Travellers have lost their way. In an age of Google Maps and Siri and 24-hour connectivity, humans have become reliant on technology for virtually everything. We may seem connected on a global scale, but locally, we’re isolated. Take away our smart phones and we’re helpless. Not only do we lack survival skills (start a fire, navigate from point A to point B, forage for food), but we have also become disconnected from the natural world and ourselves. After years of being cocooned in comfy homes and luxe hotels rooms, we’re craving something that makes us feel a bit more alive: real connection. Travellers are looking for elemental experiences that dare to challenge them both physically and mentally. They might be pampered, pre, post, or even during their trip, but they want their holiday to be a learning experience – something that brings them a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.
“Some people still want luxury, but I think they also want to feel the elements and have their connection with nature be something more than passing through in a car or van”, says Petter Thorsen, Founder of Wild Norway. In addition to high-end adventures like hiking and wildlife-viewing, Wild Norway offers Arctic training courses designed to teach people how to survive outdoors in cold temperatures. The four-night expedition course covers topics such as nutrition, how to set up a tent in extreme weather, navigation, and how to detect and prevent hypothermia and frostbite.
Neil Rogers, an adventure tourism consultant who works in the UK and Sweden describes the course as “a step outside of your comfort zone into an exciting new world of self-discovery. You’ll find yourself immersed in a cold and unforgiving climate, and you challenge yourself and push your boundaries – and you won’t regret it”, he says.
Thorsen says teaching people to stay comfortable outdoors and to master the elements empowers them to be more connected to – and less intimidated by – nature. “I had a Saudi group who had never camped before, and they said the experience was life-changing”, he says. “To be able to feel like you have mastered the skills needed to survive in harsh conditions, especially for those not used to discomfort, is a real transformational journey.”
The idea of using travel as a means to build personal resilience is at the heart of the Extraordinary Adventure Club, a bespoke travel company that designs expeditions meant to stretch clients both emotionally and physically. These might include gruelling physical challenges to instil confidence in a client, or isolation to encourage a sense of self-sufficiency. “The fastest route to grounding oneself and regaining that sense of connection is through immersion in the wild, where senses are heightened: the feeling of cold water on skin; fresh air in lungs; and adrenaline through veins. In the wilderness, preconceptions disappear, and we find honesty and truth”, says Founder Calum Morrison.
Travellers seem more willing than ever to allow themselves to be vulnerable, and even at times uncomfortable if the end result is a stronger connection to self and place. Sarah Fazendin, a Colorado-based travel agent specialising in family travel, says she recently decided to step out of her own comfort zone and book herself and her family a five-night horseback safari in Yellowstone National Park. Even though the trip will be fully supported with staff and guides, they’ll be camping in some of the most remote corners of America. “That means no electricity or cell service”, she says. “I literally can’t remember the last time I didn’t have access to my phone or email. I’m freaking out, but also really looking forward to it.”
Getting back to basics isn’t just about reconnecting with nature: travellers are realising that they can learn a lot from other cultures who have maintained a simpler way of life. Ray Andrews, co-owner of Oceania Expeditions, has seen great interest in his new Kabakon Survivor package, which gives guests the opportunity to spend three days on an uninhabited island in Papua New Guinea. Daily visits from the area’s Karawara community teach guests basic survival skills, like lighting a fire and foraging for food. “The clients we see wanting this experience are, without a doubt, Westerners”, says Andrews. “Some want to remove the trappings of a modern materialistic society; some want a challenge and physical and mental test; and some come in thinking they will fall into a tropical paradise where life is full of hammocks and piña coladas, not realising the work that goes into living in paradise. Most come away with an appreciation of the toughness of life for the modern islander.”
A return to more elemental travel doesn’t have to mean being stranded on an island, or braving polar conditions for a week – the experiences can also be bite-sized reality checks realised in culturally immersive activities. “More than ever before our clients are now looking to escape the world they are used to and immerse themselves in someone else’s”, says Jonny Bealby, Founder of Wild Frontiers. “They have been exposed to smart hotels, fine dining, and crisp service for so long that it no longer feels special. Many of our clients are now keen to get more fundamentally involved in the places they visit. In Argentina, for example, we run a tour where our clients become active gauchos – rounding up cattle, running them through the dip, even injecting them – on a proper working farm. In the past few years, we have seen more people wanting to ride across the Tien Shan mountains with Kyrgyz horsemen, or wanting to spend a day with Buddhist monks in Bhutan. And perhaps a little controversially on our walking tour in Palestine, our clients don’t take the easy route by driving from Bethlehem to Jerusalem as most tourists would. Instead, we offer them the opportunity to join the Palestinians as they queue to pass through a check-point so they understand what daily life is like for many in the region.”
Jen Murphy is a Colorado-based writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Outside, Men’s Journal and Departures.