The Art of Rough Travel

From the Peculiar to the Practical

Advice from a 19th-Century Explorer

By Sir Francis Galton

Edited by Kitty Harmon

One of my biggest takeaways from The Art of Rough Travel, From the Peculiar to the Practical, Advice from a 19th Century Explorer, is that I’m lucky to be alive and adventuring in the age of Gortex, nylon, propane, and poly pro. That said, the newly abridged, newly titled The Art of Rough Travel (formerly, The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances in Wild Countries, originally published by Sir Francis Galton in 1855) is an in-depth look at the travel modes and mores of old. This edition promises to cut more or less straight to the premise of the original book and give its readers a survival guide, err, make that a thrive guide, for traveling in new and unfamiliar countries. From camping to custom this guide provides both practical and at times spiritual advice to the would-be traveler of the 1800’s.

One look at the Contents page of this book reveals the comprehensive nature of this guide: Outfit, Clothing, Beasts of Burden, Climbing and Mountaineering, Swimming, Rafts and Boats, Fire, Bedding, Bivouac, Tents, Bush Remedies, Measurements, Wayfinding, Signals, Fords and Bridges, Water for Drinking, Food, Game, Fishing, Caches, Miscellany.

The modern age, particularly the advent of plastics, renders whole sections of this book irrelevant, but the voice—witty, engaging, wry—makes the sections on things like clothing fun to read in a I’m-so-glad-I-live-now kind of way. Of washing clothes, Galton explores the origins of soap substitutes (lye of ashes and gall of animals) and teases us with lines like, “the sailor’s recipe for washing clothes is well known, but it is too dirty to describe.” Really? There I could have used a sidebar on what that’s all about. But still it’s with equal parts delight and horror that I read Galton’s instructions that “the hotter the ground on which you have to walk the thicker your socks should be. These should be of woolen…(p.23).” I love my Smart Wools as much as the next gal, but the vision of traversing, oh say, the Sahara, in July bound up in wool-padded feet would make me rethink travel abroad. Also, cleanliness, we suspect, was held to different standards in 1855.

Surprising, to this reader anyway, was that women, native women anyway, were thought to be, if not an advantage; at least they were not conceived of as a hindrance to any outing party. In fact, Sir Francis Galton contests that in addition to physically being more ready for the journey than any horse (!), that women are “invaluable in picking up and retailing information and hearsay gossip which will give clues to much of importance, that, unassisted, you might miss (p.15).”

I don’t do any horse travel, but I’d be interested to know if the advice on Beasts of Burden still holds up today. The theory of loads and distance reaches the conclusion that “an animal gets through most work in the day if he carries four-ninths of the greatest load he could just stagger under; in which case he will be able to travel a third of the distance he could walk if he carried no load at all. (p.29)” As to which animal to travel with? Well, that depends on your circumstances as each animal has his merits and demerits. The Ass, “Not withstanding his inveterate obstinacy, the ass is an excellent and sober little beast, far too much despised by us. He is not only the most enduring, but also one of the quickest walkers amount cattle (p.32).”

The Art of Rough Travel, From the Peculiar to the Practical, Advice from a 19th Century Explorer, is not where I’d turn when preparing for an actual expedition, but it is a book I’d keep on hand for its amusing and interesting facts about travel in rougher times. Rough Travel is a lively read and good fun for anyone who ever fancied him or herself an old-time adventurer.


Title: The Art of Rough Travel, From the Peculiar to the Practical, Advice from a 19th Century Explorer

Author: Sir Francis Galton, edited by Kitty Harmon

Publisher: Mountaineers Books

Pages: 176

Published: 2006 (first edition)

The Art of Rough Travel Cover

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