Editors Note: The Wild Woman series brings you a collection of conversations we’ve been privileged to have with outstanding women, who are the doers and shakers of the world, who push the boundaries & are positive paradigm breaking change makers, devoting their lives to making our world a better place. These women have inspired and motivated us to take action, and we hope they will inspire and motivate you too.
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Phoebe is full of the passion, energy and spirit of a woman who lives for the outdoors and adventures. Her love of dramatic landscapes and wild places has led her all over the world and to the extreme points of mainland Britain! Not only have we all read her wanderlust-inspiring writing of those untamed, intense and beautiful places, but we’ve been inspired by them - inspired to go extreme sleeping, inspired to take better care of our wilderness, inspired to create our own adventure challenges and to explore. When Phoebe’s not wild camping in extreme locations or writing about her adventures, you can find her at her desk in Windsor, where she’s the Editor of Wanderlust magazine.
What or who inspired you to adventure in dramatic landscapes and wild places?
For me it was travelling to the furthest place away from home possible – Australia. I was living there for a year and a friend suggested we go and sleep in swag bags (like bivvy bags) in the Red Centre near Uluru. Until that point I’d never been interested in camping, but said yes because I was a backpacker and that’s what everyone does when they travel – push their boundaries.
Despite being told how many creatures in the outback could kill me, as I lay there with little more than a sheet protecting me from killer snakes, spiders and even ants, I didn’t care about the risks – I was too busy being mesmerised by the multitude of stars above me. I started to wonder why I’d never bothered to do something like this back home (where nothing can kill me) and why it had taken me such a long journey to discover how beautiful wild places can be. I made a promise to myself then and there that when I got back to the UK, I would become a tourist in my own backyard and start exploring the wild places and dramatic landscapes that I’d always taken for granted back home. It started with day walks, they became two day walks with campsite stays and then I took the plunge and started wild camping on my own. I haven’t looked back since...
Did your parents expect you to follow this route of adventure (and why)?
In a word – no! Not because they wouldn’t have wanted me to, it’s just that growing up I was never the particularly outdoorsy one – that was always my brother. However, when I was a teenager my mum got diagnosed with cancer and it completely changed my outlook on life. Before I lost her, she made me promise never to be afraid to explore and to travel (she let a fear of flying stop her going to all the places she’d only read about in books), to never think anything was beyond my reach or my capabilities, to know that life was precious with no guarantees when it might all be over. I don’t think she ever thought I’d be doing this, but I like to think that if she knew she would be proud. My dad was surprised and often a little worried at first, but now he’s used to it and has even joined and started following me on Twitter to keep up with me!
What was your first adventure and how did it influence you?
I'd say the first adventure that actually influenced me in a big way – other than the trip to Australia – was here in the UK when I returned. It was a single night in Snowdonia National Park in North Wales, not too far from where I grew up. I did my first solo wild camp. People kept telling me it was too dangerous to go alone, that things would go wrong – and they did, from sunburn, to midges, to sheep charging at me and unwittingly taking a tick home with me – so when I survived it, there was a literal overnight shift in my thinking. People said I couldn’t do something and yet – I. Could. Do. It. And that’s really influenced everything I’ve done since.
What has been your favourite adventure so far and why?
I’d say my Extreme Sleeps Challenge. I may not be a great athlete, but by god I’m good at sleeping! So I set myself the challenge of sleeping at the extreme points of mainland Britain, solo on consecutive nights. These consisted of the highest, lowest, northernmost, southernmost, easternmost, westernmost and centremost reaches of our island (which you can read about in my book Wild Nights).
I became the first woman to do it and the first person to do this including the centremost point, but that didn’t really matter. It was more that it took me to parts of Britain I wouldn’t have otherwise visited, that I got to highlight the problem with litter in our wild places which then – due to a tweet I sent from the top of Ben Nevis that went viral – inspired other people to go and clean up a wild place close to them. That made the whole thing worthwhile.
You are one of Britain’s most famous wild campers, what are the elements you love about extreme sleeping?
Everything! Seriously, walking into a place when everyone else is going home feels a little bit clandestine and exhilarating. But more than that, going somewhere alone and spending the night there just allows you to connect with it in a different way, with no distractions. I love seeing the sunrise, I love opening my tent and having a beautiful place revealed outside it, falling asleep to owls and waking up to birdsong as the light creeps up the horizon. And the best thing is fitting it in to a ‘normal’ life, because once you get back to the chores and responsibilities you think about what you did during the night, the adventure you had when everyone else was watching X Factor and feel a secret sense of achievement.
What are the top 3 things you’ve learnt from extreme sleeping in Britain?
The first is that the UK is truly, mind-blowingly beautiful.
The second is that you don't need to be a beard-sporting, rufty-tufty, I’ll-eat-a-dead-sheep-carcass Bear Grylls type to have an adventure.
The third is that the best things in life, aren’t things.
We’ve heard you talk about your ‘Go Bag’ could you please tell us more about it?
At all times I have a rucksack ready packed with all I need for a wild camp– even down to the gas for my stove and a dehydrated meal and some cereal bars. The only thing that ever changes is whether I take a tent, a bivvy or a hammock, the rest is literally good to go. I keep it by my front door or in the boot of my car so that if the weather looks good or the mood takes me to have a last minute escape, I have no excuses – I can simply go. Everyone should have a go bag packed in my humble opinion.
You are the editor of Wanderlust and have published several books, have you always loved writing?
Yes. I’m a writer before everything else. I remember when I was a little kid seeing a book in my mum’s study that said ‘words were originally magic’ and you know what, they kinda are. They can disarm, upset, heal, make someone laugh, give someone comfort – they are the greatest tool we have. I have always written – poems, songs, short stories – no one ever told me to do it, I just HAD to do it. When my friends complained about creative writing homework I wrote more than I needed to. I can’t not do it.
What do you enjoy most about writing a book on your adventures?
I’d say it’s the whole process of actually crafting words, so that you don’t just tell people about what you’ve done, but actually take them with you, so that they can see it as though they were stood right there beside you. For me, sharing an adventure is just as exciting as going on one.
You appear to balance adventure and a 9-5 job really well, what are you secrets to doing this?
I’m glad you think I do – some of my book editors would disagree when I start negotiating for deadline extensions! Honestly, it’s hard work. I really wish there was a secret formula, a magic bullet I could give you, but the truth is that I organise my time well – that’s every single piece of my time including my lunch breaks, evenings, weekends, days off – to pack in as much as possible. Whereas other people get to Friday night and head to the pub, watch TV and then maybe have a lazy Sunday, I get home and start writing/planning/editing the next project I’m working on. I always joke that the reason I got into extreme sleeping is that it’s the only sure-fire way I can get a night off!
What’s your favourite bothy?
The Lookout, Isle of Skye. You can watch my video about it below;
If you could go for an extreme sleep anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Back to Antarctica. I was extremely lucky to go in 2014 on an ice-breaking expedition ship and it blew my mind. There simply isn’t anywhere else like it. The wildlife, the icebergs – the sheer volume of untouched wilderness – it really got under my skin. I’d arranged to spend the night on the peninsula in a tent, but sadly the weather took a nasty turn and the expedition leader pulled us back aboard the ship last minute. I was defiant though and took my sleeping bag and camping mat up onto the top deck so that I could sleep outdoors in Antarctica. It was cold, it was wet, but it was once-in-a-lifetime. But I ache to go back there.
Aside from that it has to be Sandwood Bay in Scotland – my spiritual home.
What is the book you have gifted most?
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. It reminds me of when I first got into the outdoors – the fear, the pain, the being completely shocked by the price of a rucksack that isn’t even waterproof – I hope it inspires others to go walking too, realising that anyone can become outdoorsy.
When you hear the word successful, who is the first person that comes to mind and why?
Ranulph Fiennes – the guy’s 72 and still pushing limits – he just climbed the highest peak in Antarctica! I hope I’m still doing crazy stuff when I’m in my 70s.
If you could have a billboard anywhere, what would it say?
Climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world
What would you tell the 20 year-old version of yourself?
Sometimes when you think things are falling apart, they are actually falling into place
Is there anything we should be watching out for in the future from you?
More wilderness, more books and - hopefully - more sleep!