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How to get Started in Expeditions

Serpentine swimming

Put on your boots and go!” replied H.W. Tilman, mountaineer, sailor and explorer, when once asked, “Sir, how do I get on an expedition?” 

Before I begin, I should say that there are almost as many ways to get started in expeditions as there are people doing expeditions. There is no magic formula. So I hope that people will share their own experiences in the comments below.

A question I am often asked (usually in conjunction with “how can I get sponsored?”) is “how can I get started in expeditions?”

It is not an easy question to answer, for everyone’s circumstances are different. However, I hope that a few generalities might help offer hope and a leg-up to people dreaming of adventure but unsure how to make it happen.

  • Get rich, get lucky, or get on TV. But do not despair: none of these are essential. They just accelerate your opportunities phenomenally.
  • Be patient. Unless you are already very rich or well-connected in the TV world, it takes time to make stuff happen. Remember that there is a long sliding scale from climbing K2 in mid-winter down to your very first microadventure. Don’t be put off by thinking that your first trip has to be monumentally epic.
  • Be impatient. Don’t wait for serendipity to strike. Don’t treat your life like a roulette wheel, sitting and waiting and hoping. Make stuff happen!
  • Buy a foot in the door. Do not discount paying to go on a guided trip. You’ll learn a lot and get to go to cool places that you do not (yet) have the skills to get to by yourself. (Please do me a favour if you do this: don’t pretend you did it all by yourself, don’t pretend you skied all the way to the North Pole if you actually only did the last 60 miles, don’t launch a website calling yourself an Explorer. I don’t mean to belittle guided expeditions: they are hard, rewarding and valid. Just don’t exaggerate or be disingenuous)
  • Join the Scouts / CCF / TA / OTC. Do your ML. Learn useful skills.
  • Join the Army for a few years (or a similar profession that allows you to earn money whilst developing useful skills).
  • Team up with people more qualified than you are. That’s how I first got involved in the South Pole expedition. NB. You need to “bring something to the party” too.
  • Learn useful skills such as photography that might help you wangle on to a big expedition.
  • Start saving! Unless you are rich, money is going to inhibit your plans. And unless you have a genius idea or are a whizz at blagging, then you will find it hard to attract sponsors before you have a decent track record. So you might well have to fund your early trips yourself. Stop spending money. Sell all your stuff.
  • Find a plan that matches your budget, skills and time. Rather than doing nothing because you don’t have the money, skill or time, go do something else instead!
  • Go to events such as these to get inspired and network:
    Explore at the RGS
    Explorers Connect
    Night of Adventure (Bristol and Oxford are next)
    – and this event I’mm organising in London this week.
  • Read magazines like Wanderlust, follow loads of blogs, read books like these. This all helps you to build up a breadth and depth of knowledge which will help you learn what adventures appeal to you the most.
  • Do Something! Anything! Just get out there and start challenging yourself. Start small. Push your limits. Here are some of the things I did when I was first dreaming of expeditions (someone call me a psychiatrist!):
    – Camp in the rain.
    – Cycle as far as you can in 24 hours.
    – See how far you can run from your front door before you collapse.
    Climb hills and sleep on them.
    – Sleep outdoors with no sleeping bag.
    – Run as fast as you can until you vomit to see how hard you can drive yourself. – Drive down the motorway in winter with all the windows open to see how long you can handle it.
    – Sleep on the balcony of a third floor window.
    – Take cold showers for a month.
    Do whatever you need to do to start building the skills, the endurance, the masochism, the hardness required for bigger stuff. Little by little your CV and your skills will grow until they eventually meet your ambition.
  • Get started! I cycled round the world because it was cheap, needed no skill, and I had loads of time available. If I had been rich and short of time I might have motorbiked round the world instead. That low skill, low budget, low tech, low administration journey is still the greatest trip I have ever done and has opened every door in my life since.

How did you get started in expeditions? Please offer any tips you might have below.

You might also find these posts useful

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Do you have any thoughts on this article? What have I forgotten or got wrong? Please have your say in the comments below…

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  1. At this point in my life I am relegated to less than 5 day long adventures, do to not being rich and having a family that I like to be around. But, I simply pick an adventure that I want to accomplish and go for it. Mainly at this point, it is Bikepacking, I search for a route that I want to do, prep, wait for the right time and go for it. I even mapped out a new route traversing our local National Forest: The Pisgah Traverse. My advice: go for it.

  2. One way into expeditions is through leading for any of the large number of commercial providers. They tend to take young people (generally between the ages of 14 and 18) for anything between 1 week and 1 month. You generally won’t get the super hardcore trips (though some trips do take in some fairly serious peaks on occasion) but you will get to travel to remote places and get paid for it to.

    You’ll need to have travelled about a bit yourself first and, as a minimum, you’ll need a summer Mountain Leader Award. Get those ticked and you can get on a trip as an assistant leader and take it from there.

  3. Many good takes from here. Thank you Al.

  4. Love your blog Al, always full of great advice!

    Thanks for mentioning Globetrotters Club!

    We indeed have a vast (free) knowledge on independent travel and expeditions, so if anyone needs any help or advice feel free to get to touch with us!

  5. pantus dragos Posted

    i want go in the world with my bike, but i have not money. what can i do? thanks

  6. This was exactly the post that I needed, some great ideas for what to do now I’m still stuck in high school. When I’m out of here I’m going for the big adventures. I’m planning to bike from washington dc to San Francisco with a friend in my gap year and I’m super excited. If I hadn’t read your books, I would probably never have found the courage to actually START PLANNING instead of daydreaming in class, thanks!

  7. Hi Alastair, I found your site recently and your adventures have inspired me more than I think I have ever been inspired! I know that technically I can achieve the wild ideas that I have in my head, but convincing myself that they are possible when the rest of the world calls them crazy and stupid is so hard. Thank you for doing what you love and proving that great expeditions on a budget are possible!

  8. Thanks for sharing these awesome ideas. I grew up in the Scouts and continued in it through to my mid twenties. It taught me many valuable skills, but since then I’ve learnt there are many more I need to accomplish.



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