How to choose a reputable adventure travel company or guide

adventure travel companiesAdventure travel” is a nebulous term these days. But whether your idea of a thrill is a Class-III rapid or climbing Everest, there’s one thing that’s ubiquitous when choosing an outfitter: safety. There are hundreds of adventure travel companies worldwide; not all are created equal. There are key things you should look for when choosing a company or independent guide, whether you’re booking a three-week luxury trip, or a one-day backpacker’s special.

I’m not implying adventure travel in general is risky, or that most operators and guides don’t know what they’re doing. There are numerous certifications in place (they vary according to country) to ensure companies adhere to national and industry safety standards.

The following are tips on what to look for or avoid when choosing a company or guide, based on personal experience and what I’ve gleaned from the owners of several highly regarded adventure companies. I’ve done trips with each company, but I have no personal gain in endorsing them: I’ve just found them to be, among the dozens of outfitters I’ve used, the best of the best.

My sources include Mark Gunlogson, president/guide of Seattle’s Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school; Marc Goddard, co-owner/guide of Bio Bio Expeditions, a whitewater/adventure travel company in Truckee, California, and Britt Lewis, co-owner/guide of Austral Adventures, a custom travel company on the island of Chiloe, in Chile.

I’m also including a few horror stories based on guide negligence. That’s why, the first thing you should do when planning any kind of adventure activity or trip is…

Do your research
Even a brief online search will bring to light any serious breaches in safety or conduct. Safety doesn’t just apply to those who plan to scale the Andes or kayak the Zambezi. Even the tamest “adventures” require guides who are knowledgeable about the area and activity, and are currently certified in emergency first aid and rescue procedures.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Luis Fabres]

adventure travel companiesLest you think I exaggerate the importance of guide knowledge and research, the idea for this article germinated in 2003, when I was visiting Australia’s Kakadu National Park during the “Wet,” or monsoon, season. That time of year brings potential problems such as floods, but it was a widely publicized trial that made an indelible impression.

A negligent guide was charged in the accidental death of a 24-year-old German tourist who’d been killed by a croc, after the guide assured her group a swimming hole was safe. My own guide informed me that just weeks earlier, another company had tried to gun their small tour bus over a flooded waterway, only to have it overtaken and swept downstream. The passengers were eventually airlifted to safety (don’t let these things scare you off of Kakadu in the Wet; it’s absolutely spectacular, and free of crowds).

Australia of course, isn’t the problem. It’s just that crocs and corpses make compelling headlines. Sometimes accidents aren’t publicized, lest they impact tourism (In New Zealand, an operator confessed to me a rival company’s fatal bungee-jumping miscalculation a month prior, which put them out of business), and of course there have been dozens of mountaineering and whitewater-related tragedies on commercial trips on various continents over the years. Again, participating in these activities doesn’t make you likely to suffer a mishap. Are they inherently dangerous? Yes, but so is crossing the street, driving a car, or hiking solo.
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What certifications to look for
This depends upon type of activity and country. Says Lewis, “If there aren’t national qualifications or certs, a combination of information is required for form an opinion about an outfitter. How clear and accurate is their literature or website, their answers to your questions, etc.?” I would also add, how long does it take them to respond to your emails or phone calls? A few days is standard, but if you find yourself having to follow-up repeatedly, move on.

Marc Goddard: Ask about the qualifications of each guide. If you’re doing a river trip, find out how many years the guides have been guiding rafts, and on which rivers. Don’t be shy about asking some serious questions: you will, after all, be entrusting them with your life!

Mark Gunlogson: The adventure travel industry has matured, and most activities now have some sort of industry standard. In the case of mountain guiding, there’s the American Mountain Guides Association certification for guide services. Level of first-aid training for guides is also essential to look for, and industry standards apply here, as well.

Signs you’re dealing with a good company or guide
Whether you’re planning a high-end holiday or making a walk-in query in a backpacker ghetto, there are questions to ask and things to look for that signify a solid company. Be aware that hostels and other backpacker-oriented locales are magnets for sketchy outfits. If it sounds too cheap or good to be true, it probably is. If the activity involves something potentially dangerous, don’t bite.

Gunlogson suggests asking the company what’s included and what’s not, so all services are clearly spelled out, including guide qualifications. But, he says, “In the end, sometimes it just comes down to how comfortable a person feels with the company and their interactions with them.”
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Adds Lewis, “Ask a few simple questions about first-aid and emergency procedures. Do they appear to have a plan for unforeseen events? If you’re a walk-in, does their office have a fire extinguisher? Are their vehicles legal for tourist transport? Are the guides certified for the activities for which they’re assigned?”

I learned just how deadly budget guides can be while climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador with a Mountain Madness guide. We were forced to turn back at 17,000 feet due to extreme avalanche danger. My guide was fully accredited, and his experience includes some of the toughest technical climbs in the world (For my part, I’d been conditioning for this trip for months, at high altitude, upon the advice of Mountain Madness).

We had returned to the refugio, an overnight acclimatization hut located at 15,000 feet. We saw a young, rowdy group of backpackers being shepherded out the door by their equally youthful guides; it was obvious from their attire they were attempting a summit. My guide, concerned, went and had a word with the other guides: They totally blew him off. I didn’t hear about a group of backpackers getting creamed in an avalanche that day, but that experience really clarified for me the potential for disaster posed by cheapie trips targeted at inexperienced backpackers. It’s not worth it.

On a related note:
adventure travel companies
Look for red flags
“If they’re farming you out to a local outfitter, it could be a red flag,” says Goddard. “But the big warning is if they don’t know who their guides are, or what their qualifications are.” Some companies do “outsource” to local guides or outfitters, It’s not always a bad thing, and in fact can be positive, because you get someone with insider knowledge and you support the local economy. It comes down to their qualifications and relationship with the parent company.

Gunlogson adds, “Ask about guide qualifications, number of years in business, and hidden costs regarding services.” A reputable company willingly discloses information.

Ask for referrals
Lewis suggests asking for past client’s emails, and contacting them about their experience. You can also look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com, or search travel blogs.

Listen to your gut
If you have a bad feeling about a guide, it’s best to pay heed. On my same Australia trip, a certain American guide led us on an overnight bushwalk in Litchfield National Park. Amongst his many other transgressions, he endangered our lives by having us pitch camp on a narrow sandbar at the base of a waterfall-fed swimming hole (I actually voiced my concern, only to receive a withering look from him). Sure enough, a monsoonal downpour made the water level swiftly rise, leaving us backed into a rock wall. Fortunately, we were able to rescue our tents and gear, and the water receded before we had to swim for it. That’s when I learned to listen to my instincts regarding guides. My sensor went off immediately after meeting this guy due to his arrogance, but I felt obligated to do the trip.

Whether it’s a negative reaction to a guide, concern over the poor/worn quality of the gear, or the activity itself, always listen to your gut.

What to do if you have a bad experience
You have several courses of action. You can go to sites like TripAdvisor.com and travel blogs and write the company up (letting them know about it before taking any action). Says Lewis, “It depends on the country in terms of informing authorities. However, the power of the Internet is a huge reward to a good company and an effective way to punish an unsafe one.”

Adds Gunlogson, “Unless there’s injury and an obvious case of negligence, there’s not too much you can do unless you really want to spend the time and money to pursue it. In the end, word-of-mouth has a cathartic effect for clients if their complaints are ignored. Those companies that understand the power of a former client taking to the Internet do their best to mitigate any potential bad-mouthing, whether justified or not. It lets the client know that their dissatisfaction was acknowledged.”

I say: Playing devil’s advocate, I’ve found there’s usually one client on every trip who seems determined to have a bad time and find fault, even where none exists. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. No one likes a whiner or a complainer, and guides work long hours, under considerable stress. Don’t just sit on your butt: ask what you can do to help, be it chopping vegetables, loading gear, or finding firewood. If you have a legitimate complaint, by all means follow the advice provided above, but don’t go trolling for a refund or discount just to be an a-hole.

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What are the refund policies?
Because shit happens.

Consider climate and seasonal factors
If you want to avoid a monsoon, snow, or inhumanly hot, humid weather, be sure to voice those concerns and do some research on your destination. It also pays to ask about or check on things like growing, spawning, or breeding season of pesky or harmful flora or fauna. Someone I know (her name is Laurel) paid through the nose for a snorkeling trip off a remote island in Southern Thailand. Imagine her surprise when she hit the water and discovered it was peak jellyfish spawn. She spent the remainder of the trip covered in painful, head-to-toe welts that made her the object of much mockery. Far more painful was the knowledge that the scam artists/snorkeling guides knew full well swimming was inadvisable.

Are they a green company?
It matters, and this philosophy also includes hiring locals whenever possible. Don’t let yourself get “greenwashed.”

Honestly assess your own capabilities
You don’t just put yourself at risk (of a bad trip, potential injury, illness, or worse); you jepordize the safety and well-being of other clients. If nothing else, you make your guide’s life hell. Please don’t if you can help it.

Do you trust your guide’s capabilities and judgement?
When you literally trust a guide with your life (and I can only say this about three of them), it’s a sign that that company is doing something right. Never have I been more impressed with guides than the two trips I’ve taken with Bio Bio; Mountain Madness follows a close second.


Consider travel insuranceadventure travel companies
If you’re doing some really hard-core stuff, will be in very remote areas, or have some existing health or physical conditions, it may be worth the extra expense.

Don’t forget to tip
Says Goddard, “I don’t feel tipping is mandatory; it’s done if you feel the guides did a good job. An average tip is 10% of the trip price, a great tip is 20%.” Adds Lewis, “The amount may also depend upon what country you’re in, but it’s always appreciated. Few, if any, guides do their job solely for the money [FYI, it’s not a high-paying job]–there’s a love of people, nature, or the activity that comes with it. But tips are welcome, as they’re a tangible “thank you,” and acknowledge a job well done.”

If you made it this far, consider yourself schooled. Here’s to safe adventures!

[Photo credits: crocodile, Flickr user jean-louis zimmerman; first aid kit, Flickr user 8lettersuk; warning, Flickr user psd; cash, Flickr user Todd Kravos; caving, Laurel Miller]

Body of missing Washington skier found

missing Washington skier
The search for an experienced backcountry skier missing since last Tuesday has ended, after her body was located Saturday at the bottom of a 1,500-foot drop at Snoqualmie National Forest’s Red Mountain, near Washington’s Alpental ski resort. Washington’s Sky Valley Journal reports that it is believed that 40-year-old Monika Johnson of Seattle was standing unawares on a cornice that broke off, and that her body was covered by snow after she fell. The search efforts were also hampered by bad weather. Retrieval of the body will be at a later date, when conditions permit.

Johnson’s body was located by BARK (Backcountry Avalanche Rescue K-9’s), an Alpental-based, non-profit, volunteer mountain rescue organization of ski patrollers, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) avalanche workers, and their trained canine companions. I spent a day with BARK last February, observing and participating in avalanche drills with the dogs, for this Gadling feature.

To support search-and-rescue/recovery efforts such as Johnson’s, or make a general donation to BARK, email alpentalbark@yahoo.com. For more information on canine search-and-rescue, contact the National Search Dog Alliance.

In Washington state, search continues for missing skier


The search for an experienced backcountry skier missing since Tuesday afternoon has resumed in Washington state, after being postponed Wednesday night due to darkness and poor conditions. The Seattle woman was skiing alone in the Red Mountain Area of Snoqualmie National Forest, near Alpental ski resort. Seattle’s King 5 News reports that after the woman failed to show up at work on Wednesday, her friends were contacted, and King County Search and Rescue launched a full-scale hunt. Another skier located the woman’s backpack and glove on Wednesday, and her car was also found in the ski area parking lot.

Concerns of avalanche danger are high, due to increasing temperatures. Deputy Ed Christian of King County Search and Rescue commented, “We have the best searchers in the state here and we may not even put them in the field…that’s how dangerous it is… We haven’t had the opportunity to search with probes due to the conditions and lack of light. She could be under the snow. She could have gone down further, said Christian. “Until we get enough light we don’t know where she’s at.”

The sheriff office’s helicopter spotted ski gear and what looked to be fresh snow slide activity off the backside of Red Mountain yesterday, while another group of searchers found additional clothing and debris, diminishing hopes of finding the woman alive. One theory is that she may have plummeted from a cornice that broke off. The search is now being considered a recovery mission.

Folks, please be careful out there when engaging in backcountry winter pursuits, and always carry an avalanche beacon and let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Winter outdoor enthusiasts should take an avalanche safety course (REI is one place that offers them for free, and I’ll vouch for how informative they are), and check snow and weather conditions before setting off for a day of recreation.

Snow, sweat, and salami: A day in the life of an avalanche dog

With avalanches, timing is everything. Your chances of surviving burial without asphyxiating (if you’re not instantaneously pulverized) are 90-percent during the first fifteen minutes. Things go downhill quickly after that, and at 30 minutes, your odds are 50:50. The most important thing to do if buried in a slide is create an air pocket.

Salami is also helpful to your survival (as you’ll see). Odds are, if you’re caught in an avalanche, a Search and Rescue (SAR) dog will be first at the scene. The little caskets of restorative brandy attached to their collar? Alas, just a myth.

I recently found myself playing crash (smash?) test dummy at Alpental ski area, in Western Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass. The region is the most active avalanche area in the state, and home to three separate ski resort BARK teams, including Stevens Pass, and Crystal Mountain. BARK (Backcountry Avalanche Rescue K9s) is a statewide, non-profit, volunteer-based mountain rescue organization of ski patrollers and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) avalanche workers, and their canine compadres.

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Ski patroller Kevin Huggett, 47, is president of the Alpental team. Last month, he invited me to participate in one of their weekly training days. It’s been a freakishly warm winter in Washington, but spring conditions can actually increase avalanche risk by creating instability within the snow pack.

A contemplative, deep-voiced man with a dark, bushy mustache (imagine an alpine Tom Selleck) Huggett helps oversee trainings, in which the seven dogs and their handlers practice drills that simulate avalanche and lost person rescue. He’s a busy guy, but it’s his workaholic, six-year-old black Lab, Bazuka, who’s achieved local celebrity status.

Bazuka’s a bad ass, assisting in the rescue of the buried and hapless. Last summer, she alone found a lost, disoriented, 75-year-old woman who had wandered away from her family. Bazuka loves rappelling from helicopters, and rides the chair lift to work. Her sensitive nose can detect the difference between live human scent buried beneath up to ten feet of snow, and that of an article of clothing; she was tracking at ten weeks of age. Bazuka is trained in cadaver retrieval, but she’s also a pet, living in nearby Hyak with Huggett, his wife, Judy, and their 11-year-old Lab, Porter, a BARK veteran.

When I meet Bazuka, she is wearing a red, nylon pocketed vest stuffed with first aid supplies, a transceiver (avalanche beacon), and other equipment. She greets me by licking my hands, then barks at Huggett to take her to work, already. Obediently, we take Chair 2 to the ski patrol hut atop Edelweiss Bowl. Inside, it smells of frying sausage and testosterone. Patrollers Kevin Marston, Kevin Ward, and Alpental avalanche forecaster Bram Thrift, are sitting in front of a heater. Their dogs, Greta (dignified yellow Lab), Hoss (Golden the size of a Mack truck), and Gibb (squirrely Australian shepherd), wait patiently in cubbies near the door.

At 11am, we set off into a white out (nothing screws with your self-esteem like skiing with patrollers in crappy weather) to the “open trench” site. Each dog will run the procedure, locating in turn their handler, a “known” person, and a stranger (aka me) in a shallow hole, then again, while we’re buried under six inches of snow.

As Marston shovels snow over me, I recall that the last time I went caving, I had a claustrophobia-induced freak-out in a tube. This time, at least, my face isn’t shoved into ten thousand-year-old bat shit, but it’s easy to imagine being entombed in snow is its own special hell. Yet, I feel strangely peaceful. Meditative. Probably because there isn’t 165 tons of snow on top of me, and I’m equipped with transceiver and radio.

I’m in the fetal position, clutching a handful of cured meat as a training reward, and trying not to huff too much oxygen from the small air space I’ve been provided. I have several minutes to contemplate the forces of nature, and wonder why out-of-bounders so enjoy courting death. I hear Marston command Greta to “Search!” Within seconds, she scrabbles above me, tunneling into the snow. Her head and shoulders burst into the trench. Our noses touch. As instructed, I cry, “Good girl! Good find!” and shove salami in her face.

With each drill, the dogs yip and leap in ecstasy, whining when their handlers disappear from view. I ask Huggett if they have separation anxiety. “They get excited, and don’t like to be left out of the fun- for them, it’s play.” he explains. “Their bond with us teaches them to find someone.” Moments later, he directs Thrift to keep Gibb- a newbie- engaged longer at the rescue site, to make the “find” the most thrilling part of the exercise.

SAR dogs are trained using positive reinforcement. “Dogs always cheat,” says Marston. “Their sense of smell is so acute, we need to try and confuse them. We increase the difficulty by dispersing scent on articles of clothing, so the dog has to determine if it’s live scent, and if it’s coming from under or on top of the snow. We always change locations, and use a snowcat to scatter debris, to erase any visual cues.”

The second site is a half-mile from the hut. Two caves have been excavated beneath six feet of snow; their construction enables “victims” to remain safe and comfortable for up to an hour. Our skis and poles, and some items of clothing lie scattered about the site, to further distract the dogs. Each animal has 10 minutes to leave the hut, locate, and rescue. The remaining team verbally enacts rescue procedure, relaying logistics and site assessment via radio.

At my turn, I slither into a six-foot-long cave, where I’ll remain for 30 minutes, as Bazuka and Hoss take turns rescuing me from hypothetical slow death. In reality, I’m pretty comfortable, if a bit cold, reclining on an insulated foam pad. A hot toddy would be nice. When I hear Bazuka barking wildly, I know she’s located me. Her reward of choice? A rubber Kong toy.

Given the time, expense (roughly two thousand dollars annually, including equipment, gas, and vet bills), and rigorous training involved to certify SAR dogs and handlers- for exhausting, dangerous volunteer work- it’s obviously a labor of love. The dogs get accolades, playtime, and Scooby Snacks. What drives guys like Huggett and his crew is a desire to also use their pets for a purpose, “to help people.” Besides, he adds, “How can you not enjoy playing with dogs all day?”

By 2pm, training’s over, and the dogs are off-duty until the 3pm closing “sweep.” Then, they’ll help the patrollers cover the 300-acre ski area, making sure everyone is safely off the upper mountain. Huggett is also working the lower mountain’s night-skiing shift. He and Bazuka will have put in 15 hours by the time they’re done, but they don’t mind. “If our dog teams make a difference for just one person,” Huggett says, “it’s all worth it. In Dog we Trust!”

If you’d like to make a donation to BARK, please email alpentalbark@yahoo.com.

What is SAR?
SAR is a domestic, non-profit, volunteer training/certification program that provides search and aid for people who are lost, in distress, or imminent danger. Rescuers can specialize in one or more of the following areas: K9, Horse, Snowmobile, Ground Search, Disaster, EMT, Ropes, Avalanche, etc. SAR criteria are dictated by state and county. Other countries also have versions of SAR.

BARK members are trained to SAR standards, but BARK is its own entity. Only qualified ski patrollers and WSDOT avalanche workers can be in BARK.

If you want to know more about all phases of canine search and rescue, contact the National Search Dog Alliance (NSDA).

Saving Your Hide in a Slide
If you’re attempting any (legal) backcountry pursuit (out-of-bounders = douchebags), you should take an avalanche awareness course, check conditions before heading out, and always carry a beacon and probe. Let people know where you’re going/when you’ll be back, and go with at least several partners. Sometimes, shit happens anyway, but since many people don’t follow even this relatively basic Darwinian protocol, remember that searchers are risking their lives- and their dogs’- to save yours. For information on avalanche awareness classes, contact the American Avalanche Association (AAA), the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), or the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).