Traveling from state to state, we find ourselves immersed in the local culture and community. Whether we are overlooking the rugged peaks of the Tetons or walking through quaint communities with covered bridges in New Hampshire. One of the greatest blessings has been getting rid of the must-see bucket list instead leaning into the transformative untourist mindset towards travel. Because of untourism we have discovered a sense of freedom and self-discovery that we have grown to love from previous untourism attempts.
It’s not the first time I sat in awe, wondering “why isn’t anyone on this trail? I feel like I should tell them that they are missing the best part.” I watched countless casual hikers make their way up the muddy overused main trail to the natural bridge in Eastern Kentucky. They came, they saw, they snapped a picture and started heading back down. I had just traversed various rock formations, walked through an unexpected slot canyon and walked across the top of a natural bridge. It’s similar to experiences I’ve had overlooking Boiling Lake at Lassen Volcano National Park, or wandering down the path at McArthur Burney Falls which I would recommend as a must-see waterfall over Niagara Falls 100% of the time.
I also felt this frolicking on a farm field on the big island, and soaking in a hot springs in Utah. Until I changed my approach to travel planning I didn’t know any of these travel options were available to me.
I use the term untourism to define this type of travel. Travel that encourages you to be curious and present in the experience to notice what you are doing and who you are with is much more important than where you are. It’s often the simple experience off the beaten path (usually free) that triggers the most memorable family experiences. Yet, somehow those don’t seem to show up in my feed.
Untourism has unlocked an intentional and meaningful approach to travel that resonates with our entire family. I recently asked my husband and kids what was the most amazing experience from our travels that surprised you. Each one offers a unique untourism and often simple and accessible experience that can be accomplished without private guides or huge investments.
Husband: Standing at the top of Sun Bowl at Snow King looking out at the Tetons
Oldest son: “Sand Creek, WY the free boondocking location that had waterfalls that we could swim and jump off. I liked diving down with my snorkel mask to look at fish. Putting life jackets on and riding the current down the stream.” (PS these were all free mini-adventures we’ve experienced and revisited on our last 3 trips to the Black Hills.
Daughter: “In the boondocking parking lot where every car got stuck (Helper, UT). There were 3 rocks: we would find these things in the snow and pretend to use materials to make things. Like we found a piece of wood and that became a tent and carpet, dried leaves became fire.”
Youngest Son: “The really good powder skiing day (Powder Mountain, UT or Antelope Butte,WY) I skied a black diamond and it was really fun and not as hard as I expected.” Neither of these ski locations are resorts that most people have on their radar, and they might not fit your style, but for us finding these gems has made our travels so much more memorable and meaningful.
The term “bucket list” entered our vocabulary after a movie in 2007 featuring two men facing cancer diagnoses set off to travel the world and complete a list of things to do before they die. The travel industry quickly turned the concept into a way to sell amped up vacations and make simple adventures and humble travel pursuits feel less than.
Search the hashtag #bucketlist you’ll find 12,313,600 posts of people telling you where to go. Another 528,000 using the #bucketlistadventure and still 458,675 giving you the same #bucketlisttravel destinations. Paris, Bora Bora, Venice, Alaska, Bali (PS Did you know Bali is actually part of Indonesia and it’s not a separate country? One local tour company wondered “How do we convince people Bali existed before Eat, Pray Love did.” In the world of travel and tourism we are gathering most of our inspiration from pictures we see online, perhaps without regard to why we are seeing those images. It’s why we see the hoards of people along the shores of Lake Louise and the edges of the Grand Canyon. We have been conditioned to seek the same photo that the internet has shown us over and over as a right of passage. I’ve been there, and it’s easy to get sucked up in the momentum of getting the perfect shot. I have also taken my eyes out of the camera lens to see that my kids aren’t amused. What they often remember is the traffic and insane number of people to get there.
Tourism is big business. We’ve been told, by travel brands, influencers and writers that to be a real traveler we need to check off the “must-see” destinations and “must-do” activities. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) convinces people to add the destinations to their list, causing many bucket travel lists to include the same destinations making it crowded and more expensive. The ability to connect with locals or have unique experiences greatly diminishes when you are 1 in a million that will come through their city in a season.
More and more the hype of getting there doesn’t align with the euphoria of checking the proverbial box we often equate with accomplishment. These were some of the struggles I navigate when creating travel and adventure content. It’s precisely why I resist the notion of being a travel influencer. I want to disperse people and help them think more deeply about why we travel. To revisit the curious nature of spontaneous adventure we are more likely to do it when our itineraries aren’t jam packed.
I often wonder why people waste a day on the touristy shores of Redfish Lake in Stanley Utah, when some of the most pristine lakes were just down the road. Yet the struggle with sharing our off the beaten path is will that become the next bucket list destination and ruin it for everyone (locals included)
I don’t understand why people flock to Jackson Hole Resort when I think the skiing and views are much better at lesser known locations less than an hour away with NO Crowds. If you like the experience of grandiose prices and seeing the latest in high-end ski fashion it might be a great location for you. If you are going for a skiing experience in the mountains, there are better options. Many default to the familiar, the herd mentality. Going off the beaten path might imply you are going alone, I am here to tell you that is not, but you’ll have to look deeper to find us. We won’t pop up as a sponsored post, nor can we rival many brands who invest in significant marketing mediums to make sure you find them first.
How do we break the bucket list mold and adopt untourist travel tendencies.
- Cancel the Check Box mentality
Researchers from Harvard actually began to study the mentality around “once in a lifetime experiences” people often chalk up on a bucket list, suggesting they will only have one opportunity to see a destination so you have to do it right the first time. What they are finding is that the lasting value of travel experiences is more often from the unexpected and serendipitous moments. The opportunity for unplanned and spontaneous adventures doesn’t happen as often when your schedule is packed with must-do experiences.
It is okay to visit a location more than once. Part of the reason I have resisted the Bucket Lists is the notion that I know all of the options. There are so many amazing places on this planet that I don’t even know about. How could I ever be “done” with a location when I am still learning about new and emerging things all the time. Travel is meant to be a personal experience that can inspire personal transformation, not bragging rights on which destinations you have been to. If we have the time of our lives at a destination asking “what do we want to experience next time we are here?” is completely valid and supported in untourism. Or even asking that question in the planning process to avoid feeling like you are forced to make all or nothing choices about your travels.
- What would make travel fun?
We have been conditioned to “do more with less” for years wanting to optimize our time and money. However leisure time was never meant to be optimized. We have deprioritized fun to mean less important than productivity which might look like checkbox experiences. If you struggle with having open space in your itinerary or can’t shake the must-see list, then focus on things that are FUN for you and your travel companions.
Instead of starting from “where do we want to go?” start with questions that allow you to be curious to explore a new skill or budding hobby of yours. If you’ve been dying to taste the best food in Italy, maybe sign up for a cooking class instead of trying to find the same restaurant in Venice that is on everyone else’s bucket list. My daughter’s love for reading has led us to be intentional about visiting independent bookstores. My son’s desire to hit mountain bike trails led us to a specific campground in West Virginia. On the flip side what would be torture for you or others? One untourism consulting client told me “the worst things for me on vacation is sitting in a hotel room, trying to figure out what to do for the day,” for others it might be “sitting in a car for 8 hours.” How can you design for fun and avoid or overshadow the pain points of travel.
- Assess your why and what inspired you
It’s perfectly fine to have goals and travel aspirations, it gives us something to look forward to. If you have a current bucket list or find yourself wanting to add a destination to your bucket list in the future, ask yourself “Why do I want to go here? What inspired me to put this on the list?” Sometimes when we see a photo or hear of a destination we attach a story or narrative to what we see and believe that is the reality of that destination. I am also guilty of this type of thinking without recognizing images are often edited, or the photographer had to get up at 5 AM to get to the location in order to capture that experience. (PS – that might not be an ideal travel schedule with kids). Destinations such as Machu Picchu or Niagara Falls aren’t bad destinations, however the reason behind them was based on false expectations. Sometimes the relentlessness of “must-see” lists overshadow what makes us happy and makes travel fun in the first place.
- Explore Alternatives
Yellowstone is often on many people’s bucket lists. It’s a commonly known and highly visited National Park, now with its own TV series. If Yellowstone is on your list, ask yourself what intrigues you about Yellowstone? Is it the Geyser Basin – if so, where else might you experience geysers and fumaroles like you can see at Yellowstone? I might suggest Lassen Volcanic National Park, in northern California or Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis, Wyoming. There won’t be any crowd and you can even have the added benefit of a free soak in a thermal pool, bison viewing, and a petroglyph hike in Thermopolis. Did you know there are other destinations around the world that are home to travertine terraces similar to Mammoth Springs in Yellowstone? You also might explore alternative times to visit if you really feel compelled to visit. Winter and Spring offer different perspectives than high-tourism in summer.
- Ask for Help
Many of us end up making predictable choices because it can be overwhelming to seek out alternate ideas and information on where to stay and what to do. Seek out an untourism specialist or travel advisor (such as me) we can help travelers determine what you want from a trip and create conditions for those emotions we hope you later associate with the best travel memories.
If you are interested in an Untourism Specialist Consulting session, the link to book a session with me is below.