Expedition filming


reflections on expedition filming

Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer of the highest order. He has cycled around the world, completed the Marathon des Sables, rowed the channel and then the Atlantic, walked across India and much more.

Alastair has written five books about his experiences and recently released a film ‘Into the Empty Quarter” about his attempt, alongside Leon McCarron, to follow in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger across the Arabian Peninsula.

Here is what Alastair has to say about filming the journey. This blog entry was originally published on Al’s own website and adapted here with his permission.

Reflections on Filming an Expedition


Some people have no interest in the story aspect of their expeditions. We don’t know who those people are, because they do the trip merely for the doing of it, and never talk of what they have done. I have often celebrated this approach.

But I have always enjoyed sharing my journeys. Whilst the trip is in progress I like pondering how I might best share whatever I am experiencing at the time. I began this process early, daydreaming whilst cycling round the world about how I could turn these experiences into a book of my travels. This whiled away many a mile on the journey, long before I ever gave any thought to trying to turn my adventures into a ‘job’.

Later, walking across India, I focussed for the first time on trying to tell a story through photography. It helped me be more observant on my journey.

With the arrival of SLR cameras that could also record HD video I decided to try to learn a new skill. I crossed Iceland as a way to begin learning how to wield a video camera. Since then I have spent a lot of time filming myself walking/ cycling/ canoeing/ rowing or swimming past my camera. I’ve been learning a lot. I know my ISO from my f-stops now. But that does not a story make.

So the next step for me was trying to tell the story of a major expedition through video. And that is how Leon and I came to find ourselves setting up our tripods in an empty desert, walking for miles past the camera, then trudging all the way back again to pick up the camera. That is the non-glamorous summary of self-filmed expeditions!

I have written before about how to film an expedition. Here then are a few things to consider before deciding whether you really want to film an expedition or if you should stick to writing, photography or just enjoying the peace and quiet.

Questions to Ask Before Departure


  • What do you want to get out of filming? A few snippets for your sponsors or to use in presentations, a quick reminder film for you and your grandkids, an entire expedition distilled down to four minutes, or a much longer documentary? You need to be very clear about this before you begin.


  • Be aware that filming an expedition properly will cost a lot of money. It is unlikely you will make a profit.


  • Editing the film will probably entail more hours of work after the trip than the trip itself lasted. Are you up for the long haul?


  • When you are on your trip you will need to be prepared to film even when you do not want to film. Especially when you don’t want to film.


  • You need to be willing to do endless walk-bys, and to repeat activities over and over when all you want to do is sleep. For example, filming your buddy going to sleep probably involves him getting in and out of his sleeping bag several times in order to cover all the angles. This can be hugely time-consuming and irritating!


  • Are all team members agreed on how extensively you are going to film? If not you run the risk of filming half-heartedly whilst still annoying your partner who wants to be covering more miles. Are you able to plan your story in advance? The more that you can plan the film, the better. In reality, of course, the joy of adventure is not knowing what is going to happen.


  • Will you enjoy the stress of carrying lots of heavy camera gear whilst pushing against deadlines and food rations as day after day passes with nothing particularly interesting happening?


  • What style of film are you interested in? Beautiful and serene, Krazy and Xtreme, informative or heart-wrenching?


In summary, ask yourself whether you really, really want to film your trip. It is harder work on the ground than either photography or writing. It probably pays [even] less than either. But, on the plus side, I can now testify that it is thrilling, rewarding and addictive.

I absolutely loved the entire process of producing Into The Empty Quarter and I’m really proud of our first attempt at filmmaking. If you’d like to watch the film Leon and I shot, the trailer is above, which includes a link to the whole thing.