A Traveler’s Apothecary: Aromatherapy on the Road

Essential oils are derived from medicinal plants and used in aromatherapy healing techniques.

While on an adventure, we are often confronted with the reality of our selves. We are in a space of compressed growth and healing, pushing our physical, mental, and emotional boundaries as we navigate boundaries and borderlands, within our own psyches as much as through the external world. Aromatherapy is one approach to facilitate the healing and recovery. Not only are the essential oils used in aromatherapy helpful in how they stimulate memories and trigger the amygdala, but they also offer practical applications for the weary and sometimes stinky traveler.

Essential oils are highly concentrated plants extracts. Each medicinal plant used in aromatherapy contains between 100-200 oil-soluble chemicals. The therapeutic properties are derived from their complex chemistry. During essential oil production, oils are extracted from specific healing plants through one of three processes: steam distillation, expression, or supercritical CO2 extraction. The method of extraction depends on the plant itself. Since essential oils are naturally occurring, many plants use the oils within themselves to help with infection, to heal wounds, or to repel pests.

Tufts of harvested lavender.

Aromatherapy facilitates healing as the oil-soluble chemical compounds are either absorbed into the skin, or inhaled through the nose. For this reason, it is highly important to use only the most pure essential oils that have not been adulterated with other foreign chemicals or compounds. If an essential oil bottle warns, “For External Use Only,” it is probably not very pure, and should not be applied directly to the skin. My personal brand of choice is Young Living. They provide a Seed-to-Seal guarantee of their products, based on their three conscious business pillars of Sourcing, Science, and Standards.

Although my personal essential oil collection that I use regularly includes far more than these three, this is my travel apothecary. This list includes both therapeutic and practical oils that fulfill multiple cross purposes, and don’t take up too much space in my pack.


Lavender grows best in large fields in dry climates. It’s scent is aromatic and sweet.

Lavender essential oil was my first love. I brought a bottle with me on every flight, every cross-country Greyhound bus ride, and every Amtrak trip. It went camping with me, and accompanied me while I stayed with friends and waited for my next apartment to be available. Once I discovered essential oils in my early twenties, I literally never went anywhere without a bottle of lavender.

Lavender aids in relaxation, and calms the mind to help it sleep. When I want to rest on a bus ride, I apply a small drop directly under my nose. Between the scent and my deep breathing, I can claim a bit of sleep in almost any environment.

It’s relaxation properties also apply to muscle pain and body cramps. After a long day exploring a new city, hauling a backpack across three border stations, or curled up trying to sleep in the backseat of a small car, rub a blend of lavender and coconut oil over sore muscles. The mind and body will love it.


Sap is seeped from the trees in the Boswellia genus and dried to create Frankincense resin.

Frankincense oil is warm, spicy, and clean. Although some people ingest this oil internally, I never have and don’t plan to go down that road. Frankincense oil is very expensive; I don’t need to start eating it.

The oil is very rare. It is sourced the sap of trees in the Boswellia genus that grow in Oman, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The sap is drawn through an incision in the bark, and then is collected later after it has seeped out of the tree and dried. Not only is collecting the sap and then processing it into oil a highly labor intensive and time-consuming process, but those regions are also stricken with ongoing warfare and political unrest. Chances are, if you bought a bottle of Frankincense oil that is affordable, it is probably adulterated.

I use my frankincense oil very sparsely, but it is part of my skincare routine when I travel. Frankincense is a primary ingredient in many face and hair masks. It has been known to improve skin tone and elasticity, and also defends against bacteria. Since it is a mild oil, I apply it directly to my skin. Once drop each morning spreads evenly across my face, and I enter a new world, bright, glowing, and smelling like an ancient sacred temple.


Thieves is a righteous blend of multiple protective herbs that enhance immune support and respiratory health.

Thieves is a blend of powerful immune support oils, branded through Young Living. It includes clove, lemon, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus, and rosemary. The scent is spicy and reminds me of the winter solstice. Young Living sells two versions, one of which is food grade. I travel with that one, and do ingest this oil as one drop in every bottle or glass of water I drink.

Robbers from the 15th century inspired the Thieves blend. According to legend, four French thieves devised and wore a strong, aromatic scent of rosemary, cloves, vinegar, and other botanicals to protect themselves from the Black Plague. When the group was finally captured, the French authorities made a deal with them that they would receive a lesser punishment if they revealed the formula that protected them from sickness. They accepted the transaction, and now here we are.

While travelling through Eastern Europe and the Balkans in 2018, I added Thieves to my water and stayed healthy, but then I ran out with three weeks remaining on my journey. I ended up catching a gnarly virus, and returned to the US with two ruptured ear drums. I believe that using Thieves definitely boosted my immune system. Next time I travel, I will carry at least two bottles with me. The oils are designed specifically to promote respiratory health, which is perfect for our age of pandemic.

Other oils to consider are tea tree, peppermint, patchouli, and fennel. A drop of tea tree in each shoe at the end of the day will help make friends at the hostel. Peppermint in the morning with water is refreshing. Patchouli is calming and peaceful. Fennel (and tea tree) gargled with salt water helps kill bacteria and aids in dental care.

Travel exposes us to dirty hand rails in public transportation, shared air in hostel dorm rooms, unfamiliar pollutants, and the mental exhaustion of unfamiliar environments and languages. These are stressors that might cause imbalance. Aromatherapy using essential oils are tools to restore our peace and balance. Let’s keep in beautiful on our Earth journey!

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