For One Year, This Veteran Globetrotter Limited His Adventures to a Single Map

Alastair Humphreys wondered if home could offer what his wandering soul craved.

Alastair Humphreys sits atop an old car

Alastair Humphreys

Life in lockdown has been hard on people for many reasons, but it has presented unique challenges to those who are accustomed to wandering far from home. For professional adventurers like Alastair Humphreys, who has biked around the world and walked across southern India, to name a few of his escapades, the prospect of staying close to home is particularly daunting. 

Humphreys' concept of the "microadventure" has been covered before on Treehugger, so he's no stranger to finding adventure in the seemingly dull locales of home. But to create an ongoing sense of discovery throughout the long months of lockdown at his home in southeastern England, Humphreys had to come up with another plan. He designed a project called "A Single Map Is Enough."

For this, Humphreys ordered a big fold-out paper map of his region that measured 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) along either side—the type that hikers use. He committed to exploring this map, one small section at a time, for a year. This commitment came with a great deal of apprehension. In his introductory post to the project on his website, he wrote that "there are many, many places that I would prefer to try this experiment rather than where I happen to live."

Alastair Humphreys' map that he used for a year to explore southeast England

Alastair Humphreys

He went on to say, "I live in the glow of city sodium lights amid the hum of motorway traffic, and far too far from the cascades of contour lines, miles of moorland, roaring waves or invigorating river swims that I love. I would go so far as to argue that out of the 403 OS Explorer Maps that cover the entire UK, my map is right down in the relegation zone of rubbish adventure boredom!"

Nevertheless, he recognized the challenge and reward that existed. "This also makes my experiment a far fairer and more interesting one that if I lived, say, on Map 402 in Scotland or Map 24 in the Peak District."

busy multi-lane highway in UK

Alastair Humphreys

When Treehugger reached out to ask Humphreys about his project, he explained the process of selecting where to explore, once per week for a whole year.

"In the early days I picked squares with the help of a random number generating website. Once I had a decent smattering of squares covered on my map, I then went for a half-random approach of just trying to always go to somewhere quite far from where I went last week, and aimed to spread out equally across all latitudes and longitudes. There's loads of ways you could do it, of course. And none of them really matter! 
"The one thing that personally was useful for me was not to allow myself to choose which squares I wanted to visit (which for me would be forests, rivers, contour lines). I placed equal weight on flat boring farmland, suburbs, industrial parks. And doing that was what turned it into a fabulous experience."

Humphreys did not commit to a set amount of time to explore, but let his discoveries dictate that. "How long I took depended on what I found there, how busy I was that day, weather, etc. The long ones were probably half a day, the short ones a couple of hours."

bench that Alastair Humphreys found

Alastair Humphreys

This project is a delightful reminder of just how much there is to see around us—if we choose to notice it. And at a time when travel norms are being challenged by questions of accessibility and carbon footprint and the need to preserve biodiversity, it's more important than ever to redefine what it means to explore. There's nothing wrong with staying close to home; it can offer far more opportunities for discovery than we may realize.

Humphreys told Treehugger, "The goal wasn't to demonstrate anything. It was to investigate. To find out if much richness existed nearby. To see if boring southeast England could offer up all the things that this inveterate wanderer yearns for."

winding road in forest with sign reading slow

Alastair Humphreys

And did he? It appears so. 

"At the start of the project, I dreaded a year on one map. I was sure it would be boring and claustrophobic. By the end of the year I was astonished by how little of my map I had seen, and how much there was still to explore."

"A Single Map Is Enough" will be coming out in book form, allowing us readers to travel vicariously through Humphreys' tales and photos. But this time, his adventure won't be nearly as difficult to replicate as his earlier ones. We can all get a local map, divide it into squares, and start getting to know our proverbial backyards better than ever. And like him, we'll probably be amazed at what we discover.