TIP 1: Understand what adventure travel really is. Adventure travel is an active, unique exploration of an exotic or remote destination with a small group of like-minded people, guided by full-time professional leaders. The typical object of your exploration is a beautiful landscape, unusual wildlife, or an intriguing foreign culture – often all three. You’ll probably travel by foot, safari jeep or dugout canoe, over rough roads or trails in all kinds of weather. Exceptional physical fitness usually isn’t necessary; you can enjoy some adventure trips at a fitness level only a notch or two above that of a couch potato. But you’ll almost certainly get sweaty, dusty and tired at times, and you won’t be eating much beef bourguignon.
TIP 2: Don’t panic at the idea of camping. Accommodations on adventure trips range from two-person tents to small rustic inns to luxurious lodges. If you’ve never slept outdoors before, or if your previous camping experience wasn’t much fun, remember that adventure travel camping is ordinarily much easier than the usual do-it-yourself, backpack-style camping. Tented safaris in Africa can be downright luxurious, with huge stand-up tents, real beds, and hot showers. Even on more rugged camping-style trips, porters or pack animals usually carry the camp hear, your tent is often set up for you, and the camp staff does all the cooking and cleaning up. But if camping just isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of trips that offer lodges, rustic inns, houseboats, or local home-stays.
TIP 3: First pick a destination. The vast number of adventure trips to choose from can be a bit bewildering. To narrow down the choices to a manageable number, decide early what part of the world you want to visit. If you’re new at adventure travel and not quite sure where you want to go, pick a trip that has a track record of broad appeal over the years. Instead of, say, hang gliding with cannibals in Irian Jaya, stick to the classics: a safari in East Africa, a trek in the Himalayas, or a visit to the Amazonian rain forest.
TIP 4: Decide how much physical challenge you want. There’s an adventure trip for virtually every level of physical fitness, from Woody Allen’s to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. Companies usually rate their trips as easy, moderate, or demanding. Study the trip ratings carefully; different companies use different rating criteria, based on physical activity, altitude, and terrain. “Easy” trips include African safaris and culture/nature-oriented trips, where hikes are optional and the camping, if any, is in luxurious style. Rougher overland trips with long driving days and more optional hiking might be rated “easy/moderate.” A full-fledged “moderate” trip often entails at least four or five days of camping and four to six hours of hiking per day over not-too-difficult terrain at altitudes below 15,000 feet. A “demanding” trek typically involves longer days, steeper terrain, and altitudes up to 19,000 feet. To enjoy a demanding trip, you should have made exercise a regular part of your life. Even on a demanding trek, however, you usually won’t be carrying anything more than a light daypack.
TIP 5: Decide on your price range. At minimum, you’ll probably spend about $2,000, including airfare, for a ten-day trip. Longer trips to destination like Asia or Africa cost $3,000-$6,000, including airfare. Truly exotic adventures – climbing a mountain in Antarctica, for example, or touring Africa by flying boat – can cost up to $20,000 or more.
TIP 6: Talk to people who have already taken the trip. Ask each company for a list of previous customers on the trip you’re looking at. The long distance phone bills will pay for themselves many times over in unbiased word-of-mouth information.
TIP 7: Ask about responsible travel practices. We’re hearing more and more about the effects of tourism on the environment and traditional culture. Many outfitters talk about “eco-tourism.” Ask what it means on the trip you’re considering. Will you get information on local customs and locally appropriate dress? On an ocean trip, is refuse dumped overboard or carried back to port? On a camping trip, how does the staff handle trash and garbage? On a mountain trek, are the porters provided with warm clothing? Let companies know that these concerns are important to you.
TIP 8: Make photocopies of important documents. Passport, visas, tickets, credit cards, traveler’s checks, drug prescriptions, and other critical documents should be photocopied, and the copies carried separately.
TIP 9: Learn the World Wildlife Fund’s guidelines on importing wild-animal products. In keeping with the spirit of ethical, responsible adventure travel, you should not plan to bring back ivory, marine-mammal products, furs, coral, tortoise shells, reptile skins, feathers and certain other wildlife products. For specifics, call the public information office of the World Wildlife Fund at 202-293-4800 and ask for the “Buyer Beware” booklet. And bear in mind that the U.S. and most foreign countries have laws banning the import or export of most of these items.
TIP 10: Thoroughly break in your hiking or walking shoes. Many first-time adventure travelers buy new hiking boots for the trip. You must walk a minimum of 20 miles in them, up and down hills, before departure. This should be enough to get over the initial break-in blisters and to ensure that they fit properly.
TIP 11: If you’ll be traveling in high elevations, learn about altitude sickness and take along the prescription drug Diamox. Altitude sickness often strikes travelers who venture above 8,000 feet, and it affects almost everyone who goes higher than 14,000 feet. Symptoms include headache, nausea and a general feeling of malaise; some people compare altitude sickness to a bad hangover. More severe but rare altitude problems include pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (a swelling of the brain that can lead to confusion, hallucinations, and a coma). The key to avoiding altitude sickness is gradual, well-planned ascent, which allows the body time to acclimate. Diamox may be taken prophylactically or for the relief of symptoms that appear in spite of a gradual ascent, but it must not be used to push beyond safe limits.
TIP 12: Instead of a suitcase, carry a big, soft, rugged duffel bag. There aren’t many bellhops on an adventure trip. Your bag will be in for some rough treatment strapped to a yak, tossed onto the roof of a jeep, squashed by tie-down ropes, or pelted by spray in the bottom of a dugout canoe. Make sure that it’s pliable enough to easily be handled by porters, who may lash two or three duffels into their own large packs. Pack duffels within duffels.
TIP 13: Pack light. On safari or on the trail, you want life to be as simple as possible, and you’ll best accomplish this by packing less stuff. If the clothing list your travel company provides seems impossibly skimpy, don’t worry. Almost all first-time adventure travelers quickly realize they’ve brought too much. Fashion doesn’t count much out on the trail, and modern outdoor clothing is so versatile that one garment can perform a variety of functions. So don’t take more than the packing list advises; if you do, you and the porters will have to lug that much more around.
TIP 14: Women should consider making their primary travel garment a long, loose skirt. Most experienced women travelers to developing countries and remote areas adhere to the local style of women’s dress. A mid-calf, loose, comfortable skirt is the best way to identify yourself as a woman. A skirt is actually easier and more comfortable, even for hiking. In hot weather, a skirt is cooler than pants; in cold weather, you can wear long underwear underneath and stay just as warm. Also you may be far from toilet facilities. If there are no bushes or rocks nearby, it’s easier to make a discreetly modest “pit stop” with the tent-like cover of a long skirt.
TIP 15: Bring along small toys to help break the ice with local kids and adults. An inflatable globe, for example, is entertaining and lets you point out where you live. Frisbees, wiffle balls, hacky sacks, magic tricks, finger puppets, and wind-up toys also enchant local kids. Avoid electronic doodads like Gameboys, however, whose high-tech allure will mesmerize the kids. The toys are supposed to open up communication, not close it off. At the end of the trip, you can give the toys to your guide or porter for his own children.
TIP 16: Take along a generous supply of Ziploc plastic bags. They are invaluable for storing items that must stay dry, for isolating wet and/or dry clothes, and for organizing luggage.
TIP 17: Protect your valuables in transit. In crowded, theft-prone areas like airports and train stations, keep your bags in sight at all times. Keep some cash handy in pockets (front pockets) so you won’t have to go rummaging into the pouch constantly. In particularly risky places, carry your backpack in front of you; thieves have been known to slit open backpacks with a razor blade and remove the contents while the victim walks along, entirely unaware.
TIP 18: Be friendly with your guides and porters. Don’t let a language barrier stop you during your adventure travel. Ask them to teach you a few words. Learn their names. Gesticulate wildly. Make visual jokes. Buy them drinks. The idea is to break down the cultural and hierarchical barriers and really get to know these people. If you succeed, you may find to your surprise that the highlight of your trip was not a mountain or an animal, but a person.
TIP 19: Ask your trip leader about the local religious customs. You don’t need to learn every ritual, but a basic knowledge and respect for the most important religious customs will assure that you don’t unwittingly offend your hosts.
TIP 20: Keep a journal. Snapshots are fine, but you’ll find that a written record of your thoughts and feelings will bring a knowing smile years from now. Adventure travel, because it removes you so completely from normal everyday life, invariably stimulates contemplation and triggers unaccustomed musings. Should I quit my boring job? Does it really matter who wins the Super Bowl? Am I really ready to settle down and get married? Write these thoughts down. Years from now, you’ll be amazed at what went on in you head.
TIP 21: If you feel ill, inform your trip leader immediately. If you think the problem is food-related, he or she will need to know right away. Certain kinds of more serious illness, like malaria and severe altitude symptoms, also require prompt attention. Don’t try to tough it out; it’s important your leader be aware of any physical problems as soon as possible.
TIP 22: Don’t take pictures of the locals without their permission. They may be shy or have real fears about being photographed. You can earn their trust by showing them your camera, letting them look through the viewfinder, or even letting them snap a picture of you first. Keep in mind that the lack of a photo doesn’t make the experience less real.
TIP 23: Send yourself a postcard home. Just before getting on the plane back to the U.S., send yourself a postcard from your last exotic destination. Global mail service being what it is, the card usually takes a few weeks to get back home. By then, you’re back in the normal routine of job and family, and the sudden arrival of a brightly colored postcard from a faraway country is always a delightful reminder of your trip.
TIP 24: Give something back. Many adventure travelers return home deeply touched by the people and places they’ve seen, and are inspired to support them. Among the many international cultural and environmental agencies very deserving of your support are: Save The Children (800-243-575) International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC) (303-998-0101)
Oxfam America (800-426-3282) African Wildlife Foundation (202-265-8394) International Campaign for Tibet (202-628-4123) We love tip number 24! Giving back to the communities in which we visit is at the heart of our travel philosophy. Adventure Life Journeys is proud to be a member of a number of organizations that strive to protect and enhance the local environment. And be sure to ask us about our own “Helping Hands” program in Ecuador and Peru.