How on earth do people make a living from exploring the world? And is it really as glamorous as it looks? Featured contributor Leon McCarron, long-distance walker, author and filmmaker, tells it as it really is.
Like many people, when I left university, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was self-aware enough to be grateful I’d had the opportunity to study, but faced with the prospect of the same temporary, unfulfilling jobs I’d held during those three years, I began to save—with purpose.
I wanted to do something that I could be proud of when I was old. I wanted to go on an adventure.
I started by combining a (long) list of things I was interested in with a (worryingly short) list of things I was any good at. I came up with a simple yet ambitious plan: I’d try to ride a bicycle as far around the world as a year’s worth of savings would take me.
It was nowhere near as easy as I’d hoped. I was overpacked and underprepared; less fit than I should’ve been and more scared than I thought I’d be. It took weeks of wobbling across North America before I found anything vaguely resembling a rhythm, and perhaps six months until I felt truly comfortable—this was cemented by a combination of not being eaten by bears as I’d expected, and a realization that most people I met on the road were kind and generous with no intention of robbing me.
Finally, 14,000 miles after setting off, I arrived in Hong Kong, my savings spent, but my memory bank full. I’d grown in confidence, developed all sorts of resilience and grit I didn’t know I had, and seen enough of the world to know how much more there was to explore.
What was also surprising was discovering that I enjoyed sharing what I found—perhaps more than the travel itself. Initially, I kept a simple blog which had a readership of three (me, my mum, her friend.) That progressed to sending short stories to my local newspapers in Ireland—which had a similar readership to my blogs.
Then, a breakthrough: I got paid. The fee was nominal, for a story about trying to cycle through a Cambodian jungle and instead getting malaria, but it was a proof of concept.
Slowly, my expeditions became more professional, and the stories were collated in more savvy ways. I made films and wrote my first book. Encouraged by that, I’ve just published a second.
For three years, I lived frugally—sleeping on my cousin’s sofa in London for free, for example (thanks)—and eked out the odd paycheck here and there through writing. I then gathered clippings and pitched to the bigger adventure and travel magazines. And around the same time, I started giving talks in schools and village halls about adventuring. After delivering nearly 50 unpaid lectures, where I learned which stories were good and which jokes were bad, I began charging expenses. Then a small fee.
In between this busy schedule of bothering editors and headteachers, I’d go off on expeditions to find more things to talk and write about. I walked the length of China from Mongolia to Hong Kong (funding the trip by teaming up with someone—motivational speaker Rob Lilwall—who had much better contacts, experience and, being honest, funding, than I did) and I crossed the Empty Quarter desert in the Arabian Peninsula with adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys, who was not only generous enough to invite me to join him, but foolish enough to lend me the $1,000 that the trip would cost. (It took me over a year to save up enough to pay him back.)
RELATED: How to travel like a travel writer
Slowly, my expeditions became more professional, and the stories were collated in more savvy ways. I made films and wrote my first book, The Road Headed West, about cycling across North America. Encouraged by that, I’ve just published a second, The Land Beyond, which charts my 1000-mile walk through the Middle East.
It’s been a long journey to reach the point now where I make a living and can pay rent, but I’m not alone—there are others who live this unusual life too. Since our trips together, Rob and Alastair continue to give motivational talks at the highest level, and Alastair has pioneered the approach of multiple income streams (and relentless blogging.)
Anna McNuff and Sean Conway have made their names through long-distance cycling and running journeys, and Sarah Outen wowed people with remarkable feats of perseverance on oceans. Dave Cornthwaite started a social enterprise called Say Yes More, and Tom Allen began building a world-class hiking trail across the Caucasus. Some became brand ambassadors or got breaks in television, and others chose perhaps the most sensible of all options; getting a real job to earn hard cash, then going on long adventures in holidays or between employment. Pip Stewart is one of the best examples of this, working as Adventure Editor for Red Bull, yet still making time for major expeditions like cycling through the Amazon rainforest.
Don’t believe the idealized Instagram feeds—many of us spend weeks on end stuck to computers, filing tax returns and hunting around for work, all the while posting pretty pictures of the rapidly fading memories of the last time we did anything remotely interesting.
These may not be the big household names. I’ve omitted Bear Grylls, for example. He’s certainly earned his stripes, but his rise to fame and celebrity is not replicable. American rock climbers like Alex Honnold and Conrad Anker are successful because they are the best in the world at what they do—but people like me can’t rely on being an expert in anything, so we follow other paths.
If I distil down what I’ve learnt from the last seven years, and measure that up against those adventurers listed above, here’s what I come up with:
1. It’s essential to do something you love; that’s got to be at the heart of it. Ideally, you should go on a few expeditions before even thinking about turning it into a job. Get into the wilds and climb those mountains because it makes you feel alive—and not just because you hope someone will notice it on Instagram and pay you to do it again.
This is, I believe, a new golden age of adventure, where it has become democratized.
2. Like anything, this way of life also requires an exceptional amount of hard work. It should become obvious over time which niche you’re suited to, and I’d encourage you to follow that—if you love writing, then write for all you’re worth. Make short films if you think you’re gifted with a camera. If you have an actual skill (like climbing, sailing or kayaking) then even better. Be innovative. Don’t just rehash the same journey that others have done before; give us something new. Keep your head down and do what you do—then keep doing it, better and better, until you get noticed. If you’re good enough, you will get noticed.
3. Finally—and the younger, idealistic version of myself would hate this—I’ve learned over the years to have some sort of a plan, and to put a price on what I create. A history of going on exciting adventures will give you the integrity when you begin charging for what you do. Of course, there are caveats.
So, had I known all this before, would I still have tried to turn my expeditions into a career? Probably. Every job has its downsides, and I’m under no illusions that I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I do, but I wouldn’t change it.
This is, I believe, a new golden age of adventure, where it has become democratized—we don’t necessarily need vast endowments to fund travel, nor is there a need to rely on television or big-money book deals for a platform. The internet has given us all a soapbox to shout from, and it’s been a joy to see so many wonderful storytellers emerge in the last few years. Here’s to the next generation. You might even be a part of it.