, the majority of digital nomad professions do not require business insurance. If you hire employees in your business or if your line of work typically requires some form of insurance, there’s a good chance you’ll need to carry it as well.
Marketing: We’ve already discussed how to market yourself, but what about marketing your business. In our opinion, a website is a must. Even if it’s just a simple landing page, it makes you look legit when potential clients Google you.
Speaking of websites, you’re gonna need a logo if you want to stand out. Hire a graphic designer to help you create a professional looking logo to suit your brand. Seek out a designer who’s also a digital nomad and pay it forward. Once you have a logo you can print business cards, stickers, flyers or any other medium you can think of to market your business.
Business Maintenance: Most states require businesses to file an annual report once a year. This can typically be done online through your state’s dept of revenue website. Depending on your field of work you may also need to acquire and maintain various licenses and certifications. Create a system to track all necessary requirements and due dates, even a simple spreadsheet can help keep all your info organized.
LOGISTICS OF THE DIGITAL NOMAD LIFESTYLE
No matter your lifestyle, insurance is always a must.
Health Insurance: For the domestic digital nomad, health insurance options are pretty much the same as they were before you hit the road, though it’s less likely that you’ll be covered under an employer’s healthcare plan. That means you’ll need to purchase health insurance on your own.
The Healthcare Marketplace (aka the Affordable Care Act, aka Obama Care) is the most popular option. Apply online, estimate your income, and get yourself some health insurance.
Travelers insurance applies when traveling internationally. Since this resource focuses on the domestic overlander, we won’t get into that here. One piece of advice, if you are travelling internationally, keep your domestic health insurance as it likely covers far more than your traveler’s insurance. And you never know when a serious accident or illness will require you to fly home for treatment.
Auto/ RV insurance: This is a big one. You’re legally required to carry auto insurance on your vehicle, and seeing as your vehicle is also your home and office and everything, you’ll want to make sure you’re properly covered.
Most auto insurance policies only cover the bluebook value of your vehicle and exclude any aftermarket attachments such as solar panels, cargo box, recreational gear, etc. If you’ve built out your rig, chances are you’ve got a lot of money invested in it that you will not recoup with standard auto insurance.
The best option we’ve found is RV insurance (some companies have “campervan insurance” which is essentially the same as RV insurance). Depending on your policy, RV insurance will protect your rig the same way auto insurance does while also insuring everything inside and attached to it.
Most RV policies protect you similarly to homeowners insurance, meaning your personal belongings (laptop, camera equipment, etc) is protected in the event of an accident or theft, and it will cover your gear up to a certain percentage when you’re away from your rig. AND RV insurance typically costs less than standard auto insurance.
Check with your insurance agent for details, as insuring a custom build can get a bit complicated.
How to Find WiFi on the Road
The beauty of digital nomadism is the ability to work from anywhere. Well, to be more accurate, anywhere with WiFi or a strong cell signal. For us, this is the biggest challenge with the digital nomad lifestyle.
Noami and I love setting up our campsite/office deep in nature, as far away as possible from any city or town. But all too often we arrive at that perfect campsite only to find there is no cell service.
So how do you get internet on the road?
Use your phone’s mobile hotspot:
A smartphone with unlimited data plan is a must if you’re working on the road. With an unlimited data plan you can use your phone as a mobile hotspot. Though, most unlimited plans are not truly unlimited, especially when it comes to hotspot data.
Mobile & Vehicle WiFi hotspot devices:
No matter what cell phone carrier you choose, they all have limitations when it comes to coverage. Combine that with the previously mentioned data caps, and investing in a secondary hotspot device becomes an attractive option. While adding a hotspot device with your current carrier will increase your data limit, another option is to diversify and add a hotspot device from a different carrier. For example, let’s say your cell phone carrier is Verizon and you have a hotspot device through T-Mobile or AT&T, your chances of finding service would increase, as each carrier uses different towers. Though we have not yet tried this, other digital nomads we’ve met swear by it.
Coffee Shops, Libraries, & Public WiFi:
Using a mobile hotspot is ideal because it allows you to have wifi anywhere you have a cell signal, even at your campsite. But inevitably you’ll run into instances where you need an actual high speed internet connection for uploading/downloading large files, etc. One option that we utilize quite often is free wifi from coffee shops and libraries.
Typically once every couple weeks we’ll give ourselves a coffee shop or library workday and get all our data-heavy work out the way. With Covid, unfortunately this has not been an option. Instead, we’ve worked from the Starbucks parking lot a few times. Grab your coffee through the drive thru and don’t forget to wear your mask and wash your hands.
Campgrounds with WiFi:
Many paid campgrounds offer free wifi. This can be a great option if you need to crunch out some internet heavy work, but would rather work from the comfort of your van.
The downside is that these campgrounds are typically costly for the average vanlifer’s budget. But on the plus side, they often offer additional amenities like hot showers, laundry and electrical hookups. We take advantage of this from time to time and call it a work-cation.
You mentioned an office in the woods?
Ah, yes. We do have some tips and tricks for finding free campsites with cell service.
In the U.S. you can camp for free on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) and in National Forests. This is often referred to as dispersed camping.
Dispersed campsites vary from roadside pullouts to secluded gems with big trees, rivers and mountain views. The more adventurous you are, the better the scenery becomes.
Public lands are identified in green on Google Maps, but good old paper maps can provide more accurate details of these areas. Most sites on public lands are located on secondary roads away from the main road. When in doubt, talk to a ranger. They can advise you on where you can and cannot camp, as well as exact public land boundaries.
A few things to keep in mind when dispersed camping on public lands:
- Be aware of local regulation such as fire restrictions and permit requirements.
- When selecting a campsite, use pre-existing sites rather than creating new ones whenever possible. The same goes for fire rings if fires are allowed.
- Always pack-it-in, pack-it-out and be good stewards of the land.
There are many apps and websites that can help you find free camping. We typically use a combination of iOverlander and FreeCampsites.net. There are also many paid apps and subscription-based sites that help you locate campgrounds and provide detailed info. Some of these are AllStays, Campendium and FreeRoam.
Extending your range with a cell booster:
We tend to gravitate towards the free, remote campsites. The problem we often run into is that these sites are often just beyond the reach of our Verizon cell coverage. That’s where a cell phone signal booster comes in handy. Our WeBoost signal booster is one of the best additions we’ve made to our rig. It extends our range and allows us to get farther off grid than before.
An important thing to keep in mind is that a cell booster will not create something out of nothing, if you have no service you’re pretty much out of luck. But a good booster will turn a weak signal into useful data. And you’d be surprised how often the best campsites are just outside the reach of a useful cell signal, where our booster has allowed us to post up and enjoy.
How to Get Mail on the Road
One of the greatest logistical challenges of nomadic life is getting your mail and packages while traveling. In our 5 years on the road we’ve tried out just about every option imaginable. Here we share the best ways we’ve found to get mail and packages on the road.
Friend or Relative: This is the most convenient option if you have a trusted friend or relative who will receive and hold your packages. Often we don’t have an exact date/ tracking for our mail and packages, so having a dedicated address where our mail can land is ideal.
Virtual Mailing Address: Also known as a mail forwarding service, this is a great option for getting mail on the road. For a fee you can have an actual address and someone to receive your mail and notify you when it arrives. There are many options out there, we use iPostal1. Their mobile app makes it easy to stay on top of your mailbox. When a piece of mail or package comes in, they scan the envelope or photograph the package and send a notification. You then have options which you can select right from the app. You can choose to have the enveloped opened and the contents scanned, dispose of the mail, scan and shred, or have it forwarded to you. We use our virtual mailing address as our business address and a family member’s home as our personal address.
General Delivery: Whether you use a relative’s address or a virtual mailing address, you’ll still need to get your mail and packages delivered to you wherever you are. That’s where these next options come in handy. General Delivery via the US Postal Service is the best free option we’ve found. Most (if not all) post offices across the country accept general delivery mail and packages. They’ll hold your package for up to 5-10 days depending on the location. I recommend calling the post office to confirm. You can find all the info for your nearest post office location here. The key is, packages MUST be shipped via USPS to be accepted as general delivery, the post office will not accept packages from UPS, FedEx or other private shippers. In order to get your mail at the nearest PO, just substitute “General Delivery” in lieu of the street name/number, see below.
This can be tricky when it comes to Amazon packages because you can’t tell Amazon who to ship with. We’ve had limited success with Amazon and the Postal Service, so we typically go with other options for our Amazon packages.
Packing & Shipping Stores: Another option for receiving packages on the road is packing and shipping stores. These stores typically ship through all the major carriers and, as such, will receive your packages from any carrier (except USPS). These are typically independently owned stores and are located in most cities and towns. They typically charge a fee to pick up your package ranging from $5 to $10 per package in our experience. Call the store in question for details before having your package shipped as they often require notice that you have a package coming.
UPS and FedEx offer the option to have your packages held at a nearby facility for pickup, though we’ve had limited success so we steer clear of that option.
Amazon Lockers: The convenience of Amazon is unmatched in the online shopping world. And oftentimes Amazon is the only place to find certain items on short notice, and two day shipping with Amazon Prime is a godsend when you’re never in one place for more than a few days. Amazon Lockers are a great way to get your Amazon packages quickly and easily if you don’t have a dedicated address, of course, this only applies to Amazon orders.
Initially Amazon Lockers could only be found in major cities, but the program is growing quickly and lockers can now be found in more than 900 cities and towns across the US. You don’t need Prime to use Amazon Lockers, but then you’re back to slow shipping, typically with a fee for each package. We often wait until we’re planning to be in or around a city and place all our Amazon orders a few days in advance, then we just pick them up when we pass through town. Search for an Amazon Locker location here and simply select that locker as your shipping address at checkout.
Local Businesses: Sometimes local businesses will allow you to ship to their location if you ask nicely. Grocery stores, hotels and sporting goods stores are all places where we’ve found success. This typically works best in small towns. The trick is to call ahead or go in person, explain your situation, and politely ask if they’d be willing to receive and hold a package for you. But don’t be upset if they say no, there are always other options.
RV Parks & Campgrounds: If you’re staying at an RV park or an official campground, they will often receive packages for you. RV parks specialize in accommodating travelers, so this is usually not a problem for them. If it’s a regular campground, make sure it’s one with a staffed office so someone will be around to collect your package. Again, be sure to ask permission before you place your order.
Ship to Store: Many big box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy and Home Depot have site-to-store shipping options on their website. This makes ordering and picking up your items quick and easy. And site-to-store shipping is typically free. We love this option because it saves us the hassle of shopping in the store while our pup waits outside in the van, and we can pick up our order whenever it’s convenient for us.
ESSENTIAL GEAR FOR DIGITAL NOMADS:
Living in a van or other overland rig may not require you to be as minimalist as if you were globetrotting and living out of a backpack, but we humans tend to fill whatever space we have available. And after more than four years on the road, I can tell you that space is always a premium. That being said, there are some essential items that no overland digital nomad should be without.
- Laptop (duh): You can do a lot with a smartphone these days, but if you’re serious about becoming a digital nomad, you’ll need a decent laptop. Mac or PC, everyone has their preference so I’m not gonna lecture you on what brand to choose (we’re an Apple family). A quality laptop is the centerpiece of your office.
- Portable laptop stand, bluetooth keyboard & mouse: A good, comfortable mobile office setup can greatly increase your productivity. We use a Nexstand Laptop Stand, it’s compact, lightweight and affordable. Learn how to set up your rig as a conducive workspace here.
- Smartphone with unlimited data plan: As we discussed previously, using your phone as a mobile hotspot is the most common way to access the internet on the road.
- Hotspot device: These little gadgets are designed for turning cell phone data into internet connection. They still require a service plan through a cell phone provider, but using one of these will save you cell phone data and give a dedicated internet device.
- Cell signal booster: As I mentioned above, a cell booster is a great way to extend your range. There are many options out there. We use a WeBoost Drive X RV.
- Noise canceling headphones w/ built-in microphone: Our office location varies from scenic wilderness, to noisy coffee shops, to cramming into the van on a rainy day. A good pair of noise cancelling headphones is essential for helping you to concentrate in any setting.
- Laptop bag/ backpack: For those WiFi trips to the coffee shop or library, or just taking your office away from the van. Opt for a sturdy bag that can hold all your essential gear.
- Portable USB charger: Because your phone ain’t gonna charge itself.
- External phone charging battery pack: Did I mention charging? When you’re using your phone as a hotspot, the battery drains quickly. Don’t be caught without power.
- Solar charger: Great to have as a backup. There’s nothing like free energy.
- Portable power station: For when you really want to take your office out into the field. There are several great options for portable power stations. We use a Jackery Explorer 500 Portable Power Station and it works great.
- Inverter: This is an essential addition to your rig. Most electronic devices charge via USB, but chances are you’re gonna need some good old-fashion 110V power from time to time. Opt for at least an 800-1,000 watt inverter.
- External hard drive: You never know if or when your computer will crash out on you. Don’t risk losing all your data, photos, videos, etc. Back it up! And if you’re into photography/ videography, I recommend keeping at least two hard drives on hand, one for backup and the other for your working files (and if you’re super diligent, one to back up the backup). Opt for a rugged hard drive that can take a beating. The LaCie 2TB Rugged Mini is the most popular option we’ve found online, though we went with the more budget friendly option, the Silicon Power A60. Both work great. (Side note: don’t rely solely on hard drives for important files, backup everything to the cloud as well. There’s nothing worse than a hard drive failing and realizing it wasn’t properly backed up).
- Bluetooth speaker: Because tunes are great for work or play. There are many great Bluetooth speakers on the market. We’ve been rocking the Ultimate Ears MegaBoom for about 6 years now and it’s still kicking. UE has many different sizes, all are waterproof and rugged as hell.
- Mobile phone projector: Stream Netflix without burning through your precious hotspot data. With a mini mobile projector you can have your own personal theater in your van.
SETTING UP YOUR RIG AS A CONDUCIVE WORKSPACE
There are a few key components to a comfortable rig: a bed, a seating area, and a cooking space. But while you’re setting up your rig to be a comfortable living space, keep in mind that it will oftentimes double as your office as well. Good lighting, an ergonomic desk setup, and a good seat for your seat are crucial aspects.
We work from the van most days with the sliding door and all the windows open so we get plenty light and breeze. But, of course, there are times when the weather is less than ideal. We’ve installed LED light strips throughout the van so we can close everything up and still be productive. Though, when the weather’s perfect, our favorite place to work is outside. We set up our chairs and table and enjoy some blue skies and productivity.
No matter how you choose to set up your rig, make sure it’s comfortable and conducive for you. And equip yourself with some of our essential digital nomad gear from above so you can block out distractions and be as efficient as possible.
CREATING A WORK ROUTINE
One of the perks of being a digital nomad is flexibility and the ability to create your own schedule. But flexibility does not mean complete lack of a routine. If you don’t have at least some structure to your day, you’ll find it can quickly turn into chaos. And if you speak to successful digital nomads, you’ll rarely find one that doesn’t have an established routine.
Productivity is the most important and possibly the most challenging part of being a digital nomad. But developing a routine on the road can be a challenge, especially when you’re not always sure of where you’ll be sleeping at night. Fortunately, there are some tools you can use to create and stick to healthy habits on the road.
Here are some of our tips for creating and maintaining a healthy routine on the road:
- Wake up at the same time every day, or roughly the same time.
- Avoid checking your phone, email, social media before you get out of bed in the morning.
- Journal. Noami and I use Best Self daily journals which have been a game changer in helping us structure our days.
- Set aside some time each morning and evening for self-reflection and gratitude.
- Get dressed for work. It can be tempting to roll out of bed in your p.j.’s and get right to work in all that comfort. But spending the day in your p.j.’s makes it all too easy to slide right back into bed. And getting into fresh clothes can have a psychological effect that can tell you it’s time to start the day.
- Set working hours and try to stick to them. You’ll no doubt need to flex from time to time, but return to your regular hours as soon as you can.
- Exercise. We all know it’s good for our health, but developing a workout routine can really help structure your day and greatly boost productivity.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet. You’re not productive if you’re hungry, and junk food just makes us lazy. A healthy mind and body are the most important things for a productive lifestyle.
- Take regular breaks. Go for a walk or jog, take a hike, step away from the computer and reset. If you’re working on creative projects even a short walk can get the blood flowing and stimulate creativity.
- Take naps. You are your own boss for a reason, right? Schedule a nap into your workday. You’ll likely come back feeling refreshed and ready for round two.
Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, you are serious about becoming a digital nomad.
We’ve done our best to share with you what we’ve learned in our more than four years on the road. We don’t have it all figured out, but we are learning and growing and sharing along the way. We will continue to share digital nomad resources here on irietoaurora.com. Sign up for our newsletter so you don’t miss a post.
Remember, digital nomads come in all shapes and sizes, flavors and styles. Whatever your reasons or concerns, the best way to get started is to jump in. Trust in yourself and know that you will figure it out.
There is a wonderful community of digital nomads out there. Reach out and connect with others. There is no better encouragement than finding other people who are trying to figure it out just like you.
If you’ve gained something from this guide or found it helpful in any way, we’d really appreciate it if you’d share it on social media.
And if you have questions about how to become a digital nomad, or if there’s something you feel we’ve left out, or if you’d like to share your own digital nomad story, please send us an email. We’d love to hear from you. And share your thoughts in the comments.