A Legendary Explorer Wants To Help You Embrace ‘Microadventures’

For the next month, Uproxx GPS is zeroing in on “microadventures” — day trips, quick jaunts, and small-scale explorations that will notch neatly into your busy life. We’re kicking off by profiling Alastair Humphreys — the man who coined the term, which led to him being named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year in 2012.

A “microadventure” just might be your new favorite way to explore the world around you. Alastair Humphreys coined the phrase and included it in his 2014 book Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes. With that book, he started a new era in how we look at travel and the accessibility of the world around us.

An adventure is often perceived as this grand continent-crossing. A dangerous expedition. Parts unknown. A microadventure is spending one night under the stars. It’s taking the cot and sleeping bag to the backyard and falling asleep with the blanket of stars. It’s jumping on your bike and hitting a trail, finding a place to start a campfire, and letting the fall wind embrace you. Microadventures are short trips that we can all take part in, tonight if we want to. All you need is a little bit of gear, a plan, and an adventurous spirit.

We caught up with Alastair Humphreys recently to talk about embracing the microadventure life. He gave us tips for finding microadventures out of our front doors, across America, and in between leaving work and clocking in the next morning. Humphreys didn’t invent camping out for a night. People have been doing that for a long time. He just wants to make it an actionable part of our over-saturated, nature-deprived lives. After all, each of us can always use a little more exposure to the natural world.

You’re very much known as the king of the microadventure these days, but you started off as a grand adventurer — biking around the world when you were 24.

I started out doing big adventures and with a totally unrealistic daydream of “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make my living out of adventure.” Which, of course, is a ridiculous thing to imagine. I thought the way to try to do that was by doing big, crazy, massive, epic stuff. And it always amuses me that the thing that’s finally made my life viable was when I went small with my adventures.

But, yeah, you’re right. I started straight after university, age 24. I jumped on my bicycle and I cycled around the world. It was a four-year journey through 60 countries, five continents, 46,000 miles. I was young. I didn’t have much cash. I spent 7,000 pounds [$9,500] in four years, which was — at pre-Brexit exchange rates — still quite cheap.

That’s an incredibly low price for a trip that long. When I was reading your book on that adventure, it sort of seemed like you took what you were doing on that trip and you compartmentalized into a single night or what you ended up coining as ‘microadventures.’

There’s often a mistake people make is thinking an adventure only becomes an adventure if it’s paired with a certain amount of time or a certain amount of difficulty or a certain amount of misery. I certainly was guilty of this. I would urge anyone who could make the time in their life to go on a big adventure. You won’t regret it. However, I have come to realize that doing a small bit of adventure is better than doing nothing.

People often come up to me and they say, “what I did was nothing at all like you, but…” Then they tell me about a bike trip they did that was maybe two days long or two weeks long. And I say to them, “You know exactly what it feels like to cycle around the world.” If you’ve ridden out of your front door out into the woods, set up your tent for the night, got on your bike and cycled even home the next morning, you know how it feels to cycle around the world. You just have to repeat that process 1,500 times.

That’s what I love about the microadventure ethos — the idea of embracing the five to nine hours of the day as a way to recover from your nine to five. It doesn’t even have to be a whole weekend. It doesn’t have to be this big planned out thing. It’s just about looking at the time you have free and utilizing it in a positive way.

I’m very conscious all the time that I need a massive disclaimer to everything I say in order to acknowledge that my life is pretty easy. I’m a healthy, educated man in a wealthy country. I can get a job. I acknowledge that as a disclaimer to what I say next which is: I get really tired of the endless excuses I hear from people saying, “Oh, I’d love to go have an adventure but… .” Then come the excuses why those people can’t have adventures.

What I wanted to tackle with my microadventures was those excuses and to say to people, “Look, I know you don’t have much time. I know you don’t have much money. I know you don’t have much equipment. I know you’re not an expert, but what can you do? You must be able to do something. And it’s better to do something than to do nothing.” That’s the approach that I try to take for microadventures, looking at the things that were stopping people and then saying, “Well, you could still go and do this.”

I imagine you hear a lot of ‘I’m not an outdoorsy type’ and things like that.

The thing is, I wasn’t either. Another thing that motivated me to start microadventures was when I realized that people were starting to perceive me as an adventurer with a capital “A,” and therefore someone who is somehow entitled or qualified to go off on an adventure. When I began, I’d never done an adventure in my life. I’m not some sort of tough guy. I’m not very strong. I’m not very good at athletics or anything. I just chose to go and do something. We become what we do in life. So if you just do things, you learn from your mistakes and gradually you earn a competency.

Absolutely. Everyone’s learning along their own path. You’re going to learn everything out there you need to learn.

I mean, I would exercise caution before I told someone to learn how to do base jumping by jumping off a cliff. But I would certainly say to someone, “if you want to learn how to cycle around the world, get your credit card and passport and walk out your front door right this minute. Get on your bike and go!” And then add, “you are as qualified as you need to be to cycle around the world.”

That applies perfectly to trying your first microadventure. I love the idea of getting off work, jumping on a train or in a car and just sleeping under the stars for a night. Resetting your circadian rhythm from the sun going down and coming up has got to be hugely satisfying — even if it’s just for one night.

It’s been really interesting actually. When I started micro-adventures I was thinking what I ought to do was try and show people that you can still do epic within the constraints of normal life and geography. You don’t have to go to Patagonia.

The thing that has resonated most was stripping away and getting smaller and smaller. It’s that idea of the five to nine. Leaving work, going to have an adventure, going back to work. I had to show that it’s totally compatible with normal life along with this wonderful dose of being in nature.

Getting a bad night’s sleep is a good thing because you then appreciate your normal life and you learn to be grateful again. Hopefully, you’ve turned off your phone and your email and have a 12-hour digital detox, which is probably a thing we all need in life. It’s all of that squeezed into a totally normal working week, even for people living in big cities. I’ve done that out of London. I’ve done that out of Berlin. I’ve tested the concept all over.

I like the concept of a digital detox. It’s sort of like intermittent fasting, but for your phone.

Before you called, I was just finishing some emails and I saw that I had five minutes and my finger reached instinctively for my phone to check Twitter because I’m as addicted as the rest of the world. But it’s a beautiful cold, sunny morning here, so I just said no. I walked out and I spent five minutes in the cold fresh air. It was so nice.

I like that you highlight the ability to do this even if you’re in a big city. Coming from the US, it’s really easy to see how this can work there with our parks and public lands. LA, Seattle, New York, Nashville, they’re all extremely well-connected to the outdoors. What should Americans be looking for if they want to take their first microadventure?

First of all, I think America is the perfect place for the concept of microadventures. People in America work too hard and don’t take all of their vacation. Plus, there’s this incredibly beautiful wild country at most people’s doorstep.

I slept a night up on the hill by the Hollywood sign, which I acknowledge is possibly not the safest place. What struck me was how wild and beautiful it was up there. I would never, ever have imagined it to be like that. It was gorgeous.

If someone thinks, “Wow, I love this idea! I’m going to go to a local bit of wilderness, go find a state park, and I’m going to go camping,” then that’s great. I just urge those people to pack a sleeping bag, pack a bivvy bag, a rucksack, and go. However, I imagine there’s quite a lot of people who then say, “Yes, but isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t it illegal? Isn’t it scary?” I’d say just come back to what you feel comfortable with, and if it means sleeping in your garden, then that’s a great thing to do. I think a lot of us enjoyed doing that as kids. We camp out in the garden and have a midnight feast at about eight pm, get scared by nine pm, and run back into bed. I loved doing that.

When I was writing my microadventures book, one whole chapter is on sleeping in the garden. It’s not very adventurous. I felt such an idiot, dragging my duvet and my pillow out the front door to sleep in the garden, but I loved it. I was outdoors. I could see the moon and the stars and hear the birds singing. I got the breeze on my face, and you wake up to the sunrise. You can get so many of those wonderful wilderness things twenty feet from your front door.

What’s a “bivvy” bag?

A bivvy bag is basically a waterproof jacket for your sleeping bag. I have to confess that if it rains, it’s terrible. But if the weather is clear, it keeps off light showers and it means that you’re sleeping outside. When you open your eyes there’s the universe right above you. It feels wild. It feels silly and childlike. And it’s cheap. Then when you pack it up again it just shoves into your little rucksack and you take it home or back to the office. It’s not a hassle like a tent.

One of the problems with going camping is that it involves having to buy lots of expensive equipment. I don’t like the idea of that — especially for people for whom this isn’t a regular hobby. For a lot of people, it’s just something to try once. So trying to make things as doable as possible is important.

I think most people own a sleeping bag, a rucksack, and some warm clothes. Then you just need to buy the camping mat which you sleep on. It’s a bit like a yoga mat and they’re pretty cheap. The other thing would be a tent traditionally, but I’m waging a war on tents. A tent is like a crap version of your house when you’re inside it. If I want to be inside, I’ll stay at home with the TV. I want to be outdoors.

However, if everything I’ve said makes you think “I’m not going to do it because I don’t like… whatever,” then get a tent. Just do anything that it takes to make you do something.

Another item that seems pretty useful is what you call a “basha.” I think we call it a lean-to. But it’s just having a tarp along that you can string up between two trees or on some tent spikes.

Increasingly now I’m becoming slightly less puritanical about my own microadventures and I generally now shove a tarpaulin, a couple of bungees, and a couple of tent pegs into my pack and that really does keep off proper rain. Even in pretty severe weather, I love being under a tarp when it’s pouring down with rain.

You get that nice sound of the rain and it rocks you off to sleep. With any kind of travel, you can be as minimalist as you want or you can be as extravagant as you want. The point is that you’re out there doing something.

Yes. Exactly. It’s remembering that doing something is better than doing nothing. Equally, I think anyone who’s still vaguely interested this far down your article is interested in living a little bit more adventurously and shaking up that ordinary a little bit. So, you need to be pushing a little bit at your comforts as well.

You’ve been doing this for a long time now. What’s one extravagance you like taking with you?

A pillow.

A pillow?

You ruined my street cred! A pillow is great. I think it’s nice to be minimalist, so I think learning to miss things is a good way of appreciating normal life. But the flip side of that is another way of appreciating things is taking yourself a small little treat like a bar of chocolate or something. It’s so much more when you’re enjoying that on a hill where you can properly take it in rather than just shoving it in your mouth while you’re watching Netflix.

So, yeah, a pillow … and maybe a little hip flask of whiskey.

Those are very, very strong choices. How much focus do you put on cooking while you’re out there?

This depends really. You need to decide to have a fire. This is when you need to have a bit more environmental awareness. Firstly, is it allowed? Secondly, am I going to burn down half of California? Thirdly, can I leave no trace in the morning? If you pass all those tests, then having a campfire is a wonderful thing to do, and I really enjoy making an effort to cook well.

However, I also acknowledge that often on these overnight microadventures, the key thing is simplicity. Quite often I find myself at the railway station heading off and buying some supermarket sandwiches and eating them on top of the hill. Everything tastes good on top of the hill. So there’s a time and a place for things.

Often with the five to nine ones, I just eat before I go at home or in a bar. In those cases, I take no food whatsoever. You’re just going out overnight and you’ll wake up ready to forage for breakfast.

Definitely. Plus, five to nine is a good time to fast anyway. As long as you’ve got some water with you, it sounds like you would be fine.

Exactly. I think, again, we’re all so ridiculously soft these days. A few hours of thinking I’m quite hungry is probably not a bad thing for most of our health.

I absolutely agree. You probably get asked the same questions over and over and over again. What do you think people haven’t asked you that they should?

That’s a very good question. Maybe I can defend that like a Brexit politician and bat it back onto the reader by asking them a hard question:

Are you going to listen to your own excuses or are you actually going to get out and do something?

We have a choice. That’s a borderline offensive, but hopefully challenging and provocative question. Everyone has their crosses to bear. Everyone has money issues, time issues, family issues, whatever issues. But, equally, we’re not starving in Somalia either. So we should probably get on with things.