It’s a question almost as ancient as the urge to travel: How do you preserve the discoveries you made—and the lessons you learned—on your journeys?
In these days of digital documentation the question is even more pressing. Because even though the Internet is forever, a posting on Instagram barely scratches the surface of the sensations of real travel: How being somewhere new makes you feel, the scent in the air, the taste of food, the laughter in the café, the echo in the canyon.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that travel journals are making a comeback. If a journal was good enough for Greek historian Herodotus, whose account of his journeys in the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt (Histories, circa 440 B.C.) has stood the test of time, then it’s good enough for your own travels.
Through the time-honored technology of a travel journal, you can take an intimate and authentic snapshot of an experience and let it inform your life and future journeys—while striking a balance between relegating expansive moments to Instagram, and stuffing your house with keepsakes.
But there are some modern ways to keep a useful and inspiring journal. Surprisingly, they don’t involve posting about your travels online. There’s a reason: Our online profiles showcase our best sides, and, intentional or not, we usually tailor posts to what we think other people want to see. In a personal travel journal, you record a more authentic version of events without catering to an external audience. Your goal is a readership of one: Yourself.
With a physical record, you keep much more than a photo and a few words. You record things that feel significant to you. When thumbing through a journal or printed photos, you share a moment with your past self, as you chat about what you were thinking and feeling during your travels. With a little planning, pen, and paper, all the most important parts of your next trip can be accessible to you for years to come. It may seem intimidating, but the hardest part is starting.
Make time for yourself
Before you get on the road or take to the skies, the first step for journaling success is packing the right materials. Hedda Helle Kalland (@mochibujo on Instagram and YouTube) of Norway makes her living sharing her travels and journaling online.
“You’re going to use things that are easy to pull out and bring with you everywhere,” Kalland says. “I try not to make things too elaborate and too big because then it’s not going to be convenient, especially when you’re traveling.”
To make sure you’ll have time to pause and reflect, block sections of time to sit at a café or bar, lie out on the beach or in a park. Set a reminder on your phone to sit down and jot down whatever comes to mind, without judgment, for just five or ten minutes. On busy sightseeing trips, it can be a godsend to have some time to rest your feet and really take in all the beautiful and interesting things you’ve seen. It can also help to choose a time when there’s a natural pause in activity, like on a train ride or at the end of the evening.
For moments of writer’s block, jot some simple prompts in the front of your notebook, like: What did I do or see for the very first time today? When today did I notice strong emotions? What can I hear or smell right now in this spot? What was the hardest thing about today and how did I deal with it? What did I see or do today that I wish I could incorporate into my daily life?
Pro tip: Add fun stationery to your kit to make journaling time more enjoyable. Try colorful pens. Pack some stickers, stamps, and washi tape to make your entries stand out. Let your destination inspire a color palette and make that the visual theme of your journal.
Focus on things that matter to you
Recording an experience is always secondary to being present and mindfully participating in your travels. When you get a feeling of enchantment, wonder, or even adrenaline or nerves, take the time to experience that feeling.
You can’t capture every detail of your trip, so decide what to focus on by noticing moments that affect you. Maybe it’s a meal, museum display, a conversation with a vendor or your travel partner. Snap a photo, jot down some notes, gather receipts, sketches, ticket stubs, or flowers to press in your notebook. The details you capture will help you recall and re-engage with those experiences years from now.
Jotting down a few core pieces of information will make your notes and photos much more useful to look back on. Get into the habit of noting the date, time, and location wherever you can.
National Geographic staff photographer Mark Thiessen uses his phone to record GPS data when he’s on assignment. It helps him identify images on trips, including one he made to an archeological dig in Ethiopia, where many locations looked similar in an expansive desert.
“I was in the Ethiopian desert on an archeological dig just before COVID hit, and I wanted to know where I was. Camp was in the middle of the desert, we drove 45 minutes in the morning to get to another part of the desert, and it all looked the same,” he says. “Just like folding over the corner of a book to mark an interesting page, taking a photo with your GPS-enabled smartphone essentially bookmarks that location, as well as the date and time and what that location looks like. This is like leaving digital breadcrumbs of your journey.”
Thiessen notes that if you’re using a digital camera with GPS abilities, that function can drain its battery; an easy workaround is snapping a smartphone photo to get all the information you need.
When you get a chance to work on your analog journal, take the information from those digital conveniences to help your future self place details in time and place. It can be as simple as leaving a dateline (for example: 4:40 p.m., East Village, NYC) above details of a memory, or as elaborate as devoting a page to sketch out the shape of a city or country, and plotting rough points where special moments happened.
Pro tip: Don’t know what to write about? Start with your senses. Recording how that Parisian pastry tastes or how the prairie grass near Mount Rushmore smells is one of the most evocative ways to relive experiences and recall memories.
Select just a few photos
The best record of your experience begins with images and notes that evoke what moved or inspired you at the time. Your snapshot of the Eiffel Tower is unique to the moment you were there.
The journal-keeper’s challenge is to distill an expansive experience into a focused narrative. You might not remember everything, but you can preserve a sensation and immersion that matters to you.
“Honestly, I could have spent the entire trip just taking photos. When I got home, I settled on printing one simple image I made while hiking in the Scottish Highlands. I printed it quite large, to try and capture how small I felt hiking in that environment,” Hale says. “For me, printing a single, strong image that felt emblematic of where we’d been, felt better than trying to print and frame every great moment from our trip. Every time I look at it, I think about our great afternoon hike, but also all of the stunning landscapes I encountered while traveling.”
Pro tip: When curating your pictures, don’t be too precious. Print some photos, but not too many; each photo you choose should tell a different story instead of featuring several similar images. Set a limit for selected photos from each day of your trip. Choose one image that captures the whole trip to hang on your wall.
Create your story
As powerful as visuals are, don’t stop with images. Once you’ve collected snapshots, random thoughts, and ephemera (tickets, brochures, postcards), how do you turn these into an integrated story in your journal?
Imagine your travel archive is a gift that you will give yourself years from now. What can you include to imbue it with meaning when you revisit it? Keep it small enough to be accessible, not overwhelming. Group items in your archive by date and location to help anchor moments in space and time. Images and journal entries help you recall how you felt when you were there.
Don’t feel like you need to agonize over every choice. Remember, your curation should be a enjoyable reflection on your travels.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help—or advice from experts. With a photographic collection that includes images dating back to the 1870s, the archivists at National Geographic have found notes, journals, letters, and collected items to be invaluable resources.
“We have mostly photographic assets, though we do also have artwork and additional materials like photographer captions and expedition notes,” says Rebecca Dupont, an image archivist at National Geographic. “The captions and notes associated with these assets, often written by the photographers themselves, can provide stories from their experiences, people they spoke to, things they witnessed, along with all the basics of date and place.”
Any trip you take, near or far, whether it was full of new experiences or quiet and relaxing—can yield records as rich as those from great explorers breaking new ground. Reliving a memory becomes easy with just a little time and note taking.
Pro tip: Limit the space you dedicate to an archive for each trip. One notebook, a limited number of printed photos, and a small box should be enough space for your mementos, notebook, and photos.
Anna Lee Beyer is a writer based in Texas. You can find her on Twitter.
National Geographic Travel executive editor George Stone and editor Allie Yang contributed to this story.