Update: Alastair Humphreys’ Adventures, Big and Micro

We caught up with Alastair Humphreys, one of our past Adventurers of the Year, on his new book Microadventures, his new film on crossing the Arabian Peninsula in Wilfred Thesiger’s footsteps, and his new challenge, Adventure 1000, encouraging people to save $1,000 to see that living adventurously is more affordable than most people think.

Get to know the 10th anniversary Adventurers of the Year, then vote every day for the 2015 People’s Choice.

Adventure: You say you waited 15 years to get to the Empty Quarter, an adventure and film you made inspired by Wilfred Thesiger’s travels. But Thesiger lived and explored a lot of places—what drew you to the Arabian Peninsula in particular?

Alastair Humphreys: I think every adventurer has one journey, one destination that really captures their soul and defines their approach to adventure and wilderness. For Thesiger this was undoubtedly the Empty Quarter desert. His writing about this part of the world has a greater power, respect, and affection than the other places he visited. It’s also quite an unusual part of the world—Thesiger, for example, also travelled and wrote about the Himalaya, but there are many people who have done that and done it well. His book Arabian Sands felt unique to me.

A: Did it live up to your expectations?

AH: Yes, and no. This part of the world has changed more than most in 70 years. Borders have appeared, for example. I’m no longer able just to amble into Saudi Arabia as Thesiger did. Indeed, I’m not allowed there at all. So much of the desert is now off limits to modern adventurers. The people Thesiger travelled with were poor nomads. Today their descendents drive 4×4 vehicles with air-conditioning, would never dream of physically exerting themselves in the desert, and live in cities like Dubai – the insane, crazy, marvellous, ridiculous city which we deliberately chose as the end point of our expedition for those very reasons.

On the other hand the people were as generous and hospitable as I had been expecting. And, when we escaped from the modern world out into the desert, the stars were as bright as in Thesiger’s day, the dunes untouched, the silence just as oppressive, and the physical and mental challenges were still there. So the journey felt like a mix of total change and total non-change. And I liked that.

A: What are a couple of the most unique Adventure 1000 ideas you’ve heard so far? How many people do you have participating?

AH: Well people are still saving up throughout this year (£20 or $20 per week for a year), so I don’t really have examples. The idea is actually mostly just trying to prove a point—that money need not be an obstacle to adventure, that not only is it relatively easy for most people to save £1,000 / $1,000 if only they make an effort to do so, but also that that amount of money is more than enough to do something really cool. Money is an excuse that stops people more than it is a genuine barrier.

It’s all basically an extension of the microadventure concept: have a look at the things that stop you doing what you dream of doing (are you drooling over adventure websites and YouTube videos more than actually having an adventure?), and ask yourself honestly “how can I get around this problem?” A lack of cash, time, expertise, and gear are the main excuses people give, but they really are surmountable if only you choose to really make stuff happen. So far 1,800 people have signed up (a nice cumulative £1,800,000 of adventure saving!) – if people like the idea they can sign up to the weekly newsletter here: http://tinyletter.com/alastairhumphreys

A: What else have you been up to since you received your Adventurer of the Year Award?

AH: Immediately after receiving the award (thank you so much, by the way!), I returned to the world of big expeditions, rowing the Atlantic, getting out onto the Greenland icecap, and walking across the Empty Quarter desert. I also made my first “proper” film which was such a wonderful learning experience.

But after that, I returned to banging the microadventure drum, trying to encourage “normal” people to squeeze a burst of adventure into their busy real lives. A shot of adventure espresso for all those folk who don’t have the time, the money or the freedom for a giant bottomless mug of black coffee… I’ve been making microadventure films (like this), and wrote a book, Microadventures, which has done fantastically well. It reached Number 12 for all books on the Amazon UK sales ranks which absolutely blew me away. It’s been so exciting to see the concept take off.

A: Who do you find most inspiring in the world of adventure right now?

AH: I think Sarah Outen is doing the greatest expedition at the moment – it’s really fabulous.

A: What’s next for you?

AH: I want to grow the idea of microadventures. I find it so inspiring when people email to tell me that the simple process of sleeping on a hill for just one night has been such a tonic for their busy, complicated life. I love that. I definitely want to persuade more people to go sleep on a hill for the very first time. And I would really, really love to grow the idea in the US – there’s a massive number of people there for me to try to reach.

A: What is the one non-essential item you bring with you on every trip?

AH: A reading book.

A: What’s the first thing you do when you get home from a trip?

AH: Shower, cup of tea, download my photos or film.

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A: Name three songs on your favorite playlist.

AH: Wow – what a hard question! I guess I’d have to pick “Thunder Road” (“it’s a town full of losers and I’m heading out of here to win”), “Wish You Were Here” from Pink Floyd, and “Graceless” by The National.

A: Where will you be in ten years from now?

AH: I have no idea! I really aspire to writing better books and learning how to make a really good film. They feel like my main ambitions right now. If I was in a remote cottage on a wild Scottish island, dripping from a sea swim, and settling down to write the final page of the best book the world had ever seen, then I will be happy…

A: How do you define adventure?

AH: I think adventure is really broad, and it’s certainly about more than climbing a big mountain or trekking through a jungle. Adventure is an attitude as much as anything else. It’s doing something new, something daunting and difficult, something that scares you and excites you. And it’s about doing it with an open mind and curiosity.

A: How has being a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year affected your career?

AH: I always feel a bit weird with that title, because I won the (wonderful) award for sleeping on my local hill, whereas everyone else gets it for climbing K2 in the depths of winter dressed only in their underpants. So it is a bit odd. Having said that, I’m so proud of it. I think it has affected my career inasmuch as it validates the concept of microadventures, and it also helps me get a foot in the door when I’m trying to secure a meeting with people. So it’s a nice thing to mention when I need a bit of help!

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