You might think that working from home, and being pinned down to your local area, puts the idea of going on any outdoor adventures on hold. OK, so you won’t be climbing any 4,000m peaks, but it’s still perfectly possible to have a soul-feeding adventure, to boost your mood because just being outdoors in green spaces has been proven to benefit your mental health, whether they are in the city, the ‘burbs or a sleepy rural idyll…
To set off on your own local adventure takes a shift in mindset. Unless you’re very lucky you can’t rely on epic views of mountain tops – even if you can, heading into the mountains isn’t advisable while emergency services are stretched.
Even if you live in an an urban environment, don’t assume that adventure isn’t available to you – it’s just not true. For example, I’ve taken my best wildlife photographs, and done some of my most physically challenging endurance efforts right where I live, in London’s Zone 2. (All but one of the photos in this article have been taken within a local adventure’s distance.)
To have a local adventure, you will need to recalibrate your preconceptions of what an adventure looks like. It’s perfectly possible to have a challenging, exciting experience in your metaphorical backyard, but you’ll need to learn to see that place anew, through a different lens.
Don’t dismiss the familiar just because you know it, because nature is change. New sights and sounds are always around us – it’s just that sometimes we have to filter out the noise. Here’s how to do that, together with my tips on planning, doing, and learning from your lockdown adventure…
Recalibrating your sense of adventure means that we need to look past the jagged, Instagrammed peaks of Patagonia’s Cerro Torre, or those epic tales of Shackleton in the Golden Age of Exploration.
Because, when you boil it down, adventure isn’t a place or an expedition. At its core, it comes down to three things: being outdoors, choosing a challenge, and experiencing something new. There are many ways to achieve these three conditions, even if you live in the centre of a city. Leave your old expectations behind and you will take the first step on an adventure…
Speaking of filtering out the noise, the one thing that will derail your local adventure before it even begins is an abrupt pinging sound that drags you back into those virtual realms of work or social media. This will kill your adventure mindset stone dead, and don’t think that you can get back into it so easily.
Even productivity gurus know the ‘switch cost’ that occurs when our attention is dragged away from the moment – it takes mental energy to re-engage and that’s lost adventure mojo. So, temporarily disable notifications and remove your earphones, because a big part of the local, or micro-adventure, is using your ears.
As soon as you strike out on an adventure you can raise the challenge stakes massively by simply going on your own. With no one else to lean on, you’re suddenly completely reliant on your own skills and resources.
This can be a risk too far in very remote places, but in your local area it will provide an element of challenge, so long as your streets are safe enough – daylight hours on well-trodden paths are best for this approach.
In fact, just stepping outside on your own ticks two of the local adventure boxes. Just make sure someone knows where you are going and when you plan to be back, because this is good practice for any adventure.
If you save those outdoor exercise catch ups for more sociable excursions, then your lockdown adventure is likely to be more vivid and memorable for what you personally achieved within it, and learnt from it.
There’s nothing like picking up a paper OS map and an actual compass to tell yourself: “Right, I’m going on an adventure.” It kickstarts the adventure mindset even if you don’t intend to use the compass, or even the map. And it also neatly removes the excuse to take your smartphone out of your pocket, to check where you are, which will inevitably open you up to being ambushed by work, or distracted by a friend’s post.
One of my best Christmas presents was a personalised, paper OS walking map of my local area, centred on my own flat – it really helps you to visualise the bigger picture of the geographical space around you, and spot corridors of nature along canals and green spaces, which you can plot a route through when planning a new adventure.
Watching a few YouTube videos on how to use a map and compass will prepare you well enough to try ‘old school’ nav techniques, but you can become even more of an adventure navigation wizard by learning the basics of natural navigation. The challenge here is to find your way without any devices or maps at all.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. So, if you know the approximate time of day, can see the sun, and adjust for the season (sunrise and sunset are further north in the winter and further south in the summer), then you should be able to tell where the compass points are, and therefore the direction you are heading.
But beyond that there are literally thousands of signs you can pick up on to help you navigate. I’ve interviewed adventurer and author Tristan Gooley in the past whom, since he sailed, and flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean, has devoted himself to decoding what the world has to tell us about natural navigation…
For instance, what if the sun is hidden by clouds? Well, can you spot a rainbow? “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and rainbows always appear opposite the sun. So, early in the day, rainbows are going to be in the western sky,” Tristan tells me.
Another trick for navigating in an area with buildings is to know that satellite dishes point southeast in the UK. “And major roads such as dual carriageways are generally aligned to the compass. So, in the north of a city, a major road is likely to run north to south, whereas in the west it will run east to west,” he says.
Then, there’s a technique using lichens that you can employ in the wilds or the city: golden lichen tends to grow on the southern surface of stone or wooden benches, and mosses on the northern side.
And your local knowledge actually becomes an advantage when it comes to picking out patterns. For instance, Tristan recommends once a day asking yourself what direction you are facing in, and then seeing if you can pick out any clues.
“Knee-high grass growing in exposed areas bends in the current wind direction, but shorter grass in sheltered areas is often bent in the general wind direction over a course of days, and that’s usually southwesterly.”
One of the ways that you know you’re on an adventure, rather than ‘just a walk’, is that your senses are heightened and you feel in tune with your surroundings in a way that you don’t normally. Colours seem brighter and objects more defined.
This is because, at some point, you have become fully engaged in what you are doing. Your eyes and ears are picking out signs and sounds, your body is taking in more stimuli and your brain is busy crunching that data.
You can kick this process into overdrive by just stopping in your tracks to mindfully see and hear what’s around you. Try to track the details of individual bird songs, or pick out details in vegetation. Really let it soak in.
If you find that your focus is too easily distracted, then try a simple breathing exercise to ground you:
Breathe from your belly and in through your nose for five seconds, then out through your mouth for ten. Almost close your lips and let the air out slowly, to really empty your lungs. You’ll soon feel more calm, but at the same time more alert and energised, because your blood will be more oxygenated
(Incidentally, big wave surfer Andrew Cotton taught me this technique – he even uses it lying on his surfboard before catching 80ft waves, which shows it’s a powerful tool.)
Wherever you are, there will be wildlife to see on your local adventure. Experiencing this will connect you to the natural environment and give you another chance to fulfil the third condition of an adventure: experience something new. Catching sight of an exotic bird migrating for the winter, or even hearing its song for the first time, definitely falls into this category.
To be in with a chance to actually spot something this elusive, you need to ‘get your eye in’. Just being aware of the wildlife around you, and consciously logging it, even if it’s just making a quick note later on, will make you generally more aware of animals, creatures and plants, and help you to identify them.
This will prompt you to be quicker off the mark in spotting and tracking a bird’s unusual flight pattern, or spying an unusually shaped leaf.
There’s nothing like spotting a bird you’ve never seen before, that’s flown in from thousands of miles away, to make you suddenly interested in being able to identify them on the fly, and exploring the places where they live. And you can help to protect wildlife by sending reports of your sightings to associations, such as the RSPB.
As humans, we are creatures of habit. This means that the tendency, on a walking or cycling local adventure, is to follow those faster, tried and tested roads and paths. But this reduces our chances of fulfilling the third local adventure condition: experiencing something new.
Instead, resist your natural inclination to follow well-trodden paths and treat your lockdown adventure as an opportunity to create new ‘paths of desire’ by going the long way around, on the smallest roads and pathways you can find. In the UK, we have a vast web of interconnecting footpaths. Some are paved, some not, but they are a legacy from our shared history, going back thousands of years.
In some landscapes this legacy is obvious. For instance, in Dartmoor you can see the rectangular grid of fields that have been a constant human feature since the Stone Age, 4,500 years ago. (You can read more about that in my recent post on winter walking in Dartmoor.)
Don’t assume that just because you are in a city, these ancient ways have been concreted over. Our streets themselves often follow them, but there are often signposted modern walking networks that make use of these old rights of way, such as London’s 78-mile Capital Ring Walk that cuts through nature reserves, open space and sites of special scientific interest.
Not only are these pathways our collectively held natural resource but, in the UK, a staggering 49,000 miles of them are under threat of being lost forever (including 470 in London alone). Fortunately, part of your lockdown adventure could be to safeguard them for future generations.
We have less than five years to do this, by gathering evidence for the Rambler’s Association’s ‘Don’t Lose Your Way’ campaign to save these lost paths. You can put your own post code into this online form to find out what lost paths are near you.
If you’re the kind of person who is inspired by heroic feats of endurance in adventurous places, then you can still emulate the fearless approach to physical challenge taken by icons like Ann Barcroft, the first woman to ski to the North and South Poles.
First think of a suitably inspiring challenge: Running The Length Of The River Thames, for instance, which is 215 miles from source to sea. Then, break the challenge down into manageable chunks across days and weeks (with a buffer added to make sure you don’t push yourself and get injured in a pandemic).
Then, pick a stretch of water near you (canal towpaths, lakeside walks and rivers all count), and run repeats up and down it. While 215 miles seems like a lot, the standard training plan for a full marathon calls for 40-50 miles of running per week, so it soon gets chunked down. If you’re new, or returning to running don’t attempt anywhere near that mileage – start small and build up from there, adding no more than 5-10% of your weekly mileage, each week, and then taking a rest week every three weeks.
Share what you’re up to with friends, to help keep you honest. You’ll soon find that you’re building the sense of purpose and progress that’s essential to any good endurance adventure.
There’s a good time and a bad time to test that GoreTex outdoor jacket you bought in lockdown. The wrong time is high up on the fells of the Lake District when a rainstorm rolls in and cruelly exposes any badly taped seams or design defects. Not only will you be drenched, and feel conned, but it’s the kind of problem that can even snowball into a survival situation.
The right time would be on your local adventure, when you’re not far from home and close to some kind of shelter. So, don’t shun bad weather. Instead, use rain, snow and cold as a convenient test bed for your adventure clobber, to see if would be up to the kind of extremes that I found on Dartmoor at the start of the year, when I took a Patagonia Fitz Roy Down out for review.
One recent lockdown adventure found me riding through my local woods, when I was reminded of the importance of following point Number 7: Stop, Look, Listen. It had been hammering down with rain all week but I headed out into winter sunshine with no breeze at all. It was so still that the sky was reflected in deep ponds of rainwater, which had been struck still by blades of sunshine cutting between the trees.
As I peered down into the water I realised that the bars of sunlight were refracting and creating puddle rainbows in the ponds! I thought it was a trick of my polarised sunglasses at first, but no, I took them off and laughed in surprise. I definitely hadn’t seen multiple puddle rainbows before. It was a bit like seeing a unicorn swimming in your local canal. Of course, I had to take a photo (see below).
I almost didn’t pull my bike over to take a closer look, but I’m glad I did. Don’t resist the impulse to halt your local adventure and really take in your surroundings, because you might be surprised by the path it takes you down…
If you’re embarking on your own escapade then let me know – I might be able to offer some advice, or at least encouragement!
All photos ©Matt Ray, all rights reserved