We talk to former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, Alastair Humphreys, about accessible adventures, epic walks and the importance of right to roam.
Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, blogger and writer. A former National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, he is the author of 10 books, including the ground-breaking Microadventures
Interview by Susan Gray
What is the allure of walking on epic journeys?
Walking increasingly appeals to me, as I look for adventures that don’t require much planning or money. I try to apply the minimalist principle of Occam’s Razor to my projects, where you keep stripping, chopping and paring away as much as possible. With my journeys across Qatar’s Empty Quarter and along the River Kaveri in southern India, I was looking for adventure first of all, and walking was the easiest way to do it.
Your first adventure took shoestring travel to a new level. You cycled 46,000 miles around the world for more than four years on a budget of £7,000. How did you make ends meet?
If you have your own transport, and you’re willing to sleep in a tent at the side of the road, eat the cheapest food possible and drink only water, life becomes cheap. I’m ascetic by nature, so the simplicity of these trips appealed. I wasn’t out to have fun: I believe you really have to earn your ice cream when travelling, not eat it all the time.
How did you stay healthy?
I was eating a lot of bread, fruit and veg and cycling up to 100 miles a day. So compared with how most people live in the West, it was quite a healthy existence. I could have done with a few more vitamins though!
And you’re an advocate of crying when the going gets tough...
A lot of the adventure world is populated by macho and stiff upper lip types, whereas I try to be honest. Crying is usually triggered by hunger and exhaustion: I’ve been in situations where I became convinced I was going to fail, and plodding on through even more misery seemed stupid. Then two hours later, after having had something to eat, I was whooping and cheering. I realized that being in the wilderness and experiencing hunger and solitude leads to great highs and great lows.
You worked as a teacher and have raised money for children’s charities through your adventures. How do you inspire kids?
I loved life in the classroom but it’s so much harder than being an adventurer. Compared to holding an audience of kids, speaking at a corporate event is easy. Kids are the most challenging taskmasters, but as long as you don’t talk down to them, they have such positivity. With young audiences I always leave more time for Q&A, because they’re full of curiosity. And of course with young kids, toilet talks – telling them about toilets around the world, or different toilet techniques – are a sure fire winner.
What are your tips for getting kids interested in the outdoors?
My advice to parents on getting kids outdoors is to work out the complications and restrictions of day-to-day life, and then look at what is still possible around those things. Sleeping on a hill or swimming in a river will give kids confidence. They’ll realise they are at least as competent at pitching a tent or river swimming as their parents. And then they can start planning their own adventures, maybe as part of the Scouts or through Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards.
Tell us more about the link between adventure and self-confidence...
When you do something difficult, it becomes a personal benchmark. If part of a journey is harder than you expected and you have to grind through long difficult days, afterwards you can say to yourself, ‘I did that, what else can I do?’ Adventurers are seen are supermen and superwomen, but I am a normal person: adventures have just given me the confidence to do something better next time. In talks I always emphasise that I’m just like everybody else. Ultimately, being adventurous is a choice. We’ll never simultaneously have the time, money and level of fitness that would be ideal, so stop procrastinating. Start right now and make the best of it.
Was there a lightbulb moment when you came up with microadventures?
It was a gradual process. People enjoyed the idea of adventures, but vicariously. It was as if normal people couldn’t have adventures. So my answer was to say: ‘Look at the constraints in your life and see what adventures are left to you’, not ‘You should all quit your jobs and disappear to China’. I hesitate to preach, but whenever you find yourself questioning whether you have the money, time, or experience to do something, stop and ask whether you really have a valid reason or excuse. Usually the reality is somewhere between the two. Most of us can manage a weekend hiking in Pembrokeshire!
Is microadventure about democratising adventures and making them more accessible?
Yes, although at first, with microadventures I felt I was preaching to the converted, to people who already followed me online. So I wanted to find a way of reaching people who liked adventure, but didn’t think they could have one of their own. The next group I’d like to reach would be people who never walk up a hill, jump in a river or go camping – like inner city youngsters. That’s definitely one for the To Do List.
Would better access to the landscape lead to better adventures for all?
Scotland is a great place for roaming. And if you can spend the night on the hills then the experience is all the greater. I’m continually evangelizing about the right to roam and wild camping, and slightly pushing the boundaries of where you’re allowed to go and what you are allowed to do. But ‘leave no trace’ is the golden rule. I’m so annoyed with the trashers on Loch Lomond who are giving the rest of us a bad name.
What big projects are coming up next?
By the end of the summer I will have said everything on sleeping up a hill that I have to say! So I really want to turn off my computer and try to evolve the microadventure concept.
As the author of seven books, what are your tips for would-be travel writers?
Sit down and write. Splurge as fast as you can; just get something down. Set yourself a challenge to write 1,000 words a day. If you do that, in three months you will have a first draft. And don’t get distracted – I’m addicted to the internet, so I use a blocking app called Self Control when I’m writing. When your draft is finished, show it to honest friends. If they say it’s brilliant, put the time into chasing a big publisher. But if friends say your work is niche, then look into self-publishing.
Any tips for using social media adventurously?
Blow your own trumpet, produce interesting content and help people in your niche. Although it’s not the be all and end all – I don’t want my epitaph to be, ‘He was great on social media’.
What’s your favourite…
…country walk? One of my microadventures was to walk a lap of the M25, and the stretch from junctions 4 to 8 was actually a great walk.
…town walk? I love the walk up to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.
…view? It has to be the view of Suilven from Suileag bothy in Sutherland.
…bit of kit? My Therm-a-Rest ¾ sleeping mat.
…walking snack: A banana sandwich.
…post-walk tipple? Clear, ice-cold water drunk straight from a stream.
…walking companion? I love to walk alone.
…travel book? Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.
Image © Alastair Humphreys