“You can’t have your cake and eat it” is one of the truisms of life. And yet sometimes, when it comes to adventures in the outdoors, this is forgotten. It seems that there is an increasing tendency to seek to bring two incompatible worlds together – an authentic outdoor adventure yet with all the comforts and luxuries of modern, urban living.
Is that what we should be aiming for? How “comfortable” should we really want to be in the outdoors?
Here are a few thoughts to ponder:
Sofia and I have been lucky enough to do two safari experiences in Africa in our time together.
For the first, we spent five weeks volunteering on a game reserve in Swaziland. We walked miles each day patrolling the reserve on foot and watching the animals. Our diet was made up entirely of rice, soya beans and fruit. We washed under a cold tap at the camp every evening and then, when the temperature dropped like a stone after sunset, shivered our way through the night, huddled together under rough blankets in a canvas tent.
For the second, we went to Kenya, staying in luxury safari camps in the Masai Mara with private game drives each day. We dined on excellent food, slept in wonderful, soft beds, gazed down on the animals from a hot air balloon, and were generally looked after like royalty.
Both were fantastic experiences, but there’s no doubt in my mind which one I have the strongest and fondest memories of, or which I would have done if we had to choose just one. Swaziland wins hands down.
I certainly don’t equate the outdoors with suffering. I’m no believer in “No Pain, No Gain”. I prefer “No Pain, No Pain”. I’m not particularly driven to test my personal physical limits, except when doing so allows me to access amazing places or enjoy new experiences. I (kind of) enjoy my local weekly 5K Parkrun, but have no desire to do an Ultra (I leave 99% of the running in our house to Sofia).
But I do believe that, on any outdoor adventure, it’s not a bad thing to expect that you will sometimes be cold, hungry, tired, wet, uncomfortable, or grumpy. Take away all of these elements, and your experience of the outdoors will not be as rewarding, the beauty of nature so poignant, or the memories of your trip so vivid and long lasting. Sometimes it rains – but then it’s all the more magical when the sun comes out. No-one tells their grandchildren stories about the night they slept in a really nice hotel room with private bathroom.
Back in the winter of 2019, I took part in our Backcountry Skiing and Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland tour, in the far north of Finland (you can read an account of that trip here). It was a challenging week for me. If you’d caught me at certain times during that tour and asked me if I was enjoying myself, I’d have scowled at you and said, “No. I want to go home – I’m freezing and my feet hurt!”. But if you’d asked me again half an hour later, I might well have answered, “Absolutely! Look where we are – I’m having the time of my life!” I would not have changed any of the less comfortable moments of that trip for the world – they all helped to make the tour what it was, and I treasure the memories.
This doesn’t mean of course that you should not prepare well and bring/hire the best clothing and equipment you can to make sure that you stay as dry, warm and comfortable as possible during your trip. You’re on holiday after all – the aim is to enjoy yourself! When I first ventured properly into the outdoors, as a university student in Edinburgh on bothy trips to the Scottish Highlands, my cheap boots leaked, the zip on my completely inadequate sleeping bag did not close properly, and my “rainproof” jacket was soaked through 10 minutes after the heavens opened. I just assumed it always had to be like that, until I discovered later that you can buy boots and jackets that actually keep the rain out and a sleeping bag you can stay warm in! As the Swedes say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad clothes.”
There is also absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a “luxury” holiday – Sofia and I loved our time in Kenya and still count ourselves very lucky we had the chance to do such a trip – but it wasn’t an authentic outdoor adventure. Insulate yourself from nature too much, take away all the little difficulties and discomforts, and you detract from the experience.
So, we would say, do not seek to bring all the creature comforts of urban life with you into the wilderness. If you do, what you lose may be more than what you gain, and the experience, not to say your bank account, may be the poorer for it.
Bob from the Nature Travels Team