British Explorer Andy Browning Shares the Importance of Keeping an Adventure Journal

Explorer Andy Browning

Hey! My name is Andy Browning, and I am an explorer, writer, expedition leader, and sometimes geography teacher from the UK. Originally from the Essex/London border, I am currently living in Lincoln in the East Midlands, but I like to move around lots as it gives me an insight into lots of different places.

My biggest interest is adventure and travel. I love to explore different parts of the world, especially if they are hard to reach places, or places people wouldn’t usually visit. I love meeting people from different parts of the world and finding out what life is like for them, and how my life compares. Running alongside that I love to get outdoors as much as I can, usually through hiking and camping, but sometimes as a climber, cyclist, canoeist and fell runner. Anything which involves good company, fresh air and a view and I’m in!

I like to describe myself as a chronic optimist. I always look on the bright side of things, and if things don’t quite work out as planned, then I very much subscribe to the fact that every cloud has a silver lining. I say yes to as many opportunities as possible, because I believe if you are open to them, more exciting things will come your way. If I had a motto it would be something like “What’s the worst that can happen?!” I like positive people, and try to surround myself with people who are supportive, make me laugh, and inspire me to continue exploring and adventuring.

Explorer Andy Browning

How and why did you get into adventuring and traveling?

I have always loved exploring even from a young age. Although growing up on the edge of London, I was fortunate to live near a forest which I would spend hours in as a small child climbing trees, building shelters, and generally exploring. As I got older, I joined the Scouts which introduced me to different parts of the country and I went to the Lake District for the first time, which is still one of my favourite places in the world. But my big step into travel and adventure came whilst I was at university, and I managed to convince one of my lecturers to enroll me on the university’s ‘Year in Industry’ programme, which would allow me to take a year off my studies to gain a year’s worth of valuable work experience. I made it my goal to get a job working abroad, and after literally hundreds of emails, I managed to convince two volcano observatories (one in the Caribbean, and one in Mexico) to take me on as an apprentice volcanologist. I spent 4 months on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean, and a further 9 months in Mexico. Both of these experiences really opened my eyes to the idea of world travel, I was completely hooked, and I wanted more. After returning from Mexico, I began planning my next trip almost immediately.

I have always been attracted to obscure places, and I like to form my own opinion about places instead of believing what I read in the news or on social media, etc. Subsequently, I have had amazing adventures in places many people would never dream of going to, such as the DRC, Sudan, and the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu. When possible, I have tried to find opportunities to work or to live in other places around the world – this gives me the opportunity to really get to know somewhere, and often makes even the most mundane of chores an exciting adventure!

Explorer Andy Browning

How do you prepare for your adventures?

In general, I try to stay in good shape anyway, so that if any adventures or opportunities do come my way, then I’m ready for them. If I have got a longer trip planned, especially if it is one which will require me to carry my bag for long periods, or a cycling expedition then I will step up my training a bit, mainly running and carrying my full bag up flights of stairs, nothing too extreme or specific.

Before I go anywhere, I always get a map of the place and spend some time orientating myself and getting a sense of the size and shape of things. It doesn’t have to be a technical map, I often use road atlases, but just something to provide a bit of context. If I am going somewhere abroad where I don’t speak the language, I will spend some time trying to learn some very basic words (Hello, how are you, please, thank you, and a few numbers, etc.) I have found time and again that the simple gesture of a few words is invaluable in building relationships whilst on adventures.

Adventure planning varies massively for me depending on the type of trip I’m going on. I keep an old notebook at home, which I have had since I was 16; in it I have written down every adventure plan or idea I have ever had from the small scale to the utterly outlandish. I often find myself staring at maps wondering if I could walk/cycle across somewhere, or see an interesting place name and wonder what life is like there, they all get put in the book, and if I am ever looking for inspiration or an idea I pick up the book and have a look through and see which one I will do next. As I trawl through the book, I add bits of information and logistic ideas to different adventure, and then when I think I have enough of an idea of what I want to do and how I’m going to do it, I start putting it into practice. I love completing trips and adventures that I’ve been thinking about for long periods of time, but I also hope I am always adding adventure ideas to that book.

Explorer Andy Browning

How do you finance your adventures?

So far, I have self-funded all of my adventures. Having a teaching qualification allows me to pick up well paid temporary work back in the UK fairly easily, which I use to top the adventure fund back up before heading out there again. Whilst I am on the road I try and keep my spending to a minimum, I will take local transport or cycle to get around, I will eat street food, or basic rations to avoid restaurants, and I very rarely stay in hotels, it’s a tent or hostel for me every time. It’s amazing how far your money can go if you’re prepared to approach things slightly differently from a regular tourist. I do have a few pieces of expensive gear, but these have been conscious long-term purchases, other things I pick up as cheap as I can, meaning I have more money to travel with.

Explorer Andy Browning

How do you eat and sleep on the road?

As mentioned above, I eat street food where I can, or small local restaurants where local people are eating. Not only is this the cheapest way of doing things, but also it is an incredible experience. Some of my best travel stories start from eating something weird on a random street corner somewhere! Local markets are great as well if you want to stock up on provisions before heading off the beaten track somewhere, or to really get under the skin of a place. When I am out camping, I have a small MSR Pocket Rocket gas stove, which I use and have had no problems with. If there are a few of us, then I will often take a Trangia stove with me, it’s a bit bulky and heavy, but it is a classic!

As for sleeping, if I am off the beaten track, then I will most likely be in my tent, or if the weather is good then perhaps just my sleeping bag and a bivy bag. I have a Vango Banshee 200 tent, which I adore and have had for years; it has been a faithful companion, and has seen me through many nights from a wet and windy Scottish winter, to a sandstorm in the Sudanese desert – I love it! I recently bought a Hennessy Hammock for an expedition to the Amazon jungle this summer, and it was absolutely perfect for the environment, I am hoping to test it out back at home, because I love how comfortable it is!

As for sleeping bags, I have a 2 season and a 4-season depending on the time of year and where I’m going, both have been bought from military surplus stores in the UK, and so have been cheap but excellent quality, and definitely fit for purpose. Military surplus stores are a great place to find good quality outdoor gear, it often isn’t the lightest, or most up to date, but as it is designed for the military it is pretty good stuff.

Explorer Andy Browning

How do you bring your things with you?

My main rucksack is an Osprey Aether 70 litre bag – this does me for most of my longer expeditions, and will easily fit my tent and winter sleeping bag in if necessary. It’s a perfect design for me as I prefer a slightly taller and thinner bag, and is extremely durable. I have taken it to the Amazon jungle and the Sahara Desert along with several wet and windy UK mountain days, and it has always held up perfectly.

When I’m cycling I have a full set of Ortlieb Waterproof Panniers and a matching handlebar bag. They have done me well on the long-distance cycling trips I have done in the UK, and have easily accommodated all my camping gear, spares, and food. I’m hoping to put them through their paces further afield soon.

I think my main advice for bags is get something comfortable. The top of the range bags aren’t always suitable for every body shape, so it is definitely worth trying them on before buying them (remember to try them with some weight in!). Think about what size you need – are you going to be doing long multi day hikes carrying lots of gear and food, or are you looking for a bag to take out on day hikes? Size isn’t everything in a bag – look for comfort, adjustability, and durability and you can’t go wrong.

Having had several different rucksacks in the past which I used until they fell apart due to over use, I had some idea about what I wanted from my new bag. I asked around and was recommended an Osprey. I went to the shop and tried it on, and never really looked back – It’s definitely at the more expensive end of things, but it is an investment which I plan to have for a number of years before I have to replace it.

Explorer Andy Browning

How do you organize things in your bags?

I am quite careful with how I pack my bag, especially for longer trips. As a rule, I always have a large dry bag which I use as a rucksack liner, and I tend to have all my gear in smaller dry bags. I find this is a quick and easy way to organise my gear, and crucial for certain environments, such as the jungle, etc. I find it is better to be organised as things are less likely to get lost, not a problem if you’re backpacking through somewhere, but if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, then losing something could become a real issue.

If I am backpacking through another country, then I tend to have my main bag, alongside a small cheap day sack. I call my day sack a grab bag, and it has everything I need if I have to get out of somewhere fast (passport, cash, food, water, valuables, etc.) That way I can confidently put my larger bag on the roof of buses, etc. without worrying, safe in the knowledge that I have everything I need should things go a little awry!

If I’m cycle touring then I ensure that my panniers are packed similarly to my rucksack, with several different coloured dry bags of varying sizes. I have a detachable handlebar bag which serves as my grab bag when I’m cycling.

I love the design of my rucksack, the waistband pockets in particular. The only thing I would change would be the side pockets, one has the webbing straps on the outside, and one on the inside. I find when I use the side pockets for water bottles the internal webbing straps can get in the way. It is a minor thing thought, on the whole it is the best bag I have ever owned.

As for waterproof bags, in my opinion they are invaluable; they add negligible weight to your pack, they are cheap to buy, and they help to organise things. For some adventures (kayak/canoe trips or artic/jungle trips) I would say they are essential.

Explorer Andy Browning

How do your bags and gear hold up?

I have been really impressed with the quality of my bag, it is incredibly durable and has stood up to a number of harsh environments from the desert to the jungle via the mountains. I have certainly put it through its paces, and so far, haven’t had any issues with it – long may that last!

I don’t believe the rest of my gear to be too heavy – I am certainly happy carrying it around put it that way. I am slowly upgrading my gear and when specific bits need replacing.

Would you have chosen something different if you had to start over?

I don’t think I would. I think starting with cheaper gear and then replacing as you go along and get more experienced/adventurous is a good way of doing things as you know which bits of kit are important, and which you need to invest in. Likewise, you might realize that you don’t need to spend a fortune on certain items, when similar cheaper versions will do just fine.

Explorer Andy Browning

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

I definitely wish I had invested in an Osprey Rucksack early on, I have been seriously impressed with the quality, and although expensive, I believe it is worth the outlay. It took me a while to settle on a decent waterproof jacket. I tended to go for the cheaper options, but they never lasted well, and lost their waterproofing far too quickly. Now I always look to invest in a good waterproof jacket on the assumption that if looked after properly it will last me longer than a series of cheaper ones.

I recommend that everyone always takes a notebook and pen with them on every adventure. Being able to jot down notes and write a journal on the road is something I love to do, and would encourage everyone to do. I also always travel with a map of the area I’m in if I can get hold of one and a compass – being able to navigate is an invaluable skill and something which certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Also, you can’t go wrong with a beanie hat – I’ve always got one stashed in my bag somewhere.

Explorer Andy Browning

What has been your best adventuring purchase below $100?

My best outdoor purchase for below $100 is probably my Petzl Actik headtorch. It has been an absolute game changer for trekking and hiking at night, and was invaluable in the jungle. I always have it with me, even if I’m backpacking as you never know when you’ll be plunged into darkness! It has awesome battery life and range, and is very reasonably priced.

My four-season winter sleeping bag is another great purchase for under $100. I bought it from a UK military surplus shop for £40 and it is the warmest thing I’ve ever been in! Designed for arctic warfare, it’s a great bit of kit, and although quite bulky, it has kept me brilliantly warm even in sub-zero temperatures bivying in the Scottish Highlands.

What other favorite gear do you have?

My Vango Banshee 200 tent, hands down one of my favourite pieces of outdoor kit. I’ve mentioned it a few times, but I would definitely recommend to anyone looking for a tent. Also, my Hennessy Hammock – I haven’t had the chance to test it in the UK yet, but it was perfect in the jungle and has been so well designed that I have no concerns that I will be able to use it on several future trips and adventures, well worth checking out this small family run outfit if you’re looking for a hammock.

Explorer Andy Browning

What is your best advice for other adventurers?

I think the most important thing to remember is that adventure is a personal endeavour. It doesn’t matter how big or small you might perceive it to be, if you think it’s an adventure, then it is! Adventure isn’t the preserve of the rich or the highly skilled, it can be accessed by anyone, as long as you are willing to get out there and give it a go.

The internet can be a blessing and a curse. It is a fantastic resource for research and planning adventures, but it is also home to all the pessimists and scary news stories. Be objective in your research, read blogs, find out what other people have done, send messages, follow people on twitter, but don’t always believe the negative things you might read – being well-informed is important, as is being safe and not putting yourself in an unnecessarily dangerous situation, but remember the media will never report all the positive experiences people have had somewhere, and not everyone is an axe wielding murderer, on the contrary 99.99% of the world’s population want you to have a great experience too, and will go out of their way to help – wouldn’t you?

Gaining a few basic skills can really help you feel more confident on the road, things like first aid and navigation are a great start, as knowing where you are and being able to look after yourself are fundamental to the success any adventure, but don’t worry if you aren’t a fluent Swahili speaker yet, or you haven’t worked out how you are going to get from A to B, a huge part of adventure is problem solving, and you will learn as you go along, so don’t fear the unknown, look at it as a learning opportunity and go and figure it out.

Ultimately if you have a trip in mind, then go and do it. You can always earn more money, you can always find another job, and you can always find a sofa to crash on, but you might not get another chance to say yes to that adventure.

I’d rather regret doing something, than regret not doing something.

Explorer Andy Browning

What will the future bring?

Having just returned from an expedition, I’m back in the planning stages for a new one. I have been trawling through my notebook and I think the next big adventure will be back in Africa, and will definitely involve overland transport of some description, but it will take a bit of planning to get sorted, so in the meantime I will be keeping myself busy exploring the mountains of the UK, and making the most of the outdoors in any way that I can.

As for gear, I’m hoping to get some more experience in the mountains this winter, so I am looking into getting myself some B2 mountaineering boots and a set of crampons alongside an ice axe. I’m also in the market for some good climbing rope and a new harness so I can reacquaint myself with some outdoor climbing routes here in the UK.

Generally speaking, I aim to continue living life with the outlook of a chronic optimist, saying yes to as many opportunities I can, and trying to make every day as adventurous as possible.

© Andy Browning 2017

Visit Andy Browning on his website and follow him on Instagram and Twitter


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