Nomad with a van needs a plan
August 19, 2009 8:54 AM   Subscribe

I am entertaining the idea of selling almost everything I own, buying a van and becoming a temporary nomad, going from farm to farm around North America for work. Is this an inherently horrible idea? If it's not, does anyone have tips on making it work?

I'm fascinated by the idea of spending a year or so driving around with my dog and spending a month or two at a place, working and learning and then moving on. I'm 27 years old, a single female, in reasonably good health and with minimal debt, but also with minimal savings. I'd like to try living very cheaply and exchanging work for food and perhaps a little cash on farms. (Think WWOOFing, not ConAgra)

What supplies would I need? What sort of van would be best for this? Are late-1990s American minivans reliable? (This is what I usually see for sale in my price range.) What am I not thinking of?
posted by youcancallmeal to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I lived as an itinerant carpenter for a year or so. I did have solid skills and my own tools so that was a bit of an advantage. I had a cellphone and insurance as my only bills so I really only needed to work about a week per month. I had friends all over, which meant I had a ready network of people who might need a carpenter. I summered in the north and wintered in the south as our nomadic ancestors did for darn good reason.

The west tends to be more open to this than the east. The National Park Pass is your friend. Security is your number one issue, but not reason not to do this. Just be careful.

My favorite bit of advice is that when you are in the south not to have bumper stickers that say, "I believe in things you don't."
posted by mearls at 9:06 AM on August 19, 2009 [6 favorites]

There are surely good reasons not to do this, but none of them are, "because you'll wish you'd spent that time in an office".

Anecdota, and small sample size, but I have known three late 90's minivans. Two Dodge, one Toyota, that continue to run and give every indication of doing so until the end of time.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:08 AM on August 19, 2009

For clarification, by WWOOF do you mean World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms/Willing Workers on Organic Farms?

Without weighing in on the whole plan, why are you looking at a van specifically? Sure you can haul more things, but as a single person (plus your dog), it would seem a compact car could serve you better. If nothing else, you'd get much better gas mileage.

As a single man in my late 20s and no agricultural background to speak of, this sounds exciting and scary. Looking at the fact that you're a single female, I'm a bit worried for your personal safety, unless WWOOF is a relatively safe group and you're confident of your own security.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:09 AM on August 19, 2009

While this sounds like a lovely fantasy (emphasis), and I have no idea what your prospects for work actually are (do you actually know of any yourself?), I would recommend a big trial run of living in a van with your dog for at least a couple of weeks before you jump feet first into selling everything and taking off. While you are doing this, notice how many times you are tied to your car because you can't leave the dog in the van for more than a few minutes.
posted by sageleaf at 9:13 AM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that's the WWOOF that I have in mind. The reason I want a van is so that I have a place to sleep and so that my dog will have space to stretch out while we drive. I'm not really worried about my safety on the farms and I feel that the dog provides a good deterrent for trouble otherwise. I just feel like there must be some reason not to do this that I'm totally overlooking.
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:14 AM on August 19, 2009

I haven't done this, and it sounds great. But some things you might want to think about:

1. Health insurance. Will you have it? MA's the only state where it's mandatory now, but that might change in the near future. Even if not, you'll probably want it. If you get into an accident, the last thing you want to worry about with no real income is ambulance/emergency room fees. Also, make sure to get a comprehensive physical before you leave, so that you know for sure that you're in good health. Do the same for your dog.
2. Car insurance, plus a good chunk of money set aside to cover on-the-road repairs. I'm sure you have car insurance now, but does it cover things you might encounter?
3. Taxes. Figure out if you'll have to pay any.
4. Self-defense classes would probably be a good idea for a single woman traveling alone. Guns and mace have varying degrees of legality in different parts of the country, so you probably don't want to deal with that (also, boo guns), but knowing how to throw a punch and being in good enough shape to run fast would probably be enough.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:14 AM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

More leaning towards the van side of the question, check this out (there is even a section called nomad in a minivan). Also some details on working at camp sites (which isn't a farm, but could fill in some months).
posted by syntheticfaith at 9:23 AM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Since you're on MeFi I bet you're planning to take a laptop. You should probably have an online backup.
posted by yesno at 9:24 AM on August 19, 2009

PS- I have a good friend (female, 22) who recently drove from New York to Colorado alone. She's about to start the drive back. We were all terrified, but it doesn't sound like she's run into any real trouble so far (knock on wood). One thing that she did that I think was smart is that she made sure to stop and check in with family friends en route-- that way, she could see a friendly face and know she'd have some hospitality and a safe place to sleep every few days.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:24 AM on August 19, 2009

I just feel like there must be some reason not to do this that I'm totally overlooking.

Well, sure, there might be a hundred. But what you should do is focus on the reasons why you SHOULD do it, which you have not really laid out for us, and don't need to. I think it's a great idea. Back in 1971 I wandered around the country (in a compact car), living off my savings and learning a lot. I recommend it. But your idea of working at organic farms adds a dimension with a lot of possibilities. I'd be thinking about writing a book, getting some freelance magazine assignments, and doing a blog of your experiences.
posted by beagle at 9:25 AM on August 19, 2009

Also: I've driven across the country about a half dozen times already, both by myself and not. So, that helps me think that I can actually do this.
posted by youcancallmeal at 9:27 AM on August 19, 2009

My number-one question is: what is your exit strategy?

That is, at the end of your adventure, how are you going to successfully transition from someone who lives in their car into someone who lives in an apartment?

You say you have minimal savings, but before doing this you need to perhaps save up some money to get you started again, plus you need to make sure you have a job or source of income after the year ends.

I have the suspicion that your year working on farms may very well lead into a new career.

But for heaven's sake, make sure you don't end up living in your car after your year-long sojourn ends.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:52 AM on August 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine (also single and female) did something a bit similar -- though I think it was just for a summer -- where she went around the country living and working at various intentional communities. I believe that she generally worked in the garden or the kitchen for room and board, staying for a week or for longer at a time. She had a great time.

Good luck! This sounds like a great adventure.
posted by cider at 10:03 AM on August 19, 2009

It sounds great to me except for two thoughts. A station wagon with the back seat folded down would fit an air-mattress (plus you would get four windows to roll down as opposed to just two in most late nineties vans) because a mini-van seems like overkill for what you want. On that topic, you will want to look into screen covers for the open windows when you are sleeping. Considering the amount of driving it may be cheaper over the long haul to pay more upfront for a vehicle that is efficient instead of seeing your weekly budget going out your exhaust pipe. Since you are planning on spending a month or two at a place would it make sense financially to rent a vehicle just for the trips between farms? My other thought was I wondered if your dog would be welcomed on the farms? Unless you have trained him for herding and you were only going to farms where he could work I would think many farms would already have enough on their plate with their own dogs/animals that they wouldn't have anywhere to keep him safely (and trust him not to damage their property) while you work. That also doesn't sound fun for him, going from being cooped up in the car for hours to being in an unfamiliar pen/room while you are gone for long periods.
posted by saucysault at 10:07 AM on August 19, 2009

Many people have sold their houses to travel the world by bike. Heinz Stücke is a famous example.
posted by fire&wings at 10:13 AM on August 19, 2009

I think this sounds like fun and doable. The only thing I would worry about is what your dog is going to do while you are working. Also, you should try and get everything lined up ahead of time so you aren't floundering much. During harvest seasons, it is going to be hot hot hot and you will need some kind of ventilated shelter for him/her. I know some farms that hire seasonal help do offer some housing for employees, but I don't know about for dogs. I have some agricultural connections and have done agrarian labor. It can be rewarding work. Some things to think about: Do you have any seasonal allergies, hayfever or asthma? These things can make working outdoors with crops impossible. Can you handle being in the sun for long amounts of time? Have you ever driven a combine or tractor? Are you comfortable using power and hand tools to do things like fix or put up fencing? Do you have a good strong back? Because you are a chick, you are going to have to be prepared to prove yourself by working your ass off and being strong.

Other stuff to think about: a good cell phone plan and a way to charge your cell phone. Good auto insurance so you can get a tow if your van breaks down.
posted by pluckysparrow at 10:16 AM on August 19, 2009

I've wwoofed all over the place as a single female, and basically every experience was fantastic! Of all my travel fantasies, I consider a solid year of wwoofing the most easily doable. Enjoy!
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 10:26 AM on August 19, 2009

I think it's worth thinking about what Kokuryu said. When you mention selling everything you own, would that involve you having enough money stashed away so that after your year of nomadishness, would you be able to cease being a nomad? Downward mobility is the easy part. For my part, I think of the migrant laborers who are already in the pattern you seem to want to enter. Most people doing migrant farm labor aren't there because they want to be. If you're there because you want to be, just make sure that you're able to leave when you decide it's time to do something else.

Also, be open to aspects of what you do turning into viable career options. Who knows who you might meet, and where that might take you?
posted by Ghidorah at 10:53 AM on August 19, 2009

I think most studios/dojos offer a free introductory karate/tae kwon do/self defense class. Maybe when you are traveling, you can sign up for them so you can get some area awareness training and a few moves. I do not know if you are a black belt so this advice may be moot.
posted by spec80 at 11:47 AM on August 19, 2009

The best way to find out if this is a good idea for you is to simply try living in a van now while you still have a safety net of a place to stay and a job. Pack the van with what you think you need and try living in it for a week or two. I realize that you do not have a van yet, but buying a van and finding out that you or your dog do not like that style of living is worth the expense. It also allows you to find out exactly what equipment you really need. You can always resell the van if you decide that you do not like it. People from several different professions do this as a way of life and love it. But I would try living the life before committing everything to it.
posted by calumet43 at 12:12 PM on August 19, 2009

I plan on doing something very similar - sans the dog and organic farming (my plan involves workamping and temp jobs) - and my nomadic ways will be a bit more permanent. My advice is to research, research, research... The link that syntheticfaith put up is a valuable resource, and there are tons of nomads outside of the United States who have converted their vans into livable spaces and posted their stories online. There's also a yahoo group called "vandwellers" who've been there/done that and are still on the road. They might be able to answer your questions too.

Good luck!
posted by patheral at 1:34 PM on August 19, 2009

I considered doing this this summer, too, while in-between jobs (minus the dog, and with a compact gas-efficient car instead -- if you're WWOOFing, you don't need to be sleeping in a van. They often give room and board.)

I am fortunate that even though my last work position was terminated, I ended up finding a position that, while it would take a few months before I could start/get paid, the job would be ready for me when I finished my nomadicism. So, as mentioned up-thread by K, think about your exit strategy.

Besides that, here are the caveats I ran into, some of which have been aforementioned, but I'll re-mention since this is what ultimately prevented me from doing it:

1) Health insurance: Even for a few months, I didn't have enough savings to pay COBRA.

2) Gas/travelling costs money: Seems like a no-brainer, but keep in mind that a lot of WWOOFFing farms don't give you money, rather they give you room and board in exchange for labor. While that is awesome, to be a "nomad" and see more of the country, this implies driving, and gas, and this costs money... and, again (for me) finances would not permit it.

3) Coordination/Internet access (somewhat joking about the latter): Many WWOOFF farms want to know in advance if you're coming, so they can estimate what kind of help they will get. Some want long-term committments from "apprentices" who want to learn their style of farming (which means staying through the entire season). How will you line your gigs up? It's doable (consider the seasons, parts of the country, types of farms), but a challenge.

Drop-in farming may be possible, but see point #2 about how much gas/$ you'll be spending "dropping in" to find that they have enough workers, don't need you, etc.

Not to tarnish (y)/our dreams, but I came to the conclusion that this trek is best undertaken after lots of careful planning, saving up some money for unexpected costs/travel, and perhaps doing a farming stint in one location to see how you like it. Good luck if/when you decide to do it!
posted by NikitaNikita at 1:35 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

we own a 1998 Dodge Caravan that we bought expressly for the purpose of my long-distance travel solo. i've used it twice in that regard, and i think it has worked very well. a single futon mattress you can roll up fits back there quite well with all the seats left out, window covers for night-time... the best part, i found, is that i feel very secure in a van with tinted windows--people don't exactly know you're alone. also, mini-vans are essentially stealth vehicles--invisibility is a great thing. i would never feel the same sense of security in a car or a station wagon.

i've met many women on the road who've undertaken these sorts of journeys. it's not that difficult, and people in intentional communities or farms and that are very helpful folks. i do recommend picking up some of those Free Campgrounds books in the travel section of your local bookstore. don't stay in rest areas, of course. Walmart parking lots are great in a pinch. if things go south, don't be afraid to dumpster dive. :-)

your main difficulty would be the making enough money to move part.
posted by RedEmma at 3:29 PM on August 19, 2009

Supplies: Please bring a copy of Travels with Charley with you.

You will need to collect (snail) mail. You can have a family member send it to you by General Delivery (which means you pick it up at the Post Office for the ZIP code). Or, sign up with a mail forwarding service (which is what a lot of full-time RVers do).
posted by Houstonian at 4:35 PM on August 19, 2009

My brother is currently living in the national parks. Somewhere.

He was supposed to come home about three days ago, but as yet there's no sign of him. No one's spoken to him in a couple of months now, and while I certainly don't have a great relationship with him, I'd kinda like to know that he's okay.

So speaking from the position of someone who's on the other side of a similar equation, I would respectfully submit that if you have a family, or if you've friends who'll worry about you, take a phone and either a kinetic or solar-powered charger. Consider, if you're taking a laptop or if you'll have time to stop at libraries, keeping a simple blog, just something like "Well, here it is [date], and I'm in [location]! This is pretty awesome. I remain in reasonably good health and also not dead."

Even prepaid phones are internet-capable now. (I have one through Boost Mobile, and we pay 30c a day for unlimited internet access.) There's no reason not to post a ten-word blog post once a week.

This sounds like a fantastic adventure, and I realize that what you're doing is a hell of a lot safer than what my brother's doing, but people will worry about you anyhow. Please consider doing something like this so that they have some idea of where and how you are. In the unlikely event that something goes wrong, this information may be crucial, and in the event that nothing does, you'll be doing your bit to keep your mother sane.
posted by MeghanC at 8:41 PM on August 19, 2009

Re: Health insurance...many ag communities have migrant farmworker programs that would help pay for emergency care if you can prove that you make more than 51% of your income from farm work.

My bigger concern is...have you ever done farm work before? It's back-breaking. I mean, I assume you know this, I just hope you know to what extent.
posted by kattyann at 9:02 PM on August 19, 2009

VW vans are perfect for exactly this kind of living. I'm on a yahoo group that's all about living in your camper van. I've only done it on extended travels around the country for a month or two in my 85 vanagon, but there are many on the list, including women, who seem to thrive on it. I'm biased, but don't go with an Anerican minivan. It won't have nearly as many features like storage, stove, sink, etc that VW perfected and you'll find useful. A VW also comes with a numerous communities of supporters and van owners around the country willing to help in a pinch. They do, of course, come with some cultural baggage but they're fun to drive and you get a great view of the country from over the wheels. Good luck and follow your bliss.
posted by pappy at 9:08 PM on August 19, 2009

This page has a lot of helpful hints when it comes chosing a vehicle - which I believe was part of the original question. Check it out.
posted by patheral at 9:45 PM on August 19, 2009

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