Couple hiking and enjoying scenic majestic mountain view at sunset
Malte Mueller/Getty

What Does the Phrase “Slow Travel” Actually Mean? 

To travel slowly is about more than just speed. 

This is part of a collection of stories on slow travel—read more here.

For about a decade, Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, has been walking. By that, I don’t mean he’s consistently hit his 10,000 steps on daily constitutionals. In 2013, Salopek set out on the Out of Eden Walk, a project to follow the 80,000-year-old footsteps of our forebears, following the 24,000-mile route of human migration from Ethiopia to the southern tip of South America—all on foot just as they had done. Salopek’s still-unfolding, extraordinary journey might be considered the ultimate experiment in so-called “slow travel,” a term that is being used more and more frequently to describe everything from backcountry bikepacking expeditions to mega-ship cruises. But when I reach Salopek on Zoom to ask him about it, he is in the Chinese province of Shaanxi and is audibly confused about what the term even means. “There’s been no other way but ‘slow travel’ for 99 percent of our history,” he says. “I guess in today’s world to premise anything on going slowly is revolutionary.”

It’s hard to pinpoint its exact beginnings but the slow travel revolution—an intentional move towards more mindful, more environmentally responsible, less purely convenient modes of getting around—organically emerged from another revolution. In 1986, a journalist named Carlo Petrini, in the most Italian protest ever conducted, handed out bowls of penne pasta to passersby and demonstrators who yelled, “We don’t want fast food. We want slow food!” The target? A McDonald’s, the first in Italy, set to open at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The McDonald’s did indeed open, and is still there, but by actively resisting the very concept of fast food, Petrini started what became known as the slow food movement, a culinary practice that emphasizes natural ingredients, traditional cooking methods, and long, languorous meals where food is relished rather than treated as fuel.

If slow food is defined, at least partially, by what it’s not, then the same can be said for slow travel. Slow travel can be best understood as a collective reaction to our post-industrial obsession with convenience, where time, and using as little of it as possible, is the biggest priority in getting from point A to point B. Some have tried to give slow travel a more concrete definition. In 2010, for example, a decade before the coronavirus pandemic saw skyrocketing interest in trekking, cycling, and domestic trips, two tourism researchers out of the UK, Janet Dickinson and Les Lumsdown, wrote that slow travel was “an emerging conceptual framework which offers an alternative to air and car travel, where people travel to destinations more slowly overland, stay longer and travel less.” Seems simple enough. Take a train, a bike, kayak, or your own two feet instead of a plane and car and just like that, you’ve taken your vow of mindfulness; welcome to the church of slow travel? 

Of course, like any trend that starts with a kind of radical thoughtfulness, the definition of slow travel gets slippery with the more questions you ask. What if, on that train ride, you do nothing but scroll on TikTok? What if the place and the people you really want to get to know and learn from are just too difficult to reach without getting on a plane, because of other obligations, money, or a disability? Does that disqualify you? Run a Google search of slow travel and you won’t need to scroll long before you’re accosted with shiny images of beautiful people on pristine beaches and “must-have” checklists for worthwhile “slow travel” experiences.  What if you can’t afford the five-digit price tags associated with the two-week yacht trips, luxury train rides, and wilderness resorts that market themselves as the ultimate in slow travel indulgences? 

What emerges then is a far more complex definition of what it means to travel slowly. Traveling slowly can mean exploring your own backyard, avoiding environmentally damaging transportation when possible, spending a lot of time in one place instead of a little time in many—but it also is an internal process. It means tamping down our own built-in, conditioned obsessions with time and allowing the world to move just a little slower so that we can actually notice it. Slow travel is a mindset: you don’t need three weeks of vacation to slow down. A day spent strolling through an unfamiliar neighborhood without a crammed to-do list or exploring a state park with nothing but a route map and a bag of snacks could fall under the umbrella of slow travel. It comes down to how you engage with the world as you move through it.  

“If slow travel is about stopping and taking the time to properly connect with a place and its people, then yes, it’s something I’m all for,” says Chyanne Trenholm, a member of the Homalco First Nation, and the assistant general manager of Vancouver Island-based Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours. The Indigenous-owned company organizes visits to local communities, and Bute Inlet wildlife excursions. Trenholm says the idea of taking it slow and being present has been ingrained in her culture as a steward of the land. “Slow tourism is not the term we’ve used much, because it’s not just how we think of our brand—it’s who we are,” she says. She feels a certain sense of responsibility in instilling that kind of thinking in visitors who might arrive looking to get that one shot of a grizzly bear with a fish in its mouth and then leave. “It’s about taking the time to make a connection—to the land and each other,” she says. “I think humans in general can learn a lot from the act of making those connections.” 

Monisha Rajesh, the author of three books on long-distance train travel, thinks that moving slower gives our brains the time it needs to process our experiences. “On a plane, you lift out of one place and drop into the next without any awareness of the in-betweenness,” she says. “On a train, the journey starts the second you get on board. I don’t know who is going to enter my story and the surroundings are part of the adventure.” Instead of the time it takes to get from origin to destination being a kind of blank nothingness—a necessary, if somewhat annoying, component of travel—suddenly, it teems with possibility. 

When people hear about long, slow journeys—a cross-country bike trip, a paddle down the Mississippi, a 10-year-and-counting walk in the footsteps of early Homo sapiens—the reaction is usually a mix of “you-did-what?” shock and “I-could-never” envy. It’s a strange reaction considering our history as a species. Salopek tells me that he’s noticed something almost primeval about entering a community that is not your own by foot. “They see you coming from a distance. By the time you walk up to them and say hello there’s this ritual of greeting that you’re both prepared for,” he says. “We’ve been walking into each other’s viewsheds for 300,000 years and that’s why it feels so good.”