Burgundy (courtesy Butterfield & Robinson)
I’ve white-water rafted in Costa Rica, kayaked in Alaska, biked through Burgundy and walked in the Sahara desert. I enjoyed every one of these activities, but I also knew full well that there were inherent risks in each. And that’s true of all adventure travel. This type of vacation is generally an organized group trip led by experienced guides. The focus is an outdoor sport-biking, hiking, sea kayaking, walking, river rafting. You can expect to spend the lion’s share of your day at it, not just an hour or two. Chances are you’ll be pursuing your sport in an extraordinary setting, such as the Grand Canyon or the Sea of Cortés or the Tuscan countryside. Clearly, some trips are more adventurous than others.

1. Choose a tour company with care

Pick an organization that’s been in business for some time – a minimum of five years is a good shakeout period. The best companies usually have their own guides accompany you, rather than farming out their business to freelancers. A good guide, with knowledge and skills, can make the difference between a great trip and a mediocre one.

Scheduling is also critical. One company may offer an itinerary with an extra night built in to allow you to recoup from a long flight. A competitor might charge less but require that you hit the ground walking within hours of arrival. Jet lag always has to be factored in. After all, this is supposed to be a vacation, not a forced march.

Season is very important, too. You’ll sometimes see price variations for trips, and a close reading of the catalog may reveal that the less costly departures take place during shoulder or low season. That might be okay, but shoulder season is frequently a euphemism for rain or cold in a place like Alaska or extreme heat in a country like Morocco.

Accommodations can also make or break a trip. If you’re used to staying at a Hyatt, you might not like the simple bed and breakfasts on the itinerary. Make sure you understand the level of lodging involved. And ask if there is a support van in the event that you get tired. (Remember, it’s easier to rely on a support van on a bike trip than on a hiking adventure because there are only so many places where a vehicle can intersect a hiking path.)

2. Be honest about your comfort level

Read all you can about the trip you’re interested in: the activity itself, the level of difficulty, the itinerary and the gear you’ll need. But to prepare yourself mentally, spend some time imagining what it will be like to hike in the mountains or raft down an African river for days at a time. If the vacation calls for five nights in a tent and you haven’t camped since you were eight, you might be happier on a lodge-based adventure.

On the road from Santiago to Buenos Aires (courtesy Butterfield & Robinson)


3. Ask for references

Clearly, no company is going to refer you to someone who didn’t enjoy the trip, but even listening to an enthusiast should give you a good idea of the relative difficulty of an excursion. If you’re really concerned about getting in over your head, obtaining references from two or three different companies that run similar trips will give you a good cross-section of opinion about how tough or easy a particular adventure might be.

4. Find out how trips are rated

Adventure vacations are usually described by their level of difficulty, but what do the ratings really mean? There are no industry standards, and one man’s moderate is another man’s strenuous. You don’t want to be bored on an excursion that’s too easy, but you may not want to push yourself to the limit each day in order to keep up.

Ask the company to describe its ratings in detail. “We spend a lot of time thinking about ratings, and we’ve changed them over the years,” says Tom Hale, president of Backroads, the largest active travel company in the world. Hale and his staff have devised a thorough six-tier ranking, going from Easy to Levels 1, 2, 3, 4 to Epic. These rankings are based on distance, duration and difficulty. For example, an “Easy” bike trip would consist of 5 to 20 miles—no more than two to three hours—of fairly level riding per day. An “Epic” trip would involve five to seven hours covering a distance of 50 to 75-plus miles every day, with lots of hills to climb.

“Many people are intimidated by the idea of going on an active vacation,” says Hale. “That’s why we offer easy trips. We flatten out the hills of Tuscany by shuttling people, and we’ve had an excellent reception.” But it’s not just about difficulty. “By choosing the right trip,” Hale notes, “you’ll find yourself around like-minded people.”

Backroads has also built some flexibility into its trips, and other companies have followed its model. Every day participants have the opportunity to choose an easier or a more difficult option. For example, on a Backroads “Classic” biking trip through Nova Scotia, a support van makes it possible on most days to cycle 10 to 25 miles, 20 to 30 miles or 30 to 40 miles, depending on how in shape you are. That’s great for couples or friends who want to travel together despite their different fitness levels.

5. Inquire about safety measures

What sort of safety equipment does the outfitter provide? On a bike trip, you want to ask if helmets will be available. River rafting obviously requires life jackets, but helmets should also be mandatory. And find out how prepared the guides are to deal with an emergency, particularly on rafting and trekking excursions. This means asking about the type of training they’ve received, which can range from first aid and CPR to a range of rescue techniques.

Romania (courtesy Butterfield & Robinson)

Eu_rom__1336. Expect to be questioned

A good company will ask you up front if you’ve taken an organized adventure before. If you’re considering a bike trip, you might be asked you if you’ve ever ridden with toe clips, cleats or bike shoes. A kayaking trip? Expect to be queried about your paddling experience. If a company is simply eager to sign you up and doesn’t make inquiries, think twice about traveling with them.

“We can always make a trip more challenging,” says Hale. “Our biggest concern is that someone is getting in over his or her head. Some people just aren’t any good at qualifying themselves.”

For longer, tougher trips, you should be asked tougher questions. Take an outfit like Above the Clouds Trekking, which offers hikes in Nepal, Bhutan and Patagonia. These trips can last three weeks or longer, in rugged terrain with a minimal support system.

“I’m looking for consistency,” says Steve Conlon, president of Above the Clouds. “If you tell me that you go the gym five days a week to work out on a StairMaster, it’s the five days a week that means the most to me. People who make fitness a priority are always the best candidates.”

And the qualifications go beyond fitness. On long treks, Conlon says, mental toughness is more critical than physical toughness, a priority he stresses to first-timers. “On a one-week trip, you can say to yourself, ‘A week from now I’ll be on my couch watching the Red Sox and sipping a cold one. I can put up with anything for a week.’ But on a two-week trek, you can’t afford the luxury of looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. And on a three-week trek, you need a marathoner’s discipline.”

7. Practice at home

If you’re concerned about whether you’d like an activity or are fit enough to participate, try it out at home first. But really try it out. Riding a mountain bike on a trail is radically different from riding a road bike. A sea kayak trip bears little resemblance to paddling a canoe across a lake. And walking through the English Lake District is not like a Sunday stroll in the park. So rent a mountain bike for a weekend. Go on a half-day trip with a local sea kayak outfitter if possible. Or begin a daily walking regimen before committing to a trip.

Butterfield & Robinson, a Toronto-based biking and walking travel company, recommends aerobic conditioning exercises three times each week for two to three months before the trip starts. One month before a biking trip, you should be going for a couple of longer rides each week on a real bike, putting in at least 20 miles per ride. The week before your trip, try to take three longer bike rides of 25 to 35 miles. If you’re doing a walking trip, then take longer walks each week. Each one should be at least six miles or two hours long. The week before you leave, take three walks of 8 to 12 miles or three to three and a half hours in length. But be careful not to overdo it. Some people wind up canceling their adventure travel trips because they injure themselves in training.

Italy (courtesy Butterfield & Robinson)


8. Get travel insurance

Travel insurance is vital when you’re planning an active vacation. The best policies offer emergency medical evacuation in the event that something goes seriously wrong. Most of these policies exclude activities such as technical mountain climbing, hang gliding and hot-air ballooning. But frankly (and fortunately), it’s the trip delay and cancellation component of these policies that’s the most important. You’re more likely to need insurance because of a missed connecting flight in Kathmandu or bags that fail to follow you to Jackson Hole than for any physical mishap.

     ABOVE THE CLOUDS TREKKING (802/482-4848) Serious treks to the Himalayas, Europe and Patagonia.

AUSTIN-LEHMAN ADVENTURES (800/575-1540) Biking, hiking, horseback riding, rafting, canoeing and kayaking in North and Central America.

BACKROADS (800/462-2848) A vast range of biking, hiking, walking, kayaking and multisport trips worldwide.

    BUTTERFIELD & ROBINSON (800/678-1147)
Blue-chip biking and hiking from the company that founded the genre back in 1966.

CICLISMO CLASSICO (800/866-7314) Biking and hiking vacations, mostly in Italy.

DISTANT JOURNEYS (888/845-5781) A variety of European hiking trips, including hut-to-hut treks in the Alps.

MOUNTAIN TRAVEL SOBEK (888/687-6235) River rafting, trekking, hiking, walking and multisport trips from one of the oldest companies in the business.

O.A.R.S. (800/346-6277) Rafting, multisport and kayaking trips all over the world.
The company has been in business since 1969.

REI ADVENTURES (800/622-2236) Affordable biking, hiking and paddling trips from the gear company’s travel division.

THE WAYFARERS (800/249-4620) Walking trips in Europe, New Zealand and the United States.

This story originally appeared in Diversion.

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