Have you ever stood on top of a mountain, and looked down on hundreds of miles of fertile land filled with villages and hamlets? Have you ever been entirely surrounded by people speaking a completely foreign language, a sensation better described as alien rather than human. Have you ever seen darkness so absolute it awakens a primal fear you did not know you had? Have you ever felt so anonymous that you could do anything, become anyone?
I love to travel. I also suspect that the way I travel is quite different than the way that most people do so. My relationship with travel is unique to me, forged from a string of good, bad, and most of all unforgettable experiences. Whatever I might end up writing here, I highly encourage doing the same; discovering your own bespoke way to travel the world, your own way of approaching challenges and managing your psyche and confronting the unknown, is an incredibly valuable experience. And while I do ultimately think that something like travel is different for everyone, I hope that by sharing my philosophy it might help some people to clarify their own.
The first thing to know is that everybody travels for different reasons. Some do it to get away; to relax, but I relax far too much at home. Some do it to discover themselves, and while this is commendable I find there far easier ways to figure out who you are. Me? I do it to explore. For adventure! For the thrill and danger of the unknown! I set myself challenges so I can conquer them and grow greater in the process. It is definitely true that this is not for everyone. I'd wager only the smallest minority feels similarly to me about intentionally seeking out new challenges. I mean, who wants to make their life more difficult?
There are definitely a number of modifications I've made to the way I travel to facilitate this. If I had only a single big vacation a year, then seeking out some great adventure would be a hard sell (even for someone as crazy as me). Travel is inherently quite a difficult process, especially when you do it rarely, and for most people the act of travel itself provides enough stress. Instead, I do the opposite. I try to get as many short, two to four day trips as I can. This might mean I'll be going places once a month or more, but each trip is so short that I can make as as difficult and adventurous as I want; my home and my bed will never be more than a couple days away.
I have a lot more to say about the topic, but before I go on I want to again reiterate that I travel for adventure and all of this advice will be focused on that. There are plenty of other goals compatible with adventure; cultural exchange, meeting people, learning new skills. These can all be done in adventurous ways, and doing so might even be the best way. However if challenge and exploration is not what you seek then much of this may be downright counterproductive. None of this will apply if you are planning for a destination wedding in the Bahamas or a big family reunion.
With that, let's start planning our perfect adventure. The first dilemma, of course, is deciding where our journey will take us.
Picking Your Destination
I strongly believe that there are really only two types of places you should go if you are seeking out adventure. There are only categories of destinations worth visting. Either make your way towards the biggest population center you can afford, or venture out into nature, as remote as you can stomach. There is no middle ground, at least not one that isn't inferior to one of those two options in some way. All the rest of the planning depends on the type of destination you pick, so choose wisely.
The big city is where human culture has been polished and refined to its ultimate form. In the most dense places there is a truly unlimited number of places to see. You could spend a week exploring a single square mile in midtown Manhattan, and it will still not share all of its wonderful secrets. The densest places in the world are sometimes the most expensive, but they also tend to provide the greatest amount of choice at every price range. Hostels, especially, are something you should lean into. They provide a unique kind of adventure that is impossible to get anywhere else.
When I say adventure, many might conjure up images of scaling great mountains or carving paths through treachorous jungle. However, to the extant that adventure is about going out of your comfort zone and seeing things that you've never seen before, there are worlds of adventure in other people and familiar places. I want to vanquish the notion that you have to be rich in time or in money to challenge yourself in this nature. Adventure starts where comfort ends, and it can be right at your doorstep.
For the low budget adventurer, I would recommend looking to where you already are. Book a cheap hotel on the other side of the city, somewhere you wouldn't usually go, and travel there by foot. Take a train to a new city nearby. Or go to a neighbourhood you've never been to and take a fascination in the people who live there. Ask them about their lives and what it's like to live in a place like they do. Try not too be creepy, but as a tourist it's natural to have an inherent fascination with the new and the unknown, and in this situation you will be a tourist in your own city! Or go and do a challenging hike; push yourself hard because you know that at night you'll be sleeping safe in your own bed. Adventuring does not require going far, at least not geographically, but it does require a certain state of mind.
Personally, I have a preference towards history and culture. I often visit the national parks of America not just because they're some of the most beautiful places in the country, but also because most are full of history and each has its own story to tell. Even though they might be crowded at times, I find the unique historical and cultural aspect to be worth it. When going to cities I also like to learn their unique stories. I've been to a lot of seemingly unremarkable and average cities before, but even the most boring place will have a a story and quirks that can be found nowhere else on the planet. Sometimes it's the most seemingly boring places that have the most unique people!
It's probably worth starting small. However much I like to downplay it, traveling to new places like this, especially solo, has its risks. Go camping somewhere near home before you commit to a multiday backpacking trip. Make sure you have a backup in large cities where muggings and theft is common. Don't let that get you down though; if you focus too much on your fear and anxiety you rob yourself of the experience of true freedom and letting go. Make a plan to ensure your safety, and then improvise comfortably in the knowledge that nothing can go wrong.
There are a lot of people who have a lot of different opinions about how to pack. Personally, I think it's pretty straightforward. I don't really like packing, so I try to do it as little as possible. That means serious minimalism. If you're unsure about you'll need something, don't bring it. Try to cut that suitcase down to a carry on, or that carry on down to a backpack. Remember, if adventure is the goal then you have to be mobile and unburdened. Plus without checked baggage you can arrive much later to the airport and your luggage is never lost; it makes the act of air travel so much less painful.
Maybe it's just me, but in my experience I've discovered I don't necessarily need a lot of things. A couple sets of clothes and some chargers and I'm good to go. Really most of what I do is walk around, whether that's mainly hiking or exploring a new city or even just walking to visit friends and family. Maybe sometimes I'll bring additions like binoculars or a camera, but all of that can easily fit in a backpack. What more could you possibly need?
Don't forget, unless you're literally going to the middle of nowhere (which, to be fair, I sometimes do) you can buy anything you're forgetting at the destination. I'd rather occasionally pay $10 for a bottle of sunscreen than carry around something I'll never use. More than just the weight of it, minimalism is about lowering your mental burden. When you have a small, carefully curated group of items then each one will be easier to remember and also have more meaning. You'll be less likely to lose things in your bag or forget about something when you need it most. This may sound a bit strange, but I tend to feel a connection to the items I bring with me and that can only form if you have few enough things to remember them all individually.
There is an entire community of people called onebag that travel for months with only what they can keep in a backpack. It's almost akin to a nomadic lifestyle, a focus on simplicity and minimalism, and I find the philosophy and logistics of living like this fascinating. You should check out what a onebag packing list looks like. It's not something I think I'd necessarily do, but I think they can teach us lot of lessons about what we really need to be happy and what we can do away with.
The next step is to plan exactly where you go and how you will do it. Good planning can turn even the most boring destinations into a journey of their own. You want to have enough concrete things to do so that you feel challenged and alive, but not so busy that you run out of steam before the trip is over. In my opinion, the perfect plan is one that has you looking forward to heading back on the last day, but still knowing you'll miss the time you spent. Push yourself a little, you don't get to do this everyday.
Like I mentioned I'm a fan of short, frequent trips. The three day long weekend trip is the perfect length for me. Over the past year I've really perfected the art of going to a destination and getting to know as much about it as possible in just a weekend. You can fit a surprisingly large amount of stuff into a weekend, especially since you don't have to worry about pacing yourself, and it's also supremely satisfying to know that you're only one or two days from being back home and able to sleep in your own bed.
This is where my advice starts to diverge, based on whether you're going on a city trip or a nature trip. These are two very different experiences so they each require their own bespoke planning, but the feeling and the soul the plans will be similar. To be mobile, light on your feet, so you can see and do all that there is to see and do. To focus on the journey more than the destination. To give yourself little nudges to break out of your comfort zone.
Seeking Out Mother Nature
Let's start with the a trip to the great outdoors. It's simpler conceptually; likely some combination of hiking and camping. Picking the mode of travel can be one of the more difficult parts about getting outdoors. If you own a car and are lucky enough to live in North America, there's a good chance there's a beautiful and accessible wilderness within driving distance. The United States and Canada both have wonderful camping cultures, as well as access to unimaginably abundant natural splendour. I highly recommend taking advantage of that if you can.
Doing this by car is definitely the easiest way. You can bring as much stuff as you want, drive straight up to a campground or trailhead, and always have access to somewhere waterproof and sheltered. Some people even have room to put a bed in their vehicle, however in my opinion that starts to veer uncomfortably close to glamping. Still, if you have access to this option you should definitely try it. It's a much easier and lower commitment option to see if camping is for you.
If you don't have a car then the options get a little more involved. You'll have to travel somewhere else if you want to escape the concrete clutches of human sprawl, probably by plane. Unfortunately most flights operate between hub airports in major citires, and getting to a place where wild animals roam and the flowers bloom in solitude can be quite a challenge. One option is to try to get to a park accessible by public transit, which is possible even in the US (and my understand is it's even easier in Europe).
One of the biggest issues on an adventure like this is figuring out where to stay. If your patch of nature is located near a city, or if it's developed enough to contain lodges and cabins, then you can likely rent a room filled with all the amenities of modern life. However true wilderness is not so hospitable, and seeing it will require camping out under the stars. If you had to fly to this location, then it means doing so with only the equipment you could bring on a plane. It will be a challenge, but a rewarding one.
This brings you into the territory of wilderness backpacking, where you hike and camp and camp and hike with only the supplies on your back. In my opinion, this is the ultimate way to see the outdoors. A car can only take you so far; there are no paved roads to the heart of mother nature. An ideal trip might mean going from the airport to the trail, spending the majority of each day hiking from campsite to campsite, and then flying straight back home at the end. No paying for hotels, no wasting time driving around, and maximum access to nature. Typically you pack light since you'll be carrying everything on your back, so it's not even too much hassle to travel by plane.
There is a lot of information and nuances concerning the how of camping, but there are countless resources available. My aim is to point out that it can be done, and that it is worth doing. It's true it can be intense at times, but if you're just on a weekend trip you'll be back home before you know it. You'll have experiences that were once commonplace to primitive humans, but few get to see today. A night sky absolutely dripping with stars, more than you could have imagined. A place where nature still rules, where the animals are truly untamed, where humans are guests instead of greedy landlords. It's worth having these experiences if you even the slightest bit adventurous, and it is incredibly rewarding to push yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of.
For many people, hiking and exploring alone is enough to keep them going. However if you're in search of a little more mental stimulation there are plenty of outdoor activities you can do on your adventures. Personally, I've found that birdwatching is wonderfully entertaining. It's a bit like catching Pokemon - you're always using your eyes and especially your ears to try and sense any nearby fowl and identify them. It's a lot of fun, and I make sure to bring my binoculars on hiking trips despite the extra weight.
It's also worth mentioning that if you want just a little bit more access to civilization you could plan a walking tour. You'd spend the majority of each day hiking in nature, but spend each night safe in an inn or a pub with running water, hot food, and a dry bed. I haven't done one of these before but I can certainly see the appeal, especially in especially dense places like Japan or Europe; I suspect this wouldn't work as well in North American. If the idea interests you then there are people who plan such yours for you, such as this. If you try it out let me know how it goes! Seems like a wonderfully gentle introduction to the idea of walking long distances everyday.
Adventuring in the Concrete Jungle
If you consider yourself more of a city slicker, then perhaps the concrete jungle is what calls out to your heart. Indeed there is plenty to do in any urban city, but be wary! Since many of us are used to cities, it's easy to fall into the trap of being lazy or unadventurous and treat this special vacation like a slightly more interesting day on the town. While that can be fun, we're looking for adventure! So we'll have to make things a little more exciting.
My first tip is to try to stay in as many different locations as possible. As difficult as this may sound, it's a really great way to get yourself out there everyday and escape the trap of sitting lazily in a hotel room. You'll have an excuse to not only see different parts of the city, but to spend time there too. Of course this works best if you're not carrying too much stuff and if you're only going for a short trip; I'm sure it'd be very tiring to do for more than a week. Still, even if you're planning a long trip try to move around as you can so you're able to explore different cities and faraway places that you'd otherwise miss.
Another big difference when traveling in cities is the people! So many of them all around; so many new faces and interesting stories to be told. I highly recommend trying to meet the people in the city, locals specifically, because they'll be able to share the best tips about the place your in; where to get the best food, where to go to have the most fun, and maybe even the local history of the area (which is my personal favorite). If you're especially lucky, you might evenreceive some generous hospitality from a kind soul.
In my experience people are naturally friendly and hospitable to travelers, especially adventurers (this probably wouldn't apply for luxury resort goers or similar). Just sharing the story of your travels might prompt some unexpected and extremely generous hospitality. Offers to share a meal or meet some friends are wonderfully heartwarming, and not as hard to find as you might think. This is especially true for places that are not traditional tourist destinations; where the people might not be used to seeing weary travelers and so might be willing to do what they can to help out on their journey.
In terms of what attractions to plan for, I have my favorites. I like museums, local restaurants (not tourist trappy places that would appear on a magazine but places where you can try authentic local cusine), and parks. Any kind of place is fine though, a trip like this is not about checking off a series of attractions from your list but about the journey you have surrounding them. Once I was in a city and while walking through their downtown I discovered there was a local baseball game happening. The energy was electric, and I followed the crowd to find street music and cheering fans enjoying the weather and listening to the game. Attractions like that aren't on any top 10 list, and can't be bought with money.
Similarly, I'd recommend walking as much as possible because that's when the most interesting and unexpected encounters happen. In New York I once chose to walk across the Queensboro bridge even though there was a subway line right along that route that would have taken me to my destination much quicker. Instead, I walked past a man selling books on the street. He had a wonderful used collection, and as we started chatting I discovered he'd been doing this for decades and had a New York Times article written about him! I left not only with a couple of extremely affordable used books, but also a memory that's more interesting than something any Michelin starred restaurant could have given me.
Some people make it their goal to walk dozens of kilometers a day to really get to know a place on a thick level . While I don't quite do this, as it requires more free time than I have, I do agree that walking is by far the most interesting way to learn about a new place. And there's a lot of walking - and a lot of learning - that you can do in a weekend. Don't underestimate how much you can experience even in a short time if you make the extra effort to put yourself in unfamiliar situations and grow beyond your comfort zone.
Even in the famously pedestrian unfriendly USA I've found there's a lot of good opportunities to do things without a car. The downtowns of even very car centric cities often contain a surprisingly good walkable district, often with decent public transit connections to an airport. There are also often rudimentary public transit options where you would least expect them. Even though walking is the best, biking or public transit can show you interesting slices of life that you'd otherwise miss; sometimes the best dramas are witnessed on a bus or train. Of course this isn't always possible, but if you spend all your time in a car going from one place to another you might as well do that at home.
My final tip is to be openminded when it comes to unfamiliar people and experiences. The most unique part of any city is its people and culture, and you can't experience any of that unless you're open to the unknown. I really do think that people are often much nicer than most give them credit for, and if you reciprocate that kindness then there's nothing to worry about. Sure, emergencies can happen, but people will go surprisingly far out of their way to help someone in need, so there's really nothing to worry about. Just ensure you too are carrying the spirit of kindness and generosity on your travels.
Getting Out There
I've found that planning out what you will do is often the hardest part. Once the stress of hotel bookings, airline tickets, and itinerary planning is taking care of you can just relax and carry out the steps. Of course navigating through unfamiliar processes and places might be hard, but it's the fun kind of hard. It's the kind of thing that pushes your limits and makes for a good story. Plus eventually you get really good at this stuff if you do it enough, and then you have one more valuable life skill unlocked.
Of course things can go wrong, and if they do then you have to improvise. Especially if you're in the outdoors and you discover that something isn't right, you need to be willing to come up with a solution on the fly. Whether you're lost, or your hotel is overbooked, or you forgot something important, or you got mugged. All of these problems will be horrifying in the moment, but they are all solvable and doing so is an essential part of the adventurer experience. After all, no great adventure goes perfectly according to plan!
I'm quite a careful planner so I fortunately haven't experienced any major disasters on a trip. I've have to modify schedules and cancel plans before but that's all par for the course on trips like these. I'd recommend you leave some buffer zone in your schedule just in case something happens, but if you trust in yourself and your abilities I truly believe that everything will be fine. Even better, maybe you'll be forced to learn a thing or two along the way.
Fundamentally though, I think the actual act of adventuring is mostly about living in the moment. You should do as much of the thinking and planning as possible before you leave the front door, and then follow or forget as much as you need when you're actually out there. Follow the plan where you can and improvise where you can't, but don't get caught in the trap of overthinking it. A lot of it is about learning more about yourself or about the world around you, and I can't give any advice for that. You just have to go out and try it.
One thing I've found is that getting back after a great adventure and adjusting to normal life can be quite a shock. Traveling feels like it uses entirely different parts of your brain, and that goes double for adventuring. Sometimes it feels like there's simply not enough in regular, enough challenge or stimulation, compared to being out there in the unknown. For me luckily this tends to go away after a few days, and in general I think it's useful motivation to make my home life more interesting too. Just be wary of that post adventure clarity.
The Spirit of Adventure
I think it's worth discussing one more time the reason to do any of this. It's hard, certainly harder than sitting at home in your bed. It can be quite costly, both for time and money. Most of all, I feel like some of the feelings you get during and after a trip like this are hard to convey over text. It might even be hard to convey in real life; either you get it or you don't. The thrill of the unknown, the deep satisfaction of conquering an impossible challenge, the incredibly transformative process of adventure.
One of the greatest feelings in my opinion is when it knocks me out of my usual habits and ways of being. I get to see the world with fresh eyes! If you go somewhere you're not you can become someone you're not. It's a wonderful reset button for when things get tedious or repetitive.
There's more to it than that though. It can give you a deep, true appreciation for what you have and for life around you. It's very easy to take the smallest luxuries for granted until you experience the opposite. When you’re somewhere far from home, every little event starts to take on more mythical qualities; everything becomes more profound. Got food to eat? Got a place to sleep for the night? Great! Most vitally, this too returns home with you, at least for a while. There's a sense of wonder and gratitude that trips like these alight in me, that I've found is difficult to get anywhere else. It's something that has to be tried to be believed.
Of course there are all sorts of mundane benefits as well. Building a sense of self-sufficiency and confidence. The physical aspect of walking all day will build fitness. You might meet people and make new friends. In my opinion, however, all of that pales in conparison to the more spiritual, intangible way that it makes you feel. That, more than anything, is what keeps on motivating me to plan my next adventure no matter how lazy I feel.
Something interesting about human memory is that you create memories based on the amount of unique and memorable things that happen. It's why a year working the same repetitive job might fly by in your memories, but an exciting weekend full of distinctive events will stand out much more. Adventuring like I do gets you more unique experiences per hour than almost any other activity. Even though I only go for 2 or 3 days at a time, those weekends feel longer than entire months sometimes! I get more done, learn more, and grow more than I ever could at home.
That's what I hope you take away from all this. It doesn't really matter whether you pick the outdoors or a big city or something else. It doesn't matter how much you pack or how long your trip is or what you plan. It doesn't even matter whether or not you actually travel away from home. What I really want to express is that adventuring is just another word for stepping out of your comfort zone; of doing something new and growing from the process.
I want to emphasize that adventuring is not just a curiosity for the rich and quirky, but something I highly recommend doing yourself. Carrying the spirit of adventure into your everyday life will have countless benefits. Don't be afraid of the unknown. Choose the path less travelled. Be curious on your journey. And most of all, keep things lighthearted and try to have fun. If you can share the tales of your adventure afterwards, that will only be a bonus.
I have all kinds of future journeys planned for myself. I don't know exactly where they will take me, though I have some vague idea. The particulars aren't important though. Nothing excites me more than imagining what great adventures I will one day go on. Of the mountains I will climb and the challenges I will conquer. Of who I will be after experiencing all that, of what I will have learned. I simply can't wait to see where life will lead, and I hope that you too can one day bask in that glorious excitement.