7 Lessons Learned from Living on the Road


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For five months my partner and I have been on a perpetual vacation, living off-the-grid in our Toyota 4Runner as modern vagabonds of the American West. That’s right, we said goodbye to the house, ditched the trailer and downsized to a truck (AKA our teeny tiny house), pictured above in central Nevada.

Camped out in New Mexico

Our makeshift RV
Michael removed the backseat and outfitted this 4-wheel-drive SUV with a cozy sleeping platform, privacy window shades, and a Thule roof box we affectionately call “upstairs.”

Sunrise at the end of the road (Carrizo Badlands, California)

We carry with us a large cooler of fresh food, a box of dry food, and two 6-gallon water containers so we can be boondocking out in the middle of nowhere for a week or two without having to resupply. 

Inspired by Leo Babauta’s 38 lessons learned, I wanted to create my own message for anyone inspired to travel the way we do. Here are the 7 most valuable lessons I learned from 5 months of living on the road:

1. You don’t need as much stuff as you think you need.
Really. If you have very little stuff it’s easier to move, clean up, pack up, and keep important items at arm’s reach.

2. Go slow.
There’s no reason to rush. Don’t make concrete plans. Engage with where you’re at rather than worrying about where you gotta be next. If you have stumbled upon someplace pleasant, stay an extra day or two. Why not?

3. Go the opposite direction everyone else is going.
OK, so we have our biases (my sweetie and I are both rather introverted) but I think everyone could appreciate the outdoors a little more if they had it to themselves. We often pass up campgrounds and weekend crowds to make use of remote dirt roads and startlingly quiet public lands.

4. Leave a place better than you found it.
Carry out an extra bag of trash, even if it’s not yours. It’s good for the ecosystem and your karma.

5. Be nice to strangers.
Ask questions. Talk to the locals especially. They often have the inside scoop on the places you’re headed, and maybe even a good story or two. On the loneliest highway you never know when you might need their help.

6. Reward yourself with small pleasures.
When you are away from modern conveniences for so long, it’s important to treat yourself well. For us we splurge on good, healthy, fresh food at the grocery store (and a fair amount of chocolate too). We also figure in plenty of leisure time for reading books.

7. Get creative.
Get lost. Make it up as you go along. It’s not about where you’re going, but how you go.

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macrobe 08/23/2011 at 5:38 am

Been doing this on a small 350cc motorcycle (street-legal dirt bike) over many years. 🙂 Fun, isn’t it?

Eugene 08/23/2011 at 6:33 am

Awesome. Couple of questions.

1. Can you give more details about the car like; year, price, milage.
2. What do you do for pooping and showering? (I assume no hot showers)
3. What about say, extremely cold weather and such?

Hillary 08/23/2011 at 7:16 am

Macrobe: we could probably learn from you! We have way too much stuff for that kind of arrangement.

Hi Eugene, The vehicle is a 2000 Toyota 4Runner. Fuel economy is rather poor, but for an “RV” it’s decent. If you want to know more details about our leave no trace style of camping, those are all questions I’m addressing at a later date.

ellen 08/23/2011 at 8:27 am

Having downsized out living arrangements I thnk it’s time to downsize our camping arrangements. You guys look cozy!

Hillary 08/23/2011 at 8:29 am

Ellen, go for it. 🙂 Our setup is super-cozy!

Anita 08/23/2011 at 6:26 pm

I love following your adventures these pics are definitely cozy looking!
So are you guys living off savings, working as you go….?
Where does the money come from?

Hillary 08/23/2011 at 8:45 pm

Hi Anita, glad you enjoy it! We try to keep our expenses low — we are mostly living on savings. Like most people, the money comes from working. We are just regular people. 🙂

Alex 08/24/2011 at 11:04 am

Looks like so much fun! Something Andrea and I plan on doing some day soon. 🙂

Hillary 08/25/2011 at 8:52 am

Good for you, Alex! I highly recommend it.

April 08/25/2011 at 1:36 pm

We did something similar down the west coast of Mexico a few years back, camping as we went, checking in with locals and staying away from tourist traps. We only had one dog at the time, a great traveling pit bull named Lazlo, and the three of us had an awesome adventure. Your post makes me want to get my long-term-roadtripping shoes on again!

anissa 08/30/2011 at 4:06 am

hoorah, i missed you here – love from the 80msq busy house with the very big views here in nz xx

Hillary 08/31/2011 at 5:15 pm

So nice to see your name pop up here, Anissa! Thinking of you and our friends back at TO these days…

Jessica 09/01/2011 at 4:37 pm

Amazing! My husband and I did a mini-roadtrip at the beginning of June on our way to find a place to live. Sold half of our stuff, packed up the rest into the second-smallest Uhaul we could rent, and towed it with our VW beetle. Nothing nearly as simple as what you did, but awesome nonetheless, especially the feeling of knowing that all the stuff we owned in the world was right with us. Did you sell your house and your trailer? Or just said a “temporary” goodbye?

Hillary 09/02/2011 at 7:00 am

Temporary goodbye describes it, yes. 🙂 That sounds like an adventure, Jessica. Quite a sight, too, with a beetle towing a trailer, I imagine.

Cassandra 03/28/2012 at 1:48 am

Awesome! I started out in a Saturn (car…too small!) then upgraded to a n ’86 4Runner. Amazing way to live, the US is an incredible landmass and can only truly be experienced while living in a 4Runner in the depths of small, dirt paths 🙂

Cassandra 03/28/2012 at 1:50 am

Oh yeah! And I would add: Stay organized. I find this very important for keeping sanity intact in the little truck home!

Hillary 07/02/2013 at 5:54 pm

Yes! That goes along with #1. The less you have, the easier it is to organize it.

Kristen 07/01/2013 at 9:11 am

Question for you guys…
What kind of funds did you live off of and how did you plan your trip?

My Boyfriend of 5 years and I are considering a similar adventure but first we have to figure out the logistics; ie how to postpone our lives at home; jobs, rent, etc. And how much we need to save to be able to do this stress free.

It’s very inspiring to see that you guys did this, thank you!

Hillary 07/02/2013 at 5:44 pm

You’re welcome Kris.
We worked hard at reducing our possessions, reducing our expenses, increasing our savings.
Good luck!

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