English adventurer David Cornthwaite likes to do things his own way—from sleeping in weird places to riding a tandem bicycle from Vancouver to Las Vegas, to choosing a boat over an apartment to live with his wife, Emma, in London.
Cornthwaite is best known for his Expedition1000 project, a plan to undertake 25 separate journeys of at least 1000 miles each, always using some type of non-motorized transport. The project started in 2011 and has so far included both land and water travel, including a 2,340-mile standing paddleboard journey down the Mississippi River over the course of 82 days.
We talked to Cornthwaite about what inspired this project, what adventure is all about (it’s not necessarily what people think it is), and what’s coming up next.
THE CLYMB: Have you always loved adventure? Is this something that started at a young age?
DAVE CORNTHWAITE: Honestly, I wasn’t very adventurous at all as a kid. My family is constantly surprised at where adulthood took me. I was obsessed with football and computers, was (and still am) terrifically short-sighted so as a child wore thick-rimmed, thick-lensed glasses, and I wasn’t so good at dreaming. Looking back, I do remember a family caravan holiday in the south of France when we kayaked across a lake and slept on an island, but that’s weighed up against that time I refused to go skydiving for my birthday because it was too dangerous.
THE CLYMB: Was your trip to Uganda after high school an a‑ha moment that helped you commit to adventure more fully?
CORNTHWAITE: It was definitely an ah-ha moment which made me realize that the world was way bigger than the bubble I’d been used to, and for a little while I guess I was really excited about life’s potential. I backpacked a bit through Uni but never really with a purpose, and I think after a while if you’re not led by reason then mind and motivation slow down. It didn’t take long to start spending more time at home and then, ultimately, to get a job that kept me static and on the hamster wheel.
THE CLYMB: Can you tell our readers more about the inspiration behind your Expedition1000 project? How did you get the idea for it?
CORNTHWAITE: I’d got a job straight out of Uni as a graphic designer, even though I hadn’t studied graphic design and was bloody awful at it. They were desperate back then, in Swansea. For 18 months I just went to work, did poor work, went home and played Playstation. I had a house with a mortgage, a long-term partner who didn’t like me very much, which wasn’t surprising because I didn’t like me very much either and looking back I lived under a cloud of depression and boredom.
On my twenty-fifth birthday my cat, Kiwa, jumped on my head and woke me up, and I looked into her eyes and it hit me. “Crap, I’m twenty-five years old and I’m wasting my life away. My cat is enjoying life more than I am. I have to get out of this spiral. I have to start saying yes more.”
That day I walked out the front door with a spring in my step, looking for opportunity. It felt great, being optimistic, and I spent the next few weeks trying new things and one of those hobbies was longboarding. I’d never done it before so learned by skating around Swansea, and all of a sudden this town I’d live in for six years was alive with possibility. Two weeks later, I skated to work, quit my job, skated out and decided to try and break the world distance record on a skateboard, it just felt like a long journey would take me to wherever I needed to go.
So I did it, with an 896-mile warm-up from John O’Groats to Land’s End, and then over 3600 miles across Australia, from Perth to Brisbane. That trip changed my life. I got a book deal, a couple of world records, and felt like I could now make a wild decision, act on it, and go. It felt like I’d finally worked out what being alive, for me, meant, and I just wanted more of it. So I went on a mission to chase this lifetime goal of taking on twenty-five different journeys, each at least 1000 miles in distance, each using a different form of non-motorized transport. Mainly so I’d never have to get on a bloody skateboard again.
THE CLYMB: How do you choose destinations/transportation for each one of the trips in the Expedition1000 project? Is there a method to it or is it more of “whatever inspires you at the time”?
CORNTHWAITE: I’ve completed 14 of these so far and there’s no rhyme or reason. Sometimes the journey comes from another opportunity like a speaking gig or a film job, and while I’m there I’ll do a trip. Sometimes it’s a conversation in a pub, sometimes I read a newspaper or magazine and see a random form of transport and the bell starts ringing, a switch is flicked, and I can’t focus on anything else until the journey comes together. I don’t train for any of them, usually the first time I’ve tried the transport is on the day the journey starts. Then take it slow, train on the job, and after four or five days it feels like you’ve been doing it for a lifetime.
THE CLYMB: Of all the Expedition1000 project trips so far, any in particular that you loved more than the others?
CORNTHWAITE: They’ve all had their moments but I just love traveling on water. It’s like choosing between your children, but if I had to choose a favorite it would be Paddleboarding the length of the Mississippi River. It starts off as a tiny stream that slowly builds into a great river, miles across in places. And that picture is repeated in your mind, you can start as a complete novice and slowly grow and grow until you’re unstoppable.
Traveling in an odd way is a wonderful ice breaker, and in 2011 Stand Up Paddleboarding hadn’t yet become the global phenomenon that it is now. I dug the confused faces and questions all the way down the river. “Why?” “What is that thing?” “Why are you standing on a kayak?” “What about the alligators?” And on and on and on.
THE CLYMB: Any that turned out to be nothing like you expected?
CORNTHWAITE: All of these trips start out as a glorious idea but all come with their unseen obstacles and challenges. Sometimes this is part of the fun, getting through the crap and then carrying on, realizing you’re probably a bit stronger than you thought beforehand. Swimming 1000 miles down the Missouri River was tough for many reasons. First, swimming isn’t easy, especially when you’ve never swum 100 meters in your life before, so it took a while to get going, especially dragging a 35kg raft behind me. I had a team of paddle boarders alongside me on that one, helping to raise money for charity, but most of them hadn’t left their village in England before and the plains of South Dakota sent them all loopy. Everyone was at each other’s throats and there’s nothing more exhausting than falling out with people in an intense situation. It happens, but it’s not fun. I was glad to get to the end of that trip.
In 2017 I rode a waterbike along the Norwegian coast, some 1240 miles from Kirkenes in the North almost to Bergen in the southwest. The Norwegian and North seas are brutal, and while the wild island campsites were epic and Norwegian people are amongst the kindest, happiest people I’ve met, the elements slowly wore me down. My butt was a mess, sitting on a bucking bicycle seat on the ocean isn’t pleasant, and I’d land at the end of each day with salt in my beard and people just staring at this weird waterbiker. I ended up about 90 miles short of my goal and a two-week hurricane was blowing in from the Atlantic and I just called it a day. These trips are for living, not dying.
THE CLYMB: How do you prepare for trips like these? Do you have a system in place to deal with food, sleeping stops? Or do you have to research/plan for every trip completely from scratch?
CORNTHWAITE: Every trip is different so the basic planning is from scratch. Some are down rivers, others across deserts, along coastlines, or haphazardly following roads in a rough direction across a country or continent. Each of my journeys takes a different route and draws a new line across the surface, so while I approach them all in a similar way, that method is largely based upon a basic belief that things will just work out if I approach it with a smile! Not training, wild camping and traveling on a non-motorized vehicle keeps the costs down, and most of my trips come in at under £1000. My outer luggage is always waterproof, whether panniers for a bike or dry duffels for river journeys. And I eat whatever I can find. I prefer social journeys with people at the center of the plan, which means there’s usually a store or food source at least every few days.
I think the key is to work out what might happen that could cause harm or stop the journey short and be aware and prepared for this. Everything else can then just happen. There’s so much of our lives and social system that is more or less planned—or at the very least, easy—and you have to choose your approach on these things. Either you wing it, or you turn your adventure trip into a glorified package tour, riding between hotels each night. All approaches are fine, but if you’re after a good adventure then too much preparation is a surefire way to sterile a trip.
THE CLYMB: In addition to your long-distance trips that are part of the project, you also do a lot of other adventure traveling. Any favorite thing type of adventure/travel you enjoy?
CORNTHWAITE: I mentioned people, above. Whatever my journey, whether an endurance trek or a film trip, if you have a reason to be there it’s so much easier to strike up a conversation. I travel because it reminds me that humans are good and kind. I travel with a purpose because it keeps me focused, creative and gives some hooks to hang memories on.
There are some small, insignificant things that I crave when not on the move. That feeling like you’ve really earned a coffee, even if it’s a rubbish gas station coffee because you’ve already ridden 30 miles that day. Or when dusk is coming down and you still don’t know where you’re going to sleep, and then a disused barn comes along, or a grassy flat spot with an amazing view over a mountain range, or even the luscious shelter of a construction site concrete pipe. I love sleeping in weird places, it’s not always comfortable but it’s somewhere, and when I get home the ‘real’ bed feels so so good. As soon as we start taking the basics for granted, it’s time to get away again.
THE CLYMB: You’ve broken a number of world records. Tell us about some of them!
CORNTHWAITE: There have been some weird ones! Distance records on skateboards and paddle boards. A speed record on an Aquaskipper. First circumnavigations of Caribbean islands by paddleboard, which is much harder than it sounds! And in 2013 I captained the losing team in what was at the time the longest game of five a side football, ever. We lost 896 to 547, which is galling after playing for 46 and a half hours!
THE CLYMB: What’s your next adventure all about and when are you leaving?
CORNTHWAITE: In 2015 I realized I didn’t know my Facebook followers so decided to see if they were real people by inviting them camping. The 19 strangers that turned up under a London train station clock that June evening were the first members of a community called the YesTribe, which is now over 15,000 members strong and is growing around the world. I spend a lot of my time running a team of 80 volunteers, who set up free events that bring people together, often outside, to lower social isolation and recharge mental health with the end goal to help each person live a full, creative and adventurous life. SayYesMore has become a big part of a lot of people’s lives now, and I admit, running this nonprofit meant that for a while I lost out on my own trips.
But now, with eleven thousand-milers left to go, I’m starting to plot them out. Towards the end of the summer, I’ll ride a recumbent bicycle 2000 miles in a month from San Francisco to Memphis. And next year I’m looking to swim 1000 miles underwater, starting with a pathetic breath hold of less than a minute and then, bit by building up to four or five minutes. Come up for breath, go swim another hundred meters. Then again and again until the 1000-mile mark. Bit by bit, keep on going, the view keeps changing. That’s what I live for.