I began my long-standing ritual of travel journaling on a family road trip the summer I turned 12. Equipped with markers and a fresh new sketchbook, I recorded each day’s activities with the detail, fervor, and sincerity of any pre-teen raised reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. It was serious business to catalog what we did, what we saw, what we ate, and what my brother was currently doing to annoy me. Looking back on those first journals, it may seem like I was just a kid doodling and listing inconsequential details, but I was launching a lifelong practice of introspection through musings on the road. Throughout my teens and adulthood, from short road trips to eight-week solo journeys, I have found comfort, clarity, and personal development by maintaining a journal. In a lot of ways, keeping a travel journal is a present to your future self.
I have been able to track personal growth, ambition, artistry, philosophies, and important stories that might have otherwise been blurred or completely lost to me over the years. When transitioning into professional travel writing, I had the benefit of my years of experience across the pages of countless travel journals. I can more effectively tell rich anecdotes and write intuitive articles by going back to my notes, maps, and other glued in keepsakes to relive the details of each adventure.
Keeping an effective and useful Travel Journal is an art of its own. It takes practice and effort. You won’t feel like doing it consistently at first. You might even hear a smarmy narrator’s voice with a bad British accent saying “Dear Diary…” in your head as you pick up the pen to write. That goes away. Over the years I have found what works really well for me and what makes me feel a little ridiculous — even the best travel journalers will reread something that makes them cringe later on. We journal mostly for our eyes only, so don’t judge yourself — just give it a try.
Here are a few ideas to help you get started:
Start journaling before you leave
For me, a blank journal feels too perfect to ruin with my potentially dumb ideas. If I wait till I’m on the trip to start writing, it gets even harder to think of what might be important enough to mar that beautiful empty first page. Just jump right in. I like to fill the first few pages with notes as I’m planning my trip. I make ranked lists of places I want to visit by general location, notes about public transit systems, names of restaurants that I want to try, foreign language phrases I might need, hours of operation for must-see attractions, etc. On my first big trip away from home in high school, I filled two pages of my journal with a list of activities I knew I would be doing that I was terrified about (first flight without my parents, first time camping in the wilderness, first time rock climbing, etc). As I achieved each activity, I felt so proud and accomplished to be able to check it off the list. I still do this when something I’ve signed up for feels intimidating or daunting. At the end of your trip, you’ll have a list of stuff that scared you that you did anyway — because you’re amazing. Make your lists now and the habit of journaling will become much more natural once you’re on the trip.
Pick up your journal and pen instead of your phone
On every journey, especially on a solo-trip, you’ll have down time. When things are quiet or I feel socially awkward, I always get the impulse to stare at my phone. Over the past decade, we have conditioned ourselves to fill those empty moments by checking our phones or staring at whatever screen looms within our vision. For me, learning to disengage from my phone felt a lot like quitting smoking. I felt nervous most of the time and didn’t know what to do with my hands. A notebook and pen will help you break the habit by replacing mindless scrolling with something constructive. Make an effort to fill empty moments jotting down your thoughts and emotions or just making a list of what you did that day. Over time, it’ll get easier to ignore glowing screens. You’ll become more contemplative, more mindful, and in turn, more artistically inspired. Strangers and new friends will find you more approachable. You may not even feel totally worthless sitting at a table alone in a restaurant — no promises though, I’m still working on that part.
On busy days jot down notes and fill in the full story later
You won’t have time to write every day. If you’re an active traveler like me, you’ll have a couple of crazy days where all you can do is make a list of bullet points, then go back every few days to fill in the details. That’s totally fine too! With clear notes, you’ll remember what’s important and get it all on paper when you have down time. Don’t ever miss out on today’s experiences because you’re busy writing about yesterday’s!
Save paper souvenirs along the way
My journals are a weird conglomerate of lists, stream of consciousness writing, descriptive haikus, names and phone numbers of friends I meet along the way, receipts, ticket stubs, National Park stamps, maps, business cards, flyers, and other random paperwork. You don’t have to be brilliant and perfectly articulate on every page. Fill pages with the nonsense pieces of paper that you somehow accumulate on every journey. Each item will remind you of something later. If you do end up writing a travel article about your experience, you’ll have all the raw materials for reference right there, saving lots of time later trying to retrace your steps on the internet.
Doodle and draw
Weird amorphous shapes or disproportionate stick figures still have value even if they’re not destined for an art gallery. I’m not much when it comes to drawing, but creativity flows after a doodle or two, and art begets art. The act of drawing can help you gather your thoughts before writing. On a long car trip through Spain, I started mindlessly doodling a line-drawing of a camera in my journal, which later became the basis of my first tattoo. You never know what will happen when you give yourself permission to fool around with a pen. Let yourself off the hook and doodle in the margins. If you’re less of a doodler, try taping a few pages from a coloring book in your journal. Coloring will help you focus your mind just as well as drawing and it takes some of the pressure off.
Record the context for your photographs
Take notes in your journal about that sunrise you shot — where you where exactly, what you were looking for, what challenges you faced. When you make an image that excites you, jot down what happened and how it made you feel. When you back your images up, look at the thumbnails and write a summary of the shoot and what your big takeaways were. Over time your journal and your photographs will become more directly linked, making each more meaningful to you and creating a narrative that is easier to adapt into a travel article or essay.
Even after all these years, journaling doesn’t always come easily to me. With each new trip and each blank notebook, I feel that fresh sense of intimidation. But with every journey, big or small, the first step is the most important.
Don’t hem and haw. Don’t hesitate. Just turn the page and write.