Big and small adventure: Alastair Humphreys

So you’ve cycled around the world, competed in marathons across the Sahara Desert, rowed across the Atlantic, walked across India and Iceland, and been part of Arctic expeditions. I think that qualifies one as being a real adventurer. Alastair Humphreys has done all of these things, plus much more. He was named as one of National Geographic’s ‘Adventurers of the Year’ in 2012 and is known for his terrific idea of MicroAdventures.

What would you say is your definition of an ‘adventure’?

I think that it has changed for me quite significantly over the last few years. I would say now, that my definition of ‘adventure’ involves nothing at all to do with wilderness or any particular expedition. It’s more about trying to live adventurously, which is more of an attitude of doing stuff that is new, different and challenging for you in whatever field that excites or scares you.

Do you think that there is a connection between one’s imagination and the ability to have adventures?

Yes! It’s important that you can imagine yourself doing something different to what you are doing now. I think a lot of people who are a bit bored with their lives struggle with that aspect of it. I believe that trying to come up with a good adventure idea requires imagination. It surprises me how frequently people get in touch with me and say something like, I’ve got x thousand pounds, and I’ve got six months free, but I don’t know what to go and do; whereas I usually have the opposite problem. Imagining adventures I’d say is probably one of my favourite hobbies!

What do you suggest to people who want to break down their own boundaries and start adventuring more?

I think quite a lot of people would like more adventure and wilderness in their lives. I think the thing then is for people to look at their lives and work out what is stopping them from doing that. The most likely probabilities are; lack of time, lack of money, lack of expertise, and that you live in the city. And then the other one is the mental attitude, the state of inertia that makes it difficult for us to bother, or change, or do something new.

Those first few things, time and money, you can’t change, so there’s no point worrying about that. Just try to see what adventures you can fit around the realities of your life. Start by doing something so incredibly small that the other aspects, the laziness, the excuses, the inertia, which all of us have, are easily overcome. Then there’s no reason not to get out the front door and start. Once you’ve bothered to pack a rucksack, put your coat on, and walk out the front door, I think that’s 90 per cent of the difficulty overcome. So the challenge is just to find an experience, so small, so simple, and so local, that you have no excuse not to do it.

The general example that I have is the idea of going to sleep on your local hill for one night. So after work one day, pack up your bag, head out of the office, and instead of going home to watch telly you head out and sleep on a hill for the night, under the stars. Then wake up in the morning, run down the hill and back to your desk for nine o’clock the next morning. In many ways that encapsulates a vast amount of adventure but it’s something that is achievable for most people, even in our busy lives.

How important do you think nature and the outdoors are for creating the right environment for an adventure?

I think it’s really important because you are so immersed in it. I don’t think it matters which wilderness you choose. Well, certainly not for me. I’d be equally excited to be dropped in a desert, jungle, mountain, ice cap, or in the middle of the ocean.

I think it’s about people seeking out wilderness close to wherever they happen to live. In the same way that office workers are drawn to go and eat their sandwiches in a park at lunchtime; that’s seeking out a little bit of wilderness! I think that once you start to realise that wherever you live, even in a pretty urban place, there is wilderness closer than you think you are your potential for having adventures.

How do you go about training for bigger trips, both in a mental and physical capacity?

The mental side is so massive for adventures. I’ve always hugely underestimated it, and I don’t do any training for it at all. I suppose the only training I have is the experience. The physical stuff depends on what I’m doing. So for cycling around the world when I was going to be on a bike for four years, I had plenty of time to get fit on the road, so I did no training for that. I think if you’re going to do 46,000 miles on a bike then why bother doing any more? But for something where I need to be fit and healthy from day one, I do a lot of running, cycling and strength work in the gym, deadlifts and squats, and things like that.

When you go on adventures you have to live pretty simply. Has this affected how you live at home?

Certainly the bike trip was a defining experience. Four years of living out of little bike packs meant that I didn’t buy any souvenirs. I liked that I had nothing but memories from that trip. So I try to live quite simply. Also choosing to become an adventurer rather than a lawyer or a banker means I’m not rich and therefore, there are two options in life. You can earn lots of money or you can spend not much money. I’ve found that by living quite cheaply I can live pretty comfortably just being a bum adventurer. So yeah I think it’s taught me to live quite simply. Having said that, I do always want more bicycles and cameras!

You’ve written books, released a film and are always posting lots of content online. What would you say is your preferred option for chronicling your journeys?

I guess if I could choose something that would become a world masterpiece, even though it’s unlikely, I would decide to write. I’d like to write a brilliant book more than I would like to do anything else. Having said that, photography isn’t hard to enjoy because I do a lot of speaking work, and I do a lot of blogging, and photography is nice to have for that. And then film I’ve started to love, because that’s the newest thing to me and it’s the thing that I’m the worst at. You know when you start something new, you learn so quickly, and you can see your progress galloping along. So at the moment filmmaking is what excites me the most.

Why do you think you like to challenge yourself and how do you keep finding new things to do?

My life of big adventures was fuelled to a great extent by me trying to push my limits and to see what I was capable of. I think that came about because at school I was a pretty ordinary kid who never did anything too difficult, and so I had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to go and show the world that I could do something big, challenging and tough. When I set off, I was driven by trying to prove myself to the world. But after a few years and having got a bit older, and having made a few more trips, it was less the need to prove myself to others. But I was still very driven to prove my worth to myself. The trouble with that is that every time you achieve something, every time you finish a trip, something you doubted that you would do, you go “Wow I’ve done that, what else can I do?” It becomes a bit addictive, a bit of a Pandora’s Box!

So doing more and more challenging things is in some ways quite pointless. I think in many ways a braver thing would be to go and do something entirely different with my life, try and challenge myself in new ways. It’s almost ironic that when I start doing big arduous expeditions, it in some ways becomes the easy option in life. If the aim for myself is to do stuff that is hard, stuff that frightens me and puts me out of my comfort zone, then what I should do is go and train to become a ballet teacher. That would be far harder and scarier for me than cycling to China!

(This interview previously appeared in Say Yes To Adventure in 2015)

Alastair Humphreys official website

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