(Photo: Courtesy Alastair Humphreys)

The Joy of the Very Short Adventure


After years of pushing himself to go as big and far as he could, Alastair Humphreys realized that the most valuable trips we take are usually the ones right out our doors. Back in 2011, he coined the term “microadventure” and ever since he’s been extolling the upsides of squeezing experiences into the margins of real life: biking to a nearby hill and sleeping there for a night, taking an afternoon creek hike, even just climbing a tree. The point is to embrace simple, pure outdoor fun wherever we can find it, which can do wonders for us.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.

So a couple weeks ago, I had my best summer day in, well, years. I was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California with two of my kids. And we spent hours along a river, swimming in granite pools, riding the current through little tunnels, and having close encounters with rainbow trout. It was 101 degrees out and that cold water felt perfect.

For me, the trip was a desperately needed escape from work and home life, and also a really important reminder. 

I'd spent a lot of time in recent months attempting to plan ambitious summer journeys: a family canoe trip in Maine, a week of backpacking in Oregon with an old friend, a getaway with my wife to a lake. For all kinds of reasons, none of them came together. I was feeling like this was a lost summer.

It took just a few hours of playing in a river to remind me that bigger isn't always better. In fact, there's something especially rejuvenating about a super short experience that didn't require any real planning.

I'm Michael Roberts, and here at Outside we are spending this month celebrating the joys of micro adventures with stories on and a couple episodes on the podcast. Producer Paddy O'Connell kicks things off for us today by calling on the leading expert on the topic.

Paddy: What is a microadventure?

Alastair Humphreys: You must travel 25 miles in your underpants eating sausages.

Paddy: Everyone meet Alastair Humphreys, intrepid traveler, author, lecturer, and cheeky Brit. He is of course joking here, so let's try that again.

Alastair: So microadventure is just a shorter, simpler, cheaper, more local, more accessible version of what you deem to be an adventure. And it's something that you can squeeze in around the margins of real life.

Paddy: Back in 2011, Alastair coined the term microadventure, and he's been advocating for these shorter adventures ever since.

Alastair: The key part for micro adventure is for you to think what adventure means to you. And then think of a smaller version that fits around all the routines and chores and barriers and excuses of your daily life and then go do that.

An adventure might be something that you spend a year planning for, a year training for, a year saving up money for. A microadventure is something that you do on a Friday night with your friends, or a Sunday night before having to go to school the next morning.

Paddy: After inventing the term, Alastair devoted a year to pursuing them, which earned him Adventurer of the Year honors from National Geographic in 2012. He then wrote a book about microadventures in 2014 and has given countless presentations and interviews about the upsides of these smaller, more accessible journeys. You can think of him as Mr. Microadventures, which was never his plan.

Alastair: When I first started it, I really, I only wanted to do it for a little while because I wanted to get back to trying to be Mr. Tough Guy. I really did. So I did a few years of micro adventures and then I was done with it, but it wouldn't go away. And I've now realized actually it's far more interesting than being Mr. Tough Guy. So yeah, I'm fine with being Mr. Micro Adventures now.

Over time, I've come to realize that actually, the world probably doesn't need another middle class white guy doing tough, big stuff. And that actually, trying to encourage people to go and climb a tree is probably more useful to the universe than that. 

And also, now that I'm an old man, I don't think I could be bothered to row across the Atlantic Ocean anymore. It sounds really scary and tiring, and I'm actually quite happy just to go for a bicycle to my nearby hill and sleep there for the night. That, that does me these days.

Paddy: That line about rowing the Atlantic? Alastair actually did that in 2012 with a partner. It took them 45 days. This was the kind of big with a capital B adventure that used to define him. He first gained notoriety in 2001 when he began a 4 year, 46,000 mile bike ride around the world. He's also walked across India. He ran 150 miles in the Sahara Desert, he pack rafted Iceland, he, well, you get the picture.

But even back then, Alastair's grand explorations were dogeared by tiny, significant moments.

Alastair: The overwhelmingly difficult part of all of those big adventures was daring myself to say, yeah, I'm going to go do that thing. And then putting the date in the diary and saving up the money and sorting out the paperwork and getting to the start line, and setting off. 

I really remember when I walked from coast to coast through Southern India, following the holy Kaveri river. And on that first morning, I was really really scared because I was in this country of a billion people and I knew absolutely nobody. And I had a little cry to myself. And if there'd been an easy way to go home right then, I definitely would have done. But the thought of trying to work out some way to get back to the airport seemed as big a hassle as just walking down the road.

So I just set off walking and within about 10 minutes, this wave of elation bubbled up in me of thinking I'm walking through India on my own. What had been 10 minutes ago had been overwhelming doubt and fear was now overwhelming excitement about the possibility of all just by daring myself to set off and start.

Paddy: This, he says, is where the first seeds of the micro adventure idea were planted. What also helped was Alastair's shifting perspective on the unofficial rating system we tend to apply to outdoor exploration, where bold, risky trips are deemed worthy, while easier and more accessible journeys are considered, well, weak.

Alastair: I think the elitism and snobbery of adventure is a significant thing. In my early days, I thought it was a fantastic thing. I loved it. I loved reading books about the elite, hardcore, crazy people. And I dreamed and aspired towards doing something big and tough myself. And there's some big expeditions I've done.

I felt proud of those partly because at times I was doing stuff that other people couldn't do, and that made me feel good about myself, as a young and insecure sort of person. 

The flip side of the elitism side of it, of course, is that having that attitude is maybe not very welcoming to everybody else who's just setting out or doesn't have the appetite to go and saw off their fingers in the Arctic and just wants to go and push themselves a little bit in the outdoors. And so now I think the elitist side of it is really, really unhelpful

Paddy: When Alastair would return home to the UK from one of his intense expeditions, he'd do what professional adventurers do: write articles about the trip, then a book, then go on a speaking tour. He loved it, who wouldn't? But as he repeated this formula again and again, Alastair began to notice a pattern following his presentations.

Alastair: At the end of talks, people often come up to me afterwards for a chat and they say, ‘Thanks for the talk. Um, I did something once. It was nothing like what you did, but…’ and then they proceed to tell me about something that was really cool. A, a bicycle journey that was shorter than mine. But I mean, anyone with a brain is going to do a shorter ride than four years. And that's just a ridiculous thing to do.

But what struck me was that I was regularly talking to audiences of hundreds of people who really liked hearing about stories of adventure. But, those hundreds of people weren't going off and having adventures themselves. And it wasn't because they didn't like it. They did like it. So why weren't they having adventures? And the answer, of course, is real life.

I was in a very fortunate position to be making a living from having fun, but most people have got jobs and families and mortgages and bills and stuff. So I started wondering if there was a way to get all the stuff that all of us loved about adventure and somehow package it in a way that could be accessible for real people in real life.

And I wanted to try and remove some of the stigma of comparative adventure. People thinking, ‘Oh, I'm not going to go do this thing because it's not really a proper adventure.’

Paddy: So he came up with the phrase micro adventure. And in January of 2011, Alastair decided to accomplish one micro adventure a month for an entire year. His first undertaking was admittedly not very micro.

Alastair: The one that really started it off, which looking back was a bit more epic than a traditional microadventure, was I walked a lap of a huge road called the M25. It's a circle around London and it's 120 miles.

And it's famous in Britain for being a road that everyone hates. It's just synonymous with traffic jams and just dreary commuter life. And it's horrible.

Paddy: Alastair spent a week walking the 120 miles of the M25 with a pal. And though that distance and time away from home is not insignificant, or anywhere close to small, it redefined Alastair's conception of exploration.

Alastair: It took me to places I'd never been before. I found some pockets of wildness and beauty amongst all these boring commuter kind of towns. There's some fields, there's some small little woodlands, there's tiny little streams. The snow was on the ground, so you could see there'd been rabbit footprints running through it.

I met interesting, good, kind people. Uh, it was cold. So we didn't really want to go in our tent at night. So we'd go to the local pub until it was bedtime. And we were in a pub one night and chatting away and some people invited us back to stay in their house.

Then this is the sort of thing that happens when you're cycling through, uh, Kazakhstan or somewhere. It's not what you expect in suburban England. It was exactly like cycling around the world, going to new places, meeting interesting people, challenging your preconceptions. Just shrunk down to a few miles outside London. And that was a really big moment for me in thinking, actually, this isn't worse than an adventure at all. A micro adventure isn't worse. It's just different. It's like having an espresso. It's just a short shot of adventure. 

It sort of flipped my vision, like when you look at a negative of an old photograph. That was a real pivotal thing for me of thinking, yeah, there's something about this.

Paddy: But Alastair knew he had to boil things down even further to get to the core of the experience.

Alastair: Walking around the M25 whole week of hiking and camping, that's quite a big deal for a lot of people, you know, for a lot of people that would be a tough major thing.

So I started thinking, what do I love about adventure? And it was being out in nature, going to new places, having fun, challenging myself. And I thought all of those things are really mindsets that in your head. 

Really, I mean, you can do all of those things in China or in Texas, It doesn't really matter. It's internal, and therefore that probably means I could find it right outside my front door if I just come up with some interesting little ideas.

To my surprise, then the idea started to really grow, got more popular and I now find myself, 12 years later, still talking about microadventures

Paddy: Coming up after the break, how a little idea got real, real big, and why that's a good thing for all of us.


Paddy: After becoming disillusioned by the elitism and snobbery of the "go big or go home" attitude of the outdoors, Alastair Humphreys started the micro adventure movement in 2011.

Alastair: The micro in the word microadventure is to try and remove all of this comparativeness and say ‘yeah, fine, this adventure you can do now is really, really, really, really, really small and that's fine.’ We'll put a trendy hashtag on it and it's fine, , and if some real hardcore guy looks down his nose at you then, pfft, they're not worth bothering with anyway.

Paddy: To Alastair's surprise, micro adventures became a thing. Remember that this was a time before Instagram and TikTok, so Alastair created his own blog, posted on other outdoor-centric blogs, and spread the word by using outdoorsy hashtags and commenting on adventure-focused Facebook groups. Suddenly, all kinds of people were embracing trips that were short and easy.

Alastair: When people went on their own microadventures and shared that suddenly it wasn't just me, fit young bloke with loads of camping gear who knows what he's doing. It wasn't just me having these things.

There was all sorts of shapes and sizes and different kinds of people doing this sort of stuff. And suddenly I was being able to be like a curating hub of everyone else's content, sharing what everyone else is doing, which is really useful because then when people say I'd like to do what you're doing, but I can't because I'm a whatever type of person they were, I could say aha Look, here's a photo of someone just like you sleeping on a hill eating a sandwich. Go sleep on a hill, eat a sandwich, and send me a picture and then it starts to snowball then.

What's really interesting is to listen to what's stopping people. So people say, I like this idea. But, and it's the but part that's really interesting. And generally it came down to people not having enough time, not having enough money, not having the expertise or thinking that because they lived in a town or city, there was no nature near them.

So I started to really focus my micro adventures on tackling each of those barriers and obstacles.

Paddy: What kind of close to home adventures could actually break through barriers and help democratize the outdoors? Well, after 12 years of micro adventuring, Alastair has some favorites, like the time he partnered up with a pal who loves to cook outside.

Alastair: We went just for an overnight micro adventure, carrying a steel cauldron that must've weighed 30 pounds, I guess. It was absolutely ridiculous. And we had sacks of fresh vegetables and a bottle of red wine and cooked all that sort of stuff in the woods.

And I, you know, trying to suggest that if you like micro adventures just eating cereal bars, then go for it. But, you know, if you want to take a huge cauldron and cook a feast, then, that's cool too. It's a broad church. And I have to say that was considerably more fun than sleeping for the night in a freezing cold tent on an ice cap in Greenland.

Paddy: Alastair also once flew to Austin, Texas, as part of a lecture tour and purposefully did not get a hotel room. Instead, he packed just enough camping gear to bivy somewhere, rented a car, and set out with no plan.

Alastair: I just drove literally following my nose until I got to some fields. Uh, the bridge over a little creek, I parked the car, went down to the little creek. Brilliant. Lovely little creek. 

I just set up my bivvy bag for the night then I start to hear country music and, uh, paddling down the river towards me is this bunch of Texan people who'd been out fishing and were incredibly drunk and were just amazed when they found this English gentleman.

Paddy: The drunk Texans split whiskey and burgers with Alastair and they talked all night. He loved this experience so much that when he flies to speaking engagements around the world today, he frequently avoids making any lodging reservations.

Alastair: When I go off to places to go and do a talk and they put you up in some fairly average forgettable hotel for the night. Or you arrive in the town, and when you've got good map reading skills, you look on the map and you think, aha, there's a hill. There's a river. I'm going to sleep on that hill, in the morning I'm going to go swim in that river, then I'm going to turn up at my event and do my talk. And not only has that been better for me, it makes my talk much better as well. If I'm trying to say to people, hey you can live more adventurously anyway, if I've still got damp boxer shorts from a pre breakfast swim in the local river, then I'm walking the walk as well.

Paddy: In fact, ending up with wet underpants seems to happen a lot when you've dedicated your life to micro adventures. In Alastair's view, the chance to live adventurously can spring up at any moment, like when he was on a work trip, this time in the Netherlands, sitting in a taxi passing by kids jumping into canals.

Alastair: Me and the taxi guy were talking about it, and I said to him, ‘we should go jump in the canal.’ And he just started laughing at me because he's like he's a taxi guy, and I'm off to do a talk. So we're not we're not kids jumping into canals. We're taxi guy and man off to do a talk.

Like no. Stop the taxi. So the next, uh, the next bridge where there's some kids, we just stopped the taxi, uh, got out of the taxi, both just stripped down to our boxer shorts, jumped into this canal, put our clothes back on, got back in the taxi and drove on. And he just did not stop laughing.

And then a year later, he sent me the photo from a year before when we'd done it saying, ‘I still think of that. That was such a great thing to do.’ 

And that's what I really love about making micro adventures even smaller and smaller and smaller. For him, jumping in that canal was a really big deal, and it's just great then to be able to squeeze that in properly into your daily working life. There's just the hazard of damp underwear to deal with.

Paddy: But it's not just about spontaneous acts of tomfoolery abroad. Alastair has also promoted planned fun time outside near home. And as you might expect, he's enjoyed a lot of that.

Alastair: What I found really helpful for myself is to schedule adventure into my life. One way I started doing that was by putting into my diary the first Wednesday of every month, go climb a tree. And, uh, I've did it for three years,

What I've really, really enjoyed is just getting into the habit now of regularly sleeping on a hill for a night. So when your nine to five working day finishes, then begins the five to nine overnight micro adventure time and seeing the five to nine as an adventure opportunity, even within the working week has been brilliant. 

I collaborated with this American artist called Anna Brones. So we both like adventure. We both like coffee. So we did a year of go have a coffee outdoors once a month in different places. Go for a swim, then have a coffee. Go for a bike ride, then have a coffee. The point being, it doesn't matter what you do. You just need to find a way within the framework of your own life to get out regularly, do a bit of exercise and get out into nature.

Last year I did something on every full moon of the year, for example. So. 

Paddy: What did you, what did you do? Turn into a werewolf and eat some chickens?

Alastair: I went, I went out werewolf style to howl at the moon, but I'd go for a walk.

Paddy: Seriously?

Alastair: No, no howling. I'd go for a walk or a run or in the summertime, a swim. So It was fantastic to do that as well and to really notice different things. And also, I'm just going out at night, you get a very different impression of nature and the landscape around you as well.

Scheduling small things accumulates into being a more meaningful experience than each individual little thing in itself. 

Paddy: Alastair's most recent microadventure is an enormous undertaking of minutia. If you don't know, the entirety of the UK is mapped in great detail. A year ago, Alastair bought a map of his hometown just outside London, which is 400 square kilometers, and though he thought he knew his town well after 12 years of micro adventuring there, he challenged himself to explore a single nook and cranny of the map every week for a year.

Alastair: I went out to try and walk it or cycle every footpath or every street in that area, go through every wood, and just try and learn everything I could about that one grid square. And when I first had this idea, I thought it was maybe a bit boring, and that I'd get quite bored and I'd really just wish that I was going to the Himalayas instead, because that sounds much more exciting.

But I soon realized that there was so much on this one small map that I live on, that I'd never seen before in my life. And after a whole year of it, I'd been to 52 grid squares, which I'd looked at thoroughly. But there are 400 on the map, which means I still need to go for another 7 years before I've even been to everywhere on my map.

Surely then, the places that I've been to in the summer, I need to go to them in the winter and see what it's like when there's snow on the ground, or I need to go at dawn or at sunset, uh, or I need to just go knock on some people's doors and invite myself in for a cup of tea. And I just, my mind just started to explode at the scale of how much exploration there was on this one single map that I live on.

It just astonished me how interesting home can be.

As a young guy, I spent ten years of my life believing that the only place I could have adventure was by going to the very farthest end of the world. I mean, literally going to the other end of the world. 

And yet, right here, under my nose, is all sorts of nature and discovery that is just full of wonder.

Paddy: Alastair is now writing a book about devoting a year to exploring his hometown. It's called "Local," and it will be out at the end of this year.

For him, the book, like so much of what he's done since embracing micro adventures, is another chance to spur all of us to get into nature, however and whenever we can. And as he sees it, the point of this is pure and simple fun, which can do wonders for us.

Alastair: If in doubt in life, defaulting towards childlike curiosity and finding things funny is generally going to be a good way to approach life.

A lot of the adventure world takes itself very seriously.

But at the heart of it, all any of us are doing is just playing. I mean, people climbing big mountains are just playing, really. It's just fun. Well, it's a miserable sort of fun, but it's just playing, really.

I don't, I don't, I think, I don't think we should be taking ourselves too seriously. And I think if you're trying to encourage people to do something, then they're more likely to do it. If it seems appealing and fun than if it's earnest and preaching.

I would, um, never speak against people aspiring towards the adventure of a lifetime. I think it's a brilliant thing to plan, to dream, to save your money, and then go bicycle across the country. That's a wonderful thing to do. Literally an adventure of a lifetime. 

But I think what micro adventures offers up is the opportunity for a lifetime of living adventurously just a little bit every day. And I think that's a positive thing. If more people can start to do that.

It's good for people's physical health, of course, to go walk up a hill. It's good for your mental health to turn off your phone for a night and sleep on a hill. It's good for your mental health to turn off your phone for 20 minutes and go climb a tree in the local park.

Paddy: Letting your inner child plan your evenings and weekends can be wonderful for you as an individual. But the real power of the micro adventure movement is removing any rules around who gets to call themselves an adventurer.

Alastair: I think the idea of trying something new is really at the heart of micro adventures.

You can be an incredibly big tough guy doing crazy stuff and still welcome people who are going to go climb this first tiny little hill of their life and be totally out of breath.

That doesn't diminish you as a big tough guy at all.

The accessibility of micro adventures is the single most commonly used phrase to describe it.

It means that the outdoors becomes available to people who don't have the skills and the expertise and the hugely expensive equipment that you need to go up into the mountains. 

There's a long, long way to go in the diversification of the outdoors, but it's transformed dramatically and fantastically since I started doing adventures 20 years ago, when it was pretty much just a bunch of middle aged white men with beards and body odor who were the big heroes of my life.

It's far more interesting and varied these days.

I would love it if micro adventures just became a normal thing whereby young people, old people, men, women, any different color or flavor of human was just out doing stuff in the outdoors and it was no big deal at all. 

So hopefully we get to a point where you don't need to label yourself in any way of going outdoors and you don't need a micro adventure hashtag to be going to do something silly and fun on your work night. You just think it's five o'clock this evening. I don't need to be in the office till nine o'clock the next morning. Let's go sleep on a hill and jump in a river and turn up to work with damp underpants and the more normal that is the better.

Don't be put off by the epic people and thinking that's all you can possibly aspire to.

Do look at yourself really honestly, and work out what's stopping you. And don't be harsh on yourself because of that. Just accept whatever it is that's stopping you and do something beneath that level, enjoy it, and then do something a little bit more challenging the next time. And then little by little you'll be, you'll be away and flying before you know it.

If it feels like an adventure to you, then it is an adventure.

Michael:That's Alastair Humphreys, speaking with producer Paddy O'Connell. You can learn more about Alastair and his work on his website,

This episode was produced by Paddy and edited by me, Michael Roberts; music by Robbie Carver

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.