Weekends and holidays are the ideal opportunity to practice your travel skills.

Most of us use weekends to catch up with sleep, housework, movies and other things which, in the grand scheme of things, are irrelevant for our personal development. I’m horrified by how many weekends I’ve wasted in this way and how few I’ve used to go somewhere different.

It’s the same story for holidays. I don’t know about you but I’ve wasted my last few holidays by generally taking the lazy option – not going for that hike, not getting a bike, vegetating in front of a screen – but I hope next time will be different.

My advice to you is to ignore my example and use every weekend and holiday to hone your travelling skills: learn how to “rough it” by going to a remote location and sleeping under the stars; hike until you get lost (you’ll learn loads about navigation and communicating with local people); try camping, hitchhiking, cycle touring, climbing, canoeing – anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and into the unknown.

I realise it’s unrealistic to start all this by camping, cycle touring or canoeing – apart from anything else getting the gear is expensive and some people hate the grime and indignity of camping – and the best way to start is to simply visit nearby cities and stay in a hostel, or with couch surfing. Most of us never bother to explore our own countries and last year I attempted to correct this by visiting Birmingham, Britain’s second biggest city, a place with a reputation as a dump, and I was pleasantly surprised.

In an article about visiting Birmingham I wrote: “Travelling is a state of mind that involves being open to other cultures and having a permanent sense of curiosity. A short summer holiday doesn’t cut the mustard as this sense of curiosity can’t be satisfied with resorts, museums and tourist attractions.

“Many years passed before I realised you can ‘travel’ in your own country, that we are actually surrounded by exotic locations, places we’ve never seen and dialects we don’t understand. I sometimes do this by hitchhiking, cycle touring and visiting places outside my comfort zone.”

Take risks. Get a bus or train to somewhere unknown. Travel without a plan. Find people to stay with or sleep outside. Walk up a mountain. Have faith that things will work out fine and that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ll be cold and wet for a few hours (an experience that will teach you loads about what you really need to be carrying in your backpack).

In my experience people are more friendly and welcoming in the remote, poverty stricken areas of the world and – you know what – most of these areas are both beautiful and easy to reach over weekends. You can get a return flight to Transylvania (Cluj or Targu Mures) from Luton Airport for less than a hundred quid and you can stay in a Romanian hostel for less than a tenner.

Imagine how happy a gypsy family living in the middle of nowhere would be if you came to their door, treated them with respect, and asked for a cup of water. The chances are that they would feel honoured and, in those circumstances, you wouldn’t be robbed; in fact they would protect you. You may also have a good laugh with these fun-loving, but grossly misunderstood, people.

When I was honing my travel skills in Scotland I would sleep in as many different places as I could. I knew I had to “toughen myself up” if I was to emulate the great travel writers I aspired to and so I slept under a bush, in the garden shed and on a shelf. My family thought I was crazy, and they still refer to it, but those nights weren’t actually that uncomfortable.

If you have the right attitude you can sleep well in the worst places on earth. I remember sleeping in a horse trough in Tibet; I was so tired that just lying down felt luxurious. As I drifted off to sleep an insect crawled across my face but I couldn’t be bothered to brush it off. Another time in Tibet I was caught out in a blizzard and had to sleep out with just a sleeping bag and groundsheet; as the snow started to cover and freeze me I told myself “This isn’t cold. This is nothing compared to what the Tibetans have to put up with,” and I imagined I was lying on a sunny beach. By morning I was buried in snow and numb, but glad to be alive. I remembered the experience so well that I was able to describe it in detail in my travel book 9 Months in Tibet.

As for holidays, these should be used for honing travel skills and not just slobbing around. Easy to say but hard to do. It was only this year that I started walking in the beautiful rolling hills of the Scottish borders – hills that I have seen from the car windows for decades. Strangely enough it was hiking boots that got me off my butt and into the hills, an experience I described in this article.

How to get started? If you agree with what I’m saying here this is my advice: tell yourself you’re going to use every spare day to explore the region and the continent. Stop using weekends and holidays to catch up with sleep – you can do that by going to bed earlier – and start organising. Why not hit the road straight after work on Friday and get back to the office just before it opens on Monday?

One final bit of advice: it will be a lot easier to plan these trips if you go alone – dragging someone along with you may well complicate things and the fact is you’ll meet lots more people if you’re alone.

Finally, please let me know what you do. I’d love to hear about your independent travel experiences.

Photo credit: Lara Wolfe Murray