Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, blogger, author and motivational speaker. He’s cycled the world, rowed the English Channel and the Atlantic, walked across India and the Empty Quarter desert in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as completing smaller “microadventures” closer to home. Did we mention that he makes a living out of this?
Al stayed put just long enough for us to ask him about being a professional adventurer, whether it's all it's cracked up to be – and if everyone is taking home a pay packet like Bear Grylls.
How do you describe your job?
I do call myself an adventurer. I used to do it with those inverted commas you do with your fingers, because it sounds like a bit of a silly job description. It’s the best that I can think of, though. It’s a really interesting genre because it spreads so broadly – from Red Bull athletes who jump off crazy mountains to somebody like me who, nowadays, spends more time sitting behind a desk evangelising about adventure than jumping off mountains.
What’s the best bit about being an adventurer?
What I love is the freedom of being my own boss and doing the stuff that I want to do, the way I want to do it, and taking responsibility for its success or failure.
What’s the worst bit?
Because it’s your job, it has to pay for your life. When I climb a big hill and there’s a beautiful sunset, rather than saying 'Wow, this is a beautiful sunset,' and appreciating and enjoying the moment, I think: 'I should write a blog about this or try and pitch it to a magazine'. Whatever you do, if you turn your hobby into a job there’s that slight downside.
How would you recommend people start out?
First of all you need to work out what your true passion is: What is it that you really want out of adventure? This will help you work out if you should become an instructor, guide, or take another route.
A lot of people think that they want to be a professional adventurer. What they should be thinking is, ‘I want to have a massive adventure.’ People should go and do some huge, life-changing, life-enhancing adventure first. Only after that should they work out how it will pay them any money. It’s the best way to get exciting, wonderful stories that people care about, and to build up any sort of credibility.
Trying to work out what to do? Drone pilot? Photographer? Windsurfing instructor? Hit up our Jobs In Adventure series for more inspiration.
What pitfalls should aspiring adventurers watch out for?
I think the notion of serving an apprenticeship is really important. We have a sort of X-Factor generation whereby people think that they can go from nothing to instant superstars without putting in the years of hard work. If you wanted to be a builder or a doctor - or to do just about any job in the real world - you would start at the bottom and work and work and work.
It really depresses me when I get emails from people who have done absolutely nothing saying that they want to be an adventurer. Their first questions are about trying to get social media fame, rather than asking what the best way to cycle to China is. The adventure should be the first thing you worry about – the rest comes later.
Is the life of a professional adventurer for everyone?
If you just want to do expeditions, perhaps the most sensible thing to do is to get the best, well-paid office job that you can manage. Do it on terms whereby you do six months in the office and then six months off, so you can disappear round the world. If you do that, you’ll do more adventures than 99% of so-called professional adventurers.
Although this plan is very sensible, I would hate it because the six months in the office would break me. I personally like all the other bits when I’m not on adventures; I like writing books, writing for magazines and trying to evangelise about adventure on the internet.
What’s been your most memorable adventure?
It was probably the first big one I did: cycling the world. Doing your first big adventure is such an exciting, wonderful thing that you never get again. The more you do trips, the more you know what to expect. Inevitably, the initial magic fades a little bit.
It was so special to be fresh and out in the world. It was also really enjoyable because it was before I had any notion that this would become my job. It excited me and I didn’t give a damn if anyone else cared about it – it’s a nice way to be living.
How much training is involved in your job?
It depends what trip you’re going to do. If you’re doing something that requires you to be instantly fit and an expert on the very first day then you need to prepare accordingly. I think a lot of people’s first adventures are great because, by their very nature, they are low budget, low tech and low skill.
I might be biased but I don’t think anyone could do any better than getting on their bike and going cycling somewhere for a few months. You get fit along the way, it doesn’t require much skill, it doesn’t require much expertise or money, but it teaches you so many things.
What’s the pay like?
The pay completely varies. I think it’s a really important question to ask. Whatever world you’re trying to get into, you shouldn’t look at the outliers and imagine that you’ll be like them; you shouldn’t think that you’re going to be the next Bear Grylls. You should imagine that, at the very best, you’ll scrape a living from it – but at least it’s a living worth having.
When I got to the point where I could sustainably live from my adventures – eat, sleep, pay rent – I just felt so thrilled and thought I had everything I wanted in life. Of course, being a greedy human, I then had that yearning for more money!
It’s very rare for anyone to make money from adventure instantly. It usually takes quite a long time to build up credibility and the skills of writing, speaking, or filmmaking.
It’s a really good idea to make adventure a part-time life for as long as you can. Do adventures, do writing, but keep on with your normal job, rather than quitting everything instantly and just assuming that tomorrow you will be a rich adventurer. I don’t think it really works like that.
Right. So is there any money in it at all?
Bear Grylls is rich! However, there are also a lot of people with gaffer-tape holding their jackets together who drive rubbish cars. They're very, very happy doing it, though.
If you want to be rich, be a banker. If you want to live the life of your choice then be an adventurer. If you end up living the life of your choice and being very, very rich then give me a call!
If you weren’t an adventurer, what would you be doing?
I would probably be a teacher. That’s the most likely, sensible, job path for me.
Is there anything else you think would-be adventurers should know?
One of my very good adventure friends, Ben Saunders, a polar explorer, taught me that if you’re going to be a professional adventurer then you have to portray yourself professionally.
The other thing Ben does really well is to find the people who are the best at what they do, whether that’s website design or accountancy, and pay them whatever it takes. Then he can get on with the stuff he’s good at. (Speaking from painful experience, I’d recommend doing this as soon as you possibly can - I wish five years ago I had hired someone to be an accountant rather than doing it myself!)
However, my main advice is that if someone wants to be an adventurer first off, go and do a massive adventure! Don’t tell anyone about it, just do something because it means something to you. Worry about everything else when you come back.