INTERVIEW WITH KATHRYN BIRD
Who are you and what is your backstory?
Hey, I’m Kathryn Bird. I’m from the UK, but can most often be found somewhere up a mountain in Europe. In 2018, I quit my job as an air traffic controller to travel Europe (mostly!) fulltime in a motorhome (that’s adulting… right?!) I travel with my husband and our spaniel Mac and we spend as much time on the road as we can, although we return to the UK fairly often to visit family.
When we bought our first van (in 2017), I had NO intention of travelling long-term or quitting my job to tour Europe in a motorhome. Although, if I’m honest, I probably should have guessed something like that would happen!
"DO IT! Seriously- you don’t want to look back in 10 years time and wish you’d taken the leap."
My husband and I have always been a bit ‘quirky’ in how we chose to live our lives. When we were younger, we decided to buy a boat to live on instead of renting a house.
Since then, we lived on boats for over 15 years, slowly doing them up with the little money we had, and then selling them to buy another (slightly bigger!) boat. We always joked about sailing around the world (although, embarrassing as it is to admit- considering I’m an ex-Naval officer, I don’t really like sailing off-shore! So that plan was doomed from the start.)
But it was the freedom we craved.
Freedom from a mortgage. Freedom from huge houses and expensive bills. Freedom from our jobs- something which we forgot for a few years whilst we merrily climbed the corporate ladders in our respective fields. My husband works in computer software and I was an Air Traffic Controller for London airspace. (Basically, I stopped all the planes from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted etc from hitting each other mid-air.)
But the more you climb the ladder, the more trapped into that lifestyle you become. It became harder to take holidays at the same time together, we started spending money on things we didn’t really need. Lots of little things which we hardly even noticed… until one day we did.
Sadly, that wake-up call came in a horrible way- the passing of my lovely mother-in-law. She was one of the world’s ‘good people’ and we didn’t expect her to be taken so soon. We always thought we had ‘more time’.
But there isn’t a guarantee- and her death really shook us out of our root. We realised we were living a life which didn’t appeal to us- and we wanted to change it. Fast.
So, we did what everyone does when they’re grieving and want to DO something to prove they’re alive- we bought motorbikes. Big ones.
It was while we were touring around Europe on these that we spotted a motorhome pulling a trailer with a bike on it. A lightbulb went off and we realised that was a brilliant idea! The adventure of biking, but with a comfy bed and hot shower at the end of the day. We bought our first van the very next week.
Our first trip with our new (to us) motorhome was interesting. We went to south Wales and had no motorhome experience whatsoever. There were a few similarities with boat life (such as power management), but it was a huge learning curve and we had to learn all the basics- including which motorhome accessories we needed!
Our very first motorhome on our very first ever trip!
Still, we really enjoyed our time in the motorhome, and we quickly planned our next trip up to Scotland. This was even more of a learning curve, as we learnt how to wild camp! Wild camping in the UK is not easy- there are very few places to stay without upsetting someone, but we managed it and that built our confidence.
From there, we headed to Europe. In August (peak summer holiday season)- and went to the Italian Lakes. TOP TIP: Do not do this! It was crazy busy, there were very few places to park and we were a little overwhelmed by the entire experience. About 4 days in, we realised something magical.
We were in a motorhome. Which could move! We didn’t need to stick to our plan.
So we ran away to Switzerland and spent a night up in the Swiss Alps. It was magical (apart from the time our brakes failed completely whilst we were coming down the side of a mountain, but let’s not dwell on that!)
It was that night that we found ourselves at the top of a mountain, staring up in awe at the Milky Way.
The actual Milky Way. It was beautiful and incredible and amazing.
We realised how many incredible things there were in the world that we’d never had the time or ability to see for ourselves- and travelling in a motorhome could help us see more.
Up in the Swiss Alps- the night we decided to change our lives!
The problem was my job. We were tied to one place for most of the year while I worked- and it was tough to get leave, especially in the summer. My husband could do most of his work from anywhere as long as he had good internet, as we were proving on this trip!
So, we decided to change our lives. For real- instead of just talking about it. In practical terms, we needed to downsize until we could live only on my husband’s income,
This was both easy and difficult to do! We were wasting a LOT of money on stuff’- and buying things on Amazon. We had to learn to be more conscious about what we were spending our money on, and get rid of as many ‘extras’ as we could. With some hard work, we got to a point where we didn’t need my income at all within about 3 months, which was quicker than we expected.
Once we reached that point, we started saving every penny of my income. We made a list of the things we wanted to do whilst we had 2 incomes, such as upgrading our motorhome, buying a few things to help out our families and building up an emergency fund.
Once we did that, we got rid of as much of our stuff as possible, except for what we were keeping on the boat, and packed the rest into the motorhome. We set off for Norway a few weeks later!
Tell us about the advantages to the RV lifestyle?
There are some HUGE benefits to living long-term in a van. For us, the biggest one is being able to have a dog. We always wanted one, but never could whilst we were both working. So a few months after I left my job, we found our spaniel, Mac, for sale. We were actually in Norway when we saw him being advertised for sale in Wales- it was love at first sight.
So we drove all the way back from Norway to Wales in 4 days to collect him! He’s been a wonderful addition to our family and we can’t imagine life without him (except for maybe right now while he’s trying to climb into my lap to distract me so I’ll throw his ball…!)
Our dog, Mac. We picked him up as a 12 week old puppy and his first home with us was in the motorhome. He’s loved it ever since.
We also love being more connected to the world around us. We’re more conscious of our plastic usage, our water consumption and our effect on nature. For us, that’s a huge benefit.
But the biggest benefit has to be spending more time together. We’ve gone from barely seeing each other to being a team again, sharing life together again. We have breakfast and dinner together nearly every day and enjoy hikes with the dog in some incredible locations. During those times, we’ve really reconnected as a couple- chatting and sharing ideas and dreaming about crazy plans for the future. It’s been great.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the RV lifestyle?
Life on the road has ups and downs. The tasks you hated doing in a house are still there in a motorhome- But at least the cleaning doesn’t take as long!
At first, we were guilty of ‘rushing’ the journey. We were on the move day after day after day. But travelling can be exhausting, and we needed to learn to relax and let things take their course. We also need to schedule in rest days every 2-3 days- that’s been a HUGE learning curve.
"One of the reasons we started Wandering Bird was to be the resource which was missing for UK and Europe motorhome travel. There were a few blogs, but they were more diary style and it was hard to find the information you needed easily."
Although we love exploring, we sometimes miss the ease of being able to walk into your local store and know where everything is. Especially in Europe where the languages change so frequently. But that’s also part of the adventure!
Our scariest moment was, without doubt, the time our brakes failed whilst coming down a mountain in Switzerland. I have genuinely never been so scared in my life and I am eternally grateful my husband was driving.
He had to use the handbrake and engine braking to get us down all those hairpin bends safely- and we slid into a garage at the bottom of the mountain in a cloud of steam and squeals.
It turns out that what we thought was brake fluid wasn’t- someone had put water in during the last service, not proper brake fluid. We were lucky that the owner of the garage was incredibly kind, and he stopped all his other work to help get us fixed up and back on the road again.
That’s something we’ve found all over the place- when things go wrong (which they will), it’s possible to get things fixed up again.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
We’ve always loved the community which can be found on the road- people are generally warm and welcoming and we’ve shared some great nights with other vanlifers we’ve met on the road.
But we do miss our family and friends- although at the moment my husband’s work pays for us to fly back to the UK every couple of months, which helps a lot with staying in touch.
I have aging parents and it’s important to me to spend time with them often. Our daughter only recently left home and started her adult life, so we try to support her as much as possible too.
How do you support yourself financially?
Our main income continues to be my husband’s work- and we still make sure we live within his wage. But our motorhome travel website, Wandering Bird, has now grown beyond all our comprehension- we had over 500,000 people visit it last year! So that’s now bringing in a much-appreciated second income, which has allowed us to save some money and buy some upgrades for the van.
It is sometimes difficult and frustrating not to be able to buy what I want, when I want it (doesn’t THAT sound bratty!!!!), but I’d much rather be conscious of our finances, spend thoughtfully and not be in work, than go back to life as it was before. Everything’s a compromise.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
DO IT! Seriously- you don’t want to look back in 10 years time and wish you’d taken the leap.
Having said that, here are a couple of things to consider:
- Think everything through very carefully- especially financially. I stayed at work for an extra 4 months so that we could build up a buffer/ emergency fund- which is something we recommend everyone has… just in case!
- Accept that you will NEVER feel ready. Never ever. You will feel scared- that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice! And don’t listen to people if you don’t want to end up like them. This is your life- right now. Don’t have any regrets.
Sella Pass in the Italian Dolomites. One of the most incredible places we’ve ever been
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
I LOVE planning motorhome trips. Seriously, it’s fun for me. There are a couple of apps we use which are really useful:
- Park4night- allows us to find free or very cheap places to stay overnight
- Google maps- you can create an itinerary on your phone very easily
- Pinterest- the best place to find itineraries and places to visit in a country.
One of the reasons we started Wandering Bird was to be the resource which was missing for UK and Europe motorhome travel. There were a few blogs, but they were more diary style and it was hard to find the information you needed easily. We want to be a voice of honest, practical advice that people could trust.
What does the future look like?
We are notorious for changing our minds and adapting our dreams accordingly. 5 years ago, we never dreamed this would be our life. Having said that, we always look for adventure. BREXIT is fast approaching and that’s going to make a big impact on our lives and how we do things. (For those of you lucky enough to not know what BREXIT is, it’s basically the UK leaving the EU- which in turns curtails the amount of time British Citizens are allowed to spend within the EU…)
I can’t see us ever choosing to stop travelling- I hope to do it as long as possible- there are so many places to visit and I want to keep exploring as long as I am able to.
We visited Norway in 2018- and it rained almost non-stop for 3 weeks! We’re hoping to go back in October 2020 to explore more and see the Northern Lights- it’s supposed to be one of the best places to see them in Europe.
Us in Austria with our second van- on the way to Norway. Looking forward to going back soon!
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
I am lucky to have an incredible husband who can figure out anything. Without him, I’d be very lost, especially when it comes to electrical things. (Not physically lost- I’m the one who navigates!! :) )
And luckily, in this day and age, as long as you have Google, you can usually find someone who has solved your problem!
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 RV essentials that you couldn’t live without?
My husband, my phone and coffee!If you want serious answers: powerpack for my laptop (it’s soooo power hungry), sat nav/ Google Maps and a reversing camera, especially when towing. Oh, and wifi.
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
- Dolomites, Italy
- Black Forest, Germany
Where are you now?
We’ve been in France throughout lockdown. Now the borders have reopened, we’re heading to the UK to see our family.
How long do you usually stay in one place?
Not long! Mostly just a night. Sometimes 2 or 3.
When did you first start RVing?
Bought our first van in 2017. Quit my job to travel in March 2018.
Are you full-time or part-time RVing?
We call it long-term. I consider full-time when you don’t have anywhere else, but we still have the boat in the UK which we return to occasionally. Having said that, I’d rather be in the van than on the boat- less creaking ropes and worrying about storms.
How many weeks have you spent in the RV in the last 12 months?
This year- not many! We came out for lockdown and stayed in a house. Looking forward to getting back on the road again.
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
Our Swift 685 motorhome at the top of Tre Cime in the Italian Dolomites
We currently have a Swift 685 motorhome. It’s our third attempt at the ‘perfect’ vehicle for us- and we may have managed it! We love that it’s under 7m and we love the rear lounge.
We still tow two motorbikes most of the time- both Triumph Scramblers. We love them for exploring. Our dog comes on the back of the bike with us!
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
I’m passionate about inspiring others to have their own adventures and experience the freedom of life on the road, whether it’s a long weekend or a month away. You can find more of our tips, advice and free guides for travelling by motorhome or camper on our website or Youtube channel.