How to live a life of adventure: 5 lessons in escapism from explorer Anna McNuff

Adventurer Anna McNuff is no stranger to the wild side of life, having run solo through New Zealand’s backcountry for 148 days, cycled the remote Andes region on a bike called Bernard, and gone barefoot across Britain, covering the equivalent of 90 marathons. Here she shares her top tips for channelling the spirit of escapism – even during a global pandemic

When so much of our life is spent thinking about the past or the future, adventure puts you in the present. That could be because you’re caught up gazing out at a stunning view, watching some wildlife or gasping for breath as you schlep it up a mountain. 

Or it could be because adventure can often lead to getting yourself in a pickle, so you become absorbed in solving the problem at hand. You are completely immersed in what’s going on around you in the here and now

Anna running the St James Walkway in New Zealand

That’s such a rare thing, and – even if it’s only for an hour or two – you’ll return to normal life with a renewed sense of calm and confidence

The thing I love the most about adventure, however, is that it’s personal. Ultimately, it’s about what excites you enough to get outdoors and get exploring. And no one else except you can decide what that is. How exciting.  

Here are five ways to charge up the power of adventure in your life, even with all the restrictions we’re living with right now. 

1. Build a local bucket list

An adventure is all what you make of it

Adventure means heading out into the unknown and experiencing something new. That could be a journey to a far-flung corner of the globe, immersing yourself in a new culture, pushing mind and body along the way.

Equally, it could be an experience much closer to home – like taking a different route to work, exploring a hidden wood filled with bluebells, or heading to the top of a hill to watch a sunrise with a mug of hot chocolate in hand. Here are a few ideas to get you going from within your own neighbourhood. 

  • Try a new method of human-powered travel from A to B – e.g. cycling, kayaking, swimming, walking or even rollerblading.
  • Seek out the best-rated pub or independent coffee shop in your county and plan a run, walk or cycling adventure out and back from there. Nothing is better motivation for adventure than knowing there’s some delicious food at the end of it.
  • Go for a wild swim. There are so many beautiful lakes, rivers and tidal sea pools in the UK. Wild swimming isn’t about the swimming at all, it’s more about wild dipping and seeing a beautiful place from a different vantage point.
  • Find a pocket of wilderness in a city. That can be such a magical thing, when you’ve written off an urban area as uninspiring and then bam: you find a secret garden or stunning viewpoint to look out over the skyline.
  • Find out where the highest point is in your county and hike to the top of it for a sunset dinner or sunrise brekkie picnic.
Wild swimming is a great way to embrace the natural landscape
  •  Find and complete a long-distance footpath – there are thousands of waymarked trails all across the country. You could adjust the comfort level to whatever suits you. Spend each night in a B&B or rough it and camp along the way. Some great examples are Hadrian’s Wall Path, the South West Coast Path and The West Highland Way. These could be done over multiple days, or broken up and tackled over the course of the year in segments.
  • Go on a night-time hike and stop for some stargazing. Better still, do it on a night when there’s a meteor shower and get your fix of shooting stars. 

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2. Start small and scale up your confidence

Anna scrambling across the screes of Snowdonia

There’s a lot of talk about “getting out of your comfort zone” – which is important but it also pays to dance around the edge of it, and begin with something that you are at least partially comfortable with. If the idea of wild camping makes you write it off an impossibility, then start with a camp out in your back garden. 

If running a 50-mile trail seems like something that “other” people do but not you, then start with a few days of running five miles along a trail at a time and piece it together. If climbing a mountain seems like madness, start with your local hill. Confidence is a muscle: you’ve got to flex it a little to wake it up first.

3. Reinvent the meaning of freedom 

We've redefined the meaning of adventure this year

At the start of the pandemic, I battled with feeling like I’d lost a sense of freedom. Suddenly all my travel plans disappeared and even trips to places further afield in the UK were off the menu. I went through all of the Covid coping stages; denial, despair, anger, frustration, sadness until finally I reached acceptance. 

From there, I decided to redefine my sphere of freedom and shrink it to exploring the country park opposite my home in Gloucester. I found forest trails that I never knew existed and stumbled upon meadows of wildflowers that blew my mind. Much as I can’t wait to travel further afield again, the past year has given me a deeper appreciation for my own backyard. The landscape in Britain is pretty darn awesome, after all. 

4. Tap your inner child

Anna as a child, with her brothers

To find adventure in the everyday, think like a child. I don’t mean get out the crayons and scribble on the living room wall (although perhaps we should do that more often, too). Instead, tap into that sense of childlike awe and wonder about the world around you. When you’re out and about, ask all of those questions that run through your mind but you feel are too silly to ask, or that you should already know the answer. 

Because you’re a grown up. For me that’s usually stuff like: Where does that trail go? What kind of animal left that pile of poop there? What actually is the purpose of a pine cone, anyway? Do flamingos have knees? (the last question was specific to South America).

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As a general rule, all of my best adventure ideas begin with “I wonder…” and I fill in the blank after that, then head out and do it. It could be a disaster and turn out nothing at all like I’d expected, but either way beginning a plan with “I wonder….” leads to magical events, and magical events make memories that last a lifetime. 

5. Lean into uncomfortable emotions

All the best adventures involve a mixture of fear and excitement

If you’d read about 2020 in a movie script you’d think ‘there’s no way I could cope with that!’ and yet… you did. Yes, you might have worked through losing your job as opposed to crossing a river in the New Zealand bush, but the set of uncomfortable emotions that go along with both scenarios are the same.

Hold on to that belief in your ability to cope with change. If you’re feeling 50% terrified and 50% excited about a new idea, a career change or an adventure plan – that means it’s the right idea. Resolve to take on things that make you feel that 50/50 split and I guarantee it’ll lead to some wonderful adventures.

Anna McNuff’s new book, 100 Adventures To Have Before You Grow Up, is out now. Anna is also speaking at the Bishop’s Stortford College Festival of Literature running from 2-12 February 2021. Find out more and get tickets here.

Images: Anna McNuff, Getty Images

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