I lay there listening to the rain on the canvas. I didn’t have the experience then to know that even very light rain can sound thunderously loud inside a tent. I was far from civilisation in the Brecon Beacons National Park, in a borrowed tent, with very little experience and about to leave my warm cocoon for a soggy unknown. I should have been fed up but instead I was feeling excited. 

It was the second morning of my Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition, I was 16 years old and this was my first overnight adventure. We’d spent much of the previous day exploring (also known as “getting lost”) in the wilds of the National Park. We’d been pushed far outside of our comfort zones, four young women, more accustomed to stressing over our hair or make-up than how to use a Trangia camping stove or a Silva compass. But that was what had made it special, it was so different to our everyday urban existence. We had entered another world where all the usual rules, pressures and expectations didn’t matter. I felt freedom and the promise that I could reinvent myself. 

Hiking and camping largely away from adult supervision, the experience was designed to foster autonomy and build self-belief. As a teenage girl I had suffered from very low confidence. Always feeling too ugly, too fat, too unpopular, never doing well enough in the classroom or on the sports field. This challenging weekend in Wales was an epiphany. I found something that made me feel alive but also that made me re-evaluate what I might be capable of. Afterall if I can climb mountains and survive the wilds, then what else might I be capable of? 

That initial challenge in the Brecon Beacons led to a more confident me but it was also the first step towards bigger adventures and deeper personal discovery. Over the last twenty-six years I’ve led dozens of international expeditions. I’ve walked through Nicaragua, sailed across the Atlantic, searched for camels in China’s Desert of Death, discovered ancient rock paintings in Lesotho and gained a Guinness World Record for rowing nonstop and unsupported around Britain. Major expeditions aren’t easy to fit into everyday life but luckily we can gain some of the many benefits of adventuring through smaller challenges, closer to home. In 2009, I established Explorers Connect, a non-profit organisation connecting people to adventure. Through it I’ve encouraged 30,000 ordinary people to engage in outdoor challenges – both big and small.

Adventure Mind

Adventure saved me. And for the last twenty-six years of taking others on adventurous activities, I have seen it change people of all ages and abilities, and from all walks of life. I’ve seen it turn the timid into the confident, the addicted into the recovering and the lost into the intentionally wandering. The multitude of ways adventure can transform is why it excites me so much. Not just the act of adventuring itself but what it can do for us as human beings navigating our way through the ups and downs of life. This is what I call the Adventure Effect, which lays on a spectrum between deep and permanent transformational change to a less extreme but still impactful shift towards feeling better than before and thinking with a more helpful mindset. 

Adventure has the power to heal but it can also help teach us how to live our best lives. I first met Freyja in 2015 when she joined a mountain hiking weekend with me in Snowdonia. She came across as one of those people who seemed to have their life sorted. Yet, it turned out, for a long time she had felt lost. At work she had held herself back, too afraid of failing. She’d avoided opportunities to present her ideas to her colleagues, encouraging others in her team to do so instead. She’d been ‘mortified’ by the thought of failing publicly, so she’d simply not allowed herself to do so. However, this had changed after she took up climbing. Now she was leading workshops, standing up in front of her colleagues and strangers, doing more and more outside of her comfort zone. She’d learnt that ‘the more I do a climbing route that scares me, the more familiar it gets. The more I do workshop facilitation, the easier it becomes. I wasn’t pushing myself as much as I wanted to because I was avoiding failure. Now I give myself a pep talk on the climbing wall and in these professional situations too. I think to myself, I’ve got this.’

I’ve been witness to hundreds of transformations like these. Ordinary people going through extraordinary change. They were my inspiration for researching why adventure is so impactful. Now a significant part of my mission is in promoting the benefits of adventure for our wellbeing. 

In 2019 I established Adventure Mind, a conference series and network, to further explore the importance of adventuring to mental health. I’ve collated a large body of research supporting the idea that adventure has positive effects for our mental health and developed the first argument for adventure for wellbeing. For example, according to one study (in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health), those taking part in adventurous physical activity go on to have a better quality of life and improved relationships, they achieve more and experience more joy. Another recent study (by Sheffield Hallam University) found that family adventure holidays can lead to improved family communication, trust, and cohesion. And participants in an independent study into women in adventure were noted as saying ‘Adventure has given me the confidence to be myself and live in the present.’ Another said, ‘Being active outdoors has given me self-esteem, a sense of self-worth and confidence like nothing else ever has.’  

In 2021 I published the first book to explain how and why adventure is essential to our wellbeing: Adventure Revolution: the life changing power of choosing challenge. From managing anxiety and overcoming fear, to finding self-worth and improving relationships, to being more resilient, happier and more joyful, Adventure Revolution draws on theories I’ve developed whilst leading groups into the wilderness, the latest findings in psychology and inspirational stories of transformation.  

With all this evidence and inspiration why aren’t more of us answering our call to adventure? I believe it’s because we’ve engineered it out of our everyday. As a society we spend more time indoors than ever before. We follow so many rules and routines. So, to experience and therefore benefit from adventure, we need to make time in our busy schedules to go outside and seek new challenges. When we step outside of our comfort zone, we learn, we grow and we feel most alive. That’s where the magic lies and the lasting memories are made. Achievable adventures that can fit into our busy modern lives. We just have to seek them out, not just because they’re fun but because they are good for us too. We don’t need huge amounts of time or money to live more adventurously. Everyone can do it, no matter our experience, fitness or age. However, I understand that the first step is the hardest, so my advice is to start small.

I’ve taken groups on adventures where I have seen significant positive wellbeing outcomes over a weekend, a day or a night. Join an adventure class or club to learn a new skill, camp in your garden, try wild swimming, take small steps into a more adventurous lifestyle. Once you’ve started to adventure, the positive feedback you’ll get from participating will empower you to take even bigger steps and lead you to experience even more positive wellbeing. 

Adventure is something to look forward to, a pleasure to look back on and mostly enjoyable at the time too. As such, adventure is a welcome addition to our list of ‘must dos’ as we strive to be healthier and happier. I believe that adventure might just be the most natural way to make a change and tackle the many health issues that we face.

Everyday Adventures

  1. Try wild swimming. All you need is a swimming costume, a towel and an open mind. There are wild swimming clubs all over the country now. Find your local community and join a swim or follow their advice. If lakes and rivers are too much of a stretch the first time, you could start with an alfresco swim in a lido. As well as the feelings of achievement, the camaraderie of a shared experience and the physical benefits of exercise, there’s evidence that the cold water boosts your immune system, reduces stress and gives you a natural high. 
  2. Learn a new skill. There’s a surprisingly long list of adventurous activities you can try as part of a day trip, including kayaking, hiking, navigating, surfing, sky diving, scuba diving, bushcraft, stand up paddleboarding, climbing and rafting. The satisfaction gained from being brave enough to try, followed by the feelings of achievement when you paddle your first lake or climb a wall result in authentic feelings of pride. 
  3. Explore your neighbourhood. Instead of pounding the same bit of pavement, pioneer a new running route every time you leave the house. Cycle or walk a new way to work each week. During lockdown many of us discovered new places of interest by exploring closer to home. We can widen that circle now but keep the same attitude of childlike wonder and be a tourist in our own neighbourhood.   
  4. Seek out the sunset and sunrise. The natural rhythm of the sun is something the majority of us take for granted but walking into the approaching darkness just as everyone else is settling in for the night gives a sense of extra excitement and challenge. Following a route in the dark that is familiar to you in the daytime is a novel experience; you’ll use different senses, and it will feel like a different world. It’s a great way to experience real adventure and excitement with little planning or travel. Getting up in the dark to summit a local hill for the sunrise can elicit unique feelings of awe and inspiration. 
  5. Sleep outside. Spending nights outside is one of the simplest ways to live more adventurously. If you’re one of those people who has sworn off camping, re-start comfortably. An easy start is to camp in your (or your friend’s) garden. Think duvets instead of sleeping bags and you’ll have a real toilet just steps away. Keen to take it a step further? Use a bivvy bag or hammock instead of a tent, try wild camping or even camp on your own. 
  6. Volunteer with an adventure charity. Meet new friends and experience the joy of the outdoors whilst supporting disadvantaged young people to access adventure. These are just a few examples of UK charities you can actively volunteer for: The Wave Project, Youth Adventure Trust, Ocean Youth Trust, Adventure Plus, Urban Uprising and of course don’t forget your local Scout and Guide groups. 

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