Behind the scenes: Sidetracked magazine

by Steve Watson in May 2014

Sidetracked is a website that has spent the last three years telling “campfire stories” – tales of extreme adventure from expeditions all around the world. Started by web designer John Summerton as an escape from his freelance work, the site has built up a loyal following, and last month saw the launch of its first print issue; a big, beautiful compendium of stupefying stories and gorgeous photography.

I caught up with John to talk about the transition to print, and to find out more about his extreme travel tales, in which extraordinary people push themselves well beyond the realm of the everyday.

Sidetracked magazine

Congratulations on a fantastic first print issue. How did you find the transition from digital?
Print has been on my mind for quite a while. I’ve been a web designer for about 10 years, but there are so many amazing print publications out there that I thought it would be a perfect area for Sidetracked to move into.

I started thinking about it early last year – I put the word out on social networks to see whether people might be interested in a print magazine, and the reaction was, “yes, do it!” But it took a year of me humming and harring and trying to get things in place, and I finally decided to give it a go on pretty much the first of January this year.

The first stage was getting all the content in place, then editing, then design happened during early March, and we were off to the printer by the end of the month. It’s been a massive learning curve to say the least.

Go on then – what are some of the surprises you’ve encountered along the way?
For a start the change in technology – when I last did print design it was back in the days of QuarkXPress, so I had to quickly relearn InDesign (I dabbled with version one a long time ago). Getting my head back into print design took a bit of doing, but I really enjoyed it and I’m keen to do more and more of it.

Sidetracked magazine

The content is incredibly strong – it really shows that you’ve been doing this for a long time before launching the print version. Have you got a second issue lined up that’s as good as number one?
That’s something I’m working on at the moment! The reaction to the printed thing has been incredible – it’s far surpassed my own hopes. We’re continuing to push the website because that’s a good constant source of inspiration and a great channel with good visitor numbers, so we’re driving the brand in both directions in parallel.

In terms of collecting the content, having three years of experience definitely helps. Sidetracked started because I sent an email to a few people saying I’m putting together a collection of adventure stories and would you like to contribute, and in a way it hasn’t changed since then. I still send those emails, but these days people tend to know who we are, so we can generally find what we’re looking for, whether that’s cliff diving or solo climbing or whatever, and then it’s just a case of working out a deal or persuading people to spend the time writing a story for us.

And supplying the pictures I imagine, because it looks like the stories and the pictures come as one?
Yeah – well a lot of these guys that go and do these incredible expeditions will either have a photographer accompany them, or if it’s a much lower budget unsupported thing, you find that they’re often very good photographers.

For the print magazine we started working with Martin Hartley, a renowned polar adventure photographer, who not only points us in the direction of great photographers, but also helps to choose the photos. We get a vast selection to choose from and we only have space for six or seven per story, and he’s just brilliant at doing that.

Sidetracked magazine

Who do you see as the reader for Sidetracked? It’s the most extreme collection of travel stories I’ve ever seen – is the magazine for that hard core community, or is it intended for someone like me, who might be a bit softer and hasn’t necessarily had altitude sickness before?
It’s a bit of both, and I mean that completely honestly. There are the people out there doing these quite incredible hard core expeditions or endurance races or whatnot, but they’re not to everyone’s taste.

Different people have different levels of what they see as being adventurous, but we want to share these stories and the feedback we’re getting from the printed magazine suggests that we’re getting lots of armchair adventurers – the sort of people who love to read about it but wouldn’t actually venture onto the side of a mountain or a mile deep into a cave. My hope is that we can inspire a few more people to get out and give something a go – that was the original intention; to encourage people to push their own boundaries a bit.

I saw in your magCulture interview that you were inspired by The Ride Journal. Cycling is going through an incredible boom at the moment – do you think adventure sports are on a similar trajectory?
I believe the adventure sports industry will expand massively, and it already is, but that’s not the reason I got into it in the first place. There are loads of specialist adventures out there, and we don’t focus on any one of them. We’re looking at all types of adventure, whether it’s on a hill outside your front door or a six-month trek around the world, and the thing that draws it all together for us is the storytelling.

And that’s not just in words and photos. We’re looking at options for online TV via the website – there are so many incredible videos that people shoot of their expeditions, and they just get lost online. So I’d like to think there’s a way we can feature some of them in the same way we showcase the photography – it’s all about getting our brand out there and becoming known as the people who share adventure.

It must be incredibly exciting for you to be at the centre of this, providing people with a platform to share what they’ve done.
It’s brilliant. I never dreamed we’d get to this point – it literally started because I was a bit fed up with my freelance work and wanted to do something I was proud of. The way it has grown over the last three years into print and now into other channels is great to see, but while I’m the guy who started it, this is now very definitely a team effort.

It’s still a part-time project for all of us, but it would be great if we could start working on it morning, noon and night. That would be living the dream.

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