Alastair Humphreys On Traveling The World At 10 mph, Microadventures, And Not Quitting

NOTE: In 2018, I started recording interviews with creatives (writers, filmmakers, podcasters, photographers, editors, etc.) in the adventure world. I’m publishing the highlights of those interviews monthly in 2019.

I would argue that what makes British adventurer Alastair Humphreys interesting is not the big things he’s done (like spending four years cycling around the world or rowing across the Atlantic), but how he’s learned to evolve and do smaller things—like walking around the M25 (the 117-mile freeway circling London), or trying to eat at a London restaurant from a country representing each letter of the alphabet, A to Z.

Or, as he did in his new book, re-trace Laurie Lee’s early-20th century foot journey from England to Spain, funding the trip only by busking with a violin—which he didn’t really know how to play. That’s the subject of his new book, My Midsummer Morning: Rediscovering a Life of Adventure, available in the U.S. on July 25.

I first heard of Alastair back in 2011, when National Geographic named him one of its Adventurers of the Year for his “microadventures,” the quick escapes he popularized from his London home, and that are much more within the reach of most working folks. (He later turned the idea into a book, Microadventures.)

I wanted to sit down and interview Alastair because he’s had to evolve a couple times in his career, starting as a kid who knew nothing about adventure and then pedaled 46,000 miles around the world, and then becoming a guy who trekked across Iceland and rowed across the Atlantic. Then he turned that into a career as an author, keynote speaker, and filmmaker. And he got married, had kids, and had to figure out not only how to fit adventure into a “normal” life, but how to be happy doing that.

I grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, which is a national park in the north of England. It’s a beautiful part of the north of England, and I had a nice rural childhood of riding my bike and climbing trees and playing in rivers and being out until sunset and all those other clichés, which I found incredibly boring at the time but now look back on with great nostalgia.

I didn’t really do anything very interesting in my entire life, at all, and certainly nothing adventurous until I was 18 when I finished high school and a friend and I decided to spend a year in Africa teaching in a little rural school. I always think of that as being the end of my childhood and the beginning of my actual life. The 16th of June is the day I finished my high school exams. I still celebrate that in my head every year as the beginning of my life.

We were teaching a bit of everything. We were in a really rural, poor school in the middle of absolutely nowhere in northern South Africa. We were only 18, but we had a lot of fun, and that’s completely opened up my eyes to this whole new wild, exciting world that existed beyond rural northern England. I think from then that’s when I always think of being, got hooked on wanting to travel and to see more countries in the world.

From there I went to university in Edinburgh and Oxford. While I was at university, I got quite into physical challenges. To earn money there, I joined the army. Britain has this weird part-time weekend army, like the army reserve, so I joined that purely because I got paid to run around the hills and they had good parties and cheap beer.

I always hated anything we had to do with a gun, but I always liked the parts where you had to go run around the hills. Doing that really opened my eyes to the first time that I was actually quite good at endurance stuff and suffering and having a miserable time. I’ve never been good at anything in my life, so to suddenly be quite good at being miserable, I started to love that feeling.

By the time I finished university, I decided I wanted to somehow combine my fascination with trying to explore and travel the world, like a lot of young people do, with wanting to have a really miserable, tough time to prove to the world how tough I was, and to prove to myself how tough I was, I suppose. That’s directly what led to me deciding to cycle around the world for a few years.

I started reading adventure books when I was 18 in the summer, just before my big exams. They’re called A-levels, key exams you do to determine what university you go to. They’re basically the biggest exams in your life, and obviously it’s quite boring studying for them. I discovered in the school library two books, Living Dangerously by Ranulph Fiennes and Mad White Giant by Benedict Allen.

I read these two, particularly the Ranulph Fiennes book, this crazy story of his incredible life adventures, and I just read that and go, “Wow, that is the way to properly live a life.” Until I was 18, I’d had no inclination of the world of expeditions at all. It was actually through my university years, I read Kon-Tiki and all the climbing books and all the books you’d expect to read and got completely obsessed with travel writing and expeditions. It was actually wanting to be a writer that made me go and cycle around the world. I wanted to be a travel writer, therefore I had to have something to write about.

I think it mostly just came about from being miserable—at school, not being picked for all the teams that I wanted to be picked for, not hanging out with the cool kids who I wanted to hang out with, just generally feeling slightly on the margins of life. I don’t want to paint a huge sob story because my life was fine, but as a teenager small things seemed big. Even from before a teenager, I always just felt that I was on the margins and a bit anonymous and never really shone at anything, wasn’t really good at anything.

I was all right at stuff but never good enough to actually stand out at anything. I think I just had a massive chip on my shoulder, really, and just wanted to try and stand out a bit, I suppose. I think that is probably the driving factor for then just becoming incredibly stubborn. If you’re lying in a cold, wet ditch on some stupid army game pretending that the imaginary enemy is going to come and kill you and you know you’re just pretending and you’re getting paid hardly anything, I was always the person who could lie in the ditch the longest because I just stubbornly refused to get out of the muddy ditch.

There’s nothing very noble or intelligent or anything, but I think that’s the basis of the next 20 years of my life.

Rowing across the Atlantic Ocean was probably the only thing I’ve ever done in life, where there was literally no option of quitting. Once you’re out in the middle of the ocean, you’re just out there. Nothing at all could’ve gotten me off that boat, and it was just impossible to quit.

At first, I found that very frightening, and then I found it hugely liberating, this realization that, “Wow, I can’t quit, I can’t get off this boat.” All of those thought processes now become irrelevant, so, “Oh, I might as well just get on with it.” It was interesting how much of a shadow normally hangs over the things that I do, which I only noticed once that went away, because it was impossible.

On my cycle trip, I actually had a couple of very conscious strategies to deal with wanting to quit, because a lot of the time I was really quite close to quitting. I had a couple of rules.

The first rule was, I was not allowed to give up at nighttime or when I was cold, wet, scared, or hungry. I could only give up after a good night’s sleep on a sunny, warm morning after a large breakfast. That was, I think, a really important check and balance thing to stop that gut feeling of, “Oh, I just want to go home.”

Then the second clause in my contract with myself was, if I still wanted to give up, that was fine, but I could only give up if I thought of something better to go do with my life. I didn’t want to be shackled to this stupid bike ride for four years. If I had a better option, if some more exciting project came up, I always wanted to feel that I was free to go do that better thing. However, I couldn’t just quit until I thought of a better thing, because that was just a bit pathetic. With those two safety catch things, that’s what helped me overcome the regular urge to want to quit.

The whole plan of that bike trip was, “Go do a big adventure, get it out of my system, and then go and become Mr. Humphreys, high school science teacher.” That was the life plan.

For the first year, cycling down Africa, I was doing it to prove myself to other people like all the teachers who didn’t pick me for the high school cricket team. Then the second year, which was basically cycling through South America, I was doing that to prove whatever to myself.

By the end of the second year, the end of South America, I felt at peace. I though, “I’ve now cycled a long way, I’ve cycled for two years. That’s a good effort. I can go home with my head held high.” To get from Colombia to Panama there’s the Darién Gap, the jungle, there’s no road. You have to take a little boat route, so I decided that when I got to the end of Colombia I was going to give up, come home, and that was the end of the trip, and that was fine. I completely decided upon that.

I got to Cartagena, Colombia, and I needed to take a photo of my bike by the sea, and the easiest place to get access to the sea was at the sailing club. I cycled in there, I walked my bike down to the end of the jetty to take my end of continent photograph, did that, and started walking down the jetty in order to go to a travel agent and book my flight home and get on with life.

Walking back down that jetty, some American guy on a little yacht shouted out to me, “Hey, are you looking for a lift to Panama?” which is exactly where I needed to go next. Well, I just had to say, “Yeah, I guess I am,” so I hitched a lift with him. Then, for the next two years, I thought, “Jeez, I can’t give up now,” so that’s an interesting pivotal moment in my life.

Some American guy owned the yacht, and then he had these two reprobate friends who moved it around in the off-season, and they drank an astonishing amount of alcohol.

One of them lived in a trailer park somewhere in California, and the other lived in Seattle. We sailed together out of Colombia through some big storms. Their response to storms was just to really drink a lot, and it was quite an interesting experience with them. Dale sends me an email probably about every three years at about, I guess, about 2 a.m. Seattle time, probably when he’s just drunk a massive amount of gin and dived back through the depths of my website again to remember our glory days together.

It really struck me cycling around the world how often I felt culture shock. It was so rare on the trip as to actually really stand out when it did happen, whereas if you jump on an airplane to anywhere, well, it’s weird. Flying anywhere, you get through a terminal, you walk past the ATMs and the Starbucks and the guys with the iPads picking up taxi people and you could be anywhere in the world, but eventually at some point culture shock hits you hard when you travel by plane and you suddenly realize you’re somewhere very different.

Cycling, for example, one of the culture shocks in my trip was taking the ferry from England to France, which is only two hours, because that suddenly was a change in language. From France until South Africa, it was pretty much land the whole way, just creeping across continents. The land changed at 10 miles an hour, so you just don’t really notice it changing. The language occasionally changes at borders, but the landscape you’re moving through and the general wealth of a place and the cultures of it was such a slow-moving change that I really felt comfortable pretty much everywhere I went. The few exceptions to that in the world were very jarring because they were so rare.

A real joy of traveling across countries by bicycle is that you move so sly that you can feel like you actually belong, which is an illusion, of course, but it’s quite a pleasant one to feel that you’re part of the place you’re going through, rather than just being a voyeuristic observer as I zoom into a place by taxi from an airport.

I’m a human, and cycling all the way around the world at 10 mph made it really just feel like one world with some random little arbitrary borders and some strange foods along the way. By and large now, I’d be entirely happy to be dumped at random in any country in the world. As long as I could find somewhere to sleep tonight, I’d wake up tomorrow morning excited and curious to go have a look around.

My general feeling now from going to so many countries of rich and poor and all sorts of flavors is just how normal most people’s lives are. There’s the superficial weirdness and differentness, but very, very quickly you just realize the flow of life, people waking up and they find breakfast and they take their kids to school and they go to work. Maybe they’ve got a pig on the back of the bicycle or maybe they’re in a shiny car with an iPhone, but they’re just going to work.

Anywhere I’ve ever been in the world, people have always given me water when I’ve asked for water. No one ever makes you pay for water. No one ever says no to that. Just these little constancies that made me feel very much just like I, and this sounds like the most ridiculous hippie thing, but I’ve really started to feel that I just live in the world rather than I’m an English guy.

I cycled around the world in a pretty volatile political era of the George Bush years and 9/11 and Iraq and all that sort of stuff. In those years particularly, it very much felt like America versus the Middle East in summary. I cycled through the Middle East and I loved it, and then I cycled through America and I loved it.

The thing that struck me time and again riding through America was how much it reminded me of the Middle East. In so many ways, it felt, the people and the hospitality and the tribal insularity, it all felt so similar. I found that really interesting, the ostensibly different places actually felt very similar to me. On that, as I’ve mentioned to you a few times, I’m such a romantic sucker for America. It’s one of my very favorite places in the world, and I’m continually having to defend it to people who bash America.

My pie chart of my income for about the first 10 years or so of which I was making my living out of adventure was pretty constant: 90 percent speaking, 10 percent books and magazine articles. Over those 10 years, the total of the pie chart increased, but the percentage never really changed. Then about four or five years ago, there was a new slice of the pie which was brand work, being a brand partner, making films for or with brands, which I suppose all fits under the hat of being an influencer.

Working with brands has become now probably about a third of it, maybe even a bit more of what I do now. I used to do millions of talks at schools to little kids, which paid my life for the early years. It felt very worthwhile, but it took up huge amounts of my time.

These days, quite a lot of schools are reading my book, The Boy Who Biked the World, and when they get in touch with me I tend to either do a Skype interview with them or record them a little video for YouTube to try and participate in their reading.

In my talks, I like to talk about my most recent adventure and I like to talk about the breadth of my experiences for my own self-respect and sanity, but I’ve come to learn that audiences only want to hear about me cycling around the world, walking around the M25, when I walked around London and the Microadventure stuff, and then playing the violin in Spain, people like hearing that. I think they’ve become the three hits in my life, I think. I’m at peace with that now, I accept that.

I’ve been now giving talks about cycling around the world for way, way, way longer than I was actually cycling around the world. There have been considerable periods of time when I’ve been doing my talks when I just felt like a total fraud, and I’ve really hated myself that I’m just still talking about that same thing I did so long ago. It really made me feel I needed to do another adventure. I needed to have another story. I needed to know what’s next just for my own self-respect, really.

Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron walk with their supply cart in the film "Into the Empty Quarter"

My very first book, Moods of Future Joys, is about a young guy going for his first big adventure. I get regular emails from people who are now in some far-flung corner of the world because they’ve read that book and gone off and cycled around the world. I always feel quite a sense of pressure from that, but I hope it matches up to their expectations. And the Microadventures book has been really good. I hear regularly from people for whom it’s helped them.

With email, people are very willing, it seems, to send quite honest, cathartic emails to this random strange guy, me. I get emails about people’s depression and divorces and affairs and all sorts of stuff, and how that in some way or another going to sleep on a hill has helped with that side of things, which is really nice because adventure, essentially, is such a ridiculously selfish first-world type thing to do. Whenever I feel that I’m actually doing something a little bit useful and helping someone else, that makes me feel a bit better.

I did a talk about a month ago. It was an evening talk at a dinner, and I finished my talk and sat down. Some lady walked over to me and said, “I just emailed my boss and I’ve quit.” She did it right then in the room.

The boss was also in the room. I hope that was the right outcome for everyone. I think companies want me to be inspiring people. They don’t want me to be getting people to quit.

I bought a Canon 5D Mark II in 2009 having never filmed a single thing in my life and actually never had the slightest interest in doing it. Then I saw a little thing on the Internet of that camera, I just thought, “Wow, this is amazing,” so I took a punt on that. I remember it cost £1,600. The fact that I remember it shows how astronomically expensive it was for my life at the time.

I’d never filmed anything, never had any interest in it, and I never really watched films myself. It was a completely new thing. Basically, then, for five or six years, I was just Googling how to make films and doing it as I went and making literally zero money from it, literally no money. I was doing it purely because I really loved, I find filming stuff when I’m out there really enhances the experience for me. I really, really enjoy charging around with a camera and a tripod, I love that.

Then I find when I’m at my computer trying to edit, I find that captivates me more than anything else I do. The whole day just zooms by in a blur, and my head then feels it’s going to explode. I go deeper into that than anything else I do, so I just love filming and editing stuff. That came about long before anyone gave me any money to do anything with film, so it’s purely just something I really enjoy.

The other thing that I love about films is pretty much everything I do, writing, speaking, is solitary. I’m just on my own, in my shed. Often when I do a film, it’s with somebody else. That’s the only time I get to work with other people, and I love that because it’s a chance to work with people who are much better than me at different parts of the process. That, I absolutely love that, I love doing that. I don’t get enough of that in my life.

Like a lot of people, I found becoming a parent the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. I found it particularly hard because I’d spent the last 10-15 years living this carefree, wild, vagabond, incredibly selfish life traveling around the world, and that was not in any way good preparation for becoming a selfless stay-at-home person prioritizing other people’s needs. I found it really hard.

By that point, my job was adventure, and adventure requires you going away for long periods of time doing stuff that is dangerous and often stupidly dangerous. Neither of those things were compatible with being a respectable, sensible dad. When we had kids, I essentially stopped doing big expeditions.

With the loss of my hobby, my job, I felt my whole identity disappeared, and I felt completely empty, really. I also, because I was trying to make a living as an adventurer, I felt a total fraud, that I was still talking about adventures and I was still talking about cycling around the world and stuff, and yet I wasn’t doing anything adventurous myself. I found it a really hard process, and I felt that way for years, really. I never talked about any of this stuff publicly at all, partly because I just felt that my private life is quite different to my adventure online life, but also partly just because I just felt such a fraud and such a loss of my own individual identity.

It’s been a gradual resolution. I’ve been a dad for nearly 10 years now, but the last of three years or so, it essentially came when I went to do my trip through Spain. That was really the upturn of things just getting better. I’m now at a point whereby I accept now that my days of spending four months going to the South Pole are over. I accept now that I’m, to most people’s minds, Mr. Microadventure, rather than Mr. Tough Guy South Pole Adventurer. Not only do I accept that, I’m now really pleased and happy that that is the way it’s turned out.

I feel now I’m getting a much better balance at trying to squeeze adventure in around the margins of family life, and that’s much smaller. Microadventures, sleeping on hills, climbing trees, swimming in rivers, squeezing that stuff in around the hours of taking my kids to school and picking them up. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, I’m Tough Guy Adventure Al in my shed, and all the rest of the week I’m Dad/taxi driver.

It took me quite a while to get there, because for quite a few years I wanted to just still prove to the world that I was tougher than anyone else, and going to sleep on a small hill in suburbia didn’t seem to achieve that goal. I find it interesting, actually, and I feel that through accident as much as design my career, such as it is, is now in a much healthier and more creative and more original position than it would’ve been had I been able to choose the route and map it all out when I was age 25.

Alastair Humphreys stands with a packraft in front of a waterfall during his trek across Iceland

I spent all of my royalties advance from my Microadventures book, my biggest ever, on a little wooden shed. It’s about, I guess, about 10-foot square,. All the walls are papered with the maps that I used when I was making the Microadventures book. Gradually over time, it’s just become covered in maps of the world. I’ve got a great map of the rude place names of Great Britain, a big world map, a Bruce Springsteen record cover, a picture of Shackleton, loads and loads of books, a massive poster of myself, and a chili plant.

I love it. It’s become, now, somewhere that I just come and I feel like I escape into just the stuff that I love, books and writing and travel and adventure. Then when I’m done with it, I walk away and get on with life.

For a few years, I was trying to work in my house, in every room in the house, spare bedroom, kitchen. There’s all the usual annoying things of working at home, but I got the shed because of two things: One is I’m a complete workaholic, so I find it very hard to stop working. The second was I had young kids running around being annoying, and I was finding it really hard to either do a good job working or do a good job being a dad. Putting a shed in the garden was a real physical separation of work life, home-life, husband, and dad. That has been the greatest success of the whole thing.

Having done the Mircoadventures thing has opened up so many, well, opportunities and, well, I’ve earned more money from Microadventures than I ever have from rowing across an ocean. It’s much more interesting as well, and it feels like it’s got more imaginative, creative potential. It’s great. I’m really delighted with how it’s turned out. The same with going to play a stupid violin in Spain, that’s really surprised me with how that’s resonated with people.

Sometimes these things that you don’t really set out to do by design work out well. I think another thing that’s interesting is that the things that I’ve done in life, in terms of trying to make a career out of it eventually, whenever I’ve done something in order to try and earn money or get famous, and I’ve tried both at times, firstly they never make me happy. They just make me feel like a dick, and secondly they’ve never worked.

The occasions when I just felt, “Aw, screw the world, screw everything else, just do what I want to do,” like choosing to go cycle around the world rather than getting a proper professional job, choosing to do Microadventures rather than still doing big stuff, and then going to walk through Spain for four weeks rather than doing something tough—those three things, I think, have probably led to the most interesting stories that I’ve ever had, and from the interesting stories also comes more money eventually.

I think, when you’re on a long bike ride, you don’t really notice you’ve gone very far, and then a few weeks later you stop, turn around, realize you’ve cycled halfway across the continent. I think that’s similar with the creative side of what I do. It evolves from initially talking in elementary schools and then trying to become a blogger and then learning how to make little films, and then Instagram now, starting to try and tell short stories on that and starting a newsletter. I’ve just started a different newsletter, it’s one of these automated series ones, which is very different to anything I’ve ever done before.

I think I try to just evolve my ideas and the things that feel creatively exciting. That’s generally how I end up choosing my next book, is one of the things at least makes me choose, is just trying to find something that’s new and a little bit fresh and exciting.

I think the one thing that I bang on about to myself continuously is how hard it is to begin things. Trying to overcome the hurdle of beginning, so not being put off by beginning but just making yourself do that and then realizing that whatever it is you’re doing after that is usually, you’ve cracked it and done the hardest part. I think that’s a hugely important thing is the idea of beginning.

Then the thing that I found useful for myself is to try to learn to measure the progress in my life rather than chasing success. For example, the time this sank into me was when I was cycling through Bolivia. I’d been going for about two years and I was trying to get to Alaska, and Alaska is so far from Bolivia. I was really depressed in Bolivia. “Oh, man, I’m never going to get to Alaska.”

I was on the Salar de Uyuni, this huge salt plain, and I walked about 200 meters away from my tent, really foul mood, and I just stopped. I turned around and I looked away from my tent back the way I’d come, and it was a real clear moment for thinking, “Wow, I’ve actually come a really long way. To get from England to Bolivia, that’s two years of riding. I’m doing all right here.”

Since then, I’ve tried to make myself look back and congratulate myself on how far I’ve come rather than just beating myself up that I haven’t yet reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

[all photos courtesy Alastair Humphreys]