What is the one defining characteristic of the world's great explorers? Something that they all have in common? According to modern-day adventurer, writer and motivational speaker Alastair Humphreys, it's that they were all 'ordinary'. Whether you’re talking about Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Ranulph Fiennes, every great adventurer was a regular person who simply made the decision to do something daring.
'Some of the most extraordinary journeys were undertaken by very ordinary people.' Humphreys explains. 'The only difference between those people and those who haven't done big trips is the choice. The difficult part of most adventures is getting to the starting line.’
Alastair Humphreys exploring Greenland
Greenland Expedition. Image credit: Alastair Humphreys
Although Humphreys might not rank himself among his travel heroes, it was the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ernest Shackleton and Laurie Lee who inspired him to take the road less travelled. 'My escapades began because I loved reading stories of travel and adventure. Britain has this incredible legacy of explorers, which inspired me to dream of writing a book myself. I think the writing side of travel and adventure is my first love, really.'
Finally deciding to stop dreaming and start doing, Humphreys embarked on his first journey in August 2001. But to call that first expedition 'big' is quite the understatement. Aged 24, Humphreys set off from his parents' house in the Yorkshire Dales on a bicycle weighed down with supplies and a change of clothes. He didn't return for over four years. Admitting that he embarked on the kind of trip he 'assumed would fail', he persevered on his round-the-world journey, through the stifling desert in Sudan, through Argentina’s arduous Aconcagua mountains and snow-covered Siberia. His extraordinary journey took him 46,000 miles across 60 countries and five continents.
Alastair Humphreys hiking to Laugafell
Hiking Laugafell, Iceland. Image credit: Alastair Humphreys
What perhaps separates Humphreys from his contemporaries is a truly nomadic spirit. Throughout that first epic journey - which cost him only around £7,000 - he carried all his belongings on a bicycle. No television crew or entourage accompanied him, he usually camped out under the stars and occasionally relied on the kindness of strangers. 'I really like the simplicity of adventures,' he says. 'Part of me would like to collect beautiful things from around the world, but that's not really compatible with my life – cluttering it up with stuff. I'm filling it with memories instead.'
He documented his journey through photography and blogging, later publishing a two-part book on the expedition. Once home, the inevitable ‘what next?’ question soon arose, but his experience only gave him the impetus to do more. Throughout the last decade, he has forged a career out of adventures, writing - he's published seven books, including a children’s series - and giving motivational talks. He has travelled across Iceland via pack raft, walked the length of the River Kaveri in India, and rowed across the Atlantic with three complete strangers. 'I love doing stuff I've never done before,’ he enthuses, 'starting from scratch and building up confidence in order to do the journey. I've really tried to make myself go and do something and not worry about failing – I worry instead about getting old, then looking back and regretting not doing it.'
But Humphreys' most epic experiences eventually turned him on to the idea of 'downsizing' his trips. 'I noticed people started talking to me as though I were an adventurer and they were a normal person, which struck me as weird and quite uncomfortable - because I am a normal person,' he explains. 'It made me realize adventure is often seen as an inaccessible thing for normal people to do.'
To prove that anyone can go on an adventure, Humphreys decided to spend a year exploring the Great British landscape through mini-excursions, such as swimming the Thames, or camping on a hill during the spring equinox. He named these experiences 'micro-adventures'.
Alastair Humphreys swimming the Thames
Wild swimming. Image credit: Alastair Humphreys
'A micro-adventure is just an adventure,' Humphreys explains. 'The only difference is a micro-adventure is shorter in time. It doesn't cost a lot, doesn't require much expertise and you don’t have to live in the Himalayas to be able to do it. Micro-adventures are achievable within the constraints of busy people's lives.'
If you work 9 to 5 and feel there aren’t enough hours in the day, Humphreys insists you are the perfect candidate. So convinced is he of the attainability of these excursions that, as well as publishing a book on the subject, he has dedicated a section of his blog to spreading the word. Full of month-by-month ideas, videos and tips, his blog has inspired a community of fellow micro-adventurers to document and share their experiences.
'It's been really rewarding for me to see lots of normal, busy professionals getting out and having little adventures – and seeing the impact it can have on their lives,' he says. 'My mission for this summer and onwards is to try to get more people to do something they've never done before, out in the wild, close to where they live.'
Well, what are you waiting for?
Alastair Humphreys spoke on behalf of Belstaff’s Adventure Talks at the new South Kensington Club.