The Nomadic Families of the United States

Photo by Chris Lawton

Raising a family used to go something like this: get married, pop out a couple kids, buy into the American dream by taking out a mortgage, get a car or two, then work nonstop at 9-5 jobs for decades to pay it all off.


Nowadays, more and more families are saying “no thanks” to this version of the American dream. In its place, they are embarking on a dream all their own — one full of adventure, freedom, and non-stop family time. They are world-schooling their kids, and they’re the nomadic families of the United States.


Bella DePaulo, the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, has been studying this rejection of the ‘white picket fence’ dream and said full-time travelers are just a part of this bigger picture. “What is great about families who travel full-time – as well as other innovative ways of living,” she said in an interview, “is that people get to live the way that is most authentic and meaningful and rewarding for them. In the case of traveling families, they get to see more, learn more, feel more.”


The wheels on the bus go round and round

One family that’s going against the grain is Derek and Ami Cobia and their 2-year-old daughter, who all live on a converted school bus they bought for $3,000. This isn’t their first foray into living smaller; the couple lived in a fifth wheel RV trailer to pay off debt and downsize before buying the bus.


“After living in the RV for a year, we realized we weren’t cutting as much costs as we wanted and we weren’t traveling,” Amy said. “We’d travel a bit, but our setup was so big that it wasn’t convenient, so we decided to cut costs. We sold the fifth wheel and bought the bus which, at 27-feet long, is smaller and easier to manage than the RV.”


They put another $10,000-$12,000 into fixing up the bus, and it now has a kitchen, sitting room, a crib for their toddler, and a bedroom for the adults. Plus, it has the added luxury of a bathtub.


“We’re both bath people so that was a huge part of our design,” said Derek. “We miss our bath from our house. We had a huge garden tub and would sit in there and drink wine and it was a stress-reliever. That’s why we have a massive bathtub that takes up 15% of our home.”


Unfortunately, they haven't put in a hot water heater yet, so they are still showering at recreational centers they pass on the road, or, if the weather is hot, they’ll take a quick, cold shower on the bus.


A school bus may seem like an unexpected vehicle when there are so many prefabricated options on the market, but Derek and Amy loved the idea of designing their own home. It’s hard to make a traditional RV look personalized inside, so the bus was the perfect option for the couple. Plus, Derek thinks it’s a safe vehicle to drive.


“The school bus is the perfect frame. Buses have steel-ribbed frames that go the length of the bus so it’s almost indestructible in its design.”


So far, Derek and Amy say that traveling full-time in the schoolbus feels more like a dream than a reality. They’ve already been across the United States once and only spent $50 on camping expenses. Most nights they boondock, parking for free on national and state lands. What they save on campgrounds goes toward paying for gas, as the school bus only gets about six to eight miles per gallon.


“We’re still on a high; it’s pretty amazing right now,” said Derek, “It’s starting to sink in that this is our life, but for the most part it’s felt like a vacation.”


Plus, their daughter thinks its great. “She gets excited when she sees the bus,” said Amy. “We have her car seat set high up so she can see out the front and side windows.”


Derek supports the family’s nomadic lifestyle with work he does online, as a financial planner, and through their blog, The Frugal RVer. Both Derek and Amy would encourage others to give the nomadic life a try. Their plan, for now, is to travel indefinitely and to see what the future holds.


The little travel trailer that could

Macy Miller and James Herndon of Learning the Long Way are living an even smaller life, cramming themselves, two small children, and a Great Dane into a 12-foot by 7-foot traveling home they built themselves from the bones of a 1966 Aloha trailer.


Before moving into the Aloha, they lived in a tiny house in Idaho to downsize and pay off the debt Macy acquired when she bought a new car, as well as furniture for the first house she lived in after college. Her partner, James, was also able to pay off his student loan debt while living in the tiny home.


After their debt was gone, the couple decided they wanted to travel, see new places, and meet new people.


“Our travel trailer has everything that’s in a tiny house and more, but it’s way more efficient than a tiny house,” Macy shared. “We’re off-the-grid compatible, we’re solar-powered, and can be boondocking indefinitely if we want. But we can also hook up to city water and power, too. We built the trailer to be as flexible as possible because we don’t know where we’re staying tomorrow.”


Macy calls herself the primary kid-wrangler. James is known as the breadwinner, as he owns an e-commerce business where he provides 3D branding for wood and leather workers. Like Derek and Amy, Macy thinks living a life of travel is great for her kids, who are two and four years old.


“They are happy, they love to paint and draw so we have a drop-down art table. They love building forts out of their bunk beds and we do a movie night once in awhile. They both have Kindle Fires and watch movies in bed with popcorn.” There’s even enough space in the tiny trailer for Macy and James to watch their own movie in bed.


Macy loves seeing her youngest learn from experience. “He’s just starting to talk and we were at Grand Teton National Park and one of his first words was ‘moose’. He’d seen a statue of a moose. It’s so cool to see him learning organically,” she shared.


Living a life that rejects the status quo doesn’t come without challenges. There are naysayers, and people who have opinions about how kids ought to be raised. But, Macy says, “it’s important to find your helpers.” Instead of getting bogged down by the negatives, “find a support group because doing this is scary and daunting. But there are other people out there doing it, too, who are more than willing to help.”


Going the slow route, by boat

Shelly Wada of Sailing From Scratch has been living on a sailboat in Mexico with her husband and three kids for one year now, and she loves the social aspect of cruising.


“With life not being so rushed we feel like people have time to really get to know each other. It’s nice that you automatically feel like you have something in common with the people around you,” she said. “Compared to land life most of our connections with other cruising families seem so much more meaningful.”


When they lived on land, it always seemed as if they didn’t have nearly as much time to truly connect with their friends between jobs, chores, sports and driving kids to and from school. Cruising hasn’t made things simple, but it has simplified things by putting them all together in one place, focused on a common goal.


Shelly’s girls onboard the boat are 19, 14 and 5 years old, and she said it’s been an amazing learning experience for them. “Learning through travel allows the kids to learn life skills, language skills, history, and geography,” she said. “We try to make learning fun so that the kids will retain information and be able to use the things they learn and experience in life to help others and better themselves.”


Onboard a sailboat, there’s plenty to think about and learn, from studying weather patterns to turning saltwater into drinking water, to helping with sailing and navigation. “Then, of course, there are the more ‘regular’ chores like meal prep, provisioning, and cleaning,” Shelly shared.


Josie Lauducci from A Family Afloat, who’s been sailing now for two years but also in Mexico, agreed that cruising full-time has been beneficial for her family and especially her kids, when it comes to social interaction.


“Our kids have learned to interact with whatever age group they are surrounded by,” she said. “I’ve heard people outside the sailing community talk about how well our kids interact with adults, or how well our 10 and 15-year-old interact with little kids.”


While living on a sailboat comes with freedom adventure, there are also challenges. Like dealing with weather, seasickness, or just carving out a little time for yourself. This alone time is especially important on a sailboat, as there often isn’t easy access to land to go out on a solo walk like there is with a school bus or a trailer. “You have,” Josie said, “to give each other time and space.”


Both families hope to “jump the puddle” next spring and head over the South Pacific.




Nomadic lives can seem pretty idyllic, but DePaulo does warn that, even though the nomadic, alternative lifestyle can be beneficial and rewarding, there are some things families need to watch out for. “Feelings of closeness often come from repeated interactions over time with the same people, so if you are always on the go, you lose some of those possibilities for building and deepening relationships,” she cautioned. Access to broader communities and continued engagement with family and friends through social media platforms “helps some, but probably does not make up for the absence of face-to-face experiences.”

For the families who are living the life, these potential drawbacks are nothing compared to the amazing benefits. No longer is the “right” path an expectation or even a given. Now, with a school bus, a tiny travel trailer, a van, or a sailboat, the world is home for so many families stepping off the traditional path. The whole world is truly their oyster.


Background, Context & Reference