Veteran Explains How to Live a Comfortable Nomadic Life With a Rich Social Life

If you live nomadic, you don’t need to live without comforts.

So if you travel and miss comfort, you need to read this interview with nomad Aaron Freed.

Below, Aaron shares some of his best tips on how to live a comfortable nomadic life. He talks about his favorite gear, and explains the benefits and drawbacks of location independence! (including a biggie that many people don’t consider before they become nomads)

Nomad Aaron Freed
Establishing myself as a digital nomad in Tunisia

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Aaron Freed. I was born in Montana, raised in Cairo, Seattle, and Islamabad. I spent four years at the Air Force Academy before spending 12 years on active duty. I was stationed in California, Texas, Illinois, Saudi Arabia, DC, and New Jersey. Though not related to my work in the military, I now mainly freelance in data analysis and visualization.

At the moment, I am in Andorra. As Andorra is not in the Schengen zone, it is a place where I can reset my visa clock for the rest of Europe. It’s also a great place to work off the pounds I seem to put on so easily as I eat my way around the continent.

Nomad Aaron Freed
Pebbles, dead in Montana

How and why did you become a nomad?

My journey began on the 21st of August 2011 at 10am, exactly 90 days (to the minute) after I had decided to ‘run away’. The financial crisis of 2008 had wiped me out (I was a tech entrepreneur and heavily invested in real estate) so I had to ‘recommecer à zéro” as the french would say. Three years post bubble and I was still stuck in a serious rut, so I thought that a change of scenery might do me some good. So, I hopped on a motorcycle (a 1980 Yamaha XS-1100 Special named ‘Pebbles’) and then hopped on a ferry heading for the peninsula (I was living in Seattle at the time).

Why is having a nomadic life important for you?

I hadn’t left with the intention of being a nomad. My plan was only “Beirut or Bust” by way of Alaska and without using airplanes. This would involve hitchhiking sailboats across the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean sea. I didn’t know how long it would take me, but I recall thinking that I would be settled in Lebanon within six months to two-years from departure. Well, somewhere in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of night, in the middle of June (2012), on the deck of the ‘Jack Iron’ I decided that life on the road was not without merit. It was then that I decided to be a nomad.

Nomad Aaron Freed
Chott el Djerid – the salt lake of Tunisia

What have been the best parts of being a nomad?

Food readily comes to mind as does the ever-changing scenery. But I suppose the best part – for me – is the story. People find my story interesting and by extension, they find me interesting. I like feeling interesting. I also believe that the best part is yet to come: the pleasure that memories will bring to my older self.

What have been the most difficult parts?

I often say that I am ‘unstuck’ – I have escaped the grind, the often tedious patterns of life/survival in western civilization. I like being unstuck but it does come at a price. I pay for it in many ways, but the most costly is being disconnected. That is to say, social isolation. The problem is exacerbated by being a digital nomad; working online isn’t a great way to meet people. I did spend eight months in Tunisia early on in order to get myself established (I subsisted on 10 euro a day, 5 for a bed in a hostel in the middle of the Medina, and 5 for food).

While in Tunisia, I worked part time teaching English to pilots. By working ‘offline’ as a teacher, I became part of a community. I had friends with whom I could share experiences. I had a social calendar. I miss that. So, yeah, social isolation is a biggie.

I also have found bad WIFI to be a scourge and one more thing: I find it’s often the little things that are the most difficult part…the proverbial pebble in the shoe. As a nomad, I am regularly in new places. This means that I am often lost, or that i don’t have the WIFI password, or that I don’t know where the light switch is, or what the right setting for the shower is. All of these little things all of the time add up and take their toll. But they are, admittedly, also part of the fun.

Nomad Aaron Freed
Boathitching across the Atlantic Ocean

Where do you live as a nomad?

For the first few years, my budget required that I stay in hostels, in dorm rooms. But between the snorers, and the zippers, and the constant crinkle of plastic bags, I couldn’t do it anymore. Though hostel private rooms cost more, being better rested meant I could be more productive.

Hotels (generally two-star) and Airbnbs are where I am staying more often these days. I generally like to stay in city centers, or as close to them as possible. Though, I am getting better at finding quiet suburban apartments proximate to city centers that are well serviced by public transportation. This affords me the best of all worlds, and sometimes (though surprisingly not as often or as much one might expect) it ends up saving me money.

Nomad Aaron Freed
Sundowner in the Cinque Terre

Where do you usually work?

I like to work lying down so I work from bed unless I am in an apartment with a comfy couch, in which case I work from the couch. I can’t seem to bring myself to sit at a cafe. Besides, the temptation of pastries is too strong. There have been some coworking spaces that I’ve enjoyed, though generally the cost/benefit analysis sends me back to bed.

How do you build a social life as a nomad?

I think having an ‘offline’ job is the quickest entree into a community, as my experience in Tunisia bore out. I met a nomad several years ago whose strategy was to hitchhike into cities so that he knew someone upon arrival. I suppose I could try doing something similar by using ‘blablacar’ more often (but trains are just so convenient!). Other options include InterNations events and Couchsurfing meetups (though I’ve only tried the former). And though they haven’t panned out for me (likely because of how infrequently I frequent them), I think that coworking spaces can be fertile ground for connections.

How do you finance your nomadic life?

As mentioned, I am a freelance consultant. My savings rate is embarrassingly low, but I don’t work full time. My biggest expenses are food and lodging. Transportation adds up since I am on a train once a week and train travel in Europe can be pricey. I don’t spend much on entertainment as I’m content to experience a place through its cuisine and just wandering the streets. I don’t feel the need to go into that many sites (unless they are simply ‘de rigueur’); call me the lazy nomad. But I suppose that my VPN, iTunes, Netflix, and HBO Now subscriptions ought to be counted against my entertainment budget!

Nomad Aaron Freed
Camping on the Camino De Santiago

What kind of gear do you bring with you?

I almost have this down to a science. I say ‘almost’ because of a recent indiscretion regarding my luggage. For my first five years, I traveled with the Osprey Farpoint 65. I loved it… unfussy and rugged, it served me well and never seemed to age.

But this last Christmas, out of vanity, I treated myself to some ‘proper’ leather luggage, worthy of a global adventure. I get lots of compliments now, but it’s impractical. So, I’ve just ordered myself an Osprey Sojourn 80. I have found that I need to plan for about 20 minutes of walking with my luggage for each departure and arrival. Being able to wheel my luggage through a train station and then throw it on my back for the walk to my lodging is ideal.

Also, the bag is built more like a trunk than a backpack, so I don’t have to be constantly stuffing and digging for things. Ain’t nobody got time for that! To add, the bag is structured in such a way that I can easily lash a yoga mat and a coat to the outside. So, that covers the bag. I use Eagle Creek Packing Cubes to help fight entropy.

As for clothes, layering is key. It enables me to pack for year-round weather conditions without creating a bulk problem. As for material, I have two words for you: Merino wool. It is lightweight, it really does dry quickly, it really doesn’t wrinkle (much), it really does seem to keep you cool when it’s hot and hot when it’s cool, and it really doesn’t stink even after long periods or wear without washing. One warning, however: steer clear of 150-weight and below, it’ll fall apart within one season. I go for 200-weight, which seems to increase the lifespan exponentially (I have one shirt that is going on several years now).

Nomad Aaron Freed
Day of departure

What has been your best gear purchase below $100?

Earplugs and “eye mask”. For earplugs, I recommend FLARE Audio ISOLATE MiNi. For the “eye mask”, I recommend a merino wool buff. I’m hesitant to mention this third item because the company has the most egregiously incompetent customer service, but the Twist+ World Charging Station by OneAdaptr is the best product of its kind that I’ve found.

Finally, though linen clothes have never done it for me, my Outlier Grid Linen Towel is one of my favorite things. Most travel towels suck; this one does not and makes me feel like a normal human being.

What is your best advice for new nomads?

As for getting started, my recommendation is to do as I did: set a timer and tell everyone you’re going. As for how to live the life, I don’t think it is possible to get it “wrong” as it’s your journey. Do it your way. That said, I would advise trying to find a rhythm and to make yourself comfortable.

The nomadic lifestyle is as exhausting as it is rewarding; a lot of energy is expended in moving and Science says that we don’t sleep as well in new places as we do in our homes. For my part, I move once a week, on Sundays. This allows me to set up a weekly routine of work and exercise (running is a fantastic way to explore!) with cultural experiences in the evenings and on the weekends.

Most nights, I like to have a glass of wine and read a book on my Kindle. I have a fantastic bluetooth speaker (i started with a SoundMatters foxL DASH7 and recently upgraded to a Bose SoundLink Revolve) so that I can fill my space with music and a Playbulb LED Candle to add to the ambience. I even travel with pillow spray to help bring ‘home’ with me wherever I go.

Finally, a lightweight track suit that has some wind/rain resistance is a must for those quick outings and/or lazy days where you just don’t want to put on proper clothing.

Nomad Aaron Freed
Feeling good in Corsica

What will the future bring?

I plan on spending one more year in Europe, which will make seven years of nomadic living. Next summer, I’d like to finish boat hitching the Mediterranean (and finally reach Beirut!) before heading into Africa for a few years. I’ve built a spreadsheet that maps out my route around the world and eventually back “home”. By my calculations, I’ll arrive in Seattle on August 21st, 2035.

I notice that you cover a lot of bicycle adventurers and nomads. Early on, I had designs on cycling Africa. As I had never been a cyclist, I thought that it would behoove me to give it a try in environments more forgiving than the dark continent. So, I cycled the UK from Land’s End to John o’ Groats (via Ireland). I cycled the Camino De Santiago and I cycled from Andorra, across Southern France and up its west coast. I found life on a bike to be difficult and I found that it made me fat. I would spend my hours on the bike eating gummy bears for fuel and developing a sense of entitlement for glutinous dinners. As i felt i needed to move everyday, I couldn’t establish the rhythm and routine that I deem so important. I’m not certain that I will have more biking adventures to come.

Follow Aaron Freed on his website, on Instagram, and on Twitter

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One Comment

  1. 10 euros a day in Tunisia (how I found this page)… you make me feel soft! Hardcore, loved it. Couldn’t help look up that backpack (now in 75).

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