Em Bell is a writer, outdoorswoman, and adventure-maker. She was the first woman to kayak the length of Great Britain, stand-up paddle the 1001 miles of the Missouri, and she’s not done yet. Read on to learn about her next trips, the joys of not-planning, and Em’s top recommendations for things to do in the UK (that you would never think of).
You say you quit your job to lead a life of adventure; what was the job you left? and how do you define a “life of adventure”?
After university I went into financial headhunting because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I decided to follow the path I felt I should and did it for over a year. I sat at a desk for 11 hours a day in a suit, wishing away the hours. As I welcomed in 2009, I realised I hated my job and walked in on the 2nd January and handed in my notice. That was five years ago. I decided I wanted to love my life, love everyday of my life and wear trainers or no shoes everyday. The years after that led me to say yes to every job out there – I represented the UK on a game show, presented a 31 day music festival in Cape Town over the World Cup, became a wedding planner, cleaned people’s houses, organised two Bat Mitzvah’s, I worked on a McFly documentary for Channel 5, the list goes on. I moved onto the floor at my parents and had no ties and spent every spare moment traveling the world, jumping out of planes and climbing mountains. My addiction to adventure had been there my whole life but now I was doing it constantly. Every job and trip was an adventure.
Once I fell in love with writing, I started working my way up in the magazine world. One day at work, a ginger guy called Dave Cornthwaite (who I’m sure you know) turned up on my doorstep to load some magazines. He told me about a writer position on his upcoming trip down the Missouri leaving in two weeks. I said yes – asked for a sabbatical, packed my bags, googled what a stand-up paddleboard was (I was meant to be travelling 1001 miles alongside him on one) and where the Missouri even was. Two weeks later I was on a plane (to the wrong place) and I was in heaven. I decided I had to make a life out of adventure and once I spent 60 days on the river, I knew it had to happen.
So I went back to the magazine and started planning my next trip. Midway through planning a giant kick-scooter journey I applied for the positon of crew captain for another ginger, Sean Conway, attempting to swim Lands End to John O’Groats. I got the position and in perfect timing, the magazine actually stopped production. So last summer I kayaked the length of Britain with Sean Conway who became the first person ever to swim LEJOG. Since getting back from the adventure, I am now back in London launching a very exciting adventure magazine, alongside talking and writing about my adventures. And doing lots of mini adventures alongside – I love it.
Tell me about a time you were scared on one of your trips.
The scariest moment of my whole life was coming around Cape Wrath, the northern tip of Scotland. The weather was beautiful when we started to make our way round a major landmark in the trip. Suddenly the weather changed and we were caught out in a hideous storm. I had to get out of the kayak as the swell was too big. The waves were so aggressive that the kayak became unattached from the boat and so Sean had to go and swim to it. We kept losing him. The waves were getting bigger. And after several attempts at reattaching the kayak, it finally capsized. My paddle broke. The boat was falling to bits. Sean couldn’t get in the boat. I got out to help him and get the kayak and was stuck out in the little rib behind the boat with huge waves crashing down onto me. We finally made it out – exhausted and scared as we very nearly didn’t make it out of that storm. I’m scared of the water on a good day!
What was it like where you grew up? Do you think the things you did and thought about when you were young have led you to take a windier path?
My parents met in Chile and I was born there. When my mum went into labour they had to drive through the streets with no lights on because there was a curfew during the Pinochet regime. And when I was finally born, the 1985 earthquake was happening. It wasn’t the most normal start. My parents road tripped all over the world with me as a baby and my mum skied with me on her back when I was less than one year old – so I guess travelling and adventure was instilled in me from a young age!
What are the top three things you would recommend trying or doing or seeing in the UK?
– Surf in Woolacombe and stay in a beach hut
– Discover the deserted beaches in Scotland. Spend the day hiking to them. Then go for a swim, light a fire, have a BBQ and camp there for the night.
– Go to the source of the Thames and travel down it by SUP or kayak. You go through the most beautiful countryside with lots of pubs to stop at for food and drinks.
What’s your next trip?
I’m set to run Hadrian’s Wall in a couple of weeks. I’m not very good at planning adventures. I have a map and I run a lot so I will let you know what happens! I am also meant to be kick-scooting Lands End to John O’Groats as I postponed my big scoot when the kayaking trip lasted 5 months instead of 2! I also want to travel source to sea of the Thames at some point this summer. Lots of plans!
What are you working on right now?
I’m launching an adventure magazine. While continuing to do loads of adventures, talk about them, write about them and inspire other people to do more – and realise they are so much more capable than they realise!
What are some things, gear-wise, you highly recommend or always pack?
– Aquapac – always. I have their amazing waterproof cases, duffle bag and rucksacks. They are life savers.
– BAM clothing leggings and jumper. So comforting at the end of the day
– Berghaus jacket to keep warm
– BUFF to protect my head/ neck from the sun
– Lip balm
– My adventure mascot – Bear.
Who inspires you?
So many people – people who aren’t scared to ignore convention and say no to what is normal. People that are carving out careers to make sure they enjoy life more. People who are doing adventures. And people who love life. They are just amazing and inspiring to be around.
Any advice for women who want to take the jump onto another path?
Don’t be scared. You are SO much more capable than you think and so much stronger than you will ever realise. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t tried something before – just plan less and do more. You will be so much happier. Life should be amazing everyday and through pushing yourself, scaring yourself and seeing the world you will make sure it is!