How the Army taught me to travel

The opportunities for Army travel are extensive, foreign postings, exercises/manoeuvres, deployments and adventurous training expeditions are a few of these. Initially most of my travel experiences were of the ‘normal’ military kind, the first few on that list. Fortunately I was extremely lucky gaining qualifications in outdoor pursuits and spent a large part of my career involved in expeditions throughout the World.

Army travel experiences; Tuk-tuk deliveries near Egypt's Valley of the Kings on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography, Army

Delivery rider near Luxor, Egypt

However there are a few tips I gained during Army life which have become a part of my travel philosophy now and think it might be useful to share them.

We are guests wherever we travel

Most places we travel to as tourists welcome us with open arms as the local economy and the country is benefitting. This is not always the case as a member of the Armed Forces either deployed or stationed in a country. We are often seen as unnecessary, interfering, in the worst cases even an occupying force and in conflict with the local community.

Whenever a foreign force undertakes peacekeeping duties on deployment winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population is a major priority. This requires duties being carried out with minimal disruption to the everyday life of the nationals.

Additionally there are usually plenty of initiatives and projects which military personnel require to take part in to aid the local communities. This can include the building of fresh water wells, bridges or roads, teaching languages or maybe skill training and social events encouraging locals to attend. The military maybe the earliest exponents of voluntourism‘.

The most important point drummed into every serving soldier is that we are guests in that country, that we represent our service and country. We’re encouraged in fact to consider ourselves as ambassadors of our nation. Anybody that brings disgrace upon themselves and ultimately the military is dealt with immediately and severely.

Volunteering is a separate subject but remembering that it is not my country and that I am a visitor is something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Treating everybody with respect, remaining polite and friendly has always paid dividends and won me a few friends too along the way.

Army travel experiences; The beautiful River Nile in Egypt on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography, Army

A view aross the Nile

Essentials in luxuries out

Going on deployment with a large bergen and carrying a heavy rifle, ammunition and possibly a radio too tends to encourage a degree of minimalism.

Many of us often carry far too much with us, there is an old travel adage:

“Layout all the clothes and money you think will be needed, then half the clothes and double the money”

However even quite experienced travellers often have all sorts of unnecessary items and clothing in their packs. Admittedly in the current climate of weight restrictions this is improving but is still all too common.

Inevitably it comes down to compromise, nobody wants to spend half of their time away washing their clothing every other day. A workable solution is to just take underwear and one change of clothing, buying cheap items on arrival in the destination. When leaving simply throw them away or even more responsibly leave them in a charity collection area.

This is not really an option when on an extended trip, buying new clothing even cheap items when moving on only works if money is no object. Marrying wealthy is possibly a way round this but I have tried for years and so far without success. Buying lightweight clothing suitable for travelling with is the next best option and there are plenty of good manufacturers of these.

Leaving the gadgets that are not really required is another common sense decision. Not travelling with hair straighteners is easy for me, never having had a need them except for use as an improvised Panini maker maybe. Though not so easy for everybody I suspect. Deciding to leave some other items would be equally difficult for me, it requires some tough decision-making and inevitably more compromises.

“Any fool can be uncomfortable”

That phrase is one an Army favourite and it makes perfect sense. Carrying items that are not needed is a waste of effort, but not taking genuine essentials that will make travelling easier is not a good move, especially for an extended trip.

Essential items are very much a matter of personal choice and dependent on the destination or type of travel being participated in. My preferred essential items regardless of where I am travelling can be found in this list.

Army travel experiences; A beggar in the medina of Marrakech, Morocco on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography, Army

We should experience cultures not judge them

Sleep when you can

On deployments and exercises there are long periods where sleep is not easy to come by, duties and exercises can disrupt normal sleep patterns. Sleeping is encouraged at every opportunity, waiting for troop movements, bridge crossing or any period of inactivity.

Whilst it is not usually so difficult to get sleep when travelling there are occasionally times it is not always easy. We have all experienced snoring or thoughtless hostel mates, probably had a room with a great view but outside noise pollution a decibel higher than a U2 concert or just had an early start for an excursion.

Making the most of the opportunities that present themselves and getting the sleep needed to fully enjoy the trip is almost an art. Some are much more accomplished at it than others, I have known friends capable of falling  asleep within moments, in any situation. Including the back of uncomfortable ride in an extremely loud armoured vehicle.

Those with the ability to sleep almost anywhere are often the butt of many a joke, but actually they are envied. It is possible it’s an acquired skill however, the more often practiced the more likely that the traveller becomes conditioned and can ‘switch off’ to outside distractions and grab those precious forty winks.

Keep a cool head

This is possibly the most important lesson that has been learnt from my time in the forces. As we are not always welcome and on occasions subjected to verbal abuse and some aggressive attitudes. Reacting in kind is only likely to exacerbate the situation, keeping calm and remaining polite can often defuse a volatile situation.

“If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs, and blaming you. . . . The world will be yours and everything in it, what’s more, you’ll be a man, my son.” Rudyard Kipling

Having experienced my fair share of bloody minded bureaucracy, over officious civil servants and even a little corruption it has been difficult at times to stay calm. It is the best option however, it can improve the situation whilst a loss of temper probably worsen it and result in further difficulties.

If things are getting particularly problematic and frustration is becoming irritation take a moment to collect any thoughts. It often only needs a few moments, go to the bathroom and splash some water over your face, it should serve the purpose.

This will hopefully put things back into perspective and more often than not apart from a minor delay it will only add to the adventure.

Army travel expereinces; The view above Lindos, Rhodes in Greece on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography, Army

Travelling light, Lindos, Greece

Be prepared

Serving soldiers need to be ready to ‘crash out’ at anytime, this can mean departing on a deployment at very short notice indeed. This individual capability needs testing regularly, with unit ‘call-outs’ requiring serving personnel to report back to barracks and go on a local deployments returning to camp later that day or even going out on manoeuvres for several weeks. Therefore every single soldier keeps their kit packed and ready to go, so that there is not any need for packing.

This is a philosophy which has worked for me since, on returning from a trip, all my clothes get washed and any kit cleaned and then the repacked into the duffel ready to go. Apart from photography equipment and items required on a daily basis it is ready for the next adventure.

Always pack a sense of humour

Armed Forces personnel invariably have a wicked and sometimes dark humour, but it enables them to cope with stressful situations.

The ability to laugh about a delay or less than pleasant experience at least after the event will mean that it is rarely dwelt upon and eventually just becomes another story. The recounting can be a source of humour, although it usually becomes embellished with every subsequent retelling.

Making the most of a destination

Being posted to a less than fashionable place is part and parcel of being in the forces, however despite spending time at several so-called undesirable postings I can honestly say that all have been thoroughly enjoyed.

It is more about the attitude of the person that matters. Sitting around alone in a small, crowded barrack room or spending every spare moment in the unit bar is unlikely to endear anybody to a place.

Getting out and exploring the locality and further afield will almost certainly make it more enjoyable, time will pass quickly and ultimately it will be a more fulfilling experience. Adventures are waiting for those willing to make a little effort and enjoy wherever they find themselves.

Practical stuff

These are a few of my life lessons courtesy of Army travel. I also learnt a great many other practical skills; instruction or supervision qualifications in outdoor activities and survival skills especially but it is the lessons in life that ultimately have made me a more rounded character and aided me to fully enjoy my travels.

Sunlit mountain pool in Corsica, France on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography, Army

Think of a relaxing place when the situation gets heated


Comments 12

  1. kittenesque kitty

    Loved this post – so well written – entertaining – educational – hope you still can keep a hold on temper – brilliant piece 🙂

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  2. Sherry

    My father was an Army officer, so I grew up as an “Army-brat” and part of that meant we moved around; where ever my father got stationed, is where we lived. It is through the experience of being an military dependent that actually opened my eyes to the world and other cultures because I was forced, so-to-speak, to live in other places that I was not accustomed. I don’t think I would have the itch to see even more of the world without being exposed to it through this lifestyle. I like what you said about making the most of the destination. We have ended up in some of the worse places I can remember, but we survived by making the most of our experiences there. I think everyone can learn a lesson from that. Travel teaches us many things and I hope to learn more as I travel and see more of the world.

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      Thank you Sherry, the military life can certainly be tough on kids I am aware of that but it often also builds independence and an appreciation for travel. I am sure you have made the most of your chances to travel since.

  3. Si @thedepartureboard

    My mother and father were based at Akrotiri Air Base in Cyprus before I was born. They returned to England during the troubles to get married and have me. Their love for the island and return trips wetted my appetite for travelling and visiting new shores. I therefore thank the forces for indirectly introducing me to the greatest pastime one could have. Great post as always.


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      Can totally understand the Island of Aphrodite igniting the spark that led to you travelling Si it is lovely there, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Will

    I think my military experiences did a lot to shape my travel habit. It certainly made me much more prepared to deal with almost anything!

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  5. Charu

    Extremely well written. I’ve had a few people tell me the same thing about army life. You’re always on the go, packing light is key and so is the humor. A really good piece!

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      Thank you Charu, like many things it is taking out what we need from the experience and learning from it. The military has many lessons some of which are obvious some take a little thinking about. Safe travels.

  6. Judy

    Another great article Iain. This one is true to my heart. My family moved all over the place for years with the Military. I love to travel, this article will help a lot of people 🙂

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      Thank you Judy you are too kind. I am glad you enjoyed it and that it struck a chord. I certainly hope it does as that is my goal with the site.

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