Digital Nomad Priorities: Backpacking in My 20s vs Digital Nomad Life in My 30s

Preparing for a round-the-world backpacking trip in your 20s versus an intentional, slow-travel, digital nomad lifestyle in your 30s is quite a different experience. Having the right mindset and digital nomad priorities is key to finding calm in the chaos. 

I first started backpacking in 2013, with a carry-on backpack and not a care in the world. I was willing to ride overnight sleeper buses through the mountains of Vietnam, catch a 20-hour slow boat from Thailand to Malaysia, and sleep with one eye open at a train station in Spain. 

I had a silk sleeping bag to protect me from bed bugs, a travel towel for when my hostel didn’t provide one (which was often!), and laundry detergent to wash my clothes in the sink. 

Traveling looked very different for me back then. 

Over a decade later (and still on the road), so much has shifted from my carefree backpacker days to now: creating a balanced life of work, travel, and adventure

As a long term traveler and digital nomad, my priorities are different. I now focus on slowing down, finding healthy routines (mentally and physically), prioritizing sleep, rest, and wellbeing, as well as finding that perfect sweet spot of work and play. 

These digital nomad priorities are the basic tools, resources, and habits that a digital nomad needs to work effectively (and enjoy life) while traveling.

And let me tell you, they are vastly different from when I was ping-ponging around the world without a real job.

Now I find myself intentionally planning my days around work meetings and deadlines, ensuring that my accommodation has a suitable internet connection and space to work, as well as spending extra time to take care of my physical and mental wellbeing…

…I often have to remind myself that this trip isn’t a 3-month break from ‘reality’ where I’ll soon make a return to my normal routine and healthy habits. 

So, after speaking with dozens of long term travelers and nomads like us, we’ve identified the top digital nomad priorities for a healthy, happy life, and broken them down into the following categories:

Are you doing everything necessary to support an optimal life on the road?

Let’s find out…

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Safety + Security

This basically boils down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Income

  • Are you earning enough money to cover your costs and expenses? If you’re currently job hunting, check our job resources page and related articles. 
  • Do you have job security or feel confident in your ability to acquire new clients? 
  • Do you have access to money through online banking and international credit or debit cards? We use Wise and Revolut for our banking on the road. More info about banking and credit cards can be found in the finance section here.
  • Are you keeping track of your income and spending? We highly recommend TravelSpend – we use it to budget our travels and track all our expenses!

Accommodation

  • Do you feel safe at the place you are staying?
  • Is there asuitable workspace and wifi to work effectively at the place you are staying, or nearby?
  • Will you get a restful night’s sleep? Prioritise a comfortable bed and quiet location.

Adventure

As digital nomads, we’re often drawn to adventure.

While I wouldn’t call it a ‘priority’ per se, I do believe that a daily dose of newness, space for spontaneity, and a rough plan of ‘where to next?’ keeps digital nomads excited in their journey and everyday lives.

  • Do you know where you’re heading next?
  • What are you most looking forward to?
Digital Nomad Essentials - Jonny working from a bus in Vietnam
Jonny finding the balance or work and adventure while working from a bus in Vietnam

Travel Comforts

I won’t get into the nitty gritty of a packing list here – you can read our guide to the ultimate long term travel and digital nomad packing list for all the details. It maps out everything you’d need to pack as well as popular items I intentionally left out. 

Knowing the answer to questions like “What is my travel style?” or “What backpack is best for my needs?” can really make long term traveling enjoyable. 

Work Comforts

Nabbing the right work gear can greatly improve your productivity and flow.

While I’m a minimalist with only my laptop and a pair of $9 Miniso headphones (yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it), most people thrive when they get hold of the right gear. 

From a wireless keyboard and mouse for ergonomic support, to a laptop stand or second screen, figuring out (and prioritizing) what you need is key. 

Additionally, things like a VPN, mobile hotspot or eSIM, and the right online tools can amplify your productivity. 

Structure + Routine

While most travelers enjoy freedom, flexibility, and spontaneity, when you have work goals to achieve, plan to maintain healthy habits, all while having fun…a little structure can go a long way. 

Figure out what’s best for you. Do you thrive on a strict schedule? Do you enjoy working half-days? Or are you more of a weekend warrior? 

Is the productivity of your work measured in hours or output? Do you prefer long stints at the laptop or shorter but focused work blocks? 

Outside of work, what do you need to feel sustained? Consider the gym, or your hobbies and leisure time….

While we love to go-with-the-flow, Jonny and I struggled to find a healthy and balanced work/life routine in our early days on the road, especially as we have two very different work styles.

I prefer long stints behind my screen in one spot, while he prefers multiple breaks and varied locations. Neither is right or wrong, but we definitely had to adapt.

By communicating our individual needs, and aligning them with our shared goals and desire to explore new destinations, we were able to find a balance that worked (phew!). 

Don’t be upset if this adjustment takes some time to work out – it’s all part of the learning process as a digital nomad.

Different cities will inspire different work styles and hobbies, and the key is in knowing what it is that you need to stay grounded and enjoy where you are and what you’re doing.

  • How much structure do you need to feel sane and grounded?
  • Do you need to marry your schedule with another person or group?
  • Do you have a time or output goal for work each day or week?
  • How will you incorporate fitness and movement into your daily life?
  • How will you incorporate downtime and leisure activities into your daily life?
  • How will you balance time for adventure and fun?

Remember, not everything needs to be planned out, but you must make time to understand your needs and prioritize your schedule. 

Traveling adds so many new elements to the mix, from figuring out places to eat, through to securing a new place to live or understanding the visa criteria of your upcoming destination.

A lot of precious downtime can easily get swallowed up by these administrative tasks, and it may take some effort to find the balance. 

Digital Nomad Essentials - Max needs a workspace to thrive
I thrive knowing that there's a dedicated workspace in my room

Health + Wellbeing

One of the key differences between traveling for fun and traveling long term as a digital nomad, is the focus on health and wellbeing. 

On short vacations or backpacking trips, health and wellbeing usually takes a backseat, as those routines and habits will quickly return when you’re home.

But for those of us traveling long term, this needs to be a priority. 

What’s that saying? Take care of your health now so you don’t have to later? That applies here!

Physical Health

  • How can you move your body daily? Walks, runs, workout programs, gyms, surfing, swimming, and more. The possibilities are endless!
  • Are you sleeping enough, eating healthy foods, and drinking enough water? 
  • Are you prioritizing stretching and massages (if possible)? 
  • Are you insured in case something happens? We use this plan from SafetyWing, but these are the top 3 travel insurance companies on the market.

Mental Health

  • How are you doing, really? If you need help, online therapists are a great tool. After a tough go, I found a therapist while living in Bali and she changed my life! Most therapists from home will see patients online (especially post-covid) and companies like BetterHelp are a great option too.
  • Are there certain practices that you can do to prioritize your mental health such as journaling, meditation, or yoga? Maybe you’re like me and enjoy mapping out your week on Sundays or setting goals on the 1st of every month.

Connection

Traveling can get lonely.

Even if you have a partner or friend with you, there are going to be times where you just miss home – wherever that may be. It’s okay to get homesick, sad, and have down days (this is normal), but as someone who’s on the road long term, it’s important to prioritize connection.

For me, every Sunday I have a checklist of items to sort for the week such as scheduling my workouts, work blocks, and local adventures. I also set regular reminders to check in with friends (both near and far).

I reach out to a few people and make plans. This can be a call, a simple text, a voice note to catch up, or meeting locally for a meal. 

While my introverted self doesn’t always want to do this, I know it pays dividends in the long run. 

  • How are you staying connected with family and friends?
  • How are you building connections in your current location?
  • Have you found a healthy balance of socializing and alone time so you don’t burn out or feel isolated?
Digital Nomad Essentials - Staying healthy
Always finding new ways to get outside + move the body

Growth

Honestly, this should be on every person’s to-do list, not just nomads. Think about how you will remain excited about life.

To me, there is no worse feeling than just existing. By living a complacent, bare-minimum, mundane life where every day is on a dull repeat.

Do you agree? 

So how do we counter that? Connection, service, and personal growth. 

I’ve found that when I’m connected with others or being of service, I often fill up this cup.

However, we’re not always around people or able to connect and serve, so there’s a third way to achieve this feeling, and that is personal growth. 

Personal growth includes things like learning a new language, upskilling at work, or diving into a non-fiction based book or series. It can also include physical goals such as training for a half marathon or learning a new sport. 

However you choose to expand and grow, make sure it’s on your digital nomad essentials list. 

It may be tempting to leave this off, especially when it feels like there’s no time between traveling the world and launching your new business, but I promise you, this is where you will feel most alive and accomplished

  • How are you staying excited about life and growing?

How many of these digital nomad essentials are on your list?

At first, it may seem like a lot of ideas and items to juggle, but remember, this is the foundation for your life and wellbeing while traveling.

Similarly to figuring out how to pay a mortgage, finding the best grocery shops, or deciding which gym to sign up for while at ‘home’, these are you non-negotiables on the road

Understand what makes your tick and set yourself up for success. It’s the difference between a burnt out nomad and one who thrives on their global adventure. 

Use this list as a starting point to map out your own digital nomad essentials. Which questions or priorities are necessary for you to succeed?

Max quit her corporate job in 2013 to take a chance building businesses online while traveling the world. Armed with an adventurous spirit and a can-do attitude, Max has traveled to more than 50 countries, embracing slow travel as a digital nomad and long-term living in places such as Thailand, India, Nepal, and Indonesia. Max currently resides in Bali where she oversees content creation for DNG as our resident travel aficionado.
Picture of Max Pankow
Max Pankow
Max quit her corporate job in 2013 to take a chance building businesses online while traveling the world. Armed with an adventurous spirit and a can-do attitude, Max has traveled to more than 50 countries, embracing slow travel as a digital nomad and long-term living in places such as Thailand, India, Nepal, and Indonesia. Max currently resides in Bali where she oversees content creation for DNG as our resident travel aficionado.

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