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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Gear Review/Makapu’u and Kuliouou Trails

Our road trip is two weeks away, and we’ve been having fun testing out new gear on recent hikes. I can (and have!) spent hours scouring REI and Backcountry, marveling over the countless backpacking/camping gadgets for sale, dreaming of all the possibilities. In the end, though, reality (i.e.: that darned budget) dictates limiting actual purchases to what we really need as a family instead of those fun-to-dream-about wants.

With only 3 backpacking packs in our possession, backpacks topped our list of needs this year. Luckily, there was an REI Anniversary Sale and member dividend that was burning a hole in my pocket to save the day! We were able to score an unbelievable deal on a 2015 Osprey Kyte 46 and REI Passage 38.

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Osprey Kyte 46, jacket in the front mesh panel, separate sleeping bag compartment with integrated rain fly just above.

I’m not big on brand name items, but I couldn’t ignore the Kyte’s glowing reviews–or Osprey’s stellar lifetime guarantee. And call me shallow, but I adore that beautiful teal! One of the features I like best about the Kyte 46 is the external hydration sleeve. It can be a hassle to load/unload a hydration bladder from a filled pack, and this back access compartment eliminates that problem. The hip belt and load lifter straps are so smooth and easy to adjust with the pack on–one of many areas where Osprey’s commitment to quality is very evident. The fully adjustable harness and LightWire Frame technology ensures a custom fit and comfortable carrying experience. I love the roomy hip belt pockets that allow easy access to snacks and a cell phone, and the multi-zippered brain compartment that enables easy organization of frequent-use items.

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Spacious zippered side pockets–each pocket can accommodate a sleeping pad, fleece pullover, and backpacking pillow.

The front mesh panel stretches to accommodate a rain jacket, and the side mesh panels can easily accommodate a Nalgene bottle each as well. The zippered vertical side pockets might be one of the Kyte’s best features. What the main compartment may lack in size is more than made up for by these spacious side pockets. I’ve stuffed a sleeping pad, pillow, and adult-sized fleece pullover into ONE pocket, with room to spare. There is also a sturdy shoulder loop for quick and easy trekking pole storage/access.

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Roomy hip belt pockets, external hydration sleeve, stow-and-go trekking pole loop, multi-zippered brain compartment; Osprey Kyte 46.

With an integrated rain fly and separate-access sleeping bag compartment with floating divider, the Osprey Kyte 46 is perfect for overnight or 2-3 day backpacking trips. It can also be easily compressed and cinched for longer day hikes, making this a pack we’re sure to put to great use for many years to come.

With two girls in our family, we’ve had our share of unpleasant hiking bathroom experiences. Without going into too much detail, let me just assure you that the pStyle is a GAME. CHANGER. If you are female and you enjoy spending time outdoors, you need a pStyle. To be fair, there are cheaper silicone versions of the pStyle that I have not tried, but reviews on Amazon suggest that these imitations are less predictable, leaving room for error–definitely not a good thing (or look–shudder!) when you’re backpacking with only one pair of pants. The pStyle, however, is discreet, fail-proof, light, and compact, earning its spot as a must-have item in our backpacks this year.

With 8 nights of backpacking on the itinerary , compact cookware and mess kits were high on our list of priorities. Combining every Walmart gift card we’ve received over the past few years, we were able to nab this GSI Outdoor Pinnacle Camper cook set absolutely free! At 3 pounds 11 ounces, it’s not the lightest kitchen set-up for backpacking, but since the weight accounts for cookware and mess kits for 5 people, it works perfectly for us. One of the features I love best about this kit is how everything nests into one compact 9 inch by 5 inch package, making it suitable for flying, too, where space is at a premium.

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GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper cook set; everything nests in this compact 9″ x 5″ matryoshka-like system.

With a 9 inch frypan, 3 L pot, 2 L pot, and 2 strainer lids, the non-stick hard anodized cookware easily accommodates families or larger groups. The set comes equipped with 4 plates, 4 insulated mugs, and 4 bowls, and everything nests into a stuff sack that doubles as a welded sink in the backcountry!

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Full-size cookware (3 L & 2 L pots w/ strainer lids, 9″ frypan), plates, insulated mugs, and bowls for 4, welded sink carrying case.

If I had any complaints, it would be that the plates are not especially deep or made of high quality material, but that’s minor in the grand scheme of things. I love having full-sized pots and pans with backpacking convenience and integrated mess kits in the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper cook set.

To complete our mess kit (the GSI cook set serves 4), we cashed in a Sports Authority gift card and took advantage of a 30% off closing sale to nab this Light My Fire MealKit 2.0 for free! With 3 plate/bowls and 3 lids that can double as eating vessels, this kit contains more bells and whistles than we’ll need, but it’s great to have those options for future trips. The MealKit 2.0 also comes with a spork, pack-up-cup, and cutting board/strainer for cooking.

Closer to Home: Recent Hikes

Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail

Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail is a popular and easy 2 mile “hike” along paved road, offering stunning views of Oahu’s southeastern and Windward coasts. From the parking lot, the paved road steadily climbs 500 feet, allowing easy access for strollers, wheelchairs, and those with mobility issues.

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Paved road along Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
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Looking back from whence we came: parking lot in the distance
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Koko Crater and Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline

Recent additions of rest benches and viewing areas make this a great beginner hike, and there is no spot more beautiful than Makapu’u for whale watching during whale season (November to May). Although the lighthouse itself is not accessible to visitors, we’ve been lucky to see dozens of whale spouts and breaches during whale season here. Located on the eastern side of Oahu, this hot and dry trail is also a prime location to watch the sun rise. The only con to this hike is that its popularity translates to large crowds; arriving after 10 am means circling for parking and sharing the trail with a hundred or more hikers. Don’t let that stop you, though–this hike is a beauty, and despite the crowds, we do this one at least 5-6 times a year!

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View from the top, Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
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View of Rabbit Island, aka Manana (State Seabird Sanctuary); I don’t recommend sitting that close to the edge!
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A patch of pink among the cacti and brush; pillbox in the distance
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3 short years ago…boy, time flies!

Kuliouou Ridge Trail

Kuliouou Ridge Trail is a 5 mile out and back hike that ascends 2,000 feet to summit the Ko’olaus. Families should plan on spending 4-5 hours hiking this trail at a moderate pace. Although this is a moderately difficult hike composed primarily of switchbacks, rain can render the steep slopes muddy and challenging.

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Slippery, muddy stairs about 15 minutes from the top, Kuliouou Ridge Trail

Exercise extreme caution, especially with children. With all the recent bad weather, we had a few near-mishaps this past weekend. There are several long and steep rock/tree root scrambles in the second half that can become quite treacherous when coupled with mud. (No pics, unfortunately; was too busy trying not to die!) I should have known better than to push this hike in the rain, and we nearly paid the price for it. It is worth your family’s safety to wait for several days of clear weather before attempting this hike. That said, this hike is an absolute must-do! We huffed and puffed through the 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and the last 30 minutes of steep mud puddle stairs were thigh burners, but hiking in the clouds made everything worthwhile. Unfortunately, the bad weather didn’t make for great views.

 

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End of Trail, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
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Clouds and fog at trail’s end, Kuliouou

However, the fog and clouds lifted for a brief minute, and we were able to get a glimpse of the glorious views Kuliouou is known for.

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View of Waimanalo, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
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View of Koko Head and Hawaii Kai
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Glimpses of green and turquoise below, Waimanalo
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Stopping for well-earned spam musubi and gummy bears at trail’s end.

Having hiked Kuliouou during clear weather, I can tell you that the views of Hawaii Kai, Waimanalo, and Lanikai from the top can’t be beat. If you’re looking for a challenging workout, ever-changing scenery, and stellar views, Kuliouou Ridge Trail is the hike for you!