Long-term travel abroad & staying healthy

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ June 11th, 2012. Updated on November 12th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Long-term travel.
Expired medicine

If you need special medicine remember expiry dates and generic names!

Long term travel & health: just how healthy do you have to be?

There are a lot of misconceptions regarding long-term travel and health. Being fit and staying fit when it comes to extended travel abroad, medicine abroad and dental care. I aim to tackle a few of these here as I’ve experienced most if not all of the things over the course of a decade.

If you can walk around for eight hours a day generally speaking you can survive a good amount of travel.  Long-term travel is a different story altogether. The effects of continuous extended travel over a long-term period to one’s health has been something I have documented.

Keep in mind this is about true long-term travel: think over two years of travel when reading this. Better yet think 5 years.

Let’s dive in as see how you can prepare, and what you need to watch out for!

Should you start an exercise program before going long-term traveling abroad?

If you currently live a sedentary life, then yes. Not just for long-term travel health but also for the sake of your long-term health in general. Having a high level of fitness before you travel will help you with the initial stress and strain of moving from country to country.

If you are already living an active lifestyle then you probably don’t need too much targeted exercise unless you are doing some extreme travel somewhere.

Things to consider for long-term travel and health involve entire days spent outside, early mornings and new beds nearly every night. There’s a constant battle with foreign substances such as new foods thus meaning new bacteria to deal with. Many countries have high levels of pollution that your body will have to deal with. Yes, even in the middle of a jungle you’ll have pollution (think bush burning, tree clearance & river/water pollution let alone any prophylactics you might be consuming) .

Many developing countries burn incredible amounts of refuse, wood and coal creating a lot of air pollution. Your body has to deal with that. Add in nights of incomplete sleep in strange beds. Early mornings, night buses/trains/flights and constantly moving can mean you get worn out very quickly. Now imagine that over the long-term?

Keeping fit and healthy helps, a lot in combating these things.

Jason from Digi Drift recommends: 

“I don’t think and exercise program is a must, but for the quality of your travel experience. The fitter you are, the less toll the hard days will have on your overall mental state. This is especially so for anyone traveling on an ultra budget. If money is tight, then you will find yourself doing a lot of walking. Lugging a pack around for anyone who isn’t in the best of shape will soon wear you down.”

Christine from Grrrl Traveler recommends: 

“Travelers range in fitness level, travel style, the type of activities they do, budget and where they’re visiting, so starting a fitness program is a personal choice.  Long-term travelers tend to be budget backpackers, taking the thrifty means of getting around in order to stretch the dollar; it can take mental endurance and sometimes, a physical one, as well.”

Get a full medical health check up before taking an extended trip

This applies to long-term or medium-term traveling. Getting a the full works at least six months before you leave is important. And by full works I don’t just mean a blood cell count and blood pressure. I mean urine, stool, full blood screening, chest x-rays and if you are of a certain ages prostate, mammograms the works. It’s better to get all this checked over before you go traveling than during.

At this stage if you are on any kind of medicine or have any medical conditions you’ll need to discuss things with your medical adviser. Write down the scientific names of any medicine you require. Not all brand names are recognized around the world. But scientific/chemical names are.

Do try to get a registered medical prescription from a doctor stating you have been prescribed this medicine legally. If you don’t have this letter and are carrying medicine you might have issues in some countries or at borders. It’s rare, but it’s worth having.

Once that is taken care of it’s time to get some jabs!

Get vaccinated and medically educated before you travel abroad for extended periods

See a tropical specialist or medical practitioner who knows about tropical diseases at least six months before you travel. Explain where you are going and for how long. Most will not fully comprehend real extended travel so just give them a list of countries you’ll be visiting.

 Healthy Travel: Asia & India by Lonely Planet - I carry it

Healthy Travel: Asia & India by Lonely Planet – I carry it

If the medical adviser does not know about tropical or world health issues – find another one that does

Some vaccinations take a few weeks or even months to get fully complete. Ask for and keep a booklet filled with your vaccinations, official stamps and dates they were given. Also take the medical chemical name of all vaccinations. I had one case in Spain where the translation of rabies meant they thought I had been bitten. I just wanted a booster. Having the chemical name printed out helps a lot!

Christine from Grrrl Traveler recommends: 

“Travel can lend itself  to unpredictable situations (i.e. animal or mosquito bites, bacteria getting into wounds, etc…) and you can’t prepare for unpredictability but you can take certain precautions. I’ve always checked gotten vaccinated for the countries I’ve traveled to, if for nothing more than peace of mind.”

Attend some medical courses

If at all possible attend a general first aid course before leaving. Learning how to deal with bumps, sprains, minor burns and rashes will help tremendously when long-term traveling. Likewise if you can attend a class on tropical diseases for overseas workers it will help in your understanding of common ailments. It’s great to know the difference between travelers diarrhea and something like giardias, both of which you will probably come across if you are long-term traveling.

During this time you should also start to pack together a small first aid bag for travel. You can read my extensive travel packing list for travel to get some ideas on what I carry.

Extracted tooth from dentist

Get dental check ups done before leaving!

One of the best long-term health books I’ve come across and still carry is Lonely Planet’s Healthy Travel: Asia & India

Get your Dental check ups and work taken care of long before traveling overseas

If you need dental work, get it done long before you start traveling. Yes, there are quite a few places in the world where dental work can be a lot cheaper. However you’ve not been there yet remember? You’ll have a lot of other things to deal with without wondering if the dentist that doesn’t speak your language is trying to cheat you or not.

Get the work done at home with a dentist you trust. Then just before you leave get a good dental clean. Make sure to keep up good dental hygiene when traveling. The last thing you want is to need a filling in a remote town in China. When you’ve been on the road six months find a reputable dentist and get a check-up / clean just as you would back home.

Wade Shepard from Vagabond Journey recommends: 

The last thing you want to have happen when traveling are dental problems. Making sure your mouth is good to go is as essential of a pre-departure task as making sure your boots are broken in. If you currently have health insurance and can afford a trip to the dentist, then go. Personally, I’ve never been to a dentist, so my take on dental care has always been one of pre-emptive action. I brush my teeth  three or four times per day and also right after eating anything with a high sugar content. I’ve seen dentists work in countries such as China and Guatemala, and I can say for sure that their chairs are not places you want to visit during your travels.

Long-term travel insurance

Easier said than done. Well, that’s what pops into my head when I think of travel insurance for long-term travel. I’m going to avoid the old argument of “do you need travel insurance or not?” and say yes you need it.  For piece of mind go and get it.

Next, read the small print on the policy carefully. Understand where and how you are covered. If you are just starting off get the maximum amount of days you can. Most travel insurance companies will cover you for 18 months. After that a few let you extend to a total of 24 months. After that you become extremely limited.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is taking out a new policy after they’ve already been traveling for 18 months or so.

Reading the small print of many travel insurance companies will often find them saying the policy is only valid if you’ve been resident in your country of residence for 6 or more months.

You’ve been traveling for 18+, although you can still buy the policy if you have to make a claim then you might find out the policy is void!  Moral of the long-term travel insurance policy is – read the small print, twice.

The only company that keeps coming back with good reviews in World Nomads. They let you extend indefinitely. Though the price keeps going up on many an occasion. But, you can also take out a policy when you are already in another country. I have no idea why more insurance companies don’t do the same.

One last point on long-term travel insurance and the small print. Be aware that some policies differ depending on the your country of residence and destination of travel. North America is renowned for high insurance rates. Try to plan your journey so you don’t have to pay high rates.

If you are not traveling to certain countries, make sure you are not paying the premiums for them.

If you really are going to be away a long time then be sure to prepare for what happens to your online digital assets if you die & what happens if you die when traveling

Keeping healthy when long-term traveling abroad with diet, exercise & quality sleep

Finally here are somethings to seriously consider. A daily exercise plan when traveling and a supplemented diet.

Exercise beyond walking

Firstly, walking around cities all day or even going on the odd trek is not a substitute for regular exercise. Tiring yes, exercise no. It’s not something you think about nor really want to think about at the end of long day out and about. You feel like you’ve done a lot but in terms on aerobic or anaerobic exercise you’ve not. Now add on 5 years of this lifestyle and you can quickly get unfit.

Glass of water and a palm tree

Drink plenty of water!

Don’t like the idea of exercising? Dedicate 30 mins every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to mild calisthenics and stretching in your hotel room or outside depending on your location first thing in the morning. After a month of this routine it get’s easier and you will see the benefits.

Your diet needs adjustment

Many long-term travelers either go skinny or gain weight at some stage. Certainly constant moving around will be good for you, but it’s not actually exercise. You might be losing weight but are you really that fit? Eating high fat foods, sugar filled sodas and comfort foods daily over a period of years can have an effect on your health.




Water is more than just for the thirsty

Drink water even if it doesn’t quench your thirst as well as a soda

Water is not just a thirst quencher. It also helps filter out impurities, pollutants and keeps your body running smoothly. Drink plenty!

Add in hot humid conditions, excess sweating, pollution, unknown diets and you may slowly but surely become deficient in a vitamin or mineral essential to healthy living. Over the long-term this will have a detrimental effect on your health. It might not happen in a two years, or even five. But it will catch up to you eventually.

Sleep: Sleep deprivation will hit you at some stage. Especially if you are sleeping in shared accommodation over a long period. People constantly turning on light, making noise and moving around you leads to a body and mind lacking in quality sleep. Budget for two or three nights in a quiet room every month no matter your age.

Get some quality sleep! Budget for a few nights in a private room with air-condition or heating to make your night comfortable. The first night is usually restless as you are not used to it. The next day you can feel worse. The second night you’ll sleep better and by the third night you’ll feel a lot better!

Most importantly listen to your body.

Finally do get yearly medical check ups when traveling. Many large city hospitals have facilities or can direct you to the right place. If you get yearly check ups at home you should get them on the road too.

Keeping fit and healthy tips

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Take a good multivitamin-mineral supplement. You don’t have to take mega doses or even take one everyday. But making sure you are not going deficient is important. Again remember the medical check ups and blood screening at the start can help here.

Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables while traveling is important as is hygiene. But they may not be a priority in many countries. And the nutrient you grew up with may no longer be in your new diet. Think fresh milk or cheese or whole-wheat products. A dietary supplement can help you out.

The hard part is actually staying fit. It’s difficult enough when not traveling let alone when you are. Who wants to exercise while away?! And how can you do it?

For me the hardest thing about exercising to stay healthy when long-term traveling is where and when to do it in extreme climates eg. the cold and the heat. Personally I make no excuses and do it in the morning first thing. If that means a run, I get up and do it. If it mean push ups on the floor, I do them. And, I make sure it’s done for 30-45 minutes 3 times a week minimum.

If staying in one location for a month or so to work/rest then it’s worth taking one step further and joining a local gym. Again, it’s awkward, exhausting but if you really are going to be long-term traveling for 4-5 + years staying fit is essential to your health and longevity.

Summary on Long-term travel health and medical preparation

  • Get fit, now.
  • Have a full medical check up six month before you leave
  • Get a full dental check up and work done six months before you leave, and a clean just before you leave.
  • Get all your vaccinations done well in advance of travel and document them
  • Learn about basic first aid, and tropical health issues before you leave
  • Make a list of long-term travel insurance companies that suit your needs 
  • Be prepared to supplement your diet when traveling long-term
  • Get plenty of quiet quality sleep
  • Get yearly medical check-ups when traveling
  • Exercise while long-term traveling for better long-term travel health!

 Long-term travel planning is not something many people have written in-depth about from beginning to end. I’ve been long-term traveling for over 7+ years. And I’ve been long-term travel planning for most of my life. Read more of my articles on long-term travel

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8 Great responses to Long-term travel abroad & staying healthy

  1. Kristina says:

    Great advice as usual!
    I might add, for those employed and with medical insurance in the US, take advantage of as much of this stuff as you can pre-trip.
    Get vaccination updates for things like tetanus, get a prescription for a broad spectrum antibiotic, dental work, etc, anything your insurance WILL pay for before you stop working. Most insurance won’t cover what they call “travel vaccinations” or even malarial prophylaxis, but they will cover the basics.
    Even ask your doctor for sample packs of drugs if your insurance won’t cover multiple months at a time. I actually had a dr give me 9 months of a prescription that way. :-)

  2. Mark says:

    Attending a first aid course is a good idea. I’ve been in a few places where people didn’t know what to do in a medical emergency.

    What I’d be worried about is knowing if the locals would be happy with me trying to help, or think I was crazy?

    • There’s two ways to look at that. With paranoia, or with care. There was a time when Doctors mentioned they’d rather not be known as doctors in public due to the threat of people suing them out of practice. That’s rather sad. Personally I say rebuke such systems, if someone needs help and you know what to do then your should do it!

  3. Jemma Barnes says:

    There are things here I’d never have thought of in a million years.

    Writing down the scientific names of medicine you need is an eye opener. I’d never have thought about it.

    Sleep is something I think we all take for granted. But I’m a light sleeper. Even at home a bird wakes me up in the morning. Not sure I can cope with hostels!

  4. Lots of sound advice, Dave. Agreed. Vaccinations for those nasty things are essential as are carrying basic medicines and multi-vitamins.

    Dentistry can be OK across the world OR a total nightmare …

    SLEEP is the most important factor for me. Better to have your own room – unless you’re a heavy sleeper – than saving money in dorms, where a lack of sleep will make you hate life.

    Yeah, I enjoy a lot of water – especially after a night of boozing ;)

    Personally, I don’t exercise or have a fitness regime beyond walking about or going on hikes.

    Across my 24 nomadic years I’ve rarely been sick (dysentery in Pakistan 1990; attitude sickness in Tibet 1994; malaria in East Timor 2000) so I guess staying healthy while travelling long- term is often down to DNA and luck.

    • You’ve done very well Michael! Dentists aside ouch!

      Sleep is that thing I over looked in Europe. By the time I got to Romania I was desperate for it. Much the guile of fellow travelers in dorms, ear plugs, mp3 players etc.

      Finally I discovered old ladies running single rooms in their houses for much the same price as a dorm bed. Sold!!