Self-Care Routines for Long-Term Travelers
August 22, 2022
The first week or two of a trip is such a whirlwind of sensory data and high-flying emotions that you barely have time to reflect on your basic emotional and mental needs. It’s as though your brain is struggling to keep up with what’s happening around it, in the best possible way.
However, being abroad – and the lack of stability that comes with it – can start to take its toll on you after a while. The stresses and strains aren’t always roundly negative or unmanageable (and can often be eclipsed by the thrill of being on the road). But they are sources of tension nonetheless, nagging at the back of your mind, calling out for some relief.
To help you navigate the various emotional, mental and physical hurdles of long-term travel, we’re using this article to explore self-care routines.
Before we start, perhaps it’s best to pinpoint what makes long-term travel challenging. Here, we’ve narrowed our focus to some common stressors and sources of tension:
- Travel-Related illness/discomfort
- Decision fatigue
- A disrupted sleep schedule
- And work-related stress (if you’re a digital nomad or overseas worker)
The self-care routines below aim to tackle these common issues, ensuring that you remain even-keeled and happy throughout your extended jaunt abroad. We've categorized our routines to reflect an average day, beginning with morning rituals and ending with bedtime. Feel free to cherry-pick the relevant tips as you cobble together your own routine – these are just what works for us!
In a day, as in a relationship, first impressions matter. The morning sets the tone for the day ahead, establishing a baseline for your mood and mental capacity. If you wake up on the proverbial "wrong side of the bed" (i.e., you have a lousy morning), those bad vibes can have ripple effects throughout the day.
Therefore, it’s essential to prioritize self-care in the AM. Here are a few small rituals we observe on long-term trips.
A Nourishing Breakfast
As registered dietitian Beth Czerwony puts it in a Cleveland Clinic interview, “Would you start a long road trip in your car with the tank on empty?”
The obvious answer is no. Your body expends much of its energy stores throughout the night, burning glucose and blowing through protein and calcium. Breaking the fast (the literal meaning of “breakfast”) allows your body to replenish those energy stores to greet the day ahead. It’s a self-care investment in improved mood, sharpened focus, and sustained energy.
Breakfast is especially important when you travel, as life on the road often demands keeping your wits high and feet moving. If it helps, make a ritual of exploring new breakfast options from your destination. Grab a youtiao donut stick in China. Kick back some gallo pinto in Costa Rica. Slurp some pho in Vietnam. The world is your breakfast buffet.
Credit: Thiago Via Pexels
We understand the impulse to stay undressed, especially if there’s nothing calling you from the hotel room or guesthouse. But according to clinical psychologists, getting dressed in the morning, even when we’re working inside, can “increase our motivation to do other things throughout the day, to experience more energy and to want to do more things.”
Not only is getting dressed good for motivation, but it can be a radical act of self-care – provided you choose clothing that’s comfortable and confidence-boosting. One of the reasons we love our Unbound Merino travel clothing is that it straddles a fine line between sophisticated and relaxed. As we mentioned, the morning is all about setting the tone for the day ahead; a comforting, self-assured outfit is one of the best ways to set a positive tone.
Social Media: A Lifeline to Home
Homesickness comes for even the most seasoned travelers. Seemingly out of nowhere, you can feel an intense (albeit fleeting) sense of yearning for the comfort, social connection and familial warmth of life at home.
For all its potential ills, social media can be a fantastic lifeline to home in these homesick moments. A short cruise through friends’ posts can make you feel like you’re involved in their lives. And a few quick messages to loved ones can help you feel connected.
International News: Breaking Out of Your Bubble
If social media helps you feel connected to loved ones, the news can help you feel connected to the greater world. Traveling can sometimes feel like existing in a bubble, which is why it’s nice to open a newspaper or news app in the morning.
There’s obviously a potential downside to staying glued to the news; the relentless, grim scroll of a daily news beat can feel like the opposite of self-care. Play it by ear. If staying up on current affairs helps you feel connected, do it. If it just leaves you feeling glum, skip it.
Setting up Your Work Station
If you’re a digital nomad on a long-term trip, you can attest to the importance of setting up your workstation. It's a small ritual that helps you form a bridge between the morning and the work day. And it’s also an opportunity to ensure that your basic needs/wants are met throughout the day.
Unfold your rooster stand, fill your water bottle, adjust your chair for optimal ergonomics, open the window for a fresh breeze, and take a deep breath. If you want to optimize your workstation for self-care and productivity, read through our list of items for a portable office.
After you’ve punched the clock on work, or come back from an exhausting day touring the local sites, what do you do? How do you slow things down, get comfortable, flex your social muscles, and prioritize self-care?
There are countless evening routines to choose from. Below, we’ve listed a few of our favourites – ones that helped us breeze through those evenings on the road when physical and mental exhaustion got the better of us.
Credit: Max Andrey Via Pexels
Unbuttoning: Swapping Convention for Comfort
In the same way that getting dressed in the morning can be a motivator to start the day, unbuttoning when the day’s done can motivate you to slow down. Exchanging your merino travel blazer for an informal hoodie signifies that the hard stuff is behind you. Everything from here on out is about you – your relaxation, your comfort, your unadulterated enjoyment.
Yes, it’s entirely possible to feel comfortable in a merino wool blazer (we designed them that way, in fact), but it’s more about the symbolism. Unless we plan on hitting the town (more on that below), we prefer to spend our evenings in a hoodie, sweatpants, merino tee or an equivalently comforting clothing item.
Unplugging: Swapping Screens for Sights
Here’s another one for the digital nomads in particular: swapping screens for sights at the end of a long day. We totally understand the temptation to close your laptop and then promptly open your phone. It’s one of those easy transitions we make too often at home.
But unplugging can be a powerful self-care routine. Physically, it gives your eyes a much-needed rest (digital eye strain is a real problem). And mentally, placing yourself in the real world can work wonders on your sense of well-being.
The Social Life: Bars, Cafes, Dinners and Dates
Some nights, self-care looks like a quiet night inside. Other nights, it looks like the complete opposite – an exciting journey into the thrumming heart of a city’s nightlife, food and dating scenes. (No one said self-care had to be tranquil).
If you feel recharged by an evening out, make that your evening self-care routine. Throw on your finest merino wool travel pants or merino leggings for women, schmooze with the locals at a downtown spot, treat yourself to a fancy dinner, or plan a date through the apps. Above all, have fun and unwind. Just remember the immortal words of Oscar Wilde: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Self-Reflection and Journaling
In our post dedicated to evening routines while traveling, we covered the benefits of journaling. Some people choose to spill their thoughts in the morning, while others opt to make it an evening ritual. Either way, the practice has some serious mental and emotional benefits.
Traveling can often feel like a blur, a litany of indescribable experiences whirring past you at the speed of an intercity train. Journaling helps you parse out those experiences. More importantly, it helps you give language to how those experiences made you feel.
By describing our reactions and emotional responses to things, we a) form a deeper connection to our surroundings and b) start to understand the underlying patterns of our thoughts. Both outcomes can help us stay tranquil and happy on long-term trips.
Picking Tomorrow’s Outfit
That mental fog you feel in the evenings has a name: Decision fatigue. Coined by journalist John Tierney, decision fatigue refers to a psychological phenomenon of deteriorating decision-making quality throughout a day. The thinking goes that, essentially, your brain has a finite capacity for making good choices in a day. Like any other muscle, your brain strains with overuse. By removing unnecessary small decisions from your morning routines, you can ensure that your brain has enough “computing capacity” to think clearly well into the evening.
Traveling is a non-stop march of small choices (what to see, where to eat, how to catch the train uptown, etc.). As part of your evening self-care routine, take at least one choice off tomorrow's plate by picking your outfit in advance. It’s a productivity hack espoused by leaders like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, and it works just as well for travelers. Lay out some merino wool socks, a t-shirt and shorts on the chair by the bed – you’ll thank yourself in the morning!
Tidying as an Act of Self-Care
It’s tricky staying tidy while you’re travelling. The impulse to just spill your backpack at each new destination is a strong one. But research shows that all that clutter can have a negative impact on our mental and emotional well-being.
Basically, our brains take in clutter as excess stimuli, diverting – and competing for – our limited attention. According to psychologists, this triggers a stress response akin to feeling endangered or overwhelmed.
We don’t often think of tidying as self-care, since it feels like added labour. But the fruits of that labour are more relaxing and self-focused.
Heading to Bed
Nightly routines are the bedrock of self-care while traveling. They ensure that we depart each day feeling our best, ready to take whatever tomorrow throws at us. Here, we’ve selected a couple of routines that help keep you fresh and ensure you get a restful eight hours.
In our article on staying fresh while you travel, we championed the merits of good hygiene while you’re abroad. Staying on top of freshness not only makes you feel better, but also helps you slough off the dust, debris and sweat from a hardy day’s traveling.
Tailor your skincare routine to your destination. If you find yourself in a dry part of the world, prioritize moisturizers, hydrating cleansers and serums. If you’re in a humid or smoggy locale, consider exfoliating cleansers to refresh your pores.
Even if you paid no attention to a skincare regimen back at home, consider folding one into your daily schedule to ensure that the cumulative effects of sunshine, dust, dirt and sweat don’t wreak havoc on your skin. This article offers some great tips for crafting a travel skincare routine.
Restful Nights: Reading, White Noise and Sleep Apps
By now, you’re well past the jet lag phase of your trip. But that’s no guarantee you’re getting a great night’s rest. There are plenty of hurdles standing between a traveler and a sound sleep: noise from other guesthouse patrons; urban light pouring in your window; a hot room with shaky or non-existent AC; uncomfortable bedding, etc.
Our favorite sleep routine isn’t a routine, per se. Instead, it’s a suite of products we use to facilitate a great night’s rest. An “analogue” book (like a paperback or e-reader – anything without blue light) is great for turning your brain on auto-pilot. Noise-cancelling headphones (or a white-noise app played through earbuds) drown out any nearby commotion. An optional sleep mask blocks out any light leaking through the windows. And sleep apps (like Sleep Cycle, a current favourite) can optimize your sleep schedule by tracking your cycles to wake you up at an opportune time.
Because travel is, by nature, unpredictable and unstable, it’s important to find consistent routines in your day. The routines above aren’t your average “self-care” regimens, like aromatherapy and CBD – which are wildly impractical for travelers. Instead, they’re sometimes-small, sometimes-quiet ways that you add stability, structure and comfort to your long trip abroad. As usual, feel free to tell us your travel routines in the comments below.