While traveling, it’s easy to throw all of your healthy habits out the window and burn the candle at both ends. This may be sustainable for a short vacation but sooner or later you’ll crash and burn. In this guide, I outline how to stay healthy while traveling or living abroad. I’ll talk about disease, healthy eating, exercise, mental health, sleep, and much more.
Table of Contents- How to Stay Healthy While Traveling
This is a long article. Use the links below to help navigate the page.
- Avoiding Sickness and Disease While Traveling
- First Aid- Caring for Minor Injuries While Traveling
- Food and Drink Safety
- Exercise- Staying in Shape While Traveling
- Keeping Your Body Healthy
- Keeping Your Mind Healthy
Avoiding Sickness and Disease While Traveling
Nothing spoils a trip faster than getting sick. Even a common cold can put you out of commission for a few days. Catching something more serious like malaria or dengue can put an end to your trip if it’s severe enough. Fortunately, you can avoid most sickness by taking a few simple precautions.
Common Travel Illness
If you get sick while traveling, most likely it will end up being something common such as a cold, flu, or strep throat. Minor infections are also pretty common in the sinuses, ear, throat, or chest. The best way to avoid these types of sickness is just to use common sense. For example, you should:
- Wash your hands often- It’s particularly important to wash your hands after going to the bathroom, or touching any object that comes into contact with other people. Stop the germs before they have the chance to enter your body.
- Don’t touch your face- Viruses and bacteria can enter your body through mucous membranes such as your mouth, nose, and eyes.
- Stay generally healthy- You want to keep your immune system up. Eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise.
Unfortunately, I almost always end up catching a cold while out traveling. I’m just unlucky that way. If you travel long enough, sooner or later, you’ll get sick. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid. I recommend you pack some throat lozenges and cold medicine to provide some relief until you get well.
Possibly your biggest enemy while traveling is the mosquito. These nasty insects carry a number of life-threatening diseases including:
- Malaria- One of the most deadly diseases in human history, Malaria can be found in tropical and sub-tropical regions all over the world. It is most common in Africa. For more info, check out my travelers guide to malaria prevention, treatment, and tablets.
- Zika Virus- This one is fairly rare but outbreaks have been recorded all over the world. For more info, check out this article from the World Health Organization.
- Dengue Fever- This is one of the most common diseases for travelers to catch. I have met countless backpacker around the world who have caught Dengue. Unfortunately, this disease has no vaccine or cure. You have to just wait it out. Dengue fever can be found in tropical regions all over the world with the most cases occurring in India and Southeast Asia. You can also encounter Dengue in the Americas and Africa. For more info, check out this guide from the CDC.
- West Nile Virus- This is the most common mosquito-transmitted disease found in the United States. Most people who contract the disease show no symptoms. There is no vaccine or treatment available.
- Yellow Fever- This one is found in parts of Africa, and Central and South America. Luckily, a vaccine is available. Many countries require that you show proof of a Yellow Fever vaccine as an entry requirement.
The risk of contracting one of these diseases is highest in tropical regions around the world. Generally, concentrations of diseases are highest in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is also a risk in Central and South America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. The risk and diseases vary by region.
Before leaving for your trip, do some research on the specific region that you plan to travel. That way you can prepare by using the proper prophylaxis or getting a vaccination if available. The best way to avoid these diseases is to simply avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. I know, it’s easier said than done.
To avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, you should:
- Use bug repellent with DEET- I hate putting strong chemicals on my skin, but it’s better than catching a life-threatening disease. I like Repel 100 Insect Repellent. It contains 98.11% DEET and works for up to 10 hours per application. The bottle also lasts a long time. I spent 4 months in Africa, applied it almost every day, and didn’t even finish the bottle.
- Cover exposed skin when mosquitoes are at their worst- This is usually in the evening. Even if it’s hot, you should wear long sleeves, long pants, and socks. Mosquitoes can’t bite through most clothing.
- Sleep under a mosquito net- Most hotels and hostels provide a net in areas where mosquitoes are bad. Consider carrying your own just in case. I bought the Dimples Excel Mosquito Net on Amazon and really like it. It only needs one mount and packs up pretty small.
- Take advantage of modern medicine- Some of the diseases above can be prevented with a vaccine or tablets. If you are traveling to a malaria zone take anti-malaria tablets. The side effects can be bad but it’s much better than the alternative.
Most of these mosquito-transmitted diseases have similar initial symptoms including:
- Fever or chills
- Joint Aches
- General flue like symptoms
If you feel unwell, visit a clinic to get a diagnosis just in case. Malaria is probably the most common mosquito-transmitted disease that you may encounter. In many countries, you can get tested at a clinic for just a few dollars. Better to be safe than sorry.
Other Serious Diseases
While traveling, you are putting yourself at a higher risk of coming in contact with serious or life-threatening diseases. Risk can be greatly reduced through vaccination, general cleanliness, and avoiding certain activities or regions. Before travel, make sure you’ve had all of your shots. Research your specific destination to see what diseases are present. Examples of diseases that you could encounter while traveling include:
- Ebola- Incredibly rare but deadly disease. Recently there has been an outbreak in DR Congo. Before traveling to West or Central Africa, It would be a good idea check for Ebola outbreaks
- Tuberculosis (TB)- This is a contagious bacterial disease. It can be spread through the air. A vaccine is available but may not always be effective.
- Typhoid Fever- This bacterial infection is caused by poor sanitation or food handling. When traveling to the developing world, it is recommended to be vaccinated. Typhoid is not a standard vaccine. You’ll probably have to go to a travel clinic to get it. The oral vaccine lasts 5 years.
- Polio- This contagious disease has pretty much been wiped out through vaccination. Occasionally a case will pop up. Before travel, make sure you’ve been vaccinated and you’ll be safe. Most people are vaccinated as children.
- Rabies- This viral infection is contracted through contact with the saliva from an infected animal. Most commonly dog bites. Rabies is rare but extremely deadly. If you are bitten by an animal, go straight to the hospital for treatment. A vaccine is available which will increase your chance of survival if you are infected. Even if you’ve had the vaccine, you still need further treatment.
- Cholera- This infection is caused by eating or drinking contaminated food or water. A vaccine is available.
- Tetanus- This is caused by a bacteria often found in dirt, dust, or fecal matter. A vaccine is available and is standard in most countries. Before leaving on your trip, make sure you’ve had your tetanus booster.
You should have an immunity to most of these diseases from vaccines you got during childhood. A few are non-standard and will require that you go to a travel clinic. Which vaccines you need will depend on the region you are traveling to. Before leaving on your trip, check the CDC website to see which vaccines are recommended for your specific destination.
Remember, many of these diseases are incredibly rare. Some are only a risk if you plan to visit rural areas. Taking simple precautions such as washing your hands often and being careful with what you eat and drink greatly reduces the chance that you even come into contact with these horrible diseases. There is no need to be paranoid. Just know they exist and accept that there is a slight risk.
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) While Traveling
If you have sex while traveling, chances are that you don’t know your partner all that well. Remember to always use protection. I recommend you bring condoms from home so you know that they are the proper size, of good quality, and not expired.
While I was traveling in East and Southern Africa, I found it kind of funny that free condoms were available at many border crossings. They just had a basket sitting out in the immigration building free for anyone to take. Many decent hotels included condoms with the rooms. Kind of a nice idea to improve public health.
First Aid- Caring for Minor Injuries While Traveling
While traveling, you may try new or dangerous activities that you wouldn’t participate in back home. For example, maybe you ride a motorcycle, go whitewater rafting, or go hiking. While doing something new, it’s easy to suffer minor injuries like:
- Sprained joints
Minor injuries like these don’t necessarily require a visit to a doctor or clinic. It’s a good idea to always carry a small first aid kit so you can patch yourself up. I recommend the First Aid Only 299 piece first aid kit from Amazon. It’s a bit bulky but offers a great variety of bandages. A minor cut that you wouldn’t even think about back home could turn into a major infection if left untreated. This happened to me.
While traveling in South America, I cut several of my fingers. The cuts were so small I don’t even remember how it happened. I thought nothing of them and continued on with my trip. Over the next week, my fingers got infected. I began cleaning the infected area but it just wasn’t going away. Skin began peeling off and they just looked gross and unhealthy. Then, the nails began to loosen.
At this point, I went to a pharmacy and bought some antibiotics and bandages. This treatment cleared up the infection but I still ended up losing three fingernails. If I had just taken the time to clean and bandage the cuts from the beginning, I would have saved myself a lot of pain.
In my experience, small cuts are much more likely to get infected while traveling. Particularly in tropical climates. Be sure to get ahead of the problem and treat every injury when it occurs so you don’t have bigger problems further down the road. A basic first aid kit with some bandages and antibiotic ointment is all you need to treat most minor injuries.
Food and Drink Safety While Traveling
What you eat and drink plays a major factor in your health while traveling. Remember the old saying ‘you are what you eat.’ You must consider the nutrition and cleanliness of the food you eat in order to stay healthy.
First, and most importantly, you must maintain a healthy diet while traveling. If all you put into your body is chips and beer, sooner or later you’ll crash and burn. The same is true if you just eat rice and beans. Your mind and body grow tired of eating the same thing every day. Some good diet rules to follow while traveling include:
- Don’t skip meals- This is the most important point to remember. It’s easy to be preoccupied with an activity or site seeing and forget to eat. Make it a point to stop and have something to eat three times per day. If your stomach is empty, your energy will be low. I recommend you always carry some snacks in your pack just in case you’re in a position where you can’t eat a full meal.
- Eat fruits and veggies- Make sure you’re getting all of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs to operate efficiently and smoothly. Consider taking a multi-vitamin as well.
- Drink plenty of water- Always stay well hydrated.
- Cook for yourself- Most hostels have a kitchen for guests to use. You can cook some of your favorite meals. This way, you know it’s healthy and hygienic. You can still cook without a kitchen if you pack the right gear.
- Eat some familiar foods- This boosts morale. It’s great to try local foods but sometimes you just feel like eating something familiar. My guilty pleasure is McDonald’s. I never eat there at home but for whatever reason, I’m just drawn to the place when I travel. If the region I’m traveling in has McDonald’s, I’ll probably eat there at least once per month.
- Try the local food- Trying new foods is one of the best parts of traveling. Don’t miss out. Some foods you just can’t get back home.
- Treat yourself- Sometimes travel is stressful. Give yourself a cheat day where you eat whatever you want. Eat some candy and junk. Splurge on sushi. This will boost your mood.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol- I was guilty of this in the past. I used to drink most nights then feel tired and weak the following day. I’ve missed out on some good site seeing because I just wanted to stay in bed. It’s fun to go out once in a while but drinking takes its toll on your health.
Watch Your Weight While Traveling
For whatever reason, men tend to lose weight and women tend to gain weight while traveling. A number of factors come into play that determine which way your weight will go.
If you’re traveling somewhere known for the cuisine like Italy or Japan, you should probably worry more about gaining weight. If you’re traveling somewhere with less exciting foods like Africa or Central Asia, you should probably worry more about losing weight. Some tips for maintaining weight include:
- Weigh yourself occasionally- It’s easy enough to find a scale to weigh yourself weekly or monthly. In many countries, you find people on the streets who charge a small fee to step on their scale. If your weight changes, make adjustments in your diet to correct it.
- Adjust your diet to fit your level of activity- If you are just sitting on the beach and relaxing all day, eat less. If you are hiking or bicycle touring, eat more.
- Go to the gym- Most hotels have a gym. Most gyms will let you pay by the day to workout.
- Drink less- Alcohol contains a lot of calories.
- Worry about it when you get home- Gaining or losing a few pounds isn’t that big of a deal. You can always work to correct the change when you return from your trip. I don’t really worry about my weight unless I feel that it is affecting my health. On a couple of trips, I’ve lost over 20 pounds. I gained it right back when I got home and returned to normal after a couple of months. No big deal.
If I’m out traveling for a few months, I lose 10-15 pounds. Some destinations are worse than others. For example, while traveling in Africa, I didn’t find the food to be too exciting so I lost a considerable amount of weight. While traveling in Mexico, I eat like a king and generally maintain my weight.
Food Poisoning and Travelers Diarrhea
While traveling, you must be careful about what you eat and drink. Hygiene and food preparation standards may be lower than you’re used to back home. If you travel long enough, you will get food poisoning or travelers diarrhea. There is no avoiding it. This sickness is caused by food and drinks that are contaminated with bacteria. There are a few precautions you can take to lower the risk and frequency of getting sick off the food and water.
Food Safety Tips
- Only eat foods that are hot and cooked all the way through- Cooking kills bad bacteria that make you sick. Undercooked meat can be particularly dangerous.
- Avoid foods that have been sitting out- Foods left in the open can collect bacteria from the environment. If the food is left in the wrong temperature zone, it can spoil. Make sure that food you eat has been kept in the proper conditions or is freshly made.
- Eat more fruits and veggies- They are less likely to make you sick if they were handled improperly. Make sure you clean all fruits and veggies well. E coli is a concern.
- Cook for yourself- If you prepare your own food, you know that it is clean and prepared properly.
- Eat foods that you know are clean and safe- If you can’t find anything appealing to eat, look for canned foods, packaged foods, or fruits with peels. These are always a safe bet.
Drink Safety Tips
- Drink bottled or purified water instead of tap water- In most of the world, tap water is not potable. Some places it’s questionable. I like to err on the side of caution and drink bottled or purified water.
- Avoid ice in your drinks- Some places use tap water to make ice. If you’re in doubt, it’s is a good idea to ask first. These days, ice is usually safe.
- Avoid juices and mixed drinks made with water- They may have been made with tap water. If you’re not sure, ask.
Where you are traveling determines how concerned you should be with getting sick from food and drinks. In the developed world, food hygiene standards are very high. After years of working in the restaurant industry, I found that food handling is highly controlled and regulated. Health departments are incredibly cautious and strict. In the developing world, you have to be much more careful. In fact, when traveling in Asia or Africa, you’ll probably get a touch of travelers diarrhea at some point. Your body just isn’t used to the local bacteria.
After enjoying a delicious meal in a nice restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, I asked to use the bathroom. The server kindly directed me upstairs. The bathroom door opened directly to the kitchen. This is a problematic layout. Inside the large bathroom, I noticed a collection of pots, pans, and cooking utensils that appeared to have been recently used. This would never fly back home. This place would have been shut down immediately in the US.
Luckily, I’m not too picky. The food was great and I didn’t get sick. I’m just glad I waited until after my meal to use the restroom. The whole thing was a bit of a turnoff. I found a similar setup in a restaurant that I frequented in India. On that occasion, I just tried to forget what I saw. The food was just too good to not go back.
A Few Questions About Tap Water
For whatever reason, many travelers are paranoid about using tap water. Most of the time, it’s perfectly safe. You just don’t want to drink it unless you know it’s clean. Some few common questions are:
Can you brush your teeth with tap water?
Yes. There is no need to waste bottled water for brushing your teeth. I have brushed my teeth with tap water all over the world including India, Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America and have never gotten sick. I find it kind of funny when I see a fellow traveler standing at the sink brushing their teeth with a bottle of water when the tap is right there.
The only time I may not use tap water to brush my teeth is if the water is pumped in directly from a lake or river. Even then, it is probably safe even though there are a number of contaminants and parasites that could be present. In that case, it’s best to use bottled water.
Can I make tea and coffee with tap water?
Yes. Make sure you boil it for at least one minute to kill all bacteria. Sometimes tap water may not be the best choice for this purpose because it can have a funny taste which ruins your drink. If the taste doesn’t bother you, go for it.
Can I use tap water to wash food?
Yes. Just make sure you dry it well before eating. Always wash your flutes and veggies. Many countries don’t wash them during processing so they could be covered in pesticides and other contaminants including E. coli.
Can I cook with tap water?
Yes. As long as you bring the water to a boil for more than 1 minute, it will be safe to eat. Again, some water has a funny taste which may come through in the food.
Money Saving Tip: Filter Your Own Water
Instead of buying bottled water every day, consider filtering your own. A small water filter takes up hardly any space in your luggage. You can get water for free from a tap, river, stream, or lake and make it perfectly safe to drink almost instantly. As an added bonus, you won’t be adding any more plastic bottles to the landfill. A decent water filter pays for itself in just a few weeks and lasts many years. I started traveling with a Sawyer Mini a couple of years ago and have been really happy with it. Check out my full review here.
What to do if you do get travelers diarrhea?
Even if you take all possible precautions and you still end up with a case of travelers diarrhea, it doesn’t have to disrupt your trip too much. Just take a bit of time to treat yourself and get your health back. To recover faster, you should:
- Drink plenty of water- Diarrhea dehydrates your body. Buy some bottled water and keep drinking throughout the day.
- Follow the BRAT diet- BRAT stands for banana, rice, applesauce, and toast. These bland foods are easy on the stomach and are supposed to help reduce symptoms. They are also easily available in most countries.
- Take some anti-diarrhea medicine- Make a visit to the pharmacy and buy some Imodium or Pepto Bismol.
- Put some dehydration salts in your water- If your diarrhea is severe, your body may need additional salt to help you rehydrate. You can purchase rehydration salts at most pharmacies.
- Take antibiotics- If you’re not improving in a few days to a week, consider buying some antibiotics. Depending on the country, you may have to visit a clinic to get a prescription before the pharmacy will sell them to you.
If left untreated, severe travelers diarrhea can lead to dehydration and long term stomach problems. Believe it or not, diarrhea is one of the world’s leading causes of death, killing over 2 million people per year. Mostly children in the developing world.
I’ll start off by saying that I’m a pretty big fan of alcohol. Having a few drinks is a great way to relax at the end of a stressful day on the road. I particularly enjoy sampling craft beers. Bars are also an excellent place to meet locals and fellow travelers alike. With that being said, drinking too much while traveling takes its toll on your health and can even ruin your trip. Here are a few alcohol tips:
- Don’t drink every day- Give your body some time to recover. A bad hangover can take all day to get over. Losing an entire day because you drank too much is just a waste in my opinion. I like to pick and choose a few nights to go out and drink. If I’m with a good crowd and having a good time, I’ll have a big night out once in a while. If the vibe isn’t right, I’ll call it a night early and get a good nights sleep.
- Stay hydrated- Alcohol dehydrates the body. Even if you’re drinking a lot, staying hydrated will do wonders to reduce the damage the next day.
- Keep an eye on your drink and don’t leave it unattended- Spiking drinks is a problem all over the world. This is something that both men and women need to be careful of. Rape and robbery aren’t common, but it’s good practice to be cautious with your drink anyway. You never know.
- Don’t drink if you’re on certain medications- For example, if you’re on antibiotics recovering from food poisoning, it’s not the time to go out drinking. Recovery will just take longer.
- Don’t go out drinking if you feel sick- Alcohol can lower your immune system and make your sickness worse or slow recovery time.
In my mind, it’s fine to have a few extra drinks while out traveling. Even drinking to excess is excusable on occasion. You’re on vacation after all. Just remember to be careful and take care of your body. You want to balance drinking with site seeing. You didn’t travel to the other side of the planet to lay in bed with a hangover.
While I was traveling in Cambodia during one of my first trips, I got in the habit of drinking too much. I was a 20-year-old backpacker and I wanted to party. I arrived in Siem Reap with plans to visit the Angkor Wat temple complex. For about 5 days, every morning I woke up with a gnarly hangover and kept telling myself, I’ll go tomorrow. Finally, one morning I made myself go even though I was still drunk from the previous night. I enjoyed my experience but not as much as I could have if I didn’t feel like death. Lesson learned. Don’t drink too much the night before a big sightseeing day. It can spoil the experience.
Exercise- Staying in Shape While Traveling
Another important factor in maintaining your health while traveling is exercise. It’s easy to sit by the pool and relax all day and just let yourself go. Taking a bit of time to do a small exercise routine will help you to maintain your level of fitness and stay healthier. Here are some good ways to exercise while traveling.
Go to the Gym
Finding a gym when traveling can be a bit tricky but it’s the only way to get a full workout in if you care about that kind of thing. Types of gyms you can look for include:
- Independent gyms- Many allow you to pay for a day or trial pass to use the facilities. Some ask that you pay for a whole month. You really just have to search around to find the best option.
- Hotel gyms- Most hotels have some kind of gym for guests to use. This is really only true in the developed world though. You’d have to stay somewhere pretty high end to find a hotel gym in the developing world.
- Outdoor gyms- Many cities around the world have free outdoor gyms in parks. This is like the adult version of the jungle gym. Usually, these aren’t anything fancy. Just some basic machines that use bodyweight or hydraulics for resistance. Outdoor gyms can be found all over the world but seem to be most popular in Asia. They usually include pull up bars, dip bars, balance beams, exercise bikes, chest press, etc. I really like these gyms. I wish they were more common.
Running or Walking
I walk everywhere when I travel. I have been known to walk up to 20 miles in a day just wondering around and seeing the sites of a city. It’s a great way to stay healthy and save money on transportation as well. Why take an expensive cab when you could just go on foot?
Running or jogging is another great free way to stay fit while traveling. Beaches are a great place to go for a run in the morning or evening when the weather is cool and it’s not too crowded.
Body weight Exercise
If you don’t have access to a gym, there are plenty of great exercises that you can do without any equipment. Exercise in your hotel room. Body weight exercises include:
- Tricep Dips
For an excellent bodyweight exercise routine, check out this article from Onnit.
Another excellent free exercise. Swimming is great for cardio and easy on the joints. Finding a lake or sea to swim in is pretty easy during the summer.
Before going for a swim in a natural body of water, ask a local or do a bit of research to make sure it’s safe. Strong tides can drag you out to sea. Dangerous creatures like parasites, sharks, or snakes can lurk.
Cycling has quickly become my favorite form of exercise. Many large cities around the world have bike rental programs. You can join and take a bike ride around the city for just a few dollars. This is a great way to get some exercise and site see at the same time.
Bicycle rental is also available in most tourist towns. You can rent a bike by the day and explore the surrounding area while getting some exercise at the same time.
For a more active trip, consider traveling by bicycle. I recently got into bicycle touring and think it’s the best way to travel.
Keeping Your Body Healthy While Traveling
Travel demands a lot from your body. While on vacation, you will be more active and get less rest. You may be doing activities that your body just isn’t used to. Because of this, you need to pay extra attention to your body and take care of it so it takes care of you. Here are some tips:
Bathe Regularly While Traveling
When you’re busy site seeing, catching buses, and going out, it’s easy to forget to clean yourself. Sometimes you stay in a hotel without hot water and you just don’t feel like a cold shower. Sometimes, if you’re camping, you’ll go weeks without access to a decent shower.
When traveling, it’s important to stay clean as best as you can. Going too long without bathing can lead to skin problems like rash and infections. It also takes its toll on your mind. Being dirty just doesn’t feel good.
I like to bathe at least once a week while traveling. I have gone over a week on a few occasions when no shower was available and I just felt gross and unhealthy at that point. Obviously, I shower every day when the option is available.
Skincare While Traveling
The most important thing to remember about caring for your skin is to wear sunblock. This is particularly important when you’re traveling during the summer or in warm climates where the sun is intense. Getting a bad sunburn can ruin your day and even lead to skin cancer down the road. You should wear sunblock every day. Even if it’s cloudy.
I hate applying sunblock but wear it every day because I know how important it is. As a bald guy, I have to be particularly careful not to burn my scalp. I also try to wear a hat even though I’m not really a fan.
Foot Health While Traveling
While traveling, you’ll be walking a lot. Pay close attention to your feet. Problems that can come up include:
- Athletes foot- This is a type of fungus that grows when your feet are sweaty and confined in shoes for long periods of time. To prevent it, keep your feet clean and dry. Carry extra socks to change into. When you’re not walking, go barefoot and give your feet the chance to breathe and dry out.
- Blisters- If your shoes don’t fit just right, or if you wear the same shoes for too long, you can get blisters. This happens when your shoes rub against part of your foot. To prevent blisters, wear shoes that fit properly. You can also pack two pairs of shoes and switch them off. If you do get a blister, clean it out and put some tape or a bandage over it so it doesn’t get worse.
- Sprained ankle- While out hiking or walking over poorly maintained streets, it’s easy to step in the wrong place and twist your ankle. To prevent this, it’s important to wear good, sturdy shoes or boots. Watch your step while walking around developing countries. You could be walking along and unexpectedly step into a massive crater in the sidewalk. If you do injure yourself, take it easy for a couple of days so you don’t make things worse.
My foot care tip: When I travel, I like to switch off between shoes and sandals. If I plan to walk a long distance, I’ll wear my shoes. When I’m just walking around the neighborhood where I’m staying or at the hostel, I wear sandals. This gives my feet a chance to air out and heal if blisters are beginning to form.
I wear sandals as much as possible because I find them more comfortable than shoes. Some are better than others for comfort.
While traveling, you’ll be carrying a heavy backpack full of all of your things. You’ll wear it often and for hours at a time. Every time you move from one city to the next, you’ll carry your backpack to the bus or train station, then to your accommodation when you arrive.
Remember that everything you pack, you’ll have to carry for miles at a time. Heavy backpacks put a lot of strain on your back. To reduce the risk of injury, pack light. Your fully loaded backpack should not weigh more than 20% of your body weight.
Another way your back can suffer while traveling is from sleeping on bad mattresses. Budget hotels and hostels buy cheap, firm mattresses. Sometimes they just use foam pads because they’re cheap. I have stayed in hostels and hotels that haven’t replaced the beds in decades. They are lumpy and broken down. This makes getting a decent night’s sleep impossible.
Sleeping on bad mattresses for months on end can really do a number on your back. If you have a sensitive back, remember to take the bed into consideration before booking a room. If a hotel or hostel has quality mattresses, they will list it in their description. For more booking tips, check out my guide: How to Book the Best Hostel.
It’s easy to skip a brushing or two while traveling. Maybe you’re on an overnight train or flight and you just forget. Maybe the bathroom at the hostel is occupied so you just skip it for the night and go straight to bed. Don’t do this! You don’t want to come home with a toothache and discover that you need a thousand dollars worth of dental work to correct it.
I take brushing my teeth very seriously. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I make time before bed and after I wake up to take care of my teeth. Don’t forget to floss.
Cigarettes are cheap in many countries. I have met travelers who decided to take up smoking while on the road simply because they can buy a pack of cigarettes for 50 cents. They always say “I’ll quit when I get home.” Maybe they quit or maybe they just continue with the expensive and unhealthy habit.
I don’t have anything against smokers. I just think it’s a bad idea to start simply because cigarettes are cheap where you’re traveling. If you’re already a smoker, enjoy the low cigarette prices. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
Keeping Your Mind Healthy While Traveling
Travel can be wonderfully relaxing and incredibly stressful at the same time. It’s important to create a balance in your trip to stay healthy. You don’t want to just veg out and decay. At the same time, you don’t want to live on the edge every moment.
Stress While Traveling
Traveling is an inherently stressful activity. You are putting your body and mind through new and sometimes difficult experiences every day. Nothing is familiar. Some stressful situations you may encounter include:
- Getting lost in an unfamiliar place
- Running late for a train, flight, or bus
- Dealing with a language barrier
- Haggling over prices
- Dealing with scammers and crooks
- Dealing with overly friendly locals
- Worrying about safety and security
- Keeping track of your schedule
While stressful, these types of situations are just part of the travel experience. You will encounter them and endure them. Dealing with this kind of stress day in and day out for months at a time eventually gets to you. You may find yourself feeling angry, hopeless, or just lost. Spending prolonged periods under stress can lead to:
- Poor sleep
- Over/Under eating
- Angry outbursts
- Lack of motivation
- Low sex drive
- Overconsumption of alcohol
Suffering from any one of these symptoms of stress can take its toll on your health and even spoil the trip. The goal of traveling is to enjoy what you’re doing. First, you must identify the source of your stress. Then you can take some steps to reduce it. Some things you can do to relieve stress while traveling include:
- Take a day off- If you are stressed about planning, scheduling, or budgeting, taking a day off gives you time to sort out logistics. For example, I find booking airline tickets stressful. It’s expensive and I must buy them far enough in advance that I can get a decent rate. I take a few hours off so I can research tickets and buy the best one. Immediate after I feel relief.
- Go somewhere comfortable- While traveling, you spend a lot of time in discomfort. For example, spending days on the bus, sleeping on decade-old mattresses, and going weeks without a hot shower all add stress to your day. It’s important to enjoy some comfort once in a while. This could mean staying in a decent hotel, booking a more comfortable bus seat, or just taking a hot shower. Simply enjoying some basic comfort can relieve a lot of stress.
- Slow down-Traveling too fast exposes you to a lot of stressful situations in a short amount of time. You encounter more people, spend more money, and move around more frequently when you travel fast. Slowing down makes stressful situations less frequent. Instead of finding yourself in 10 stressful situations in a day, maybe you only encounter one when traveling slow. You have more time to cool off and relax in between.
- Have sex- Another healthy way to reduce stress.
- Get away from people- I’m not a big people person. As an introvert, spending some time by myself once in while greatly reduces my stress level. I always travel with a tent so I can get away from people and enjoy the outdoors. I’ve really gotten into camping in recent years.
Relaxation While Traveling
On the other end of the spectrum, I believe it’s possible to relax too much. I don’t know the science behind this, but I know that I feel less sharp if I don’t use my mind enough. Sitting around and relaxing all day is nice for a while but it too takes its toll. To keep sharp, I like to:
- Read- I like to read something by an author native to the country or region that I am visiting. Sometimes I read the news to keep up on current events.
- Write- I spend a lot of time writing this blog. I also like to write my thoughts just to keep them straight. Some travelers like to keep a journal.
- Have a conversation- Talking with a local is an excellent way to learn about culture and find interesting things to do while traveling. Fellow travelers are always up for a conversation as well.
- Learn some of the local language- This is a great way to exercise your mind. Most people you encounter while traveling would be delighted to teach you a few words in their native language. You can also utilize books, apps, and audio lessons to help you learn.
- Plan and organize the next part of the trip- Planning a trip is a massive undertaking. There is always a bus schedule to research, hotel to book, or price to check. It’s good to stay organized.
- Learn about the history of the country that you are traveling in- It can help you better understand the locals. I like to visit small museums when I have the chance.
- Analyze your travel budget- It’s a good idea to sit down at least once per week to look over your finances. Make sure you’re not overspending. Log into your bank account and credit card or debit card accounts to make sure you haven’t been overcharged for anything and to verify that your account hasn’t been compromised. For some helpful tips, check out my guide: How to Make an Accurate Budget for Long Term Travel or Living Abroad
- Cook- Teach yourself a new recipe and use the hostel kitchen to prepare it. You could also cook your favorite recipe from back home.
- Study something you’re interested in- Maybe you’ve been wanting to learn about navigation. Maybe you never learned calculus in school and have always wanted to learn. Teach yourself something. All you need is the internet.
I’ve met travelers and expats who have spent years on the road relaxing and partying every day, never exercising their minds. While this lifestyle seems great on paper, it’s not healthy. These guys just don’t seem as sharp as they could be.
It’s easy to go for weeks at a time just hanging out, partying, or going to the beach. I don’t believe this is all that healthy even though it is relaxing. You don’t have to read a computer manual or do long division. Just use your mind in some capacity to keep it sharp.
Getting enough sleep may be the most important factor in staying healthy while traveling. It’s easy to fall behind on sleep and never make it up. You’ll be on buses, trains, and planes where it’s difficult to get a full night of rest. Maybe you want to get up early to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise so you lose a couple of hours of sleep. Maybe you want to stay up late clubbing in Berlin so you lose a whole night of sleep. These lost hours add up and lead to problems down the road. Symptoms of lack of sleep include:
- Lowered immune system- You can get sick more easily.
- Moodiness/ irritability- Other travelers won’t want to be around you.
- Clumsiness- You’re more likely to injure yourself.
- Forgetfulness- You could miss your flight if you forgot the time.
- Depression/lack of motivation- Maybe you miss out on seeing a cool waterfall because you just don’t feel like doing anything.
- Trouble with thinking and problem-solving- Maybe you get scammed because you weren’t thinking straight.
- Weight gain- When you don’t get enough sleep, you are more likely to overeat.
I know it’s difficult, but try your best to get a full 8 hours of rest each night while traveling. If I can’t get enough sleep at night, I like to take a nap during the day to catch up. This is also a good way to prepare for a late night out or early morning.
Travel Tip: When you check into a new room, you should always check for bed bugs. They are surprisingly common. For help, check out my guide: How to Avoid Bed Bugs While Traveling.
Final Thoughts- How to Stay Healthy While Traveling or Living Abroad
The three most important factors to consider while traveling are diet, exercise, and sleep. If you take the time to make sure that each of those are taken care of, you’ll have a healthy and rewarding trip. Other than that, take the same precautions that you take at home such as washing your hands and staying clean. You can avoid most diseases through vaccination and other prevention methods.
The most important thing to remember is to enjoy yourself. Try not to be too paranoid about getting sick. Don’t deny yourself from enjoying an activity because of the slim chance something bad happening. If you do sustain a minor injury or catch a touch of the flue, it’s not the end of the world. As long as you stay on top of your health and take preventative care, most health issues can be solved by taking it easy for a day or two.
In the 8 years that I have been traveling, I have never suffered a trip ending health condition. Sure, I’ve had a few colds and upset stomachs over the years, but overall I’ve been fairly healthy.
How do you stay healthy while traveling? Have you ever had any health problems while traveling? Comment below with your story!
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