5 Things I Learned From Living Out of My Car for a Year

Last July, my partner and I packed everything we needed into our car, drove west from Chicago, and lived in a different city every month. 

Twelve cities, 25,000 miles, 60+ hours of the Binge Mode: Harry Potter podcast, one surf lesson, more than 50 hikes, one major wipeout skiing, three pairs of trail running shoes purchased, 160+ virtual yoga classes taught, and while I can’t say for sure, exactly, I imagine somewhere around 160 tacos consumed between the two of us.

I knew the time would be rich and full, but quite honestly I’m still processing the fact that I flipped my life upside down. A reminder that nothing is one-dimensional, that life is full of complexities and intricacies, and it’s not easy to distill our experiences and our emotions about them into so many words.

Still, I’m going to try. These are five big takeaways I found from calling our Subaru “home” for a year. Buckle up, pop in the Westward Bound playlist, and let’s hit the road.

person on a mountain smiling

1. Organization and planning ahead allowed us to go with the flow.

Our families thought that every month we would just pack up and drive wherever the wind took us, but for the most part, it was quite the opposite. We planned the first three months before leaving Chicago, and we always aimed to stay at least two to three months ahead in planning our stays. 

I know myself, and I know how much I like to plan. Having a view a couple of months out felt like a no-brainer in order to not send my nervous system into a total tailspin. And while I wish I could tell you we truly lived in our Subaru and slept under the stars, we needed Wi-Fi for those remote work calls, and I needed a space to teach yoga and train clients virtually. So part of our planning ahead was to ensure we could find a spot that checked the boxes we needed in a new city. 

But once we knew where we’d be going, we allowed ourselves to stay completely present with where we were. We barely did any research on a new city or our new neighborhood until we were on the drive to that new destination. It was important to us to stay really grounded in the present moment, to fully experience where we were — because we knew how fast it was all going to fly by.

Whether or not you’re traveling, striking the balance between making a plan for the future and staying present in the now is a balancing act. I remind myself that if I’ve done the work I need to do to plan, I can allow myself to relax without stressing myself out too much that I’ve forgotten something, am missing something, or “should” be doing something besides being exactly where I am in the moment.

two people smiling inside car

 2. Simplicity is where it’s at.

In Chicago, we spent two months preparing for life on the road. We knew we needed to consider many seasons of gear and clothes, mobile offices and filming equipment for my online classes, kitchen supplies, and Stephen’s golf clubs (cue the eye roll). But what exactly would we need? How would we know for sure until we were actually on the road? 

We tried packing and repacking bags a few times, realized how quickly stuff adds up, and got very serious about pairing things down even before we left. After finding homes for a lot of our possessions in Chicago and renting a small storage unit for whatever we wanted to keep but wouldn’t need in a furnished Airbnb, we did manage to get everything we “needed” into the car.

As soon as we got to our first month’s stay in Oregon, I saw with even more clarity how important simplicity was going to be — not only for the ease of being mobile but for our sanity. (I always knew I worked better when I had clean countertops at home, but there’s nothing like showing up to an Airbnb where you’ll be for a month and there’s one closet to share between two people and no additional storage space whatsoever.)

Right then and there I packed up two more boxes of things to get rid of. And every month after that, we took inventory to see if there was anything else that wasn’t being used. 

Having less stuff made me want even less stuff. And now, I have much greater discernment about whether or not I’m going to bring something new into the house. When I do, I have more awareness of where it will go and if it will replace something else.

person smiling next to bicycle

 3. Everything is temporary.

… One of life’s bigger lessons neatly served on a platter over the course of this year. It was a constant reminder every time we’d fall into a groove, finally find a local coffee shop we loved, and start to feel “at home” in a spot, it was time to pack up and move again. 

So far, I’ve shared the nuts and bolts of traveling. But this adventure has been anything but surface level. I spent a lot of time solo, reflecting, processing, and experiencing life in a completely different way than I did in Chicago. I experienced lots of highs and a whole mess of lows. 

I felt very connected to the journey and disconnected from home and community at the same time. I had to learn what it means to not attach to emotions on a whole new level. Often I would find myself drifting away from being present in the moment, wishing I were back home, wishing I could have my cake and eat it too. 

Especially working for myself and without a team to connect with regularly, I recognized that when I was feeling “off” it’s because I was letting myself feel aimless. Getting caught up in the minutia of random projects I deemed urgent but were not important — and in my own little bubble of working solo in a city where I knew only my partner — I’d let urgency spiral and let myself down because I didn’t accomplish something I said I wanted to. 

We’ll save the nitty-gritty details about this realization, and all the many stumbles along the way, for another post, another day — but ultimately, I think this was the hardest part about a nomadic lifestyle. At least, until I recognized that it was hard, and then I learned to work with myself. The mantra “this is temporary” became a comfort to me when I did lose connection to my purpose or my drive to keep running my own business. 


 4. Finding “balance” was hard.

To put it bluntly, we gave up on it. In the winter when the days weren’t quite as bright or there wasn’t as much to do outdoors, I did find my way into an early morning gym routine that helped me through the cold months, but that was pretty much it by way of consistency on the road.

And actually, I’m really glad about that. I’m grateful we didn’t force ourselves into a routine while trying to explore something new daily. I’m glad we didn’t miss out on eating all the tacos we could find instead of cooking at home. 

Even on the lazy days when I felt like sitting on the couch watching The Great British Bake-Off, I’m glad I made myself go on that bike ride to find that random vintage store — some of those moments are my favorite memories. 

I needed the break from structure in order to appreciate it again. And now, I’m finding a lot more joy in blending the right amount of routine and the right amount of free space into my days and weeks.

two people smiling in water

 5. Community is a top value.

Of course, I knew it would be incredibly hard to leave home. I loved everything about the home and life I made for myself in Chicago. 

What I found most impactful about taking time away from Chicago was that I didn’t think about my most frequented parks, books shops, or restaurants. No, the feeling that occupied my mind daily was how grateful I am to have met the people I know and call friends, mentors, students, teachers, partners, and teams in Chicago. 

No matter what else I might have missed about my routine, daily life, or the things locked up in my storage unit, nothing comes close to the people. 

We can’t always see what we have until it’s not at our fingertips anymore. But I knew how special it was — and is — in Chicago, and I know it’s not replicable. Nor would I want it to be in the exact same way. Teaching virtually has been a way to stay grounded in what I know I love to do. In many ways, it’s been my outlet for yoga just as much as it’s been my job.

If you asked me what my top values are prior to this journey, I’m not sure I would have known to say community — perhaps because it’s always been baked into my life, I didn’t know just how much it shapes, guides, and fuels me.

Right off the bat, I started attending a yoga class here or there, dropping into stores and talking to folks about what they like to do, and I just kept doing that in each place we went. Hearing others’ stories is fascinating to me, and I ended up making some really wonderful friends over the course of this year that I now would love to go back and visit again.

I never considered myself an extrovert, but I realized I was just craving connection. And from Washington to California, Arizona to Texas to North Carolina, Utah to Colorado to Idaho — with a yoga retreat in Mexico thrown in the mix — my capacity to stretch outside my comfort zone and to be open to the experience of living life in the moment has expanded with every mile traveled.

two people smiling by ocean

So what’s next? 

We’re taking a pause on the travel and setting up a base in Oregon, but I’ve already got my eye on a few spots in the Pacific Northwest to spend some time. I’ll be taking all these lessons with me as I go out to learn more of them. And if you have any podcast recommendations for me for the road, we just wrapped up Binge Mode and would welcome the inspiration.

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About Maggie Umberger

Maggie moved to Chicago from North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in Journalism and Spanish, a 200-hour yoga certification, a group fitness cert and a passion to teach and to sweat. It wasn't until she found aSweatLife that she really started to feel at home. Here, she's incorporated her passion for health and wellness into her career as she helps to build the network of Ambassadors, trainers and fitness enthusiasts that exist within the aSweatLife ecosystem. You can also find her coaching at CrossTown Fitness and teaching yoga classes at Bare Feet Power Yoga, Yoga Six and exhale.