Leaving Your Comfort Zone Is Not Something To Avoid

Adventure cycling demigod Alastair Humphreys has just launched a new short film of his recent bike & bothy adventure in the Scottish Highlands.

(A bothy, for the uninitiated, is a remote mountain shelter which is free for public use.)

It’s really good.

And if you’ve never come across bothies before, it’s a fantastic introduction to their unique subculture.

Watch it here:

It’s also created the perfect opportunity for me to write a follow-up piece. (Thanks, Al!)

Because ‘biking and bothying across the Scottish Highlands’ is a good description of the first bike trip I ever did, way back in 2006 – way before this blog came into existence and way before I knew that there was even a thing called ‘cycle touring’.

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The plan was simple: to ride off-road from Inverness to Fort William. My two friends and I would carry minimal camping gear and keep things lightweight to make the mountain biking as much fun as possible. We’d sleep in as many bothies as we could find along the way.

We loved mountain biking. We loved the idea of a whole week of it even more. It was as simple as that. The trip couldn’t fail to be awesome.

The plan was also utterly ludicrous; a ferment of inexperience and idealism that guaranteed every kind of misadventure.

Inspired by a 1:25,000 Ordinance Survey map binge, we’d patched together hiking trails, jeep tracks and fire roads through the most rugged of mountains and the densest of forests. We’d bought 1-man tents and waterproofs from Lidl in defence against the worst of the Scottish rains. And we’d stuffed everything into huge army-surplus backpacks, anticipating no foreseeable effects upon our ability to heroically tackle the terrain.

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What followed was, at the time, easily the most miserable week of my life. There is nothing quite like launching yourself into a world with which you are entirely unfamiliar and from which there is no escape; one in which you’ll have the shit well and truly kicked out of you by the forces of nature, in which you’re forced to learn and to learn bloody fast, and from which you’ll emerge inestimably stronger for having survived it.

I do realise how hopelessly over-the-top it must sound to be speaking of a few days of mountain biking in the UK as if it were the conquering of an unclimbed Himalayan peak. But I was 21. I had never, at any point during my existence upon this Earth, been for a bike ride which hadn’t finished back at home, indoors and in warmth and comfort, at the end of the day.

I had never cycled with luggage. I had never wild-camped in the wilderness.

I had never ridden 40 miles in a day, never cycled up a hill that took more than a few minutes to climb, never been soaked to the skin without any shelter or dry clothes to look forward to, never run out of food a day’s ride from the nearest town, never forded a river, never fallen into a river, never woken up in a puddle in the middle of the night.

I had never suffered so much at the hands of the elements and of my own inexperience.

In short, I’d never been so far out of my comfort zone.

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But slowly, surely and painfully, we figured out what we were doing. We had to. Necessity dictated it.

We ditched the crap tents and got resourceful with ponchos and bivvy bags. We strapped more of our gear to the bikes, inadvertently inventing ‘bikepacking’ in the process. We realised what routes would prove impossible and diverted along more sensible trails. We pooled our resources (some Croatian kroner, a handful of pocket lint and £21.17 in loose change) for a night in a remote hostel and the chance to dry out our belongings.

We embraced the sodden conditions and got the hell on with it.

We even began to enjoy ourselves.

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I tell you: reaching Fort William backpackers’ hostel after that week of mountain biking induced no less surreal a sense of satisfaction than riding back into the village I grew up in after nearly four years away on a bike.

In many ways it was even more so. In that one short week I had been transformed from utter novice to someone who would now feel comfortable tackling such a thing again, and as it happened would indeed do so (with a few minor alterations, of course). Both my sense of what was possible and that of my place in the world had been quite comprehensively reconfigured.

To me, that is what life – at least, the inner life – is all about. I constantly seek experiences, whether physical, intellectual or spiritual, which will bring about some kind of transformation, growth, change of perspective; whatever you want to call it. Life is a fight against laziness, stagnation and complacency, which is not to say travel is the be-all and end-all, for there are other ways to stimulate yourself to push harder, to go further, to grow and to learn. But this bike trip represented perhaps the most intense and memorable of the many such experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have.

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All of this is a roundabout way of hammering home the point that leaving your comfort zone is not something to avoid. Quite the opposite: such opportunities are to be grasped, on the principle that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.

Ask yourself – what’s (really) the worst that could happen?

And constantly, constantly, remind yourself that (in Al’s words) ‘if I fail, I will not die’.

7 Responses to “Leaving Your Comfort Zone Is Not Something To Avoid”

  1. Alastair Humphreys

    Can’t believe you had the audacity to put that photo of you in cammo trousers and a bum bag on the internet!

    Reply
  2. Brenda

    thanks for posting this. We’ve kayaked and cycled the West coast of Scotland and love the bothies but now find we cant get to the very remote ones. I hope you still have such adventure in your soul when you get a lot older. BTW I do enjoy your writings.

    Reply
  3. JB

    Hi Tom
    Just back from 200km through Cairngorms, snow and everything on 10 speed 16 year old bike but had fantastic time. Off round the North Scotland now to raise money for CLAN cancer support centre, 650 km it will be an experience.
    Thanks love website JB

    Reply
  4. Patrick O'R

    Hi Tom,
    Stumbled across your website about a year ago and your advice on cycling around the world stuck in brain. After a year of work that ended with a slap in the face, I decided to just go. I had vaguely planned to go around Ulster from Dundalk, (my home). I set off on Saturday and after three days and 285km along the eastern coast, back into Belfast and then down through Scarva to Dundalk, I’m back. It wasn’t the most ideal weekend for someone from Dundalk to be cycling through the Ards Pennisula, but I had great time, both me and the bike survived and I’m looking forward to the next trip. If I’d tried to plan it I would never have gone. Like you say , you can make loads of preparations or you can just GO. Thanks for the inspiration. Patrick

    Reply
  5. Jamie Walker-Jones

    This post reminds me of some of my early tours albeit from a roadie perspective. https://thingswhatihavedone.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/the-scottish-highlands-shafts-of-sunlight-and-blizzards/

    What nearly broke me now seems like a walk in the park now! I’ve never needed much inspiration to get out and have fun but I’ve needed a bit of kick to stop playing with the idea of blogging and just do it. Your writing style has been a nice hard shove. So thanks.

    Reply
  6. The Plan (And Why It's Probably Totally Futile To Make One) – Tom Allen

    […] and still so very memorable was that bikepacking trip in the Scottish Highlands a decade ago. We were supposed to wild-camp a loop from Inverness through […]

    Reply

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