Expert Vagabond: An adventurous digital nomad

Expat interviews
  • wakhan-yak hitchhiking
    Matthew Karsten
Published on 2017-08-28 at 08:27 by Maria Iotova
Matthew, a vagabond at heart and a full-time adventure travel blogger and photographer, has been living as a digital nomad and expat since 2010. His curiosity, explorer's mindest, and risk-taking personality have taken him to over 50 countries and opened the doors to numerous life-changing experiences. Today, Matthew and his wife have a more permanent home in the United States, but you will still hear from him from other parts of the world for at least half of the year. speaks to Matthew about wild travel stories, useful tips for digital nomads, and other adventures. Read the interview, and get inspired and motivated to live life to the fullest.

Tell us a bit about yourself – what do you do and do you currently have somewhere you would describe as a home base?

Well, back in 2010 I wasn't enjoying the path my life was on, so I decided to save some money, quit my job, and spend a year backpacking around Central America on the cheap. For the next seven years, I lived as a digital nomad and temporary expat around the world, working as a travel blogger and photographer. I based myself in places such as Mexico, Thailand, Spain, Nicaragua, and Turkey. However, I just moved back to the United States this year to focus on growing my business even more, and finally settling down for a bit. Even though I still love to travel, the constant moving and living out of a backpack was beginning to take its toll.

What was it like deciding to become location independent? Did you have any concerns before starting your travels?

Becoming location independent was incredibly freeing — I've never felt so much freedom. But it was challenging too. There was no boss to keep me on track with work. It was difficult for me to focus when I could easily find something more fun to do, or when fellow travellers on their vacations were trying to get me to join them. When I started, I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to earn enough money to support myself, and eventually, my savings would run out, forcing me to return home and get a “real” job again. But that same fear kept me motivated to find a solution, to keep trying different things. I didn't want to lose my newly found freedom.

What are some of your favourite things about the digital nomad lifestyle?

The ability to pick my working hours, to pick the location I want to work from, the ability to take a few weeks off anytime I want to. Even though I'm living in the United States again, I'm thinking of spending a few months working from Indonesia and New Zealand next year, just because I've always wanted to see those countries. Sharing travel stories and photography is my passion, so while it is work, I really enjoy it. It took a lot of sacrifice and long hours to make professional travel blogging sustainable, but now that it is, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

What are the main goals of your blog Expert Vagabond?

My goal is to inspire others to travel to the places I've been to. To give them useful and entertaining information about these locations, to help them plan their own trip. It's basically my personal travel magazine, produced by a real person, not a faceless corporation. Injecting my personality into these stories and travel guides attracts people who travel in a similar style as me. It's also an escape for many – maybe they'll never travel to places like Greenland or Afghanistan, but they want to see what it was like from someone else's perspective. While doing this, I earn income from display advertising, affiliate marketing, and dedicated marketing projects with brands and tourism boards.

russell glacier
© Matthew Karsten

The nomadic lifestyle: Does it ever feel a lonely path?

Yes. This loneliness was one of the reasons I decided to settle down again after seven years of vagabonding around the planet. I married my travel partner Anna, got a cat, and have a place to store my stuff again that's larger than a 50-liter backpack. For the first few years, I didn't notice the loneliness so much. I was always meeting new people during my travels. But many of those relationships were fleeting, and I missed having a regular group of friends and loved ones around.

You talk about the gadgets and equipment you use during your travels and have a blog post about the theft (and eventual recovery) of your laptop in South America. Are there any vital things you would advise nomads to travel with? Do you have any key tips to help other nomads keep their equipment as secure as possible?

Well, the two things I never travel without are pretty basic but incredibly useful. A good set of earplugs to help me sleep on aeroplanes or noisy areas, and a travel scarf because it has 101 different uses. As for keeping safe, I lock up my valuables when I'm not using them, try not to flash expensive equipment in sketchy areas, and always use travel insurance. You can't protect against everything, and eventually, something will get stolen. But it's not the end of the world – just make sure to backup your travel photos online on a regular basis!

Are there any particular countries you would strongly recommend to other digital nomads?

Certain countries are easier to spend longer amounts of time in – they have favourable visa laws or loopholes. Some that come to mind are Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico, Nicaragua, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Panama, etc.. You might have to jump through a few hoops to stay a while, but it can be done. All these places have established https://www.expat.communities, which make it easier to make friends, learn the ropes, etc..

You do a lot of adventure travelling – which experiences would say were the most exhilarating? Are there any activities or adventures you've heard about that you are keen to try next?

My two favourite recent adventures are hiking the Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland, and backpacking through the mountains of Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor. Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland also stands out. As for the future, I've always wanted to rent a campervan and road trip through New Zealand for a few months hiking and surfing along the way.

On Expert Vagabond you talk about your experience hitchhiking across the US – do you have any advice for other wanna-be hitchhikers?

Hitchhiking, especially in the United States, is not for everyone. You need some thick skin. People will flip you off, throw trash at you, treat you like a criminal, or even proposition you. But along with all the negative crap you'll meet all kinds of cool and interesting people too. It's a challenge for sure. My tips are to smile, look people in the eyes, don't wear a hat or sunglasses, be prepared to wait for hours, and keep your guard up just in case. You need to be confident in your ability to de-escalate or react to any unsavoury situations. Pick a town 10-20 miles away, and say you're going there. If things get uncomfortable, you'll have an “out” to leave. But if the ride is going well, you can ask if they'll take you further.

bangkok khaosan
© Matthew Karsten

Are there any countries that are top of your list to visit next, or any that you are perhaps keen to return to?

Sure! Iceland is always a favourite, it never gets old. There are so many cool things to see on that small island. I usually visit Mexico at least once a year too. As for what's on top of my bucket list, I'd have to say New Zealand, Bolivia, and Russia are big ones for me. In fact, I'm going to be spending a week living with nomadic reindeer herders in Kamchatka next year.

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