In February, I was under very clear instructions in terms of outdoors adventures: I need to be near home (within easy reach) and in a place where I would have constant cell phone reception. The reason for that is that my wife was nearly due to have our son. Those conditions meant I needed to adjust in order to spend a night or two outdoors: I need a short, easy-to-reach place for a night’s stay and half a day or so of walking. If you have been around outdoors-related readings over the last year or two, you will have probably come across Alastair Humphreys and his microadventure concept. A few months back I came out with a claim that microadventures are probably unnecessary and can even be out right dangerous in cases with the lack of skills or experience. Some of what I wrote is still true and I do think that over popularising outdoor adventures (even microadventures) without the right knowledge, skills and gear can be bad for the user and others (and nature mostly), I am now ready to eat my hat:
Microadventures are great and can be a vital tool for those who seek the outdoors when pressed with time.
I do plan on continuing my monthly adventures of a night or two outdoors with long days of walks, tackling sections of trails, but microadventures are a great supplement: adding one or replacing the monthly adventure with a couple of microadventures can be great; especially if it can be the difference between going outdoors or not.
What is a microadventure
So, if you somehow missed the microadventure concept, this is how Alastair Humphreys puts it (from his site):
Simple expeditions and challenges which are close to home, affordable and easy to organise.
Pretty simple. I, for a while, found this concept a bit silly – who wants to do small, simple and close to home adventures? I want solitude, distance, remoteness and many nights outdoors, being one with nature and so on. Well, it seems that when you just don’t have the time, microadventures can be the solution. I’ll highlight a few more points on how Alastair Humphreys puts it:
- Focusing on the after work hours (5 to 9)
- Aiming for a wild camp along the way
- Exploring the local wild/urban nature around you, so eliminating wasted travel time
- “Squeeze” a quick activity before and after the camp
- Keep it cheap
- Use gear you have
You can see how the microadventure concept will be so enticing for less experienced outdoors enthusiasts who probably find the idea of being self reliant outside a little intimidating and fear the dread of “going to buy the gear you need” phase for a big adventure. I do like the fact that it can introduce new people to hiking and camping, but it comes with some major flaws (in my opinion):
- You actually get very little time to be active – it is mainly about camping somewhere and feel pretty cool about it
- If you don’t have the right gear and skills, you might not really enjoy your microadventure; which might scare a newcomer to camping away
- It relies on the fact that you want/can escape mid-week, as the weekend can be used for a “real adventure”
- You have good access to public transportation or have a car (what if neither is possible?)
- Only suitable for people who either feel safe camping alone in their area or have friends/family who will be happy to join
I think that the above issues are pretty much a “non-issue” for experienced hikers and backpackers, which means that they can be really used well. Once I accepted the fact that a microadventure is a tool for the experienced, my view of it became very positive though I still wouldn’t recommend it for beginners.
Microadventures for experienced outdoors enthusiasts
How can microadventures be a great tool for experienced hikers and walkers? Pretty easily:
- Can you pack a bag in 10 minutes?
- Do you have all your gear in one place?
- How many quick dinners/freeze dried meals do you have to hand?
- When was the last time you explored an over night trip locally?
- Do you have no shame in getting dressed and sorted in the office?
I’m guessing you went through those questions with a chuckle and got the point of what I’m saying here – if you are an experienced outdoors enthusiast, your only barrier to a microadventure is your own mind and prejudices. There are a few things I do recommend to get the feel of a microadventure that is more “appropriate” for a veteran walker and camper:
- Pick a place that is harder to reach so you will be “stuck” in your place of choice – it is too easy to get somewhere and say “screw it, I’m going to the pub and then home, I like my bed”. Make it hard on yourself to give up by walking away from your means of transportation
- Don’t have a pub meal – it is way too tempting to make things “lighter” and simpler, but don’t. Make sure you take a meal you need to cook (even if simply), so you will have to actually settle for your night to get some food
- Feel free to get a small flask of whiskey – an over nighter is pretty much the only time you can justify the extra weight
- Leave from the office – there are less chances you will cancel if you are not going through home. It also saves time in getting somewhere further away
- Keep it simple for your family and spouse (who you want to keep the happiest here) – you are only missing one evening meal/family time and one breakfast/drop off time. This is especially vital for families with younger child(ren) or if, like my family lately, there is a heavily pregnant wife, where there is a need for two parents to be hands on
- Try and pick nights with clear skies and a full moon – you can actually walk a couple of hours until camping with the right light – when was the last time you did that?
- If you use public transport, buy the tickets in advance – this will further ensure you don’t cancel due to a long day in the office or general fatigue. This does come with a risk, as my last microadventure plan was cancelled when my wife started to get contractions (it was a false alarm…), so I lost the £17 I paid for train tickets – oh well….
- Adopt a simple camping setup – invest in a bivy bag for lightness and stealth, add a tarp if needed and keep it as basic as you can – you want time outside, not time to check all your kit
You have probably picked up a theme here: most of the advice is about going out, not staying out, as I find this is the hardest part with microadventures. Another way to solve the going out part is to have a partner to go with and you will push each other, but this is not my thing so I can give you no advice on that.
Microadventures for thru-hikers
As you noticed above, usually microadventures are focused on camping and some hiking – not exactly the thru-hiker’s dream, definitely not mine. When I go outdoors I like the walking part, and lots of it, preferable fast, so a microadventure in the classic (Humphrey’s) way is not quiet enough. I have tried a few variations of this, either going for just the night, or using a weekend day to supplement the night for some walking or even walking on a Sunday, camping and then work on Monday – they are not all successful. The recipe I found that works best for thru-hikers or any long distance walkers is to get a real day’s walk after a night of camping: it gives the right level of excitement you get from going outdoors and keeps you in camp for and early start the following morning. If you hike first and camp after, you will find that it is way too easy to walk a bit more and just go home (as happened to me), making it a great day hike but not really a microadventure.
So, my simple recipe for a microadventure for a thru-hiker is:
- Aim for a Friday night+Saturday adventure in a 50-100km radius from home – you can almost always find some green in that size of an area
- Pack light and leave from work – pick a place that is at least 30 minutes away (by train or car)
- Pick a night with a full moon (clouds are harder to control) and plan to walk at least 6km (2.5miles) from the station/parking lot – this is enough for a night walk and too far to chicken out and head back home
- By now it is usually about 21-22:00 at night – have a quick snack, make some tea and jump into your bivy bag
- Fall a sleep star gazing or staring at the moon – takes you straight back to being a kid (or at least it does for me)
- Rise early and have a half day of hiking – I usually aim to be home by 17:00, which still allows me to get home, have dinner and spend time with my family
- Make the half day hiking worth it – aim for miles and scenery – nothing technical, just distance. I usually aim for 30-40km (20-25 miles) for a good feeling of achievement
That’s it – give it a go.
Adding training to your microadventures
As a time-pressed, semi-retired (for now!) thru-hiker, when I go outdoors I want to try and get the most out of it: make every day of walking feel like 3, so I aim to cover distance and make it hard. To be able to accomplish this, I make sure my half day (after the night camp) is in a place I can easily “hop” from trail to trail, covering 35-50km (20-35 miles) in the day. How to do this:
- Get up early – you probably bivied, so there was light (or frost) early; you might as well get an arm out, start the coffee and get ready to go. Packing should take about 10 minutes at most. I aim to leave by 6:30 in the summer or with the first light in winter to get the most day time. Another note about getting going early: you are probably not that remote, so there is a good chance you will meet a dog walker in the early hours; I prefer to finish my coffee in peace before they start pestering me…..
- Find a hilly area – not really useful for distance but great for the feeling of success and exhaustion.
- Have a good finishing time – about 16:00 is great for both summer and winter (usually gets dark then), giving you 9-10 hours of walking, and I’m sure you can walk at 5km/h all day.
- Cut out the breaks – you are only there for a day, see as much as you can.
- Don’t “fight” with navigation – unless you set a day specifically for navigation games, pick an area that will have clear trails for distance coverage, which is much simpler than trying to beat the clock: just aim to beat yourself and beat the map.
The goal here is to finish your part-day of walking with a real sense of achievement and exhaustion, that kind that you feel when walking a long distance path, so put all you can into it.
What my last two microadventures have looked like
My first microadventure was a night out after work on Friday and a day of walking on Saturday in a part of the South Downs National Park that I had never been to. It was a clear and cold night with a full moon and so many stars. The train ride was the usual mix of long work day commuters from London and hipster Londoners getting drunk on the way to some random house party in the country side – go figure. I had a nice night walk for a couple of hours and then bivvied in some remote part of a no name woodland. After an early rise and 35km of satisfying cold walk, I was ready to go home – short and sweet.
My second trip was to Epping forest and further north from there, circling to the Lee valley – all very close to London but still with enough remote spots for me to find it acceptable. I opted for a long walking day with a camp at the end and an early rise and retreat home for breakfast. The walk was very muddy and cold, but satisfying all the same, being so close to home but still far enough for some tranquility. When I reached my planned camping spot (5.5km from my train station back home) I found the place, well, not to my liking. The camping spot was near a secondary road that turned out to be very noisy, there were a few houses about 200m away at the edge of the woods with a bunch of noisy dogs and it just didn’t feel right, despite it having been dark for the last hour and a half. Instead of staying, I just kept on walking, jumped on the train and was home in time for dinner – it was a microadventure-turned-long-day-hike.
After the two trips above, I concluded the night and day (compared to day and night) format works for me better as the camp before the walk fills me with excitement about the next day’s walk. I also planned another little microadventure in the full moon during February, but my wife was showing signs of contractions and the need for me to be around was clear, so I unpacked my bag…..