Alastair Humphreys knows a thing or two about epic adventure. He’s bicycled around the world; embarked on polar expeditions; completed a self-supported, thousand-mile walk through the Empty Quarter Desert; rowed the Atlantic; crossed India coast-to-coast on foot, and backpacked and packrafted across Iceland, among other expeditions. Over time, he’s developed the storytelling chops to leverage his incredible enthusiasm for adventuring—not to mention great yarns—into a full-time career. It’s an enviable job, but you don’t have to tell him that.
In fact, these days he’s made it his crusade to bring adventure and wilderness within reach for the average person. So how do you prod working stiffs into overcoming the inertial forces of convention—routine, limited time, limited money, relationship demands, fear of the unknown—and embarking on an adventure? Humphreys came up with the idea of “microadventures,” which, he says, are deliberately small, almost provocatively mundane adventures that can squeeze into the “9-to-5” lifestyle—things like sleeping under the stars on a hill, entering a local race or, say, circumnavigating a local island on bike or on foot.
It’s a refreshingly simple, almost child-like way of looking at a historically heroic, masculine endeavor. And it works. Through the hashtag #microadventure and his new book Microadventures, he’s inspired thousands of his British countrymen to head outside and explore, as if for the first time, their own backyards. National Geographic named him an “Adventurer of the Year” for it. Now he’s hoping to spread the idea even farther afield, to the U.S. and beyond. We caught up with Humphreys to discuss big expeditions, tiny adventures and medium-rare steak.
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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. How to find the North Star in the sky.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Committing to beginning to try to cycle round the world. (Notice there are three verbs involved and none of them actually relate to the 46,000 miles I slogged round the world…)
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I’ve had a busy summer encouraging people to get out on microadventures of their own. Today I am working on a microadventure film for film festivals, and trying to work out what book to write next.
Anyone can drive/motorbike round the world. It takes a bit of oomph (mental more than physical) to do it by bicycle.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. Good books to read. Occasional bursts of wilderness.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: The urge to fill my life as full as I am able, to make the most of my potential and my opportunities. I’m influenced by people who do things well — people who really, really commit to their craft (whatever that may be), and do it really well.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Two very different (though with odd similarities) but fabulous books: The Peregrine by J. A. Baker and Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest (watch the four-minute YouTube video of her narrating).
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I didn’t really cycle round the world — I’m just a wizard on Photoshop.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. Black Sheep Ale, steak (medium-rare) and big chips (fries) in an English pub garden.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. It takes 10 years to get good at something. So start now. Stop watching TV. Read more. Write more. Climb more hills.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As someone who did a few cool adventures, wrote a very good book (still to be done), and inspired some other people to make the most of their life and opportunities.
Q. What path led you to become an adventurer, and what first drew you to adventure?
A. I loved travel. I loved physically testing myself (though I am no athlete). I enjoyed tales of travel and adventure. I didn’t feel excited about the usual post-university routes through life. So I thought, “What the hell?! Let’s give this a go…”
Q. What was your first microadventure, and when/how did you decide to make it your crusade?
A. Walking round the M25. The parallels between that and cycling round the world were so strong that I realized that you do not need to head to the ends of the earth to seek adventure. You only need to make the effort to do something, wherever you happen to live.
Q. How do you choose your next adventure?
A. I browse maps, Vimeo, Flickr and my bookshelves. I think of places I have never been before. I work out how much spare time and cash I have and where in the world the weather is suitable right now. And I think of an idea that has a good story.
Q. What is it about human-powered travel that captures your imagination?
A. It is hard. You earn the miles. It is slow. You experience the world. You appreciate the scale and diversity of the planet. You learn more about yourself. You are immersed in the situation. Anyone can drive/motorbike round the world. It takes a bit of oomph (mental more than physical) to do it by bicycle.
Q. You’ve biked around the world, walked across India, rowed the Atlantic, backpacked and packrafted across Iceland. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made on those adventures?
A. Rushing too much, yearning for the end rather than living in the moment, not getting out my camera at times when things are tough.
Q. How has your idea of adventure changed in 17 years?
A. At first I had a lot to prove — to myself, to others. I was brutal on myself. If it was fun I felt I was cheating. I’m more relaxed now — you’re allowed to enjoy adventures! I also care more about the story and less about the physical challenge these days. I’m still learning as a storyteller whereas I know I can walk/cycle/run/row as far as is necessary. I’ve ticked those boxes in my own mind.
Q. What does a successful day look like to you?
A. One in which I exercise, pause to read a book for a while, write 1,000 words, and then run up a hill for sunset or jump in a river for a swim.