Interview: Lucy Shepherd on why we should all be living adventurously

We meet the British explorer to find out how adventure can be a huge catalyst for change

Lucy Shepherd is a modern explorer, who was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society at the tender age of 23. Her expeditions have taken her around the globe, from documenting the impact of climate change on the Greenland ice sheet to exploring uncharted territory in the Guyana rainforest.

When we spoke, Lucy had just returned from an expedition in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. “It was very wild and windy,” she says. “We were in a storm for most of the time, so when the sun came through and we were able to get glimpses of the mountains every so often, you felt very grateful to be there.”

Lucy Shepherd by Michael McDonald

from adventurous beginnings…

Lucy’s life has been shaped by adventure since childhood. “I was given quite a long leash to roam around the fields of East Anglia. I grew up in the Suffolk countryside, and was given a lot of freedom to explore big open fields and climb trees.” Spotting her daughter’s daring streak, Lucy’s mum pitched the Duke of Edinburgh Award to her. “Mum told me you could go with a group of friends, that you were given a map, you had to get from A to B, and, you had to camp. I thought it sounded amazing.”

With a taste for the outdoors, 15-year-old Lucy left Suffolk for the northernmost part of Scotland, near Cape Wrath, to attend a camp at the Ridgway Adventure School. “It was there I was first introduced to the word ‘expedition’,” Lucy says. “Before then, it hadn’t really been in my vocabulary. I didn’t think that expeditions were something that people could do nowadays – or something that I could do.”

“For two weeks I went on mini-expeditions every day. There was quite a lot of discipline, a bit like the military; we had to clean or swim in the loch or go for a run before breakfast. I loved it. I met people who were just as excited about being in the outdoors and going through uncomfortable physical exertions as I was. It was the first time I actually found something I was pretty good at. I always knew I was good at climbing trees and climbing ropes, but that wasn’t getting me anywhere at school, obviously,” she laughs. “I had always been labelled as shy, but here I found that glimmer of being a leader. It was really exciting, suddenly, there was a whole world of opportunities that I had no idea existed.”

Lucy Shepherd by Tim Taylor

into the Expedition world

Lucy’s first international expedition was with the British Exploring Society to Svalbard. “Back then, it was called British Schools Exploring Society. They used to do these big expeditions where they’d only take around 10 people, all 18 to 25-year-olds,” she explains. “I saw an advert for the trip in the newspaper – with a beautiful photo of the Arctic – and knew I had to go. I applied, had interviews, was accepted, and began training. It was a 10-week expedition; you can imagine how long that felt for an 18-year-old! It was everything I could have hoped for. I felt a sense of belonging on this expedition, and found a version of myself I didn’t know existed. I just loved the closeness and camaraderie that you form in such extreme environments.”

“A funny thing happens when you return from an expedition,” she says. “You’ve had this incredible experience where you flourished and had an amazing time. Then, you get back home and your loved ones say, ‘What an incredible once in a lifetime experience.’ I’d return feeling so elevated only to be told: ‘Well done, now back to reality.’ I just wanted to keep having the experience over and over. That word, ‘reality’. What does it even mean?”

“At 18, I didn’t know how I could make expeditions my life. I knew I didn’t want to join the military or become an outdoor instructor, so I was making the window of opportunity much smaller for myself. I could never have predicted the path I’m on now, but I stayed open to opportunities and was determined to persevere. Always persevere until you find a way; you can make money from the things you love. You can do what you want. It’s not easy, but with the short term memory humans have, we forget the hard bits.”

living adventurously

“Adventure has the ability to fill you up,” says Lucy. “When you go on an adventure – even a day trip – it recalibrates you. It recalibrates your mind, so that you go on to tackle whatever you face next, better. You gain a new perspective which improves every part of life.”

“Living adventurously and taking lots of trips, means you’re able to get a fresh perspective and new way of thinking regularly. We all know life can get on top of us. We all get brain fog. We don’t feel excited about things. We don’t feel motivated. But if you step away for a while, things change.”

Where does the magic really happen for Lucy? “Remote expeditions. That’s what it’s all about,” she says. “Being away from people with your small group. Feeling that sense of vulnerability in the landscape, that awe of the breath-taking towering mountains, or the jungle. It reminds you what an incredible world we live in, how wild it really can be, and that’s a very humbling experience. It allows you to connect with the environment and nature on a far deeper level. And I think we’d all be better off if we felt that connection with the outdoors more.”

Lucy Shepherd by Michael McDonald

a catalyst for change

Lucy’s recent Svalbard expedition saw her spend 2 weeks in the Arctic, mostly in whiteout conditions. “I didn’t think that trip was going to do anything for me. I’ve been to the Arctic lots of times, but for some reason this one was just incredible. I lead our team by just looking at the GPS and compass for hours and hours on end. We had people of all different experience levels, one person had never camped or skied before. But I take people out no matter what their experience is, as long as they are willing to learn, be a team player and show enthusiasm. It’s so rewarding to see how the landscape can change people.”

“I really believe that adventure is worthwhile in itself,” Lucy explains. “It’s a catalyst for changing bigger-picture things in your own life, and taking the energy from whatever you’ve learnt on that trip or adventure home to your friends and family. We all know that when you take away the phones and the everyday worries, people connect on a much deeper level. Adventure helps you better yourself and reminds you to live in the present.”

If you are thinking about going on an adventure, then Lucy’s advice is simple – just do it. “I usually decide where to go next on a gut feeling rather than a rationalised process. I look at maps and I read stories, but I really do think the gut has a lot to answer for everything I do. We should all listen to that instinct more,” she smiles. “It’s saved me on many occasions.”

To find out more about Lucy head to her website or find her on Instagram. Feeling inspired? Check out our upcoming expeditions here and start living more adventurously.