Preparing to Launch – How to Rent Your House and Hit the Road

Leave your furniture behind and enjoy the free chairs in the Valley of Five Lakes in Jasper.

Haunted by stories of midnight toilet backups, some people would rather burn their house than rent it out. I prefer putting our home to work while we travel to fund my kombucha and mountain bike habit.

While it’s possible to do a house swap or hire a house sitter during travel, this post isn’t about that. Instead, this is for people looking to rent their home out furnished (i.e. with most possessions left behind) and manage the property themselves, saving ~10% in management fees.

Benefits of Renting Your House Furnished

Over the last three years, we’ve traveled all but four months and and rented our furnished home while we were away. Rather than a single, long-term tenant, we’ve focused on short-term leases of 3-6 months. In total, we’ve had six sets of excellent tenants, most of whom moved out to buy a home of their own.

Through all those tenants, we’ve never had the dreaded overflowing toilet call. By being friendly with our tenants, immediately taking care of things that come up, and having systems in place, renting our house has worked well.

Leave your house behind and wake up at places like Two Medicine Lake in Glacier!

Leave your house behind and wake up at places like Two Medicine Lake in Glacier!

Reasons for renting our home as we explore the world:

  1. Rental income while we’re away. Instead of paying a mortgage, we have money to pay for plane flights to Europe, gas for our Sprinter, or food to fuel bike touring. (Caveat: this obviously only works because our rent covers our mortgage, which isn’t possible in every market.)
  2. A free place to leave our stuff, vs. storage units or dumping possessions at parents/friends. (There’s a non-monetary cost for the latter: “Hey, are you coming home at Christmas to get your pine cone collection?”)
  3. An increased tax write-off (beyond what we get when we’re living there)
  4. All the work we did to prepare our house simplifies our lives and leaves it in better condition for our return
  5. A ready-made return landing pad, especially since we leave our furniture and kitchen implements behind.

It’s not necessary to go anywhere to use these tips. They’re also great for short-term rental options such as VRBO or AirBnB, or just for general life simplification.

Legal note: I am not a professional property manager, a CPA, or a lawyer! Do your own research regarding taxes and local landlord policies before launching into renting your home. Also, don’t be a bozo – Learn about Fair Housing Laws and follow them carefully.

We opt to not use a property management company. Instead, Chelsea handles our rentals. She’s also the hosting genius and foresees things I never think about. So, other than a few additions and bad jokes from me, this list is ALL her.

Chelsea's got an eye for detail and has also taught me a lot about stretching.Chelsea’s got an eye for detail and has also taught me a lot about stretching.

Rental Logistics

List the home online; Craigslist is still our go-to. Take GREAT pictures of the house all tidied and ready for tenants. (No backlit/dark shots or photos of open toilets, skull collections, or even just a messy room corner.) Then write an ad that shares all the wonderful details of the house and benefits of the location.

Set up a tenant application and payment service. (We use Cozy, which is free for landlords.) It makes credit and background checks easy, not to mention monthly rent magically appears in my bank account without sending out Tony and his baseball bat to collect payment. There’s no need to exchange payment information via voided checks and account numbers. (Here’s my full post on Cozy from awhile back.)

Update home insurance. Make an easy switch to a landlord policy. Also consider an umbrella policy for additional liability coverage.

Have tenants pay utilities if possible since they’ll be less likely to waste energy. (At least gas/electric.) To keep things simple, we decided to keep the accounts in our name and bill separately to make transitions between tenants easier.

Tell potential tenants in advance if there isn’t a T.V., parking space, coffee maker, microwave, linens, etc. Think of what you’d expect from a comfortable home and give people a heads up if your home doesn’t have it before rental agreements are signed. These might be deal breakers, but more likely it will just help them plan ahead.

Create a smoking policy. (JUST SAY NO.)

Consider spelling out a maximum occupancy to avoid becoming the unwitting host to 12 college dudes a la Animal House.

Request that tenants tell you if they’re going to leave the house vacant for more than a week or two.

Install keyless entry so keeping track of keys isn’t an issue. Consider leaving a key with a neighbor or hidden outside in case the battery on the lock dies.

Provide internet for tenants to prevent cable companies from drilling more holes in the walls. (And because dealing with new contracts through Comcast or Centurylink are a form of torture the Inquisition would admire.)

Give tenants multiple options for how to reach you and a number they can call if they can’t. That said, we prefer email so we have a record, and because we’re overseas quite a bit. We also give our contact info to a neighbor in case of emergency or issues.

-Leave new tenants a note, gift, or delicious box of chocolates on move-in day.

Respond swiftly to tenant needs. It’s all about the relationship. We treat our tenants as we would a friend and our experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

Ok, so maybe I don't get back to tenants from this spot in Glacier...

Ok, so maybe I don’t get back to tenants from this spot in Glacier…

Paperwork: Dealing with Mail and Important Documents

Get off mailing lists with Paper Karma, sign up for paperless options (bills, magazines), and set up mail forwarding (see below).

Decide where to forward mail. If you care a lot about your mail, there are companies that open scan and email your mail. We chose to just forward to Chelsea’s parents. Note: learn from our experience and do NOT change the address on health and home insurance or complications ensue.

Let tenants know what to do if they get mail for you. For the occasional piece that doesn’t get forwarded, we ask them to take a phone picture of the envelope and text/email it to us. It’s easy to tell important mail from the junk this way. (Again, use Paper Karma to get off mailing lists.) For important stuff, leave them with flat rate box or envelope with stamps on it.

Make sure your driver’s licenses and passports are up to date. Passports need to have at least six months before expiration to travel in some countries.

Update car registration so it doesn’t expire during travel. Same with credit cards – it’s a pain when a card expires and suddenly you’re stuck in Laos with only your wits, $12 cash, and a sombrero.

Seriously ponder whether or not to allow pets. They can wreck or distress things (think dog nails on soft wood floors or pee on carpets). We love animals and yet have decided that it just isn’t worth the potential damage to our home.

Definitely no mountain goats allowed. This guy would rather stay in Canada enjoying this view anyway.

Definitely no mountain goats allowed. This guy would rather stay in Canada enjoying this view anyway.

Dealing With Your Stuff

Start by watching George Carlin talk about stuff! So, so good…and true.

Simplify your life. Finally do it. Those papers and magazines you’ve held on to? You aren’t going to read them. Travel is a great time to downsize. Chelsea loves the book SHED and lots of people love The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to light the way. I also recommend The Minimalists great blog. The time before renting out your house is the perfect time to lighten your load – what great motivation, plus you’ll have a solid deadline!

Create a secure place for belongings that you don’t want tenants to use or take with you on the road. We use an owner’s closet, a cabinet in the kitchen, and store a few items in our basement. Stash keys somewhere onsite in case you ever need anything to be sent to you in a pinch.

Remove all things that are personal, special, or irreplaceable by stashing them in owner’s closets. If you have a special knife that you don’t want to leave behind, buy a knife for your tenants that’s less precious, but will still work great. Don’t leave them with dull unusable knives, they’re dangerous and frustrating! (<–Chelsea pet-peeve.)

Find someone who is willing to watch houseplants (or take a chance with willing tenants).

Hire a gardener. Not as important if you’ve got a xeriscaped/permaculture designed yard that requires zero upkeep (this is ideal) OR you’ll be gone during a time when weeds won’t turn your property into an Amazon jungle. This will help keep your neighbors friendly and generate goodwill with your tenants. (Unless leaf blowers on Saturday morning are involved; then they will hate you.)

Use up food or make it available to tenants. Free up space, keeping in mind that tenants probably won’t want your food! We left a few condiments in the fridge and stashed other staples up high in our pantry.

For open-ended trips, sell any extra vehicles or store them in a garage/covered area. We sold our well-loved Toyota and downsized to just our van before launch in 2013. Most cities have rules against leaving unused cars on the street for months and months.

Vans are way better than cars anyway!

Vans are way better than cars anyway!

Handle Home Repairs

Pick a handyman, electrician, plumber, friend/neighbor to call if anything is needed. In our experience, the handyman is the most important person on this list!

Clean out the dryer hose, washing machine lint trap and the filter in the dishwasher. (The latter surprised us and cost us a visit from the appliance repair guy, who probably drives a Maserati if his hourly is always that good.)

Make sure all systems are go: change furnace filters, get furnace serviced, clean gutters, change batteries in smoke detectors & CO detectors, unclog any slow drains, and fix leaks/drips.

Caulk & seal seams as needed – sinks, windows, shower, toilets (my personal favorite)

Consider installing a constantly-running bathroom fan. This keeps air flowing and prevents mold. After all, tenants won’t always think to run the fan when showering, especially in a rental. I installed one of these and highly recommend it. It also keeps the air in your home healthier and fresher.

Eliminate safety hazards. For us, this meant installing staircase lighting and putting non-slip strips on a deck. We also put outlet covers in outlets, provided safety gates for kids, and put the My Little Pony collection in the owner’s closet.

Look what we found digging through boxes at Chelsea's childhood home!

Look what we found digging through boxes at Chelsea’s childhood home! I should get paid to take ridiculous photos like this, but hey, it makes her laugh…

Offer a house cleaning service for extra charge; many people will do it. We also hire house cleaners after each tenant to assure the house is spotless for each move-in. No matter how great they are, do NOT count on your tenants to do the final cleaning. We’ve found people have lower standards of what counts as clean when they’re moving out and high standards of clean at move-in. Leave this one to the pros, they can usually nail “high standard clean.” Again, learn from our experience here.

Put insulated covers over your outdoor faucets if you will be gone for winter and it gets even remotely cold where you live. The year you don’t cover is the year that 100-year lows will hit.

Make sure pictures and tall furniture are properly secured to walls. A favorite wall hanging or large bookshelf falling on a kid = no bueno. Earthquakes happen!

Fix anything that doesn’t work or requires special instructions. (“To turn on the stove, hold the knob 1/6th open while whistling and flipping the light on and off.”) As a bonus, it might be possible to write off expenses for home upgrades based on the pro-rated time you lived in the home that tax year. (Consult a CPA!)

Provide extra vacuum bags and preferred cleaning solutions. (Special wood floor cleaners, for example)

Let them know the garbage/recycling/yard debris pick up schedule and where to leave the containers on garbage day.

Perhaps most important, trust that all will be well! People are generally good and well-meaning and most will treat your home and possessions with respect.

What would you add to this list? This will be a living document as I’ll be expanding and refining it in coming years, so please leave a comment or email me.

Oh, and one last thing: Enjoy your trip!

Your house will be fine! Enjoy vistas like this one over Lake Louise in the meantime... (Shot from the Devil's Thumb.)

Your house will be fine! Enjoy vistas like this one over Lake Louise in the meantime… (Shot from the Devil’s Thumb by my friend James.)

How to Travel Iceland in a Camper Van

Camper van Iceland night shot

There are many ways to explore Iceland. You can rent a car, bicycle tour, hitchhike, or take the public bus. My hands-down vote, however, is to travel Iceland in a camper van.

As part of a month-long trip in summer 2016, we spent 2.5 weeks exploring the perimeter of the island via van. We followed a counterclockwise loop, nipping off the Ring Road to check out quiet roads whenever possible.

Even in July, the crescendo of tourist season, our camper van created access to areas we otherwise would have skipped. As a way to streamline your travel experience, bask in the brilliant nature of Iceland, and still travel in relative comfort, it’s the way to go! (If you’re worried about finding bathrooms and showers, read on below.)

This post is aimed at helping anyone looking to rent a camper van in Iceland. Whether this is your first time traveling by van or you’re experienced like me and Chelsea, you’ll land ready to rumble.

Go Camper rental iceland

Benefits of Traveling Via Camper Van

We are not fans of planning an entire trip. It always leads to having to pass up fun opportunities. While it’s necessary to plan ahead to book a vehicle, a camper van creates an otherwise free-flowing schedule. The cheapest way to tour Iceland is to hitchhike and tent camp along the way, but we are no longer tough enough for such things.

Compared to renting a car and staying in hotel, you’ll save money by renting a van. On top of that, a van also allows you to carry lots of food so you can eat when you are hungry. Given that eating out usually costs at least $25/person, this can potentially save a boatload of money.

Beyond that, you’ll be able to linger in beautiful areas. The flexibility of not needing to stick to polite business hours for arriving at a hotel or a host’s home opens up hours of watching perfect sunsets or hiking late into the day.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

Lunch time! Stop when the view is good and eat.

How to Choose Your Van

We’re experienced van travelers and know what makes for a comfortable vehicle. Unfortunately, most camper options were booked because we decided to head out with little notice. (High season – July and August – requires planning ahead by at least a few months, it seems.)

After contacting six different companies, we rented a simple camper van from the friendly folks at Go Campers. (Kuku Campers and Happy Campers are other solid options, from what I saw.) Their prices were competitive and customer service was great. I also like that their vans also have a small, simple logo instead of a bright, flashy designs on the side.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

Wildflowers firing away at a camp spot somewhere seeeecret.

From what I saw pricing various companies, a basic camper costs about $100/day in the low season. Add ~25% for high season. (For comparison, a rental car is somewhere around $60-$100/day in high season.) Mid-range campers start closer to $200 and feature amenities like a heater, sink, fridge, and live-in chef (if you ask nicely). We would have gone with a fancier camper, but they were all booked up.

If you aren’t comfortable driving a manual transmission, make sure to let your rental company know! From what I saw, many of campers are manuals, but there are also automatic options that cost a bit more.

Lastly, let’s talk insurance. All companies will try to sell it to you. If you don’t have coverage, be warned that there is gravel on ALL roads (paved or not) and you may come back with a few chips. When the pavement runs out, you’ll be warned with the sign Malbik Endar. (It translates as “Norse God of Potholes Attacked Here.”)

Open roads in the east fjords.

Open roads…

How to Not Smell Like a Dirty Dirtbagger (aka Staying Clean)

Let’s get this out of the way: Stop worrying about finding frequent showers or toilets (WC, as they say here). It is easy to find a shower and bathroom in almost every town. That said, there are no rest stops, but gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores all have easy-access bathrooms. Worse-case, in the more remote areas you may need to scurry off the road to find a nice sheltering rock…

One option for staying clean is to jump in a frozen fjord. PFFFFT. Go with one of the signature elements of Iceland: Geothermically-heated pools in almost any town, no matter the population. For ~$5, you get access to a shower and the soaking pools, not to mention the occasional sauna and gym facilities. Our favorites: overlooking the ocean at Hofsós in the north, a great fjord view in Patreksfjordur, and the seaside ones in Drangsnes.

I mentioned this in my previous post and will restate it: before jumping in the pool, you MUST take a real shower. (Don’t worry, showers aren’t co-ed, and some places even have private stalls.) Take off your swimsuit, scrub your dirty parts per the handy instructional diagrams, and then put your suit back on. Nudity in the pools is not a thing here, so don’t plan on airing your junk for all to see unless you want to be the seriously weird foreigner. (And probably get kicked out.)

A perfect black sand beach in southern Iceland.

Sorry, no pool pics. How about a black sand beach instead?

How Much Time Is Needed For My Trip and Where Should I Go?

If you’re cruising the 870 mile Ring Road, 10 days seems to be the accepted won’t-crush-your-spirit-and-go-home-exhausted trip duration. Clockwise or counterclockwise – who cares? Since it’s a circle, I vote for choosing where the weather is best and heading that way.

We tend to travel slower than many people. Our goal for this trip was less than 2-3 hours each day driving. In 2.5 weeks, we were able to visit almost every area of the island without feeling rushed.

If you want the quiet solitude and scenery of many of the pictures in this post, head to the eastern or western fjords. (The western were our favorites.) Lots of wild camping, fewer people (less than 20% of tourists in Iceland go to the west fjords), and stunning scenery. As soon as you get off the Ring Road, you’ll see less traffic and tour buses. Always a positive in my opinion!

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

A perfect beach camp spot in the north near Husavik.

Where to Sleep

There are well-signed campgrounds everywhere in Iceland, often right in town. Any map will show you where they are. Most feature cooking, shower, and laundry facilities, plus water refill opportunities. They cost about $10/person.

Until recently, the Swedish idea of Allmansrätten was the law of the land. (Camp anywhere for one night.) Since July 1, 2016, this is no longer legal in Iceland, and it’s probably a good thing with tourism BOOMING. If you want to camp on someone’s property, you need to find the landowner and ask them. I vote for just staying in campgrounds. (To be clear, we wild camped all but three nights and found out about the new law only upon returning our camper. Ooooops.)

Breath-mint hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Don’t camp on private land without asking! We simply admired these newly-wrapped hay bales in a freshly mowed field in the east fjords.

Staying Connected

Iceland’s affordable internet and cellphone access beats the pants off Europe and North America. Since I work remotely while we travel, staying connected is a priority. It is SO easy here. Even if you are on vacation and checked out of work, it could come in handy to access directions, find things to do/see, check business hours and locations, research an interesting topic or just make a phone call.

There is fast, reliable cell coverage almost everywhere in Iceland. It’s also super cheap. Using my unlocked iPhone, I simply picked up a Nova SIM card at the duty-free store at the airport and added data to it. For $40, I got 50 GB of data (1/12 the cost of data in the U.S.).

Since you’ll likely have a number of items that require charging (headlamp, phone, camera, computer, etc), I recommend bringing some kind of rechargeable battery pack with multiple USB ports on it like this one. Then you can plug that into the inverter while you drive and charge multiple items.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for.

Plugged into my hotspot checking on work at one of the best offices I could ask for. (Shot not staged – I wrote an offer for a new employee here!)

Pack Efficiently

It may be tempting to bring a ton of gear. “Hey, we’re car camping, and I use that inflatable couch sometimes…” Don’t do it!

In the smaller vans, depending on the design, you shuffle your gear from the rear sleeping compartment up to the front seats when you want to lay down. Pack everything in easy-to-access duffel bags or small suitcases. Thank me when you quickly find your hat before a hike instead of unpacking the entire contents of your van.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Speaking of hiking, check out the cliffs of Latrabjarg, the western-most point in Europe.

Must-Have Items

To help me sleep during always-light summer nights, a sleep mask rocked my world. Ear plugs are always helpful for camping, and a thermos for hot tea or coffee on-the-go is handy and a zero waste option.

Chelsea wished she had brought her old-school hot water bottle to keep her warm at night. Consider bringing something like this if you sleep cold and your camper van doesn’t have a heater.

Metal water bottles are great for avoiding buying bottled water, especially since you can fill up at any waterfall with delicious, cold snow-melt water. Most gas stations have fill areas too, or a restaurant will help you out. (We found Icelanders so nice and helpful.)

We always travel with a couple of reusable bags for groceries/changes of clothing/dirty laundry/etc and they were always in use. Lastly, we also travel with wet wipes, a handy hygiene improvement device. These are available at prices you’re used to for purchase at any grocery store in Iceland.

Fresh water everywhere!

Fresh water everywhere!

Bring Warm Clothing

Pack light, but keep in mind you’re at the Arctic Circle. Bring base layers, insulating layers, windbreaking layers, a puffy jacket, high-quality rain jacket, warm socks, lined hat with great ear coverage, gloves, waterproof shoes and so on. The wind in Iceland cuts hard and you are almost guaranteed to do some exploring in the rain. We’ve also had a fair number of beautiful sunny days, to be clear. A 20 degree F sleeping bag will likely work, though Chelsea has had a few cold nights despite sleeping in all her layers in our heaterless camper.

I want to emphasize that waterproof shoes are key. I brought running shoes as well, but my feet were often a bit damp if I wore them on a hike through mossy or grassy areas. Even if it’s not actually raining, the trails are likely mushy or lined with wet foilage.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Chelsea bundled up in a random giant chair by the side of the road.

Check Van Supplies Before Leaving

You may feel the urge to floor it out of town in a jetlagged haze the second you get your camper keys. Resist that urge and go through the van’s kitchen and camp equipment to make sure you have everything you’ll need.

Knife? Cutting board? Lids for the pots? Scrub brush for dishes? Water jug? Inverter to charge your gear? Camp chairs? Make sure you leave with everything you were expecting. We hit the road with a van that was missing a knife and ended up having to buy one along the way.

Also, know how to access your spare tire. (Every car manual shows you how.) We picked up a shard of gravel and wound up with a flat in the middle of nowhere. It was an easy change for me, but if you aren’t comfortable changing a tire, you might want to prep yourself in advance. Goodyear and Firestone have stores in the bigger cities and fixed our flat for about $20.

We TOTALLY mistimed ski season.

Don’t forget your ski gear. We TOTALLY mistimed ski season…

Food Food Food!

Iceland may toe the Arctic Circle, but people here don’t just eat dried fish. Grocery stores are well-stocked and easy to find, at least in the big cities. Even in far-flung corners and tiny stores, we were pleasantly surprised to find some organic and vegan options.

Netto was our favorite store, but their discount brand Bonus is another good option for staples. Fruit and vegetables (many organic) are abundant, including grapes, blueberries and mangoes.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

Stocking up in the tiny town of Seydisfjordur.

To read labels, Google Translate is fantastic. (Download the offline version before you arrive.) Since we don’t eat any animal products, we use it to translate ingredient lists. That said, we found that many labels were in English, not to mention there often was a great selection of nondairy milks and cheeses and vegan meats. (Even soy yogurt in some places.) As a bonus, a vegan lifestyle mitigated how ineffective our cooler was since plants don’t spoil very quickly.

Lastly, if you’re buying alcohol for your trip, grab it at the airport when you arrive to avoid paying the luxury tax. We don’t drink much at all (except for kombucha!), but did snag a couple bottles of liquor for friends in Reykyavik.

You'll never find a grocery store at the top of a pass... But can you spot the van?

Fill the van with food so you can hang out in places like this! Can you spot the van?

Dealing with Basics: Laundry, Ice

Laundry is offered for about $10 (wash/dry) at most campgrounds. The frequently overcast skies made it tough to dry things, so dryers were nice! Since 100% of Iceland’s power comes from renewable energy, you can feel good about supporting the local economy.

Note: Many dryers in Iceland use a water reservoir drawer at the top of the dryer instead of a plumbing drain. If you don’t empty this when you start the cycle, your clothes will NEVER dry.

Totally random, but finding ice for our cooler was surprisingly difficult at times. Big cities have bagged ice, but in smaller areas you’ll need to ask at gas stations or restaurants for them to bag some ice. Apparently people don’t travel with coolers? The grocery store Bonus consistently had it, but isn’t everywhere.

No, of COURSE this photo isn't staged. We always meditate in a sea of lupin...

We simply meditate in a sea of lupin instead of doing laundry. It’s advanced, I know.

****

Get After It!

Whaaaat else? Nothing at all! Rent that van, plan your trip, and have a kickass time.

If a van is in your budget and you want to maximize your flexibility for your trip to Iceland, I can’t recommend it enough. If anyone has questions, please fire away in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out. Rented a camper van recently and have feedback? Help future travelers out by posting a comment.

*Thanks to Go Campers for partnering with us on our van rental! We appreciate it, and can’t wait to get back to Iceland for another adventure.*

I hope you're ready for sunset locations like this!

I hope you’re ready for sunset locations like this!

My Favorite New Things

Palouse Falls

With van upgrades complete, I finally made a video tour of the gear garage. If you’re interested, check it out!

***

I left home for college driving a small red car containing everything I owned. That list included my favorite fan (with remote control), which I jammed in the trunk next to the subwoofer. Different priorities at 19, I guess.

Even if I’ve upgraded vehicles, I still identify as a minimalist. If traveling for a few years by van, bike and backpack has taught me anything, it’s that curating my limited possessions is important.

We’ve been in gear replacement and upgrade mode the last couple months. Some stuff was frayed at the edges from tons of use, whereas other items were life improvement purchases.

Tim Ferriss always asks his podcast guests what $100 purchase has improved their lives. Here are some of my recent personal favorites.

I found this random bear in an abandoned house on my drive from Portland to Idaho. Sadly, he didn't make the gear cut.

I found this random bear in an abandoned house on my drive from Portland to Idaho this week. Sadly, he didn’t make this list – I left him sitting right here smiling into eternity.

Peak Designs Capture camera clip – anyone who hikes with an SLR camera needs one of these. Instead of stopping to pull your camera out of your pack or fighting with a strap around your shoulder, this nicely engineered device clamps to a backpack strap. Loving this sweet tech.

Lightroom – I’m embarrassed to confess that I used Picasa to edit all my photos until this January. #amateurhour Only every single photographer I know used and recommended Lightroom, but apparently I am a sloooow learner. When I bought my new Sony camera, I decided it was time to up my game. If you are serious about photography, don’t be a bozo like me – spend a few bucks and get this immediately. There are a ton of online tutorials that will get you up and running quickly.

Xero Z-Trail sandals – these excellent strapped sandals (similar to Tevas or Chacos) are perfect for anyone into minimalist footwear (i.e. zero-drop/flat foot bed and wide toe box). I’ve hiked sketchy climbing approaches in flip flops for years, but these are my new go-to for fording rivers and scrambling up scree slopes. They’re very light, comfortable, and have serious tread for great traction.

Bell 2R helmet – this slick MTB helmet features a removable chin guard. Now I actually wear my full-face helmet instead of leaving it in the van! Just strap the chin guard on your pack for the climb, then snap it into place in 30 seconds at the top to protect your smiling mug on the way down. I bought the one with MIPS protection.

Mountain biking Syncline WA Scott Rokis photography

A day on the trails with the Bell 2R. Photo: Scott Rokis

Red Rising scifi trilogy – the best scifi I’ve read in a lonnnng time. Don’t ask questions; just go read it! I switched back and forth between audiobook and text and both were fun.

Patagonia Nano-Air jacket – my favorite outerwear. Lighter than a fleece, but just as warm. I wear it around town, hiking, shooting photos, or just lounging. Breathes great and somehow stays warm. As a bonus, it’s synthetic fill and entirely vegan.

Gyro exercise ball – my wise friend Martin turned me onto this device. I was skeptical at first, but it’s a great warm up for climbing and renders tweaky elbow problems null and void. Spin it up when you’re driving and pretend you’re still looking at the road.

Cozy.co – we started using Cozy over a year ago to manage our rental property payments and leases. I still love this service! It’s totally free for the landlord (Cozy makes their money from credit checks) and you don’t need to exchange bank account info with your tenants. If you have any rental properties, definitely check out this Portland-based company.

Sink and running water in our vanthis van upgrade is SO great. For all you van owners pretending running water isn’t necessary, spend a few hundred dollars to join the 21st century and live in style. Thank me now. And later. It’s that good.

Nada mas! See, no remote control fan in this list. I did just install one in the van though, so perhaps I haven’t changed much since high school. And the van does have a subwoofer under the passenger seat… Sigh.

I’m writing this from Idaho, where I’m dropping off the van at my parent’s place for safe keeping. Tomorrow it’s time for a flight to Iceland to see what all the hype is all about. I’ve heard the reindeer do synchronized dances to the Northern Lights and everyone wears Viking helmets.

Any awesome gear you’ve added to your life recently that you’d recommend? Let me know via email or in the comments.

A final vista of Mt. Hood in Oregon before hitting the road east.

A final vista of Mt. Hood in Oregon before hitting the road east.

Living the Van Life Adventure at Home

Mountain biking Syncline WA Scott Rokis photography

Enjoying a perfect day in the Columbia Gorge at Syncline Trail. (Photo: ScottRokis.com)

**This post first appeared here on MindBodyGreen**

It started as a four-month trip to get out of the rainy Portland winter. Just a camper van jaunt down the coast from Portland to San Diego, Chelsea and I declared. We had no idea we’d end up traveling for 2.5 years.

During this adventure-filled time, we mountain biked all over the western U.S., parked the van and bicycle toured unsupported 7,000 miles through 14 countries, lived in New York City for a month, volunteered for a month at a farm animal sanctuary and studied Spanish in Mexico. Yet all those things followed a simple decision to leave on a journey and break out of the usual.

Beyond that, 30 months away created the mental space for other major life adjustments. We morphed my business to allow unlimited travel as digital nomads, shifted to a plant-based diet, met countless amazing people, and completely changed our perspective on life.

Hard to avoid being a dork and doing tree pose in a tree FARM!

When you find a tree farm, you have to find a matching yoga pose.

We’re not the only ones jumping into van travel. If Instagram hashtags are any indicator of the temperature of #vanlife is right now, it’s a flaming rocket. Whether it’s a return to the 60s Vanagon culture or a completely new way to live, people young and old are jumping into the freedom and openness of traveling in a van.

Tens of thousands of people are nomadic in a van or RV in the U.S. It’s not all retirees in giant motor homes either. Some travel on the cheap and live on savings; others take their work mobile like I did, or find jobs along the way to fund their travel. Vans are the ultimate freedom mobiles.

Getting ready to ride a favorite trail (JEM) outside Zion National Park.

Getting ready to ride a favorite trail (JEM) outside Zion National Park.

There’s just one problem: many people can’t or don’t want to live in a van full-time. (“I’d choke my husband in such a small space,” we’ve heard a few times.) Constraints like family and work also preclude traveling long-term. Is there a way to embrace the van life mentality and bring the adventure into an otherwise “normal” existence at home?

It’s all about the mindset. While I think many people can (and do) thrive on a long van trip, we can also rack up brilliant experiences while rooted in one place. It just takes looking at things through a different lens. Van Life Goggles, if you will.

Embracing the Van Life Mentality

Downsize your space and stuff to minimize daily maintenance. Camper vans are small, and so is the time to keep one tidy. Take that mindset into your home! Check out The Minimalists blog for tips. Smart design of small spaces (the tiny home movement) is packed full of inspiration – Pinterest is a great resource.

Say yes to invitations to new experiences. Most days exploring in a camper van featured somewhere, something, or someone new. If someone invites you somewhere, go! Design life on your home turf around daily exploring, whether it’s a new class, day hike, or event you’d usually never attend. It’s easy to get stuck in the grind of the same commute, same restaurants, and routine – break it up.

New experiences make me happy!

New experiences make me happy. (Photo: ScottRokis.com)

Say no to the busy trap. Immerse yourself in things you enjoy as much as possible and deliberately cut out the rest. The freedom of not being heavily scheduled opened my eyes to leaving open space for free time. In return, my creativity blossomed as I started writing, playing music, and studying photography.

Get outside every day. Our van delivered us to nature’s gateway on a daily basis, something that’s possible at home as well. Even if it’s just a short walk through a city park, seek nature every day. Your body will thrive and your energy levels will soar.

Connect with other travelers on social media. During bike tours, we stayed with dozens of strangers through Warmshowers (a cycle touring site). Our blog and Instagram have generated many invites from complete strangers to meet for a bike ride or a meal, not to mention offers of guest bedrooms. Bring the energy home by reaching out to other travelers or offering space.

New friends from our blog and Instagram!

New friends in the past month from our blog and Instagram.

Design your downsized, streamlined life for frequent short trips. Once your systems are in place, it’s easy to be packed and heading for the hills in an hour. It’s like putting your running shoes by your bedroom door: if you remove the little blockades, you’ll find it easier to make it happen. Keep camping gear organized in containers and ready to go so you can seek an adventure in no time.

Never stop dreaming! Three years ago, the idea of building out a DIY camper van, renting out our house and hitting the road for four months was intimidating. Now that we downsized to less stuff and our systems are efficient, it’s easy to consider new trips and ponder fresh adventures.

Even at home, looking at life through Van Life Goggles keeps me open to serendipity and flexible. I’m still seeking fun people and activities – in a month back in Portland, I’ve already done four trips to new locations close to home and met up with multiple travelers coming through town. It keeps things fresh while we scheme the next big adventure…which isn’t far off.

Thinking of the future...

Essential Apps for Your Next Camping Road Trip

Open road in Utah

Whether you’re road tripping for months or heading out for spring break, technology can make your life easier. A purist may insist a tech-free road trip is the way to roll, but I think most of us appreciate traveling with a smartphone.

People are always asking me about my favorite apps for car camping or rolling in a camper rig. (No restaurant or hotel-finder apps here!) Take the ones that seem helpful and skip the rest.

None will drive the car or van for you (yet). Still, most are free or cheap and worth checking out. I’ve linked to the main app page for iPhone/Android download for most of these rather than each one. Happy road tripping!

Finding a place to stay

Ultimate Campground – I tell every traveler about this app, which has saved us hundreds of dollars in camping fees over the years or helped locate paid camping. More importantly, we’ve used it to find beautiful, low-traffic spots to park the van away from the crowds.

US Public Lands – this is similar to the above – with better boundaries shown in most locations – and definitely worth checking out.

Enjoying free camping near the Valley of Fire in Nevada.

Enjoying free camping near the Valley of Fire in Nevada.

Navigation and weather

Google Maps – still my go-to. There are dozens of maps apps out there and I still think Google is the most solid, consistently accurate one. For overview maps to scope out an entire state, I still love a solid road atlas and use our National Geographic physical atlas frequently for trip planning.

GasBuddy – This app saves you money by showing gas station locations and the price of fuel at each. Save $10 by driving a few extra blocks. Fuel may be practically free at ~$2/gallon right now, but it won’t be so low forever!

Storm – look no further than this app. I denied how awesome it was for too long, but have found it’s the most accurate free weather app that I’ve used.

Locating trails

Singletracks – my go-to app for finding mountain bike trails. Find trailheads, scope out trail linkups, and see what people think of various rides. The online version is also good.

AllTrails and TrailLink – these are great for locating hiking and running trails.

Hiking in San Luis Obispo, CA.

Hiking in San Luis Obispo, CA.

Driving entertainment

Spotify – need a driving mix? This is our favorite. Owning music is so 1995! (Pandora just bought Rdio, so they may be rolling out some good stuff too.)

Audible and Overdrive – audiobooks are fantastic. You can buy them via Audible, but I prefer downloading them from our library via Overdrive.

Podcasts – I usually use the basic podcast app on my phone. Stitcher is also a fun way to discover live radio shows and podcasts.

Finding wifi and a cell signal

WiFiMap – It can be a pain to find reliable wifi while you travel. This app points you to it. I usually use my phone as a hotspot, but sometimes you just want solid wifi.

Coverage – Need to catch a mid-week conference call while on the road, but have no idea if you’ll have a signal? The nomadic tech whizzes at Technomadia developed this overlay map to show you reception for various cell phone providers.

No coverage up in the Sierra Nevada!

No coverage up in the Sierra Nevada!

Finding cool places and things to see

WikiTravel – Ever stood in front of a landmark and pondered what happened there? This crowdsourced tool solves that problem.

Oh Ranger! Parkfinder – Wondering which parks are nearby and what they’re all about? This will tell you. I don’t use it often, but occasionally it comes in handy, especially in an area we’ve never visited before.

Badwater, Death Valley: The lowest point in the U.S.

Badwater, Death Valley: The lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level.

Photo management

Mylio – this app/desktop software syncs photos from your computer and backs them up online. I use this not just for iPhone shots, but for my entire photo and video database. I haven’t seen a better solution for multi-platform photo management. (Thanks to Brad Feld for writing about this.)

***

That’s all I’ve got. What are your favorite road tripping apps? Let people know in the comments or share this post with a road warrior friend!

The rolling hills of Black Butte Lake in N. CA at sunset.

The rolling hills of Black Butte Lake in N. CA at sunset.

A Visit to Pinnacles, the Newest U.S. National Park

East side Pinnacles National Park

Hiking a ridge, valley views on either side, I thought, “How do more people not visit this place?” Welcome to Pinnacles, a palace of rocks, where we tromped beneath condors sailing on the wind, wove through oak groves, and lazed on soft moss by creeks.

Pinnacles was a lowly national monument until recently. (National parks sneered at it on the playground and you can be sure Yellowstone never invited it to birthday parties.) Instead, the park was the domain of rock climbers and local Californians in the know.

Now, with the official designation as Pinnacles National Park in 2013, it plays with the big boys and is making lots of new friends. Cue incoming RVs as tourists tick it off their checklist on the summer circuit. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, there are more national parks on the way.

Condors soaring high above the hills.

Condors soaring high above the hills.

Lying on the east side of Big Sur and two hours south of San Francisco, the park is part of the Gabilan Mountains. Well, half of it is. Since Pinnacles lies atop the San Andreas fault, an earthquake years back relocated the other peaks about 200 miles SE toward Los Angeles. No amount of rebar reinforcement saves your property in one of those quakes.

The stellar trail system in the park is signed and well-maintained, but if you aren’t down to hike your legs off or navigate the (fun) steep stone steps on the High Peaks trail, there are also caves to explore.

The east side cave is often closed to protect the bat population, but the west side counterpart is open more often. Heads up that the park is accessed by road on both the west and east sides, but you can’t drive all the way through it.

Hiking switchbacks on the east side.

Hiking switchbacks on the east side.

Overnight stays are only allowed in the east side campground, which luckily is also where the condors roost at night. (Bring your binoculars.) Even better, hot showers at the campground are only $0.50, and there’s even a pool in the summer to entertain the kids.

Enough chit chat! Put quiet Pinnacles on your list for the next time you’re driving along Highway 101. We had zero expectations for our visit and discovered yet another beautiful corner of California.

Chelsea sits and takes in a view looking west from High Peaks trail.

Chelsea sits and enjoys the view looking west from High Peaks trail.

Chestnuts staking their claim.

Chestnuts staking their claim.

All the rain in California was already coaxing spring flowers out.

All the rain in California was already coaxing spring flowers out.

High Peaks trail has dozens of steep stone step sections like this. Fun!

High Peaks trail has dozens of steep stone step sections like this. Fun!

Rocks Pinnacles National Park

A quiet creekside path on the east side.

A quiet creek-side path on the east side.

Tips for Working Remotely Overseas (Even While Bike Touring)

Hanging in Bruge

As a digital nomad, my freedom to work from anywhere hinges on internet access. Our European cycle tour this summer would be impossible without bits of data buzzing toward me across the Atlantic. I would love to shut my laptop and vanish into the Alps, but disconnecting for so long isn’t an option (yet). A link to the nets and tech to stay plugged in remain necessary.

I have tools and programs for working remotely figured out and it’s easy to stay connected in the United States. I simply use a Verizon wifi hotspot or my iPhone’s data plan. For this trip to Europe, I needed similar solutions with a few tweaks.

Switching on an expensive international plan and paying overseas roaming charges with Verizon or AT&T didn’t make sense. Handing over a gold coin to surf the net for a minute sucks; I’d rather spend that money on delicious dark chocolate in Belgium. There are much better ways to have a data connection.

Taking Your Tech With You

If you’re seeking to escape and disappear off the radar, by all means stick your computer and phone under a mattress and head to the airport. Nothing in the below list is tricky, but most is necessary given the long-term nature of our travel+work arrangement.

  1. iPhone 5 plus Mophie Juice Pack Plus battery case – this adds 120% to the battery, enough to get me through an entire day of use with navigation, audiobooks, or podcasts.
  2. Ultrabook laptop – simple and light enough to not make me curse it on long climbs.
  3. XCom Global wifi hotspot – the heartbeat keeping me jacked in to The Matrix (more below).
  4. Goal Zero Venture 30 solar panel and battery pack – great for camping and long days on the bike to keep things charged.
  5. Lenmar USB 4-port charging pack – handy way to keep cords organized since I just leave them plugged in.
    Charging things in Europe is infinitely easier with a battery pack that has multiple USB ports. I keep four cables plugged in and ready to charge our tail lights, GPS and phones overnight. This is especially handy when electrical outlets are sparse, a common thing.

    Charging things in Europe is infinitely easier with a battery pack that has multiple USB ports. I keep four cables plugged in and ready to charge our tail lights, GPS and phones overnight. This is especially handy when electrical outlets are sparse, a common thing.

  6. DSLR camera (a beat up old Sony NEX-3 with an 18-200mm lens) and a GoPro – I’ll acknowledge that these items are not necessary for work…
  7. 1,736 USB charging cables, typically snarled into an epic Gordian knot
  8. Updated September 2015: I shot a lot of video on this trip and ran out of space on my laptop, which seriously cramped my style (or ability to develop any). Next trip, I’m bringing a portable external hard drive. They’re small (3 x 4 x 0.5 inches) and weigh 1/3 of a pound. I just ordered a WD Passport Ultra 2 terabyte drive.

Everything on that list is straight-forward except the wifi hotspot. For that, I researched like crazy and wound up settling on a XCom Global hotspot as the linchpin for keeping me connected. When I asked, the company generously sponsored us for our trip. There are other options out there (TEP Wireless is one), but I don’t have any experience with their services.

Ceiling in a church

XCom Global Wifi Hotspot

For my Verizon hotspot, I had to visit a physical location to activate it. What a pain. Planning a trip overseas comes with logistics – should I bring the giant cowboy hat, and which color Hawaiian shirt to pack? I didn’t need more to-dos. XCom proved to be e-a-s-y.

The process involved filling out a brief web form with my desired start date and selecting the countries I’d be visiting. I had the hotspot shipped directly to a hotel room in England and activated automatically on the arrival date. Simple and clean, the way things should be. Since this is a rental, there are no contracts or the need to buy anything. Renting works well for our fairly long trip, but I think it is especially handy for a shorter trip, especially if it’s business related. Here is more info on their hotspot, which is spendy at $15/day but perhaps worth it depending on your needs.

Connection Quality

During our travels through 13 countries in Europe, we had service most places. That’s a heck of a lot more than I can say about AT&T back home. Signal strength varies, but usually I can use my phone for Google Maps, log into email, surf the web and operate various work programs. I save downloading movies for wifi, and syncing large amounts of data for a daily backup isn’t recommended, but streaming quick videos online is totally possible. Score – I can still watch Gangnam Style every night.

One annoying thing: the hotspot will sometimes get disconnected when usage spikes over 200 MB/day. This isn’t XCom’s fault; the “Fair Usage Policies” of European telecom countries lets them cut a connection when some arbitrary, unstated amount of data is consumed in a certain (also unstated) time period. Update at end of trip: this has now happened a half dozen times or so (I lost count). Each requires an email (weekdays only) to XCom customer service. If I absolutely needed to be connected to the internet and was paying $15/day for this device, I would seriously question whether this was worth it.

One complaint I had for my Verizon hotspot was that it died after about 2 hours of use. So far, the XCom unit is getting about 4-5 hours. That’s enough for a solid day of cycling using it for navigation as necessary, and I can also plug it into a battery pack.

A brief stop at an office...

A brief stop at an office…

Communication While In Europe

Texting and Phone Calls

I keep my phone on airplane mode in Europe and only use wifi. We arrange most lodging via email with a host, using an app like ACSI to find a campground, or booking a place directly through a website. Texting could prove useful for a quick heads up regarding an arrival time, though I frankly haven’t needed it with email. Skype can send texts for $0.10 each, but you can’t get responses (annoying). Google Voice/Hangouts can be a good option, but doesn’t work in every country. There are tons of apps out there – WhatsApp is great – that send messages, but fewer people in Europe seem to have smartphones or popular apps that we use in the States. T-Mobile has an international plan with unlimited text and data, but the service only runs at slow speeds equivalent to Edge in the U.S., which is too slow for my needs.

I use Skype for calls back to the U.S. A wifi-enabled phone like one from Republic Wireless or one of its many competitors works well too. To avoid language mix-ups with hosts and businesses, I try to communicate by email versus phone whenever possible. There are many text translators online to interpret text from an email.

My cell phone is not unlocked (dang it AT&T), so I can’t plug in a Europe-based SIM card. This hasn’t been an issue, and I don’t want to find a new SIM card for every single country we visit anyway – six of them (so far) in three weeks of pedaling. Crazy as it sounds, even locals only have non-roaming coverage on their phones in their own country. This means that if a Belgian drives 10 miles north to Holland or 50 miles south to France, they are charged roaming rates the same way an American is charged while visiting Canada. Given that all 50 states in the U.S. fit under most cell phone plans with zero roaming, I find it hard to believe European telecom companies get away with this. Rise, RISE, and take to the streets, people.

Update September 2015: Google Fi just leapt into the arena with an incredibly tempting plan. $20/month unlimited texting/calling in 120 countries around the world, plus $10 per gigabyte. Mr. Money Mustache has a great write-up about it.

Making new friends in Holland.

Making new friends in Holland.

Wifi

Wifi is everywhere so far. Most bars, cafes and lodging have it. Some connections are fast, but (like anywhere in the world) a place teeming with laptop-toting students will have dragging wifi speeds. Hotels can also be slow. Couple that with the recent proliferation of electronic crime and I prefer to use my wifi hotspot whenever possible rather than a public, unsecured connection. Call me paranoid, but the information I read or listen to leads me to believe we leave in an insecure online world where genius hackers can intercept a password faster than I can hoover down a piece of chocolate cake.

One tricky thing with wifi in Europe is that many of the “open” connections in restaurants or hotels are set up through the local communications company. They are free for local customers of that company who have a phone plan, but you can’t log in as a foreigner unless you have a local phone number. This means that many open wifi connections end up not working, which is annoying.

Tech tip: the app Wifi Map is a crowd sourced database of wifi locations and passwords. The paid version allows offline access to the data. For those of you traveling sans hotspot, this app is mandatory.

Getting some work done in a cafe in Belgium with live violin music from a street musician below the window.

Getting some work done in a cafe in Belgium with live violin music from a street musician below the window.

Navigation

Some people love maps. I prefer the quick and easy method of using my phone, both with wifi on and off. I’ve tried many mapping apps, yet keep coming back to the old standard of Google Maps. I’ll get maps for big countries like France, but it never seems worth it for smaller countries where we won’t be around long. Luxembourg is only 40 miles across – we crossed it in a day. I will say that Google Maps occasionally calls a rutted, rocky goat track from the 15th century a road. Character builders, I call ’em.

I’m always plugged in while we travel. Blindly wandering a city to discover hidden gems is fun, and we do it all the time. But route finding at the end of the day while tired and hungry is worse than taking a calculus final with a hangover. Much handier to plug an address into Google Maps to help avoid marital strife arguing over directions. I’d rather hang out with new friends than wander lost through an industrial area while our hosts wonder if we took a wrong turn and disappeared toward Estonia.

Tech Gear: The Summary

A solar panel, charging pack, a laptop, and multiple cameras certainly aren’t necessary for everyone traveling in Europe. Simply having a smartphone can keep you sporadically connected. Initially, I was planning to explore Europe without a mobile wifi unit, but I’m relieved I didn’t. For a short-term business traveler or digital nomad trying to work remotely, a wifi hotspot like XCom Global’s may be necessary. Given the cost and how often we’ve been disconnected by carriers, I will likely look into other options for our next overseas trip. I’m not sure what else is out there, but consistency of connectivity is #1, especially if you’re paying for it. Google Fi could be a great option, as I mentioned earlier.

In general, with the above tech helping me out, I haven’t skipped a beat with my work during this trip. We cycle and explore during the day, hang with new friends or relax in the evening, and then I flip on the laptop to hammer out some work at night. I was concerned about balancing all these activities, but this adventure is proving fun (except maybe the last week with its 95 degree days) and low stress.

And there you have it! Am I missing any tech you always take on trips? Any other secrets for a data plan in Europe that I missed and should check out? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email. If my opinion on any of this changes, I’ll update this post later in this overseas jaunt (see above!).

Belgium flowers and cycle touring

Save Money, Travel Light: Borrow Ebooks from the Library

Zion National Park from Observation Point

Last week, I sat and enjoyed a book at Observation Point in Zion National Park. Just me and a setting sun to the west, plus chipmunks questing for my trail mix as I read. I wasn’t paging through a tome I lugged to the viewpoint; for years, the majority of the books I read have been digital. While I prefer hard-copy versions, finding anything other than a “Take One, Leave One” copy of a lusty bodice ripper or a Clancy thriller is tough to find when traveling. Instead, I borrow ebooks through our library back home.

Most times I mention this to someone, they’re surprised it’s an option…which means I needed to write a blog post about it. Wondering if it would be helpful, I searched and discovered a Pew Internet survey that found 48% of e-reader owners didn’t know if their library offered ebook rentals. I also learned that close to one-third of book purchases are made by libraries each year, which means by supporting your library, you are also supporting authors.

Let me dispel any confusion: you can borrow both ebooks and audiobooks from your local library, even when you’re traveling. If you read dozens of a books per year the way I do, borrowing ebooks can save you hundreds of dollars versus buying books.

This is no place to sit and read! 100 degrees AFTER sunset in Death Valley NP at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, it's the lowest point in the U.S.

This is no place to sit and read! 100 degrees AFTER sunset in Death Valley NP at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in the U.S. These salt flats and formations were neato!

You don’t need a Kindle or other e-reader device to borrow ebooks. With just a smartphone or a tablet, and the Kindle, Nook, or iBooks app, you can check out ebooks from the library through a simple process. Here’s what you do:

  1. Get a library card! If you don’t have one, head to your local library branch and pick one up.
  2. Set up an online account to download the ebooks. The most common (and the ones I recommend) are Amazon’s Kindle, OverDrive or 3M Reader. With accounts at both Amazon and OverDrive, I’m able to download most ebook formats.
  3. After you have an Amazon, OverDrive, and 3M Reader account, you need to tie that in with your library. I use my home library in Multnomah County. To get dialed with yours, go to OverDrive.com and do a quick search for your library. Heads up that you’ll need your library card number and password to set things up.
  4. After you have your accounts (they’re free, by the way), downloading a book is simple. Use the search feature on your local library’s website, choose a book and then pick the ebook or audiobook version instead of the paper copy. Follow the instructions and download the books.
  5. If there insufficient digital licenses available to borrow, you simply jump in the queue the same way a regular book hold works. The library will email you when your book is available to download and you’ll have three days to “pick up” your book.
  6. Once you download a book, open the reading app on your phone/tablet and *MAGIC* the book appears. It will even sync across your multiple devices. Sorry, but you still have to actually read the book – there is no instant-download of the information into your brain. (Give it five years…)

I mostly read on my iPhone, which gives me the opportunity to sneak in 5-10 minute book breaks throughout the day. Using my phone lets me avoid buying another device, such as a Kindle or specific e-reader, though some people dislike reading on a smartphone because the font is small. Not to worry, you can change settings to use text so big that Andre the Giant would have loved to read it. Audiobooks are definitely best for your phone – listen to them on a bike ride, run or while driving and you’ll be amazed how you crank through pages. I listened to seven audiobooks last July during our bike tour.

The other upside to an ebook is that it fits nicely in a digital note system like the Secret Weapon (Evernote + Getting Things Done). I highlight quotes for future reference, which is incredibly easy with Amazon’s database. While I’d like to own powers of memory an SAT-prepping teen would envy, the reality is that I consume a dizzying amount of information and need some way to keep track of it. Digital books make that easy. Amazon even has a service that will flip through popular highlights in a book to help refresh your memory of a book.

Update 7/28/15: Digital books through the library are great for picking up travel guides without having to buy a specific book. I like this especially for a tiny country where we’ll only spend a few days. For example, we are currently at the Croatian border and I just downloaded a guide for Slovenia, which we pedal into tomorrow on our cycle tour through Europe.

Chelsea walks across Badwater in Death Valley NP. There's a tiny white sign on the cliff above her that reads, "Sea Level."

Chelsea walks across Badwater in Death Valley NP. There’s a tiny white sign on the cliff above her that reads, “Sea Level.”

Beyond the library, maybe you already have a Kindle library full of ebooks? Check out Lendle, which lets you borrow a book if you lend one (BookLending.com is another). eBookFling is similar, plus it expands beyond the Kindle to Nook, iOS, BlackBerry and Android readers.

So what’s the downside to borrowing ebooks? Just one thing: time limits for reading. When you borrow an ebook, you usually only get 14-21 days to read it. There aren’t any late fees, but the book disappears from your device when your time is up. You can always borrow it again though!

For travelers, I have found this is an easy way to cut down on the weight/bulk of carrying hard copy books and save money versus buying them. When I hear of a book I want to read, I first check with the library, then go to Amazon if a digital copy isn’t available to borrow. Quick, seamless, and simple, the way reading should be. Enjoy!

Grinning it up in Death Valley.

Reunited with my travel buddy!

Protecting Your Ass(ets)

Getting outside near Arches National Park

Unless we condemn ourselves to a safe, boring bubble, life can be dangerous. And if we get out and live, it’s inevitable that we will have close calls, whether it’s hucking off boulders on a bike or dodging the Snapchatting teenager as she turns a corner through a crosswalk. Or maybe just climbing a tippy ladder like a circus acrobat for a weekend-warrior home project.

Risk is simply part of living, like it or not. But as advanced primates, we luckily can hedge our risks with easy legal tools that all of us with a developed prefrontal cortex should know about. Similar to my write-up on managing property using Cozy, this post takes something I recently learned, shares the experience, and hopefully helps you out. I’ll be talking about the scintillating topics of:

  1. Living wills
  2. Final wills
  3. Power of attorney

The harsh reality is that even intentional wanderers like us deal with humdrum things like insurance, food shopping, taxes, and even wills. Long-term travel requires most of the same logistics as home; it’s not all making snow angels or standing on a cliff with a sunset vista, as much as I’d like to insinuate that it is, and Instagram shots of washing dishes are boring.

Indian Creek sunset

Watching a sunset in Indian Creek, Utah? Not boring.

I “knew” about wills, as most of us do, but had not done much (anything) until I found the website Get Your Shit Together. The creator is a woman whose husband died in a terrible accident, leaving her behind with young kids. That was bad enough; then she realized their financial and legal lives were a tangled mess. In the midst of grieving, she wound up in bureaucratic battles that make Frodo’s quest to Mordor look like playing Candyland while sipping hot cocoa. Her site lists the things she wished she and her husband had handled prior to his tragic death, all offered for free to prevent this happening to other people.

I came upon that website and immediately added the items to my brilliant task-management system in Evernote. I then promptly ignored those to-dos long enough that if they’d been a kid, I’d be in jail for abandonment. (This is a perfect example of what Gretchen Rubin means when she says, “nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.”) Then, in a recent bout with responsibility triggered by waiting in a Moab laundromat – another boring thing not pictured on this blog – I seized opportunity’s arm and wrestled it into submission.

Living wills are your chance to designate someone to make decisions on your behalf if something bad happens and you’re comatose. Your partner, parents or favorite pet (not recommended) can’t act on your pre-determined desires regarding your care (e.g. using a feeding tube) unless you have a living will in place. This may result in keeping you on life support forever like the world’s most expensive zucchini. I don’t know about you, but that sounds terrible for me and for my family. In fact (according to Wikipedia) “studies indicate that 70-95% of people would rather refuse aggressive medical treatment than have their lives medically prolonged in incompetent or other poor prognosis states.” Get a living will – ‘nuf said.

Sunset in Arches NP

The other two are even more straight forward. A power of attorney empowers your designated authority to make legal moves with your assets, signing documents on your behalf and taking care of things while you recuperate. A final will takes out the headache of probate and assets being left in limbo if you keel over while laughing at old reruns of Friends. This isn’t just about you. It’s assuring the lives of people you love aren’t turned even more upside down in case you have an accident.

The internet makes this incredibly easy – no attorney visit in an office plastered with expensive landscape photos and no waiting on hold while a secretary files her nails, just a series of easy online questions. After getting started, I had a living will in 20 minutes. Five more and a power of attorney form was locked and loaded. Chelsea can now shepard our finances and sell my favorite T-shirts (don’t you dare!) with just a few flicks of a pen, and I have a sense of security and relief knowing it’s handled.

Fiery Furnace in Arches NP

Where’s the best place to get ‘er dun? I used LegalZoom.com because their reviews seemed to be the most solid.  Here’s a link to the living will section, and the regular wills and power of attorney are on the main page in the bottom middle section under personal services.

If you’re in a relationship, you’ll need your partner to fill out the info too, but you can do it at different times. (Single people, choose a parent, sibling or a close friend.) In 30 minutes, you’re dialed. Instead of paying hefty attorney fees, we each got three sets of legal docs – power of attorney, will, and living will – for less than $300. Compared to working directly with a lawyer, it’s a smoking deal. That said, talk to an attorney if you have a complicated situation or want professional advice, but do something!

I share all this to help you build a strong foundation for living an unfettered, fun life. These niggling puzzle pieces create a structure from which to launch and go on adventures, whether they’re in your backyard or on a big trip. And now, feeling lighter and uber-responsible with this task (and my laundry!) handled, and I’m going to shake off all this serious talk with a mountain bike ride in the desert.

Riding the Gold Bar Rim as part of the Magnificent 7 trail system near Moab.

Riding a couple thousand feet up on the burly fun of scenic Gold Bar Rim as part of the Magnificent 7 trail system near Moab.

Easy Investment Property Management with Cozy

Enjoying free camping near the Valley of Fire in Nevada.

Rent out your house and go here! (Free camping near the Valley of Fire in Nevada.)

Forget broken toilets. A handyman on speed dial can fix those. I think the most time-consuming part of renting out a property is screening tenants and arranging payment information. I’d wager you landlords out there dread it. If you don’t, your anti-anxiety medication is working!

We mostly invest via index funds, but own one investment property and our personal residence, both of which we rent out. In the recent years, we’ve leased to a half dozen people and it is always a pain in the neck to manage the initial setup.

For short stays, Airbnb works great, but we tend to leave our house for longer periods of time or rent our other investment property for at least a year. There are services for bigger investors (e.g. Appfolio), but they charge $200/month minimum, killing cash flow for single-family properties. Plus, professional online services have 22,231 features like a fancy T.V. remote where all you know is ON/OFF.

Enter Cozy, a Portland startup that changes this. It’s a free service aimed at small investors who don’t use property management companies (which charge ~10% for long-term rentals and half your child’s future income for short-term) and want a streamlined way to manage tenants. Nothing in this for me – I simply like Cozy’s service and think it would benefit small-scale real estate investors.

Why use Cozy? It’s simple, fast, and will save you time and headaches. Here are the basics:

  1. Set up a simple account at Cozy.co.
  2. Enter your property into their system, which takes just a few minutes.
  3. Set up your bank account info so that tenants can send you cash (by the truckload, hopefully).
  4. Cozy generates a link to a tenant screening application that you can share online, email, or include in any property listing (e.g. Craigslist). Sending PDFs via email and getting incomplete crap back is so 2003 – this is an easy, online method that notifies you when a new application comes in. On the tenant side, it’s simple, and even lets someone import employer info from LinkedIn. (I went through the process so I knew what to expect.)
  5. A credit check service is provided by Cozy, the cost of which you pass through to the tenant. You can also send them to get a free one at annualcreditreport.com if you don’t need a report with a credit score. You also can require a background check if desired. (In response to Trisha’s comment below – we always require a credit report with a score, and that is my recommendation!)
  6. Best part? Payment terms and setup are clean. No more giving tenants your address to mail a check, or figuring out monthly deposits bank-to-bank via a voided check. Cozy acts as the intermediary (for free!), and will initiate a withdrawal each month. It also allows you to set up split payment for multiple tenants, including for the security deposit.

That’s it! I would do screenshots, but any middle school kid can text 1,432 times and navigate their system at the same time. You can figure it out. So great to see a startup provide practical and useful functions instead of just another photo sharing app.

For all of you who are self-managing properties, I think this is a great way to streamline things. I am digging it and will not be going back to PDF applications and hacked-together payment setup. Next time you transition tenants, check out Cozy.

Rent your house and go here! (Niakahnie Mountain on the Oregon coast.)

Rent your house and go here! (Niakahnie Mountain on the Oregon coast.)