Long-term travel mental preparation: How to get & keep your mind ready

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ July 9th, 2012. Updated on November 12th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Long-term travel.
Dog looking at hot air balloons in Turkey

Getting your mind ready for being away a long time

Getting your mind ready for long-term travel

This is going to be a relatively shorter article than many others in this series about long-term travel. The reason for this is that most people considering long-term travel will have a myriad of reasons for doing so. As such writing a single article on dealing with the psychological preparation behind it will inevitably not be relevant to many. Or more likely it will be the last thing on one’s mind.

Mentally preparing for a long journey is simply something that you have to experience yourself to fully understand due to it being relevant with your own life

That said there’s no harm in reading about my own lessons learned and some other established long-term travelers too before embarking on your own journey.

Understand that, mentally, things will never again be the same

You’ll have your own reasons for long-term travel. Just remember there are others that will be effected too. Do read the article on preparing your family and friends for long-term travel. That out-of-the-way here are three before, middle and ending things to be conscious of.

1. Before long-term travel you will slowly be building up to an all time psychological high. This is good, but it can also cause you to lose focus on some practical aspects going on around your life. Keep a careful eye on this and try to have a close friend give you a reality check every now and then.

Nepalese Children staring

Are you ready to be stared at with different perceptions everywhere you go?

2. When on the road you will be alone for long periods of time but rarely have any privacy. It sounds small but during the mid stages of long-term travel this can sneak up on you.

3. Coming back can be just as traumatic if not harder. Call it reverse culture shock or call it a bite of reality. After years away from home you will experience people who have moved on and a culture that’s not quite as you remember it.

Keep these three things in mind as you begin your mental preparation for long-term travel.

Preparing to say goodbye to your family and friends

Mentally preparing for the big goodbye. The easiest way to handle it is perhaps by engaging people in your travels and staying in touch via video on a regular basis. Having a blog and connecting through Skype are two excellent ways to take your family with you.

It’s no substitute but it will help with mental preparation. Again, a lot of this is covered in preparing your family and friends for long-term travel.

Be prepared to take a vacation from your long-term travel

Don’t box yourself into the “never coming back” or “travel forever” or “I can take anything” or “I’m going to be location independent” or “I’m going to earn a living on the road and travel forever” scenarios. No one said life was going to be easy and no one said you should put yourself through unnecessary hardships either.

Have a place in mind that you can go and sit things out if you need a break from the constant toll of long-term travel. It might be a place you’ve already visited and found relaxing or it might be a place that you feel you can escape your current style of traveling.

Personally I’ve avoided and never had good experiences going to places other people have suggested for this. Why? Because we are all different and have different needs. What is one person’s utopia might be an others slight version of hell.

Pre-travel mental preparation check list

  • If you have any current mental disorders get an evaluation about the new challenge that long-term travel will bring to you.
  • Be prepared for depression. Travel is great but just like in real life long-term travel brings its own problems and issues.
  • How do you cope with excitement and peer pressure? Keeping a check on things is vital at the best of times when out there alone.
  • Do think about what it will be like to sleep in a bed that thousands more have slept in before you and that you’ll be doing it for many years.
  • Think about how you will cope with not having good daily conversations with people who understand you perfectly.
  • Traveling with a partner? Be ready to test the strains/joys of literally living 24/7 with someone.
  • Think about what it will be like having the same(ish) wardrobe for many years & keeping it all in one bag.
  • Understand and be ready for exposure to things you might not be comfortable with or used to. Starving street children, rude people, lack of communication for even the simplest of things, lack of time management, living without electricity, long bouts of sickness, emotional stress and cultures / beliefs that conflict with your own.
  • Learn how to recognize signs of stress, depression, exhaustion anxiety and physical well-being.
  • Coping with new sights or wonder and amazing people can have you thinking everything is great – keep your feet firmly planted.

Cope with these and everything else will fall into place.

Some experienced long-term traveler top tips in mentally preparing for long-term travel

As I mentioned at the start of this article mentally preparing for long-term travel is something that’s very hard to tell someone. It’s best to read other people’s experiences and relate them into your own.

With that in mind I asked some long-term travelers and experts in the field to share their top pieces of advice when it comes to long-term travel mental preparation and what to expect.

Peter Daams co-founder of Travellerspoint recommends:

“Try to tie up as many loose strings as possible. The more organised you are before you leave, the quicker you’ll be able to settle into travelling. Try not to set up too many expectations for your friends. i.e., don’t tell them you’ll upload pictures every day and constantly be available for Skype. Most people just aren’t able to do that once they get travelling.

I also recommend getting online beforehand and trying to connect with some other people who are going to the same place as you. It’s great to share the enthusiasm with someone and your co-workers are not likely to really want to hear all about your great plans.”

Michael Robert Powell from The Candy Trail recommends:

“Retain a love for fresh life experiences – there’s always something new to try or see or do.”

Jason from Digi Drift recommends

“Traveling long term can be physically hard on the body. Especially when done on a tight budget, but it’s the mind that needs to be in the best shape for such a journey. For those who’ve traveled long term previously. It’s easier to prepare for what can be expected, but for those contemplating their first long term journey. You must prepare the mind for what lays ahead.

Speaking to people that have been there and done that can always help, but get into their head and ask the hard questions. Maintaining a course whilst on the road for many months or years can be tough, and to be quite honest it’s not for everyone. If traveling alone, you must be content with your own company, otherwise forget it.”

Wade Shepard from Vagabond Journey recommends:

“Mentally preparing for long term travel is simple: cross bridges when you come to them, don’t worry about situations that are not right in front of you, and allow yourself to be taken away by the organic flow of life on the road. Don’t worry about what you’re going to be doing a week from now, don’t waste mental energy getting concerned about your next nighttime flight arrival, your next border crossing, the next reputedly dangerous city on your itinerary.

Have confidence in your abilities, remind yourself that you’re smart enough to figure things out in the moment, and be wise enough to know that all the mental preparation in the world is often moot in the face of actual raw experience. So sit back and enjoy the ride, go out there and make mistakes, learn from them, and do better next time around. Wisdom is only gained through experience, and the chaos element is part of the great charm of world travel.”

Earl from Wandering Earl recommends

“Remember that the overwhelming majority of people you’ll encounter on your travels are good, honest people and that the world is not nearly as dangerous as we think. While it’s important to be cautious when you’re in a foreign country, there’s no need to assume that every local you meet is out to cheat or harm you in some way.

Don’t be afraid to talk to people! This is the most rewarding aspect of travel – meeting and learning from others who you would otherwise never have come across in life – but you won’t experience it if you treat everyone with a high-level of suspicion. At the same time, if a situation doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t right and you should move on…but in reality, such situations as these will be greatly outnumbered by the positive interactions you’ll have, no matter what part of the world you visit.”

So there you go. Some great suggestions and tips from many people well versed in long-term travel on how to keep your mind working in the many months and years you may be abroad.

True long-term travel is not as easy as it seems. Nothing ever really is. But reading the knowledge of others is a sure step to making things a lot easier in the long run for yourself.

 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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20 Great responses to Long-term travel mental preparation: How to get & keep your mind ready

  1. Mark says:

    “Not boxing yourself in” I think that’s important. I’ve met people who have tried living abroad and it’s simply not worked out. So they came back. One night they said the hardest thing was admitting it wasn’t working out.

    No shame in trying!

  2. Thanks Dave, for the great tips. I just read through the article with my partner, as we have just three weeks to go before we take off on our journey into the unknown. So, very timely advice, indeed.

  3. Cynthia Kenny says:

    I smiled when this arrived in my mail. Once you come back even the culture will have changed couldn’t be more true. When we left it was all about commercialism. When we came back we saw a broken economy. Now we are planning to leave again.

    Great selection of quotes. Wade’s right – cross the bridges when you come to them. Worrying about them beforehand will only hold you back. It’s a risk, but I’d rather risk than nothing.

  4. Stuart says:

    Many of the young people I see setting off now have stars in their eyes. Not sure if they think it’s easy or simply unprepared. Older types seem to get more depressed coming back as if they couldn’t make it. Do you think there’s a relation here?

    • I think older people are looking for something better and when they don’t find it realize that it’s back to a long few years of grind to save up again. Whilst younger people simply haven’t gone through several years or decades of working in jobs they might not like. So when they come back it’s still often something interesting and new. Just my two cents.

  5. Rachel says:

    I found some useful reflections in this, thank you for sharing. I think they’re also applicable to becoming or living as an expat. Your and Stuart’s comments about older vs younger travellers resonates with me a lot. We came back recently from some long-short term travel after having quit jobs we didn’t like. While we never aimed to become location independent or travel forever, it did help us realise we could move almost anywhere and be ok.

    • Hi Rachel, good to hear some of this resonated with you. One of the things I really should have emphasized more was the difference between young and old travelers. There’s something more specific about that coming up in a couple of weeks.

      But yes, moving anywhere if you have it mentally is going to be ok!

  6. The ability to travel long-term is determined by the make-up of the individual person; those that can be alone a lot, be adaptable, and maintain an excited reason to still travel – say, a curiosity of the world as opposed to simply escaping the 9-5 lifestyle, will last longest … has worked for me, since 1988

    • “maintain an excited reason to still travel” – very good point Michael. That’s something people rarely factor in. After 2 years it hits many, at least in my experience. Curiosity is indeed one of those secret keys. After 20+ years you must be one of the most curious people on earth!

  7. Jason says:

    Of all the things a long term traveller must be prepared for. I think that the mental side is the one most will struggle with. As Michael pointed out. Your curiosity for the world must remain strong and I think that it is this alone that sets the very long term from the normal ‘Gap Year’ type long term travel.

    An insatiable appetite for the unknown and for what lies beyond that next ridge is something that has always driven me.

    (on a side note, you list above about having to sleep in a bed where thousands have slept before you. Can sometimes read having to share a bed with thousands at the same time in relation to the dreaded bed bugs!….LOL. Another great article Dave and lets hope people can get something from it.)

    • Totally agree Jason. I also think the mental side of real long term travel is also the one aspect many people don’t consider. It’s part of the reason I wanted more than just my perspective on these articles. Experienced insights from you and the others cover a broad spectrum. Hopefully people will read through everyone’s thoughts and take them on board.

      Ha, made me laugh that you deciphered thousands of bed bugs above! True indeed. The unwanted bed companion of many a traveler.

  8. This is a really helpful guide that all RTW travelers should read before setting out!

  9. Haha, just realized I wrote “starevlings” instead of travelers for some reason? I think I just coined a good term for backpackers, by accident!

  10. After traveling for a year I have come to know that the mental preparation is the most important. I am loving the minimal stuff, maximum adventure lifestyle.

    You have to be prepared for the “unknown unknowns” and embrace them as they come. Life is too short to be ordinary!

  11. Kelly says:

    I think one of the most important aspects when travelling, especially to remote destinations is to keep an open mind. Years ago when I done a bit of travelling I had preconceived ideas about what places would be like and in my experience they always turned out to be completely different. Now whenever I go some place I am just thankful that I got to experience it. Don’t have high expectations and then you won’t disappointed and you will find you will learn a lot.