Done right, travel changes us. It picks us up, shakes us around, changes us in ways both obvious and subtle. And then, for most of us, it drops us right back where we started amidst the familiar scenery of “normal life.” Yet everything looks slightly different. Did our world change? No, we changed. So what now?
This is very fresh for me as I try to readjust to home after nearly three months of riding my bicycle solo around Southeast Asia. Was it an amazing trip? Yes! Am I happy to be home? Heck yes! Still, the last couple weeks have been a little weird, and this post is my attempt to structure and share what I’ve been noticing.
Whether you were away for a week or a year, whether it’s just jet lag and Monday blues or whether deeper changes are bubbling to the surface, here are some tips to help you cope with reentry after a significant trip or adventure.
Sleep a ton
Hello jet lag. If the time difference was significant, you may turn into a full-blown insomniac for a few days. On my second night back from Asia I was up most of the night and then accidentally slept through the entire day. That definitely set me back a few days in readjusting and I would not recommend it.
Give your body a few days to readjust and try to slowly reset to your home timezone, but don’t deprive yourself of sleep too much in the meantime. Traveling is tiring! We often push ourselves through long days in order to pack more fun stuff in. Sometimes we push our bodies on active adventures like hiking or biking. We push our immune systems to deal with unfamiliar germs, we push our comfort zones, and we push to stay aware of unfamiliar surroundings.
All of this requires some quality sleep and recovery back home. I sleep a ton after trips, especially longer solo ones, and it’s a really important part of how I start feeling normal and good again. Plus, sleeping in my own comfy bed always feels amazing after too many nights in a tent, hostel bunk or hard-as-rock guesthouse bed.
Unpack and take care of your gear
It can be tempting to simply throw the backpack/suitcase/gear in a corner and forget about it. Don’t! This part isn’t going to get any easier later.
With your recent trip still fresh in your mind, take the time to give your gear the love and care it deserves. Unpack and wash your clothes. Patch that slow leak in your sleeping pad. Organize stuff so that you can quickly find and pack it next time.
Make notes about anything that needs to be replaced, or anything you learned about what to pack differently next time. I know it seems like you’ll remember these insights forever, but unfortunately they will start to fade along with the vivid details of traveling.
Eat lots of nutritious food
Now is the time to make up for any nutritional deficits you built up on the road. For me this usually means binging on fresh vegetables the moment I get home, and sometimes upping my protein intake. I don’t even like fresh vegetables that much, but after a few months of eating basically none (and eating far too much rice/noodles/cassava/bread/etc) even I start to crave them.
If it was a short trip and you indulged in a lot of yummy treats, now is a good time to return to a cleaner diet if that’s what you’re usually into. It’ll only get harder if you bring those eating habits home and try to improve them later.
Reconnect with family and friends
Today it’s easier than ever to stay connected, yet many of us still struggle to communicate enough when busy on the road, especially in places with unreliable internet. Being away inevitably means missing out on get-togethers and conversations that happen without you back at home, especially during longer trips. After this happens enough times it can lead to people gradually growing apart.
So send a few text messages, make a phone call or two, write some emails, however you do it. Let the people you care about know you haven’t forgotten them while gallivanting around the globe.
You can even send a picture or two, and tell them a juicy detail about your recent trip. But resist the urge – unless you know for sure they are interested – to immediately dump the entire story and a two hour photo slideshow on them.
Reestablish a fitness routine
If you had a fitness routine prior to your trip, it’s likely been interrupted. This is fine. A travel break is often the perfect way to absorb the benefits of fitness training and refresh your brain for a strong next phase.
But, I know from experience it can be hard to reestablish those habits again. Especially after being away for a month or more, it can feel like an uphill battle to regain the ground you’ve lost.
The key is to start small. Assuming you were away for a couple weeks or more, that first run or workout after returning home is going to suck. That’s OK. Dial way back from what you would have done before and just get used to the movements again. You need to pretend you’re a beginner again, but don’t worry, you’re going to progress a lot faster than you did the first time you gained that fitness.
After a couple sessions you’ll probably feel ready to push a bit harder. Pay attention to your body and ramp back up gradually to avoid injury. Expect that returning to prior levels of fitness will take roughly as long as you were away, at least for most trips in the range of weeks to a few months.
After five months in Africa, I had gained considerable weight from trying to feel full on a diet of mostly rice and cassava, plus I’d been sick a few times and was just generally in bad shape. After three months bicycling in Southeast Asia I returned pretty fit and lean and good at bicycling, but running felt awkward and my weightlifting numbers were way down. In both cases, it was necessary to start slowly and build back up over a period of a few months, being patient with myself the whole time. But eventually it all came back to me, and it was totally worth it.
Relive favorite moments through pictures and writing
I always find it extremely satisfying and fun to spend time reliving a trip through pictures and writing. I think this is a wonderful way to process and integrate the experience. For me it usually means sorting, organizing and editing all the pictures I took while away, plus writing down stories and article ideas – some for my blog and others just for myself. Sometimes I make a Google Photos album with captions; I send it to my parents but honestly the fun is really in the making process for me. Whatever your preferred medium is, you’ll probably want to indulge in a bit of reliving as you get back to daily life.
Nurture changes in perspective
One of my favorite – and in my opinion most valuable – effects of travel is the temporary chance for a changed perspective. When we travel to a different place we expand our idea of what the world is, and we expand our sense of who we are as people while adapting to that broader world. It’s extremely powerful, but it fades fast.
Right after returning home is the perfect time to look for these shifts in perspective and identity. If you’ve been traveling in a very different culture or in the developing world, some things may be obvious: wonder and appreciation when drinkable water comes out of the sink faucet(!) for example. When I returned from West Africa, where most buildings tend toward the shabby and functional, I had the sense that every single building in my neighborhood had been freshly painted (they hadn’t).
Look for subtler shifts too. Does it feel good to be anonymous on the streets again, if you stuck out like a sore thumb as a tourist? Do you interact with people in subtly different ways? Is your situational awareness dialed up a notch after constantly processing unfamiliar environments while traveling?
Try to hang onto these changes in perspective, and the sense that things do not have to always be the way they are at home. This is an excellent time to let the benefits of travel change you just a little bit for the better.
Prioritize projects and interests in a new light
Especially after a long trip, what I’m passionate about changes when I return home. This doesn’t mean I want to give up long-term goals that are important to me but hard to make progress on in the weird period immediately following travel. But it does mean the time is right to take a look at my priorities and projects under the new light that a change in perspective provides.
Since travel breaks routines, it can be hard to know what to focus on when returning. Take this opportunity to reestablish routines and priorities intentionally without simply relying on routine and habit. I usually sit down with a Google Sheet and list out any new projects or ideas I’m extra stoked about in the aftermath of a trip. I also try to carefully consider any ideas I’d been attached to from before. If they’re not still things I’m excited about and want to spend time on, maybe it’s time for a shift.
Be patient and intuitive
Above all, be patient with yourself and follow your intuition. When done right, travel shakes us up a bit, shifting how we see the world and how we interact with it. Coming home means being dropped back into the same place with a different perspective. Finding equilibrium in this subtly changed landscape can be uncomfortable but also a powerful catalyst for growth. Let it do its work and see where you end up.