How to Keep a Travel Journal: 7 Tips

Keeping a travel journal is one of the best vacation souvenirs you can give yourself. So often, we come home from trips with T-shirts and postcards that are quickly discarded or forgotten, but a travel journal is the gift that keeps on giving. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve leafed through old journal entries, exclaiming, “Hey, do you remember that artist we met in Arches?” or “Wasn’t that cherry pie at Capitol Reef the best?” Travel is inspiring, and done right, travel journals can serve as wellsprings of inspiration for years to come.

Keeping a travel journal doesn’t have to be intimidating. There are no hard and fast rules; your journal can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like. The only requirement is that you start and maintain it. Your future self will be so thankful that you did! Here are 7 tips to help you get started on your travel journal today.

1. Pick a journal (and writing implement) that inspires you.

Whether it’s a composition book, leather diary, or specialty tablet from Barnes and Noble, find a notebook that inspires you. Your journal is a form of personal expression, and that process begins with the notebook you select. Pay attention to form and function: size, texture, and design should weigh into your decision. What kind of conditions will you be traveling in? Activities like backpacking will require a sturdier notebook than hotel travel. Personally, I love large, plain hardcover Moleskines or dotted Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks. Both of these notebooks hold up well to a variety of media and have expandable pockets on the back cover that are perfect for collecting ephemera. You’ll know you have the right notebook when you feel yourself itching to write in it. Some people prefer a new notebook for every trip, while others, like me, prefer keeping one journal across multiple trips. Choose the system that works best for you.

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Moleskine pages lay flat–a feature I love. Plain pages are my personal preference, but you might prefer lined, squared, or dotted paper instead.

2. Start writing in your journal before you leave.

Get rid of dreaded first-page syndrome by breaking in your journal before you leave. I’m guilty of letting beautiful notebooks languish for years for fear of not having anything “worthy” enough to write. Don’t be so precious with your notebook that it never gets used! If you’re too nervous to dive right into your thoughts and feelings from page 1, try numbering your pages instead or creating a Table of Contents. Or use those first few pages to scribble your itinerary. The point is to write something. The act of writing ensures you’re not faced with the prospect of a blank canvas when you arrive at your destination. If you’re too busy packing before you leave, you can use your plane or drive time to break in your journal. This also gets you in the habit of writing, which is key to regular journal maintenance.

3. Vary your writing.

Journaling needn’t equate to pages and pages of diary-style recounting. Your future self probably won’t be interested in a dry, chronological recounting of every meal you ate or every gas station you stopped at, either. Make journaling fun by giving yourself permission to skip the mundane. Write about the interesting details you’ll want to remember ten years from now! Was your concierge a kooky character? Did you have an unexpected bear encounter on the trail? Don’t limit yourself to sentences and paragraphs, either. Give yourself permission to write lists and short bullet points. Where a five page entry might seem daunting, a quick list can be easily written in a few short minutes and can serve just as well in summing up the day’s highlights.

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Journal entry for Yellowstone, 2015. Quick lists can be just as effective at imparting key details as lengthy paragraphs.

4. Explore other forms of creative expression.

I’m no artist–not by a long shot–but I’ve come to love watercolor sketching in my travel journal. There have been so many times I’ve taken a million pictures of a destination, only to come home and puzzle over those same pictures, wondering where we were or what it is we did there. Sketching a location, however, has a way of burning that moment into your memory in a way that no photo ever could. It requires you to be present, completely in the moment; it forces you to seek out details you might otherwise not have noticed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if your sketch looks nothing like the location you’re drawing (you can always take a picture to supplement)–what matters is your association of the sights, sounds, and feelings you had when you sat to draw. When I look at this sketch from Lakeshore Trail in Grand Teton National Park, I remember the way the sun felt on my shoulders after our chilly morning float trip, the way the water sparkled, the deep blue and maroon colored pebbles that dotted the shore. I recall the otter family offshore and the osprey nest we watched for an hour while my youngest created small driftwood sculptures on the sandbar. These memories were ingrained by the very act of sketching itself. A picture can truly be worth a thousand words.

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Journal entry from Grand Teton National Park, July 2015

The Sakura Field Sketch Set is my favorite watercolor set. Sakura Pigma Micron pens are waterproof, fade resistant, and provide archival quality ink for completing sketches. If watercolor sketch is not your cup of tea, perhaps you’d prefer colored pencils. Or oil pastels. Or charcoal. There are so many options out there; one of them is bound to resonate. Color adds another layer of interest to your travel journal, so don’t be afraid to branch out from the ordinary! Experiment with drawing maps, people, objects, and landscapes.

5. Vary your formatting.

We’ve become so accustomed to writing from left to right and from top to bottom that it can be difficult to imagine writing any other way. Yet varying your formatting can be a source of inspiration, providing another element of visual interest for your journal. Turn your notebook sideways. Carry sentences across two pages. Experiment with different fonts. Vary font size. Box important details or words with different color inks. The sky’s the limit when it comes to creativity! You’d be surprised how quickly your creativity begins to flow once you give yourself permission to experiment. Before long, you’ll find yourself looking forward to journaling for the creative outlet it provides.

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Experiment with different colors, fonts, and font sizes. Strive for visually dynamic pages.

6. Collect and add ephemera.

As in scrapbooking, ephemera can serve as a 3-D layer in your journal, providing visual interest and capturing the local flavor of your destination. Ephemera can also serve as a stand-alone journal entry should you find yourself too busy to write. We save every restaurant receipt on vacation and tape/glue them in our journals. Without needing to write a word, these receipts help us to remember specific restaurants and meals. We collect ink stamps from every National Park–not just in our National Parks Passport, but also in our individual journals. They’re free, unique, and readily available for the taking; the only thing required is a stop at the Visitor Center, which is always on our to-do list anyway. Carrying a glue stick, double sided adhesive, or washi tape makes it quick and easy to adhere any tickets, receipts, or business cards you might collect. Keep an eye out for unique ephemera to spice up your journal. Local beer or wine bottle labels make great journal mementos!

7. Strive to maintain your journal regularly.

It can seem impossible to find time to update your journal unless you plan to block out regular blocks of time for journal writing. We try to reserve 30-40 minutes at the end of each night for this express purpose, but things don’t always work out that way. Oftentimes, we’re too tired, or camp chores take longer than anticipated. We’ve learned the hard way to stay flexible by maximizing small blocks of downtime during the day for journaling.

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Short entry drawn/written at Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park during a hike to Emerald Lake.

Jotting down a few words at lunch and breakfast like this gives you a head start on the day. It also helps preserve the sense of immediacy and rawness in your observations that makes travel journals so precious. Shorter bursts can be just as effective as–and in many cases, more effective than–one long session. Because shorter bursts are generally more doable, you might find yourself in a better position to maintain your journal on a regular basis. And if you miss a night or two? Don’t sweat it! Just hop back on that wagon and pick up where you left off. Aim for regular, not perfect, and you just might find that keeping a travel journal is a habit that sticks for life.

 

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21 thoughts on “How to Keep a Travel Journal: 7 Tips”

  1. Your water colors are so beautiful! I can see how it would be fun to go back and look through journals. What a great way to remember and document trips. The way you describe journal writing sounds like something I would very much like to try. I often keep a sketch book around to doodle in, but I’m excited to take that a step further and write in it as well. I’ll be taking a journal for all of us on our next trip!! I gotta go and get started (so excited!). Thank you, you’ve opened another door for us!

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    1. Yay!! This makes me so happy to hear! That’s so awesome that you already keep a sketch book for doodling. I bet you already have plenty of trip sketches you could just add to. (Though buying a new notebook is the best part of journaling, lol.) I’ve never been a big diary fan, but there’s something about keeping a simple journal that appeals to me, too. If you have time, you might want to check out this guy for inspiration http://www.thehikeguy.com/2011/11/10/pct-moleskines/ So phenomenal–blows my mind!

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  2. I love this! I’m an avid journaler and though I usually journal my vacations, etc., I sometimes stumble around trying to decide what’s worth recording and what isn’t. So thanks for all the great tips on how to get past that ‘writer’s block’ and make journaling more creative and regular. By the way, I’ve recently also begun drawing and even pasting cool things in my journal to make it more fun and you’re right, it really does help with the occasional doldrums of doing nothing but writing.

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind words! So great to connect with a fellow journaler/hiker, too. I love reading/seeing what other hikers paste/draw in their journals; it inspires me to experiment more. And I definitely hear you about that writer’s block! It’s great to have non-writing options to keep things fun and fresh!

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    1. Thank you, Christel! It’s great that you’ve been able to use your blog to document your travels. I like blogging post-travel, and I also enjoy sketching/writing more personal stories about the family in my journal. It’s nice that there are so many options out there.

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  3. Your journal is so beautiful! Definitely inspires me to keep at it with my travel journals which never seem to get very far – I’ll definitely refer to your tips in the future in hope of being able to keep one as lovely as yours 🙂

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  4. You and I have talked about collecting mementos from our travels. I write in my journal and keep a separate scrapbook where I put in pictures of myself, business cards from restaurants, hotel receipts, trail maps from the parks, etc. I like your tip of sketching more and journaling more about the interesting people I meet on my travels. I often fall into the trap of only writing about the mundane “facts” about each day. After returning from a vacation, there is a weeks worth of work sorting through photos, journaling and getting my blog updated. I’ll be posting this week about my big Utah adventure.

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    1. I definitely hear you…I tend to fall into the same trap of writing about mundane facts, too. I love that you keep a separate scrapbook for your photos and ephemera. We do something similar; we keep a family scrapbook with photos and excerpts from each of our journals. I didn’t realize that you had already gone on your big Utah trip! Really looking forward to reading about it…you must have had an amazing time. We’ll be leaving next week for our summer trip, too!

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