Nov 012012
Kayaking on Yellowstone Lake

By Theresa Russell

Choosing an appropriate adventure tour operator involves just a bit of research, which if done well will result in a perfect match between you and your outfitter of choice. Searching the Internet and browsing through the classifieds of magazines that focus on your activity are excellent starting points. Members of local adventure clubs will gladly recommend companies they’ve used. Once you have found a few companies that cater to your sport and serve the destination that interests you, your next step is to examine the brochures or websites carefully, reading between the lines and assuming nothing.

Kayaking on Yellowstone Lake

Remember that no two trips are the same, so it is up to you to know which features are important to you. Contact the company with any questions and press for details. Certainly, a company with a poor reputation won’t last long, but consider that the length of time in business doesn’t guarantee satisfaction. Don’t rule out a new business. Perhaps they haven’t been in the business long, but they could have experience organizing and leading tours. Everybody started somewhere. Following are a few guidelines to take into consideration while selecting a trip.


  • How long has the company been in business?
  • What is their safety record?
  • Do they share your environmental philosophy?
  • Do they use local guides?
  • Do they contribute to the local economy?
  • Do they encourage interaction with the locals?
  • Do they scout out their trips?
  • Do they travel to safe destinations?


  • New guides need to get their feet wet somehow, but they should be paired with an experienced guide. One of the guides should be familiar with the destination.
  • Do they speak the language?
  • Do they have first aid training?
  • How experienced are the guides?
  • Do they have interpretative skills?
  • Do they know their sport?
  • Do they have special certifications?
  • Do they have mechanical abilities?

Some companies allude to the fact that inexpensive tours likely have poor equipment and poorly paid guides. Well, you might be surprised to learn that guides from the more expensive tours may also be inadequately paid. Some nonprofit groups offer excellent tours, while some more expensive tours may be ordinary. Don’t equate price with the skill or experience of the company. Always check to see what is included. Many tours leave some meals up to the participant. Accommodations account for the major cost of a tour.

Lodging usually accounts for the greatest cost on a tour. If your tour includes a stay at a bed and breakfast, you will find rooms of different standards and sizes. Often few rooms have two beds, so be aware that if you want your own bed and have a roommate, you may have to use a rollaway. You may not always get the nicest room at the inn. Tour companies do try to parcel out the rooms on an equitable basis so that the same person doesn’t always get the biggest, smallest or best room.

  • Which types of accommodations are used?
  • Are there single supplements?
  • Are the bathrooms shared?

Support and Equipment
Tours range from self-guided, complete with maps, perhaps a number to call it you need help, and lodging reservations, to fully supported with porters, van shuttles for the tired and a full range of equipment.

  • Who carries your gear?
  • What if you get tired?
  • How often does a support vehicle sweep the route?
  • What kind of communications system do they use?
  • Can they help you in an emergency?
  • What gear do you need to bring? What is provided or rented?

Physical Requirements
Matching your abilities to the tour is an absolute must made difficult when the ratings of trips are inaccurate. To expand on this point, I checked on several bicycling trips to New Zealand, a place I have bicycled several times. Each company had a different idea of the difficulty of the exact same trip, which was rated from “advanced beginner” to “challenging.” Watch for phrases like “energetic” or “motivated” beginner. This is a red flag that the tour isn’t as easy as indicated. Finding out on the tour that the physical demands are beyond your level can turn your vacation into a miserable and  frustrating experience. A reputable company, which prides itself on happy clients, will try to match a trip to your abilities. They don’t want the guides to have to end up carrying your gear or coddling you for the duration of the trip. Moreover, you don’t want to be a burden on the group.

At the end of the Inca Trail

  • How should I train for the trip?
  • How much time is actually spent engaged in the chosen activity?
  • Are there different routes or distances offered to accommodate all skill levels?

The size of the group itself is important, but more important is the ratio of leaders to participants.

  • Do they cater to singles, families, seniors, couples, etc.?
  • Do they enjoy leading people of your ability level and demographic?
  • Is there personal time or are all activities group events?

Fine Print
Read it all and ask questions about anything that is unclear.

Recommendations From Previous Clients
The brochures show sunny days, smiling faces, gourmet lunches and plush accommodations. Ask the company for a list of past participants  and then call a few. Post a message on an online discussion board that focuses on the activity that you plan to do. People are typically willing to share experiences. Ask for details about the things that are important to you. Word of mouth is always the best advertising for a company.
Ultimately, you are responsible for yourself. Don’t assume that having a guide keeps you out of harm’s way. After all, you are looking for adventure and with adventure come associated risks. But with the right planning, you will know what to expect and increase the likelihood that your adventure will be exactly what you had hoped for. Enjoy your trip and have fun.


Theresa Russell

About Theresa Russell

Claiming her lust for travel began on her first journey through the birth canal, Theresa is genetically programmed to travel and to have fun doing it. She especially enjoys adventure and experiential travel and always finds something at a destination to write home about.

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