30 April 2024

Reimagining exploration in wild places

Reimagining exploration in wild places

Connection, not conquest

Exploration carries colonial connotations. It evokes European men setting sail to ‘discover’ new lands that were in fact old lands, then colonising the people they found there. This destructive spirit lives on – usually unwittingly and subtly – in forms of exploration rooted in supremacy: being first or fastest, or conquering and overcoming.

ESC stands for exploration not as conquest or escape, but connection. This has been a refrain throughout the ESC process and campaign, because it’s full of exciting implications. Exploring wild places for connection means reconnecting with our own nature, the rest of nature, our ancestry, and ways of nurturing a future that serves people and planet. The poet Terry Tempest Williams said it well:

“Wilderness reminds us what it means to be human. What we are connected to, rather than what we are separate from.”
– Terry Tempest Williams

The ESC Collection is built to thrive in the planet’s wild places, in harmony with nature. The story in this blog series so far has mostly been about what has gone into ESC. We have explored what it means to build footwear in an age characterised by environmental catastrophe, by political and economic systems poorly positioned to offer radical solutions, and by an emergent ‘ecological turn’ that recognises the interconnection of living organisms and systems, the intelligence of other species, and the value of old cultures. This blog focuses on what we hope comes out of ESC, by delving deeper into the idea of exploration as connection. What might regenerative exploration look like?

Simplicity amid complexity

Discovering connection makes the world more complex: filled with more intelligence and relationships. Interconnected, animist thinking is rooted in Indigenous knowledge systems around the world. ESC is indebted to Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and aims to honour ancient wisdom that can help guide us into the future. And ESC looks to those connecting adventure with TEK stewardship, like Lakota skier Connor Ryan and Indigenous communities offering adventure experiences.

ESC is also inspired by the Rights of Nature movement, which is working to recognise complexity and nurture ecological health by establishing rights for non-human organisms. Ecuador’s constitution is widely regarded as the pioneering example. New Zealand, Canada, the UK, and other countries have started experimenting with similar rights. And philosophers and scientists are pondering how we might integrate non-human organisms into democracy.

But ESC also champions exploration as simplicity. Wild places encourage us to think intentionally about what we truly need – to appreciate sufficiency. “We were completely off grid, to all intents and purposes, for ten days,” recalls ESC designer Jenny of the ESC team’s tundra testing trip. “It was so peaceful, and just made us realise just how little we need and how much is superfluous to happiness.”

This sufficiency goes beyond kit. It can be found in the minimalism of barefootwear, which lets our bodies move naturally and show us what they can do. It waits to be discovered in small, local adventures – every bit as rich as grand expeditions, as Alastair Humphreys’ ‘microadventures’ attest. The ESC collection is made to thrive in extreme environments and deep expeditions, but the kind of exploration ESC calls for doesn’t require either, and doesn’t require ESC footwear. It simply means finding simplicity amid complexity.

Exploration as service

ESC calls for exploration that helps heal instead of destroy. Spending time in nature, especially when seeing through a lens of interconnection, helps us care for nature. Adventuring can be an act of service. 

This begins with Leave No Trace principles: always plan well, consider others, respect wildlife, travel and camp on durable ground, leave what you find, dispose of waste properly, and minimise campfire impact.

But exploration can also go hand in hand with proactive acts of service (which sometimes leave a delightful trace). ESC is inspired by citizen scientists testing river water and monitoring biodiversity, guerilla gardeners seeding nature and community, activists camping out to save old growth forest, and outdoor communities mobilising to help create national parks and demand climate action. Adventure and service are often indistinguishable.

These examples aren’t just environmental, but social. They help lead us to better ways of living together. Here in the UK, we’re particularly inspired by the Right to Roam movement, which is not only demanding wider access to nature, but connecting this demand to issues spanning health, land justice, biodiversity, and inequality. Their new book, Wild Service, is a rallying cry for adventure as service. It shows how simple acts – rambling, trespassing, building dens, making rope swings – can help foster a playful, local, fair, regenerative outdoor culture.

Exploration as health

Exploring interconnection means acknowledging that humans are nature, and that serving nature also means serving ourselves. In Wild Service, conservationist Nadia Shaikh cites a passage that helped her see how her work isn’t about helping nature as something separate from her, but serving it as part of her:

“When you help, you see life as weak; when you fix, you see life as broken; and when you serve, you see life as whole … When we serve in this way, we understand that this person’s suffering is also my suffering, that their joy is also my joy and then the impulse to serve arises naturally – our natural wisdom and compassion presents itself quite simply.”

– Rachel Naomi Remen

Vivobarefoot is built on the belief that natural movement is healthy and connecting, whereas excess padding is dysfunctional and disconnecting. More broadly, disconnection from nature harms our physical and mental health. There is a resounding chorus of research showing the healing power of nature. Nature boosts our immune systems. Water makes us happier. Even looking at nature can change your brain waves, lower your heart rate, reduce your stress, and improve your sleep. ESC believes in exploration that recognises how wild spaces can heal us, and vice versa.


We don’t need to think about all this every time we head outdoors. Carefree adventures are hard to beat! But in our experience, starting to consider exploration in these terms makes it difficult to stop – mostly because it makes each outing richer and more rewarding. And keeping the impact of our adventures in mind, even lightly, helps ensure we are nurturing a world that will be even more enticing for the generations of explorers to come.