At 4:00 a.m, we found ourselves off the trail, clinging to a sheer icy slope, with no ropes and no battery power remaining in our headlamps. As I clung to the rocks, envisioning falling to my death in the dark, I thought about how just a little more planning might have kept us out of this.
I had been so proud of us. My friend Amanda and I were going to be the first in our group of college friends working at Rocky Mountain National Park to summit Longs Peak, the tallest mountain in the park. Sure, it was early in the season ice and snow might obscure our routed we’d have to start hiking at midnight to make sure we were off the top before the afternoon storms rolled in, but we were tough and in shape.
Luckily, Amanda found a route that didn’t require hand-over-hand grappling or using quite so many four-letter words, and we eventually made it safely to the summit and back. Luck had saved us, but I vowed never to take trip-planning so lightly again.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about planning safe, fun, and affordable adventure trips, from day hikes in U.S. national parks to off-the-beaten-path trips in developing countries. Here’s a rundown of the essential trip-planning strategies I’ve learned from my travels and conversations with experts who make a living through adventure travel.
1. Research your destination
Knowing what to expect from your destination will make all aspects of trip planning easier and help you get more out of your time on the ground. The research will not only help you pick the best places to go and the best activities, but you’ll also learn what you need to pack, what health and safety precautions to take, and what cultural (and sometimes political) issues you should be aware of.
Guidebooks and travel magazines can serve as a good base, but online resources can be better for getting the most up-to-date information. “The very first thing I do is go through the official tourism organization website some destinations have great sites,” says Kate Siber, a freelance contributor to Outside Magazine and National Geographic Adventure. You can find the official tourism websites for destinations worldwide by visiting the Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory.
Specific recommendations from friends or other travelers online can also be very valuable. “Getting information from someone who’s been on the ground recently can be the most helpful, but it can be hard to get,” says Mike Perrin, co-author of Adventure Travel in the Third World. “In this case, online forums can be the next best source of information.”
IgoUgo, the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, and the BootsnAll Travel Community are three popular online forums where you can ask questions related to adventure travel. However, Leslie Weeden, Travel Director for Outside Magazine warns, “Online message boards can be helpful but they’re not entirely reliable because you don’t know who the writers are, so take what you read with a grain of salt.” Read SmarterTravel.com Contributing Editor Christine Sarkis’ feature about online travel communities for more information on this topic.
While some research is essential, don’t plan out every moment of your trip in advance. “You can only research so much,” says adventure travel photographer Jeff Pflueger. “Sometimes we like to be rigid with our plans about things, and all the attachments that we have to itineraries and expectations not only set us up for inevitable disappointment but also tend to make us less able to see all of the unexpected possibilities that come with any sort of adventure travel. I go into any trip with an idea about what I’d like to do and see, but more importantly, I also keep a keen eye and a big reserve of excitement and energy ready for the unexpected adventures.”
2. Know when to go and when to book
Climate, crowding, and seasonal pricing are all important factors in your decision about when to go. Especially for adventure travel, bad weather or weather you’re not prepared for can ruin the trip. Mountain biking in the Southwest desert when the temperatures are over 100 degrees, rafting when rivers are running dangerously high, and hiking when mountain passes are clogged with snow are all bad ideas.
While you can’t predict the exact weather in advance, you can learn about climate trends ahead of time when doing your destination research. Seasonal popularity and pricing should also be considered if you hope to avoid peak-season crowds and prices.
Besides the possibility of early-booking discounts, reserving your trip in advance is vital if you want to visit a popular destination at a popular time. For example, permits to hike Peru’s Inca Trail may need to be reserved three months ahead in the high season, dates at popular national park lodges often sell out a year in advance, and the average wait to get a permit to raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is 10 years.
3. Choose a reputable outfitter
When searching for the right outfitter for an adventure trip, reputation and safety record should weigh more heavily than price. So how do you find a good tour operator or guide service besides the ever-popular method of Googling “destination + adventure travel?” “Look for industry organizations that have lists of outfitters by region or activity, like the American Mountain Guides Association, for example, which has a list of guides that have been certified by the organization,” says Siber. Other similar organizations include the Adventure Travel Trade Association, the International Ecotourism Society, and America Outdoors.
“The best way to gauge [the reputation of a company] quickly is to see what kinds of accreditations the company has,” says Siber. “Does it have any safety accreditations, for example? Does it belong to several industry associations? Does it belong to a chamber of commerce or a tourism organization?”
Besides accreditations, personal recommendations are helpful.
“There are lots of outfitters out there, and lots of advertising, so a recommendation from a friend is pretty valuable,” says Pflueger. If you don’t have any personal recommendations, ask for referrals. “When you have identified one or two companies that offer the trip you’re interested in, call them up and ask for references of past clients,” says Nadia Le Bon, Director of Special Programs for Mountain Travel Sobek, a top adventure travel company. “These people are usually pretty candid about their experience, the quality of the trip, and difficulty.”
4. Choose the trip that’s the best value for your money
Once you’ve found a few good trip options, compare the offerings side by side to see which company can give you more for your money. “Read the fine print about costs (what’s included and what’s not),” says Le Bon. To make a fair comparison, you’ll need to find out exactly what you’re getting for the price you pay. A low advertised price can be deceptive if costs like taxes and fees, gratuities, local guide fees, and other extras are left out. Also, look at the quality of accommodations and other inclusions. For example, you should expect to pay more for a biking trip through Provence that features accommodations in hotels rather campsites.
5. Know your limitations
Imagine signing up for a Kilimanjaro climb without training for the altitude, or signing up for a kayaking trip in Alaska despite tending to seasickness. Not only do you risk embarrassment and losing your money if you have to bail, but you could also put yourself and your companions in danger.
“One of the most important aspects of trip planning is to be realistic about your fitness level and make sure that you can do what a trip entails,” says Weeden. “Before you book a trip you need to talk to one of the guides and tell them what you do for your fitness routine to make sure you’re in shape.”
Most adventure outfitters rate their trips according to ability and many will provide training guides or fitness recommendations. Whether you’re booking with an outfitter or planning yourself, know what you’re getting into and be honest with yourself about your fitness level and whether you have enough time to train before your departure date.
6. Consider travel insurance
While many travelers feel that common sense is the best and only travel insurance necessary, others believe the potential costs of missing a trip or getting injured or victimized while traveling are too great to leave home without protection. Indeed, many adventure tour operators will not let you travel with them unless you are covered. Whatever your personal preference, here’s what you should know about travel insurance for adventure trips:
- Trip cancellation insurance: If you purchased a package tour or are spending a lot of money upfront, trip cancellation insurance will protect your investment should you have to cancel, delay, or interrupt your trip for a “covered” reason. “Covered” reasons can mean sickness, death of a family member, the financial failure of your tour company, and even acts of terrorism committed in your destination. Policies vary, so you’ll have to read the fine print carefully to determine what’s covered. Cancellation insurance usually comes bundled in packages with other coverage including baggage, medical, and medical evacuation. In searching for a plan, try to find packages that best cover what you are most concerned about. Trip cancellation policies usually cost five to seven percent of your trip cost.
- Travel-medical insurance: Even if you have a health plan at home, your healthcare costs may not be covered or may have limitations once you leave the U.S. If you are not covered abroad, travel-medical insurance can help pay your expenses should you need treatment for an illness or injury on your trip. The costs for travel-medical insurance can vary greatly depending on how much coverage you want, the length of coverage, your age, and other factors. Again, reading the fine print is vital, because every policy has exclusions, and may exclude coverage for injuries related to adventure sports even seemingly mild activities like snorkeling. “If you any have questions about the exclusions, you should call the agent or company you are dealing with for clarification,” says Peter J. Evans, Executive Vice President of InsureMyTrip.com. “Most policies do a good job in listing both exclusions and definitions, but if you are engaging in an activity that you feel has not been properly defined, like extreme mountaineering, then it is a good idea to clarify and get in writing how the company will respond in the event of an accident or injury.”
- There is a solution to getting at least some adventure activities covered, however. “Many policies will allow you to add on what’s called a ‘hazardous activity rider’ or a ‘sports rider’ which will buy an excluded activity back,” says Evans. “You’ll pay a 20- to the 25-percent premium over the base premium for a rider.”
- Medical evacuation coverage: This type of insurance will cover the transportation costs to a capable health facility should you need emergency treatment while traveling. One popular choice, Medjet Assist, promises that if you are hospitalized almost anywhere in the world, they’ll send a medical team to transport you to the hospital of your choice. Annual membership starts at $205. Other companies will provide similar services, but may only transport you to the nearest “best-care” hospital, not the facility of your choice. Once again, coverage isn’t limitless. “Medical evacuation will cover evacuation from a reasonably accessible area,” says Evans. “They won’t send a helicopter to take you off a mountain in the Himalayas or evacuate you from an unstable area with no-fly or ground restrictions.”
Many companies sell travel insurance, and options and exclusions vary. To compare and price travel insurance from many different companies, go to InsureMyTrip.com. Before booking, make sure you read through and understand all the details.
7. Pack light, but don’t forget the essentials
Packing is an art. Bring too much and you’ll be overburdened your entire trip; forget a necessary item and you could wind up in a difficult or even dangerous situation. “I think you can often get away with a lot less than you think you can. The key is to not scrimp on the essentials,” says Siber. “If you’re going to the Himalayas and there’s a possibility you’ll sleep in a drafty teahouse at 14,000 feet, by all means, bring your poofy jacket. But there’s no need to bring a gazillion T-shirts on any trip.”
Your first step is to figure out what you need to bring, and here, research is key. Many items, such as toiletries, can be picked up in your destination, but specialized or technical equipment can be harder to come by. If you’re going on a tour, request a packing list. If you’re doing it yourself, learn about your destination’s weather conditions and health and cultural considerations. Knowing the exact kind of technical equipment you’ll need will help you to determine what’s important.
Your next step is cutting out all the nonessentials until you get your baggage down to a reasonable size. “I lay everything out on the floor and then edit it, and I try to be brutal. And then I do it again, and again until I’m down to the bare bones,” says Leslie Weeden, who says she once traveled for two months in Southeast Asia with just a daypack.
8. Don’t forget your documents and money
Bringing the right kinds of documentation and currency for international trips can’t be emphasized enough, because without either you may not be able to get into or out of your destination. Go to the State Department website and the embassy website of your destination to find out the country’s entry requirements.
Do this early because it may take some time to obtain the necessary visas and letters of invitation certain countries require. Also, be sure to inquire about any special permits you may need. Permits are often required for mountaineering, rafting, and use of popular trekking routes.
“Make extra copies of your passport and other documents,” says Perrin. “Keep copies on you in two or three places and always leave an extra copy at home.” To illustrate the importance of this, Perrin offers the following anecdote about two Americans who were attending a festival in Honduras: “One left his passport behind in their car and the other brought him with him. Neither had bothered to make copies.
While they were away, their car got broken into and everything inside was stolen. The man who brought his passport with him was able to leave the country as planned. The man whose passport was stolen had to wait four-and-a-half weeks before the State Department issued him a new passport so he could leave. If he had a copy of his passport on him or had left a copy with someone trusted at home who could have sent it to the embassy, he could have gotten through a lot quicker.”
Before you leave, you should also find out what type of currency to bring along. Huge wads of cash are an invitation for robbery, but ATM cards are worthless if there are no working ATMs or banks in your destination, and credit cards and traveler’s checks are not accepted by vendors in some destinations.
Ask your outfitter or do thorough research to find out how you should handle money.
When traveling, you should keep your important documents, credit cards, and most of your cash hidden on your person in a document holder or money belt. Keep copies of your documents and an extra reserve of cash elsewhere in your baggage. Lastly, if you’re going to an unsafe area, it may be worthwhile to carry a dummy wallet with some local currency and a few expired credit cards in case you do get robbed.
9. Make health a priority
Before traveling, ask your outfitter or visit the Centers for Disease Control website to find out what kinds of vaccinations and medications are recommended for the region you’ll be visiting. If you do need vaccinations, book an appointment with your doctor early, as some vaccinations require a series of shots given over several months. Also, ask what items to put in your medical kit (a packing essential). Besides the basics like bandages, antibiotic cream, and anti-diarrhea pills, you might consider getting a prescription for a powerful antibiotic medicine such as Cipro, which can be a life-saver in instances of severe digestive problems or infections.
Once you’ve gotten your shots, packed a medical kit, and purchased travel-medical and evacuation insurance, your quest to stay healthy needs to continue on the ground. A few simple precautions will prevent most problems.
“Drink lots of water,” says Siber. “Hydration is key for keeping healthy, and it’s surprisingly easy to get dehydrated. Not only does it weaken your immune system, but it also makes you tired too.”
“Don’t eat raw food in the Third World, no matter how appealing,” says Le Bon. “Bring lots of Purell for washing hands constantly (not just after meals, but after visiting bazaars, or shaking hands with locals). Clean hands prevent colds as well as intestinal problems.”
For more detailed information about staying healthy and dealing with health issues should they arise, consider purchasing a travelers’ health handbook such as the Rough Guide to Travel Health.
10. Stay safe while traveling
Besides making sure you (and your guide or tour company) have the proper equipment and training and the right conditions to participate in an adventure activity safely, you should also consider the dangers of crime and negative political or cultural developments in your destination, particularly if you’re visiting a developing country. While there’s a temptation (especially for women) to want to pack mace or sign up for karate lessons, being alert and informed is the easiest and most important thing you can do.
Robert Young Pelton, the author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places and Come Back Alive, has gotten out of many sticky situations while doing research (including being kidnapped in Colombia). He says, “[Your] primary concern should be to get outside the tourist ‘bubble’ that feeling that because you are on vacation you are somehow immune from the pitfalls that affect the locals. Keep a 360-degree radar going, talk to the locals, and be prepared to change your plans if needed.” Perrin agrees: “Your brain is your finest weapon.”