“Embarking on an adventure is a form of release. When your most immediate concerns are to keep warm, save fuel and pack enough food, there is little space for extraneous thoughts.”
Adventure travel used to mean flirting with danger to get your adrenaline pumping – but for today’s travellers, the most extreme journeys take place as much in the mind as they do on the tundra, up a mountain or in a conflict zone. Kate Hamilton investigates adventure travel’s shift from purely physical to psychological.
Intrepid travellers have long pushed the boundaries of human endurance. Polar explorers traverse the world’s most unforgiving landscapes to chart new territory; free-divers plunge darkened depths to surrender their bodies to the sea. Why? Because there’s something about thriving in the planet’s most unforgiving environments that can make you feel singularly alive.
This sentiment is no longer the reserve of explorers. Today anyone with enough nerve (and let’s be honest, enough cash) has access to the adrenaline that comes with a voyage to the extremities of the earth. According to a 2016 survey of the travel industry, 95 per cent of agents and suppliers said that they have seen sales in the adventure sector surge in the past year.
There’s an increased interest in travel that pushes boundaries, but the reasons behind it are shifting. Back in 2005, The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) found that travellers mentioned words including ‘risk’, ‘hardcore’ and ‘danger’ when talking about the reasons for their trips. But when the survey was repeated ten years later, the vocabulary of the extreme didn’t feature.
Today the top three drives towards adventure travel are to do with transformation, an expanded worldview and an opportunity to learn. The triumvirate falls in line with the overarching trend across travel for increasingly authentic experiences, and is tied up with the human desire for self-actualisation. Dr Michael Brein, a psychologist specialising in travel, makes reference to Abraham Maslow’s five-tier pyramid to explain the theory behind human motivation: “Self-actualisation lies at the top, which is another way of saying being all you can be”. Increasingly, travellers are looking for a fulfilling form of inner journey that reflects geographical movements across perilous lands and seas.
There have already been a number of examples of tour operators tailoring itineraries to the desire for transformation. The Extraordinary Adventure Club (EAC), for example, is an organisation that looks at the psychological makeup of clients before curating wilderness experiences alongside tailored programmes led by a team of therapists, coaches and mentors. The founder, a former Royal Marines officer called Calum Morrison, says, “These expeditions are designed to build on coaching work in order to further a journey of personal growth and create sustainable change”.
The want for transformative experiences is accompanied by a longing for an expanded worldview. Extreme travel companies often place onus on the importance of clients proving themselves capable in challenging natural environments (Morrison notes: “There is increasing evidence that nature has a positive impact on the brain”). But the fact that people are choosing to travel in order to broaden their horizons also denotes a drive towards interaction with people and culture. Volcanoes Safaris is a good example of this. Operating four eco-lodges in central Africa, the project’s main draw is its nearby population of endangered mountain gorillas. With nature as a platform for change, the company played a key role in introducing tourism after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which in turn stimulated the economy and provided jobs for local people. The success of the programme helped to change perceptions – to broaden international horizons – of a previously war-torn country. Founder Praveen Moman says, “consumer mindsets have changed dramatically”.
It is perhaps this shift towards extreme travel as a form of education that denotes the most marked move in the sector. Rather than systematically ticking destinations off an adrenaline-filled list, travellers today want to come home having learned something new – that might mean an insight into a different culture or a specific set of skills. Tessum Weber is a polar guide with his family’s expedition company, Weber Arctic, and he sees clients thrive off learning how to be proficient in extreme environments. “It’s problem solving – and self-reliance,” he says. “It’s thinking, ‘I’m going to sit down, I’m going to figure out the problem and I’m going to keep moving’. Today we’re very connected – pull out that smartphone and find the nearest solution – but those extreme worlds don’t have that; you have to figure it out on your own”.
He’s right, of course. You can’t Google an answer when you run out of food on the ice. And this shift that extreme worlds enact – from reliance on technology to reliance on the capabilities that you find within yourself – has a certain allure. Clients of operators such as EAC and Weber Arctic are often high-achieving individuals in the corporate world, looking to engage their minds in a different way than they do in front of a screen at work. Morrison says, “we see a direct correlation with overuse of technology and consequent disconnection – from self, from others and from environment”.
Some people might embark on an extreme expedition in order to escape from their dependency on technology, but the digital world is, as ever, a double-edged sword. Geordie Mackay-Lewis, the COO of Henry Cookson Adventure Travel (HCA), is of the opinion that social media has propelled the adventure industry forward, as everyday explorers share unbelievable experiences and stories from around the world. He says, “This has helped fuel adventure travel and challenges us to keep discovering more exciting and interesting corners of the planet”.
Transformational experiences, an expanded worldview, the opportunity for learning – combined with the chance to both escape from technology and engage with social media: these are the pillars of extreme travel today. Yet while risk might no longer be a key motivation for people, that’s not to say that these expeditions are risk-free. Just last year, the explorer Henry Worsley abandoned a history-making Antarctic trek after suffering exhaustion and dehydration and later died. To cite more recent headlines, this year three Britons perished when they were swept away by a waterfall under the supervision of a tour operator in Vietnam.
A well-planned expedition, however, should involve very little danger. “The food is weighed down to the gram, the equipment has been meticulously planned. It’s not: ‘oh there may be a risk and I almost died and it was amazing’. It’s: ‘I planned, anticipated and executed’, ” says Weber. And while clients might feel as though they are living on the edge, chances are they are in fact experiencing carefully managed risk. Mackay-Lewis says: “We are able to allow our clients to feel perceived but not actual danger, this might include watching polar bears from the safety of a yacht or flying over a volcano in the safety of a helicopter.” It’s hardly surprising that a number of the fixers at the top of the adventure travel game have spent time in the army (there are three ex-officers in the HCA team alone).
Embarking on an adventure – led by expert tour operators and with clients who are keen to unlock capabilities within themselves – is a form of release. When your most immediate concerns are to keep warm, save fuel and pack enough food, there is little space for extraneous thoughts. Evangelists of extreme travel find they switch off from the pressures of modern life in a much more profound way while on expedition than they do when they are lying on the beach. Rather than slowing you down, extreme travel wakes you up – to a natural world that offers scope for transformative experiences that expand your worldview. In short, extreme travel today is about so much more than just coming back alive.
The former Editor-in-Chief of SUITCASE Magazine, Kate is a freelance journalist who was written for titles including The Guardian, Wallpaper*, Stylist, ES Mag and Refinery29. She is based in London and always travels with books and an excessive amount of stationery.