“Break down the elitism in adventure—that was my goal,” says Alastair Humphreys. The 35-year-old Brit has ridden his bike 46,000 miles around the world, crossed Iceland's rugged glacial highlands on foot, and set his sights on the longest unsupported journey to the South Pole. But in 2011, Humphreys never left his native U.K. He barely even left the county.
Instead he embarked on a year of microadventures—small, local trips that began and ended at his doorstep. He hiked Britain’s most reviled stretch of road, the M25, a clogged transit artery that circles London through the swelling suburbs. He swam the Thames, used public transport to get out of the city and sleep out underneath the stars, and spent four days living off the land. Advanced Base Camp was his home in London’s suburbs.
“Each trip ticked all the boxes of adventure. It was cold. It was physically challenging. I talked to people I wouldn’t have otherwise met,” says Humphreys. What he learned was clear—we find adventure by stepping outside of our day-to-day norms.
To share his idea and inspire others, Humphreys devised a series of ten challenges in the form of four-minute video trip reports encouraging would-be adventurers to sign up for a race, to take advantage of the hours before and after work, and to pick a random point on a map and visit it. The idea caught on through Twitter. Word spread and people began sending in trip reports and homemade videos via Twitter. They came in from as far away as Japan. This year the idea traveled farther than the adventurer.
“My hope is that come December, I will have other microadventurers who have taken this journey with me from that first challenge all the way to our final challenge, which will end up being quite a worthy adventure,” says Humphreys, who plans on revealing his final challenge at the end of the year. “In life it doesn’t matter what you do, just that you get off your backside and do something.”
Adventure: How did you come up with the concept of microadventures?
Alastair Humphreys: I started to think that it was possible to have an adventure anywhere. That it was really just a state of mind, committing to get off your backside. If that were true, I figured you could do this anywhere.
I decided to do the most provocatively mundane adventure that I could think of—the M25, the highway that goes around London. It’s filled with traffic. Everybody hates the road. I walked a lap of the M25. I set off in January. It was cold. It was snowy. It was physically challenging. I saw new places. I saw some beautiful places, which I hadn’t expected to find at all. I met interesting people. That week ticked all of the boxes that my four-year bike trip around the world ticked. I came back buzzing. It was quite stupid and silly, but it had been a genuine adventure.
A: To a certain extent do you think all adventure is like that?
AH: In many ways it is totally pointless to trudge to the top of Mount Everest, risking life and limb just so that you can get to the top and turn back around again. It’s not really about what people do, just that they do something. It’s great to pause and slow, to think about what’s going on in your life or about the environment. All adventure is a vessel for getting to the more important things in life.
A: With the economic troubles, riots in the streets of London, people tightening down on travel, it seems like maybe we are ready for an idea like this.
AH: The riots were pretty shocking. It was young people who were bored and angry. It feels like there is no hope. I didn’t hear about it for the first day because I was sleeping on a clifftop in Wales, just having mountain biked through some gorgeous countryside to sleep underneath the moon and the stars. I came back to find that all hell had broken loose. I just wished I could take a busload of rioters and show them these wonderful places on our doorstep here in the U.K.
A: Your series of video adventure challenges took off on Twitter. What were the challenges?
AH: I started with something tiny that everyone could do, so that they could join. My first challenge was to enter a race. It could be a five-mile race. It forced people to break up the mundane. The second was to go away for a weekend, grab some friends, jump in the car, go climb a hill, go to the pub. Break the routine. By the third one, it really started to get a good response. We always talk about the nine-to-five life, the office life. What about your five-to-nine? That’s 16 hours a day. I decided to do something in those hours. I took the train, slept on top of a hill. Woke up. Jumped in a lake. Jumped on the train and was back home by nine o’clock.
A: What was you favorite microadventure?
AH: The River Thames is thought of as this horrible river. If you go a little ways out of London it becomes a nice countryside river. I decided to swim it. If you jump into the river, the banks are a meter above your head and you can’t see any houses at all. You feel like you are completely in wilderness. I spent two days swimming down the river, sleeping on the banks.