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Tough Love

Don't Compare Your Life to Instagram

How to handle the ups and downs of nomadic life

I've been nomadic, voluntarily, for six months. (Photo: David Hanson/Cavan)
woman living by herself in a van

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Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at toughlove@outsideim.com.


I’ve been nomadic, or as my mother likes to say, “voluntarily homeless with a general sense of direction and goals,” for six months now. I was working in wilderness therapy in Utah for two years and slowly phased out of the job. I’ve been pretty much living off that remaining money (and the low-paying, short-term camp-counseling gigs I picked up for two months this summer) and accruing some credit-card debt. Aside from weeklong wilderness-therapy shifts here and there, and the camp-counseling gigs, I travel around the country to national parks, monuments, historical sites, forests, and any spot of nature I can find. 

I’m so grateful to be in my twenties and exploring so much of our beautiful nation, and I honestly feel silly and guilty when I’m anxious on the road or start to struggle. Sometimes when I confide in people about the challenges I’ve hit—like not feeling safe by myself at a place I’ve decided to sleep, or the loneliness I feel on and off, or my lack of showering and basic hygiene—I think I should just suck it up and not complain, because after all, I’m fortunate to be able to travel as much as I have. And I know that being nomadic was a conscious choice that I voluntarily (and proudly, at the time) made. 

So the advice I’m looking for involves managing mental health as a solo female nomad. I know plenty of people in the Four Corners region who do the nomad thing and have been doing it for way longer than me (another reason I feel silly for expressing my frustrations with it), and I just want to know their secret to not slipping into as many bouts of anxiety as I have and not doubting their decision to not have a stable, traditional home situation. A lot of Instagram influencers who I follow (I know, I know) do the whole #vanlife thing with their significant others. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t make those ladies any less independent, I think being a solo female nomad brings about unique challenges that publications or podcasts don’t talk about enough. 

I had my first-ever panic attack in a parking lot of a dingy gas station in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the middle of a crazy heat advisory, and I have never felt so alone, isolated, misunderstood, full of self-doubt, and confused. Why did I think traveling this consistently alone would be the right move in my life while I’m already confused and lost enough in my late twenties? How do people who are nomadic do this lifestyle more sustainably than me and not lose their shit? Am I stupid or silly for even thinking I could do this nomad life as a single woman? 

When I read about your experience, I don’t think stupid or silly for an instant. I think: Adventurous. Brave. Inspiring. You’ve spent six months traveling and exploring nature—alone—which is six months longer than many people will travel alone in their whole lives. You’ve done a rare and difficult thing, and you’ve come all this way by yourself. Before thinking about anything else, before worrying what your feelings mean, try to sit with that pride for a moment. Remember the sunrises you’ve seen, the wilderness you’ve explored, the moments you weren’t sure you’d get through. You did that, all by yourself. That’s freaking amazing. 

Of course your relationship with the open road is evolving. If it wasn’t, I’d be worried. It just means you’re growing and changing, which is one of the benefits of living on the road in the first place.

The fact that not everyone gets to travel doesn’t mean you should sugarcoat the harder parts of your life. If anything, it means you should seek out people with whom you can confide so you aren’t trapped in the disconnect of pretending that everything’s great. Think about it this way: a lot of people want to be astronauts, but that doesn’t mean astronauts aren’t allowed to struggle with the fact that they have to, like, pee into a vacuum. Or that they’re literally not on earth; that’s gotta be lonely, even when it’s great. It’s absolutely fair for you to reach out to friends and say, “Hey, parts of this lifestyle are hard for me. Can I talk through what I’m grappling with?” Sharing those truths, vulnerable as it may feel, is important precisely because no one’s saying them. Imagine if some of the #vanlifers you follow on Instagram talked openly about fears of violence or struggling to get their prescriptions filled. You’d feel more connected to the community, not less. You’d admire the people who had the courage to be honest, and maybe it would help you find that honesty in yourself.

Because social media is a story about our lives. It’s a way to envision the lifestyle we want, the person we want to become. Use Instagram for inspiration, not to build expectations. Or use it to tell a true story, a helpful story, of your own.

It seems like you’re focusing more on your identity as a nomad than on your actual needs. Make a list of the reasons you wanted to live a nomadic lifestyle in the first place. Maybe you wanted to see beautiful places, or get past a difficult period in your life, or discover who you really are. Write it all down. Now go through those reasons one by one. Do you feel that you’ve made progress on them? Do any of them feel more or less urgent than they did six months ago? What is it you’re looking for in your life right now? And finally, once you’ve figured out what you’re looking for—is living on the road still the best way to achieve that?

You can absolutely live a successful nomadic life as a single woman if you want to. The trick is to understand that success isn’t about visiting the most national parks or logging the most consecutive months (or years) on the road. Success as a nomad is about discovering the life that works best for you. Maybe that means traveling six months a year instead of 12, or bringing friends along on road trips, or even finding your favorite place and settling down. Maybe it means continuing your current lifestyle but with a stronger support system—like a long-distance therapist or regular phone dates with loved ones. Life on the road teaches you to be flexible, to be self-reliant, to explore, and to dream. You’ll carry those skills wherever you go.

Filed To: NatureRoad TripsNational ParksSocial Media
Lead Photo: David Hanson/Cavan
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