There is newness and curiosity and wildness everywhere; the more we look, the more we see,” author Alastair Humphreys tells me, his passion for local adventures almost contagious.
He’s the pioneer of the ‘microadventure’ – explorations that are short, simple, cheap and local, yet exciting, rewarding and challenging – and perhaps Britain’s most vocal advocate of adventuring locally.
“Lockdown turned us all into local adventurers, forcing us to seek out the wild places and beauty that lie all around us,” he adds.
“Whether we continue to embrace that, and find wonder and satisfaction in our local areas will be up to us as individuals. It comes down to a framing of our attitude. Can the purpose of our explorations be achieved locally and sustainably? Or will we revert to jetting off all over the planet, selfishly spewing carbon in exchange for selfies in exotic lands?”
Home: where the heart is?
This cuts to the heart of a huge debate in the adventure community. Has coronavirus changed things permanently, or is this just a temporary hiatus before a return to the status quo?
Will we all continue to get our adventure fix locally, satisfied with UK staycations and doorstep escapades? Or, deep down, are we all desperate to jump on the next flight to Patagonia or the Himalayas for a ‘proper’ dose of overseas escapism?
Ultimately it comes down to personal choice. Eco-conscious outdoor enthusiasts might choose to ditch overseas travel altogether, confident there’s a lifetime’s worth of epic adventuring to be had right on their doorstep.
This ‘hyper-local’ approach, within a few miles of home, is clearly the most planet-friendly – no long, petrol-guzzling car journeys, just human-powered endeavours.
But many other adventurers will be less limiting in their ambitions, eager to spend their weekends travelling to remote corners of the UK and their annual leave jetting off somewhere outlandish. Which camp do you fall in?
Alastair Humphreys’ hope is that a lasting lesson from the coronavirus era will be a greater appreciation for local explorations among the adventure community. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime ban on holidays abroad or a strict local-only policy.
It might just involve taking the night train to Scotland, rather than flying to the Alps; or spending one or two weekends exploring local woodlands, instead of driving five hours on the M6 to the Lake District. Small changes, big impact.
But Humphreys isn’t unrealistic about people’s behaviour. He hopes the pandemic will inspire everyone to “live differently, question habits and hone priorities”, but in the same breath admits the thought of another home-bound year like 2020 is utterly “depressing”.
Fellow adventurer Sean Conway, the ginger-bearded badass best-known for completing a 4,200-mile triathlon around the coast of Great Britain, has a different take on it.
“Some animals can’t be caged and it’s unfair to try to cage them,” he says. “Humans are natural explorers and I really believe travelling to far-off lands and meeting people from other walks of life makes us all more tolerant of each other.
“Of course, perhaps flying every other weekend for a city break is a bad idea, and we should all strive to be more environmentally friendly in our everyday lives. But working hard all year to save money to fly to New Zealand, where you then undertake a human-powered journey, such as cycling or running for two months, shouldn’t be condemned.”
Putting aside the debate on overseas travel, both adventurers seem to agree that adventuring locally in the UK is not only positive for the planet, it’s also good fun.
After being forced to abandon his far-flung adventure goals for 2020, Conway came up with a new hyper-local idea: to run 496km in one month, around his neighbourhood, starting with 1km on day one, 2km on day two, and so on.
“I fell back in love with running and the journey was immensely rewarding,” he says.
Humphreys took on similarly quirky local missions in 2020, running every street fanning out from his front door, exploring his local map grid-by-grid, and climbing the same tree time and time again. The result?
“Every week I felt constant surprise at the many new places I was discovering, and it helped build my affection for the area where I live.”
Adventuring locally has a hell of a lot to offer, aside from the obvious environmental benefits. It’s safe, cheap, quick and simple. You don’t need specialist equipment, you won’t have to spend hours on planning and preparation, and there won’t be any tricky cultural, safety or language barriers to negotiate.
Everyone can get involved – your kids, partner, friends or canine companions – and local adventures are easy to integrate around your everyday life. Without too much difficulty, you can squeeze a micro-adventure into a lunch break or evening after work, or with a whole weekend you can plan a getaway to the mountains or coast.
But won’t the adventure be boring and uninspiring compared to the amazing places abroad?
“Absolutely not,” explains Katie Tunn, an adventurer and campaigner from the Isle of Skye.
“There’s a reason why people travel from the other side of the world to come and explore the green spaces here in the UK: because of the incredible variety and beauty of our natural spaces, from dramatic mountain ranges to long, white beaches.
“But I think a lot of people in the UK are surprised by that. They assume because it’s so close and familiar, it must be boring, but that’s just not true. You don’t have to travel halfway across the world to experience world-class scenery: it’s right here in Scotland, and many other landscapes in the UK.”
Tunn, who spent a year living off-grid for the Channel 4 documentary Eden, says, “Since moving to Scotland, I’ve cut back significantly on overseas travel and I don’t long for it. I’m satisfied exploring my local, rural area and feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to all the incredible things there are to learn and see. You could easily spend a whole lifetime exploring Scotland and it would be an awe-inspiring adventure.”
If Tunn’s right, adventuring in the UK can deliver just the same escapism, tranquillity, beauty, exercise, fresh air and nature you’d get from an overseas expedition.
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But how do you plan your own UK adventure?
There are so many places you could visit and myriad adventurous activities you could take up, from mountain biking in the Scottish Highlands, to wild camping in the Yorkshire Dales, to surfing on the South Coast.
The best approach is to focus on places and activities that excite you. Don’t try and imitate others. Be yourself and focus on your own adventure passions.
Depending on your circumstances, there are two main approaches available. If you can take a bigger chunk of time off work, such as two or three weeks or even a month, then the world (OK, the UK) is your oyster.
You could go island-hopping in western Scotland, hike the 268-mile Pennine Way, or cycle Land’s End to John o’ Groats, or whatever other crazy idea you can dream up. Long-distance and long-term journeys are a possibility for you.
Alternatively, if you can only dedicate smaller chunks of time, can you come up with an overarching mission to unite your separate trips?
Perhaps you could walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path over 25 weekends, or cycle the North Coast 500 ride in Scotland in ten legs, or complete every grade one and two scramble in the Lake District in a year. With a bit of creative thinking, the possibilities are endless.
There are loads of inspiring examples of ordinary people, with full-time jobs and family commitments, who have taken that approach and fitted a grand UK adventure around their everyday lives.
Agnieszka Dudlik, an assistant management accountant from Kendal, ran a minimum of 5km every day in 2020, for example – a 2,275km adventure that left her feeling “absolutely amazing, almost like I was unstoppable and could achieve anything.”
Similarly fleet-footed in 2020 was Alex Staniforth, also from Kendal (must be something in the water), who ran 452 miles between Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon to complete the National Three Peaks in just under ten days.
Other adventurers were less speedy, opting for hiking boots rather than running trainers, but their expeditions were far from inferior. Bryony Carter, an education and learning manager from Shrewsbury, climbed all 257 mountains over 2,000ft in England – the ‘Nuttalls’ – over a five-year period.
“The mountains gave me everything I needed – they changed my life,” is how she describes the journey. And Nicola Hardy, from Cumbria, put in mega miles, too, catching a train to her birthplace of Sheffield and then walking 320 miles back home via three national parks.
Perhaps you could do something similar?
It’s all about embracing an adventurous mindset – the desire to explore new places, be inquisitive, go outside your comfort zone and find out where your limits are.
Words: James Forrest