Jess Johnston is the founder of Backpack With Me – a travel blog and Instagram channel inspiring wanderlust all over the globe. She’s been living on the road since 2016 with her fiancé Dom, travelling from country to country, staying in countless temporary homes from bungalows in Thailand to converted vans in Australia.
The couple are now exploring the UK in a red ex-Royal Mail van that they converted themselves called “Our Big Red Home”. We recently had the pleasure of catching up with Jess about this exciting new adventure. Read on to learn what sparked her love of travel, what it’s like to live the van-life and her advice on a career as a digital nomad.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up and what inspired your love of travel?
I’m Jess, and I’m always so bad at writing intros about myself! But I guess the best way I could describe myself is that I’m a travel blogger and photographer with a thirst for travel and a love for animals, family, and new adventures.
I was born in America, moved to South Australia when I was young, and then moved back to New York when I was 12. A lot of my childhood memories involved traveling through different countries – family vacations to the outback, layovers in Japan, summer road trips in America – and those memories definitely instilled a love of traveling within me!
How did you get started with your blog/Instagram channel Backpack With Me? What is your vision for this project?
I started after I had just come home from a 6-month backpacking trip through Australia and Southeast Asia, and it honestly was created out of boredom with home life and an aching to re-live my travel memories.
I started off posting a mixture of my own personal travel photos while also featuring other travellers’ photos who tagged me. When I started traveling full time again I re-discovered my love of taking photos and sharing travel advice, so transitioned into posting my own content in 2018.
My vision with this project is to inspire others to get out and see the world. Traveling is the best way to learn about other cultures, and in the world today, we could use a little more compassion and understanding when it comes to those with a different way of life from our own.
I also think that along with learning about other cultures, you also learn so much about yourself when you travel – you become independent, appreciative, open-minded, and have to be your own best friend at times, so it’s a great way to grow as a person.
Would you be happy to share the story of how you met Dom? How long have you been travelling together?
Absolutely! I looooove talking about Dom. We actually met back in 2016 at the start of my backpacking trip. I was volunteering at an animal shelter on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand, and Dom was working as a builder at a local hostel.
Dom came into the animal shelter one day to help build us a pig pen, and long story short, I got up the guts to ask if he wanted to meet the kittens I was fostering, and then we fell in love VERY quickly after that!
I moved into his jungle bungalow the next week, we had matching tattoos by the next month, and we have been inseparable ever since. We also got engaged last year on the same island where we first met!
I guess we’ve been traveling together for roughly 3 years since we met, but every once in a while we have a home-base so we can save up money and give ourselves a bit of stability before we jet off again.
Out of all the countries you have visited in the last several years, what is your favourite country and why was it so special?
Oh gosh, my #1 would always go to Thailand, not just because it’s where I fell in love with Dom, but for all the memories it holds for me. I fell in love with the people, the food, the way of life, the language, the animals, the beauty… everything!
I feel like I leave a part of my heart in certain countries, and Thailand will always have a big part of my heart! But my #2 favourite would be a tie between Australia and the Philippines.
Have you had one extraordinary experience from your travels that stands out above all else? Could you describe what this experience was like?
Tough question! One experience that will forever be my favourite memory would have to be my road trip down the East Coast of Australia. Dom and I started in Cairns and drove 4,500km around the coast, ending up in Adelaide a month later.
It was our first experience in van life, and we LOVED it. We made so many friends along the way, saw endless beautiful sights, and just loved the simplicity that comes with road tripping.
Could you tell us about your current journeys with “Our Big Red Home”? What is it like exploring the UK in a self-converted ex-royal mail van?
Some people think we’ve lost our minds, but we moved into a van a couple months ago! We lived in a van in Australia for a month while road tripping and completely fell in love with the way of life. Waking up to a different view every morning. Making coffee by the beach. Falling asleep in a cosy little home on wheels.
We decided to do it right this time, and build it like a tiny home. A lot of work and money has gone into it to make it comfortable, and it’s still not finished, but we love it.
It means we can save $1,000 on rent per month, we can travel whenever we want, and when we do want to fly to another country, we don’t have to pay rent for a home we’re not even in! Next month we want to road trip to Italy and explore all the countries in between.
You’ve lived in a few temporary homes in the last couple of years – could you describe what that lifestyle is like? What has been your favourite temporary home?
Because me and Dom are from different countries, it makes having a long-term home together very challenging. I only can stay up to 6 months in England on a tourist visa, and Dom only gets 3 in America, so we’ve had to jump around and make very strategic choices with the countries we live in.
Right now, I have a 2-year working holiday visa in the U.K. using my Australian citizenship, so it’s given us the ability to have a base for now. Having so many temporary homes definitely makes for an exciting life, but it’s also sad at the same time to have to say goodbye to so many places we’ve turned into our home.
Do you have any tips for aspiring digital nomads? What should they consider before going down this road?
I definitely have a few tips! First off, keep following your passion and try not to get discouraged by any setbacks. There are so many challenges involved in this kind of lifestyle and there will inevitably be things that make you question your choice to give up a “normal life”. But don’t let those setbacks get in the way of what you want out of life.
When challenges arise, my best advice would be to talk to other digital nomads! They will have gone through something similar, whether that’s figuring out insurance, homesickness, visas, internet, taxes… you name it, there is someone who will be willing to give you their own advice!
And for those people who don’t know HOW to become a digital nomad, just look at yourself and write down all your skills. Are you fluent in English? You could become an online teacher. Are you good with computers? You could do web design or IT work.
Are you good at writing? You could start a blog or do freelance writing. Are you a good communicator? You could become a virtual assistant.
Even if you have skills that you don’t think can translate to an online career, chances are, someone out there is willing to pay you for your knowledge, so don’t think you can’t leverage your skills just because they’re not computer-based!