She Went From PhD Student To Full-Time Vanlifer: Here’s How Travel Defined Brooke’s Life For The Last Decade
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3rd Feb | 8 min read

Brooke is the hiker and traveler behind! She grew up in Seattle, moved to Australia at 18 in search of adventure, and just recently became a full-time van lifer with plans to drive all the way to Patagonia. You can follow along on all of Brooke’s adventures on Instagram @brookearoundtown.

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How I Was Inspired To Start Traveling

I was always interested in travel, but before I moved to Australia, it felt more like a “someday” goal. Once I had moved my entire life to a new country and gained confidence being solo, I suddenly realised that I didn’t have to wait until I had a travel partner or lots of money to see the world. For the last decade, travel has defined my entire life, and I have no doubt it will continue to do so until the day I die.

I Travel Full-Time Now

I travelled about 4 months a year the entire time I was studying, but now that I’ve finished my PhD and I’m no longer expected to be in the lab on a daily basis, I’ve transitioned to full-time travel— I now live in a van with my partner and spend all my time exploring!

In the past, I’ve had to lug around heavy hiking gear on my travels since the mountains are my favorite place to be, so now I’m super excited to have my entire gear room with me wherever I go.

We spend our days hiking, rock climbing, mountaineering, scrambling, paddling, canyoneering— you name it!

My Backpacking Trip In South East Asia

My first 3-month backpacking trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand is really how I fell in love with international travel.

I hardly knew anything about where I was going or how I’d get from place to place— I was flying by the seat of my pants, but somehow it all worked out and it ended up being an incredible adventure. I loved the culture shock, the overnight buses, the mysterious street food, and all the interesting travellers I met along the way whose stories inspired me to get off the beaten path and try new things.

I tend to research my trips more now, but I still embrace the spontaneity of travel— so many of my favorite experiences have been unplanned and totally unexpected. The key is making a good plan and then being open to throwing it entirely out the window if an incredible opportunity presents itself!

My Backpacking Trip In South America

I’ve backpacked through South America twice now, the first time to Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina & Brazil in 2014-2015 and again to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia & Panama in 2019 and now I’m planning to drive through all of Central & South America in a van over the next few years!

I fell in love with the dramatic beauty, the flavors, and the mysticism of South America on that first trip, and it was so amazing to return solo for more incredible adventures.

One of my absolute favorite experiences was backpacking the Huayhuash Circuit, an impossibly rugged and staggeringly beautiful 10-day trek through the Peruvian Andes. I carried 20kg over 5,000m mountain passes, camped beneath glaciers, and went days without seeing other humans— it was a serious challenge but reminded me that I’m capable of big things.

How I Connect With Other Travelers & Local During My Trips

One of the best things about solo travel is actually the people you meet— I always find that I’m way more likely to socialize at hostels or hang out with other travellers when I’m alone, forced out of my comfort zone by the desire for good banter and new adventures.

I’ve been hiking in Australia with a friend I met in Zambia, moved to Mexico with someone I met in Ecuador and travelled through Peru with a pair of Germans. It’s incredibly easy to connect when you’re travelling, since you already have that major common interest (travel!) and likely a lot of the same ideals as everyone around you.

While backpacking through South East Asia, I met up and explored with locals, and had so many amazing experiences.

I spent an awesome day volunteering at a school for hearing-impaired children (the only non-local there!), toured around Ho Chi Minh with a lovely pair of girls, and even scored an invite to a local New Years party, where we sat cross-legged on the ground with a dozen new Vietnamese friends and marveled over how little the language barrier really mattered.

Countries I’ve Visited So Far

I’ve been to 45 countries, all amazing in their own way, but my lust for travel is far from satiated! When borders reopen (and after completing this massive international van trip), hiking through Nepal and India is at the top of my list.

My Favourite Travel App

My favourite app for travel isn’t even purpose-built for trips, but it is the best way I’ve found to organize all of my plans, bookings, and notes about each destination: Microsoft OneNote. I create a new notebook for each major trip and use Tabs and Pages to separate info for each particular country and city, adding all my bookings as PDFs and pasting cool things to do from other blogs. It even syncs from the computer to your phone, so you always have an up-to-date version of your travel plans!

Why I Started “Brooke Around Town”

I originally started my blog in 2013 to share travel photos and stories with my friends and family back home— but Brooke Around Town has since evolved to include a range of travel itineraries, “what to do” lists for unique destinations, and hiking guides for overnight treks around the world, all designed to help others plan amazing off-the-beaten-path adventures.

It also seems that many people find my blog while researching the very daunting application for Australian Permanent Residency— I have a complete series on moving to Australia that includes student visas, working holiday visas, and the partner visa (all of which I’ve held over the years on the road to permanent residency).

I spent hundreds of stressful hours compiling these guides while doing my PhD, so it’s incredibly rewarding to hear that my blog is helping people with something so important and overwhelming.

How I Was Able to Manage My Studies With Work & Travel

It’s been a tricky balance to manage full-time study and sometimes as many as 3 jobs at a time— I had to work hard during the semester in order to enjoy 4 months of travel every year, but it’s obviously been incredibly worthwhile.

Now that I’m on the road full-time and no longer studying, I do work 1-day remotely at a university in Australia and oversee additional research projects on a consulting basis, so I still feel pretty busy.

I’ve turned down a lot of work in order to focus my energy on hiking and travel (not wanting to become a full-time digital nomad), but I’m also grateful to have a small revenue stream to keep me from digging into my savings for every adventure.

The key for me has been knowing when to put my head down and work like a manic and when to disconnect and enjoy the here and now— compartmentalizing my responsibilities (including my blog) from actual adventure is what keeps me sane and makes my extended travels possible. 

How I Manage My Costs

When I first started travelling, I was on a shoestring budget, both at home and away.

I worked 20-30hrs/week throughout the semester to cover my tuition and living expenses, and I saved like you wouldn’t believe to have money left over for travel— ramen for every meal, borrowing textbooks from the library instead of buying, furniture from the side of the road.

As a student, I spent 3.5 months in South America on $8000AUD, which involved a lot of 36hr buses, sleeping on park benches, and cooking pasta in the hostel to save on meal costs, but it’s always been worth it.

Some Lessons I’ve Learned From My Travels

A lesson I learned pretty early on in my travels (but I wish I’d known even sooner!) was that you don’t need anyone but yourself to have a good time. Friends can be tricky to pin down and often you’ll find yourself faced with the decision to either wait for them to possibly commit in the future or jump in head-first on a big international trip yourself.

Solo travel is the most incredible experience, and I’d encourage anyone to try it at least once— you’ll be surprised by how much confidence it builds to be entirely alone in a foreign country, reliant only on yourself.

And the reality is that you meet even MORE people when you’re solo, the trip gets to be whatever you want, and therefore it’s actually the best travel experience you’ll ever have! Even when you set out with friends in the future, you’ll carry that self-assuredness with you and be more likely to engage with other travellers, make local friends, manage public transport like a pro, and laugh at the inevitable disasters rather than let them ruin your trip.

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