10 Expert Tips for Doing Adventure Travel Right
By Michael Lanza
What exactly is “adventure travel?” In a sense, it’s a little like pornography: hard to define, but you know what it is when you see it. Adventure transports you into a physical and emotional place you have never gone before, or rarely go. It brings surprises and occasionally hardships. But the good surprises are a gift that often comes wrapped in wonder and awe, while the hardships teach us something about the world and, usually, about ourselves.
Our earliest adventures can help kindle a fire for more experiences that deliver that buzz again—that feeling of being entirely on your own and not knowing what’s going to happen next, but whatever lies ahead, you’re eager to leap into it.
I’ve been fortunate to build a career around outdoor writing and photography and explore the backcountry of many national parks and wilderness areas, as well as travel around the world to pursue adventures from Patagonia to Iceland, Norway to Nepal to New Zealand and other places.
My idea of adventure travel has evolved quite a bit over half a lifetime.
Today, I find that buzz more elusive. Experience makes you safer, more confident, and less susceptible to surprises—and all of that’s generally good. But I hope to never strip away all of the surprise and mystery from travel.
I still recapture that feeling now and then, as I did not long ago on New Zealand’s hardest hut trek, the Dusky Track (watch for my upcoming story about that trip at The Big Outside). And these days, I often experience that surprise and wonder vicariously, through taking my kids on adventures that give them that buzz of discovering new surprises.
And those don’t have to be overseas: My kids have gotten that buzz many times domestically, including when we whitewater rafted and kayaked Idaho’s remote Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and backpacked the spectacular canyon of the Paria River in Utah and Arizona.
I’ve found there are universally common aspects to any great adventure. So whether you’re planning your first national park visit or an international trek, I think you’ll draw some ideas and inspiration from these 10 tips for more rewarding adventure travel.
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No. 1 Do Some Research
When I was planning a multi-day, hut-to-hut trek for my family in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains (lead photo at top of story), I realized we were heading to a very popular destination that would be packed with tourists in the high season, especially August. So besides planning our trip for mid-July, I wanted to find a trail that would be less crowded than the well-known and extremely popular Alta Via 1, which I’d read about many times in magazines and websites.
I found that the Alta Via 2 was considered the hardest of the high routes through the Dolomites. On it, we’d enjoy a similar experience as on the AV 1 in terms of scenery, huts, and culture, but we’d see far fewer people, have less difficulty booking huts, and as a bonus (in my view), we’d enjoy some rugged hiking that would deliver more excitement than the popular, well-manicured trails. I was right, as you can read about in my story “The World’s Most Beautiful Trail: Trekking the Alta Via 2 Through Italy’s Dolomite Mountains.”
Find out all you can about where you’re going before you get there—it will help you have a better experience. One of the smartest things I’ve ever done was to start a list of trip ideas, years ago, including planning details and information sources (like links to stories); it’s now well over 18,000 words long—and growing—with hundreds of trip ideas. (I need to live a long time.) Keeping a list of trip ideas will provide motivation to keep getting you out again and again.
Like this story? You may also like my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You”
and “The 10 Best Family Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
No. 2 Don’t Go Entirely By the Book
Several days into a 17-day trek around the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal—on our honeymoon—my wife and I and four new friends we’d met the first day, who’d become our trekking companions, stopped for the night at a teahouse in a tiny village called Lower Pisang. The guidebooks recommended staying there, so we saw dozens of other trekkers, and the locals seemed accustomed to catering to foreign tourists. While Lower Pisang had mud and stone buildings and views of massive, icy peaks, it held no surprises for us. In a way, it was like many of the world’s most popular treks, where you’ll meet people from many countries—which is part of the magic of adventure travel, but also can make such trips seem too homogenized if you don’t break away from the beaten tourist path at times, too.
Although we were tired and feeling the effects of higher elevation, we decided to walk uphill from Lower Pisang to Upper Pisang, which, clearly, few other trekkers bothered to do. There, on dirt paths between ancient stone homes, children ran out to greet us, shouting and laughing and pulling on our clothes to lead us through their village. We found a tiny teahouse, accessed by climbing up a wooden ladder to the second-floor balcony, where the owners served us tea and showed us their kitchen, a dirt-floored room with a single, kerosene burner.
Visiting Upper Pisang was the kind of experience that makes a trip more special. Don’t always do what everyone else does. Treat the guidebook as just that—a set of rough guidelines and advice, not a step-by-step manual. Be curious and flexible, look around, and explore.
Time for a better backpack? See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and the best ultralight packs.
No. 3 Sometimes, Do What Everyone Else Does
On one of our last mornings on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, we rose long before sunrise and hiked by the light of headlamps in the frigid cold, following a quiet procession of trekkers up a well-beaten footpath leading out of the village of Deorali. Reaching the bare crown of Poon Hill, at over 9,000 feet, we watched and waited beneath the dome of a Himalayan night sky riddled with stars.
Soon, rich bands of red and yellow slowly ignited the eastern horizon and dawn seeped across the sky. A flash of golden light struck the snowy cap of Annapurna South, and then leapt like wildfire across the tops of the other, giant peaks crowding the skyline before us: Dhaulagiri, The Fang, Hiun Chuli, and Macchapucchare, floating above valleys still coal-black with night. An iconic experience for Annapurna trekkers, it always draws a parade of people, and was one of the most gorgeous sunrises I have ever witnessed.
While I firmly believe in tip no. 2, sometimes there’s a good reason why a certain place or experience is popular with travelers. A crowd isn’t always a bad sign.
No. 4 Ask Questions and Trust Your Gut
Never blindly place your fate in someone else’s hands. Professional guides, experienced friends, or an acquaintance who seems to know what he or she’s doing—they may possess more technical skills or local knowledge than you, but that doesn’t mean they possess infallible judgment, and it certainly doesn’t mean they understand your skill or comfort level as well as you do. And even experienced people can make mistakes—I know too many stories about professional guides making shockingly bad judgments.
Whomever you’re with, pay attention, ask questions, understand what you’re getting into, and make yourself heard when decisions are being made. And if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and 6 favorite daypacks.
No. 5 Eat Something Weird
I’ve eaten dah bhat in Nepal (quite good), paella in Spain (delicious), haggis in Scotland (better than you think), blackbird (also better than you think) and raw shark (not better than you think) in Iceland, and alligator in New Orleans (almost vomited), among other unusual local delicacies. There are reasons beyond culinary curiosity that I like to try new dishes.
If I hadn’t been willing to risk tasting something that I didn’t like, I wouldn’t have found those many dishes that I did like. And the truth is, in many countries, locals are much better at cooking their own traditional foods than they are at preparing foreign dishes for tourists who will only eat what’s familiar to them. (I once saw ketchup substituted for tomato sauce on a pizza—which made me especially happy that I didn’t order that or the pasta.) Plus, trying a regional dish communicates to local people that you want to get to know their culture, which can open doors.
But really, this suggestion is a metaphor for a broader piece of advice: Adventure travel is supposed to be about stepping a little further out on the limb emotionally than you’ve ever ventured before. Sure, be sensible about what you eat: Uncooked food in some countries can contain bacteria that your stomach may not be used to, causing gastrointestinal discomfort for a day or two—it’s happened to me. But don’t over-worry, especially about kids—they’ll adapt quickly, and learning to expand their tastes is good for them.
Dive in headfirst. Try something new. It just might expand your horizons and change your life.
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No. 6 Meet People
Be friendly, meet people. Not only will you make new and interesting friends, but you can ask for their advice on what to do—and you may find an adventure that’s not in any guidebook or brochure. Locals provide a font of knowledge you may not find elsewhere.
While you don’t always need professional guides, good ones are worth the expense when you lack the skills or local knowledge. When a friend and I went to Chilean Patagonia to do a couple of treks, I had a good idea of where I wanted to go—to Torres del Paine National Park and the more-remote and lonely Dientes Circuit—but I relied heavily on local guides for tips on how to do it right. Their guidance led us to alter my original plans in Torres del Paine—thus avoiding torrential rains and flooding on the north side of the range, where we would have seen little—and got us on the correct route on the Dientes Circuit. I’ve used guides or at least solicited their advice in New Zealand and Iceland, too. If you don’t need a guide to lead you around daily, you might just get some help from them with trip planning.
But more important than any of those benefits: I’ve found that the most enjoyable and memorable trips share three characteristics: incomparable scenery, elements that feel adventurous (to you), and people that make it special—and it could be the companions you came with, people you meet, or both.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
No. 7 Don’t Wait Until the Kids are ‘Ready’
Preparing your children for adventure travel—which can sometimes entail greater inconveniences, discomforts, and physical and emotional challenges than typically encountered on a pampered, resort vacation—is a little like deciding to have children: There’s never really a convenient time.
Yes, I’ve certainly contemplated my children’s physical abilities and past experience when choosing a family trip, like when we sea kayaked and wilderness camped for five days in Alaska’s Glacier Bay—where our concerns ranged from brown bears to orcas to icy waters that could suck the life from an adult in 15 minutes. Our kids were nine and seven years old.
But there’s never full certainty about safety, anytime in life. We took them to Glacier Bay, anyway, and it was one of the greatest experiences my family has ever had. Don’t dive blindly into an adventure—but don’t let irrational, misplaced anxiety hold you back, either. I’ve always found that kids are remarkably adaptable and infinitely curious, and they really do appreciate family time together. Plus, they’re generally more amenable to their parents making all the travel decisions when younger than once they’re teenagers.
We’ve taken our kids on hut-to-hut treks in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, and on the Tour du Mont Blanc—and all three rank among our family’s most wonderful and memorable travel experiences. Adventure travel is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids.
Learn what I’ve learned from our many family adventures: See my stories “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself,” “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors,” and my “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” and “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You.”
Want this lifestyle for your family? Use my “7 Tips for Getting Your Family on Outdoor Adventure Trips.”
No. 8 Take a Long Trip
A month into a summer-long trip around the West, backpacking and climbing with my girlfriend (now my wife) from the Grand Canyon to the Canadian Rockies, we had already achieved one of the most magical benefits of an extended trip: complete psychological disconnection from the scheduled mundaneness of our working lives. Living in a tent, I was more likely to be able to tell you the phase of the moon than the day of the week. I remember feeling a powerful sense of freedom—and realizing: We still have two more months of this ahead of us.
I have also taken a pair of two-month-long summer trips around the West, one with friends and another with my wife and our infant son. And my wife and I spent close to a month in Nepal for our honeymoon. When possible—before or right after college, between jobs, or on an extended, unpaid leave or sabbatical from work—everyone should fit in a trip longer than the usual vacation of a week or two. First of all, it’s an amazingly liberating experience. It also gives you time to really explore a place (however far from home you travel). And it’s arguably the best educational experience you can create for your children.
Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.
If necessary, do it on the cheap. Camping is inexpensive, sleeping in a tent in the backcountry is often free, and gas isn’t prohibitively expensive. Find less-expensive modes or times of travel. (Example: HomeExchange.com lets you temporarily swap homes with someone living elsewhere in the country or the world, giving you free accommodations.) Doing travel on the cheap sometimes only requires a willingness to sacrifice either some comforts or other things in your life—such as material possessions, which studies show do not bring lasting happiness like travel does. Plus, doing it on the cheap often gives you experiences that don’t happen when you take the more comfortable, pampered, and insular travel route.
For people who can afford extended travel, the barrier is often the belief that they can’t leave their job for that long. But I have never met a retired person who’s told me that he or she wishes they had worked more in life; usually, if they have any regret, it’s just the opposite.
Get away for long enough that you reach the point where you’re eager to be home—then you’ll know it’s been long enough.
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No. 9 Turn Off That *%#&@ Phone!
Your device can provide helpful information—occasionally. But let’s face it: Most of the time, it’s just distracting you from what’s going on around you and from interacting with other people or your children. Missing out on those random, unexpected conversations with strangers and irreplaceable time with your mate or family deprives you of some of the most special aspects of adventure travel. (Having no cell service or wifi is one of the best aspects of my family’s annual ski trip to a backcountry yurt with another family. See my essay about a new year’s resolution to get unplugged.)
You’re connected enough in everyday life—adventure travel should free you from that (at least most of the time). Instead of seeking a hotel that has wifi and a flat-screen TV in your room, find one that doesn’t. Leave the phones in the car or your luggage. (It may be the only way to get your kids to give you their undivided attention.) You’ll enjoy precious and rare time together.
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No. 10 Make the Extra Effort
At the end of a weeklong, hut-to-hut trek through the Swiss Alps, we had a free day in Zermatt, the ski-resort village below the Matterhorn. We could have lounged in our hotel room or just strolled around town. Instead, we roped up to climb a 13,665-foot (4,164m) peak neighboring the Matterhorn, the Breithorn.
Yes, you’ll be tired at times on a long, adventurous trip. No, you’re not a bad traveler if you take a nap instead of going out to run with the bulls. But whenever possible, resist the urge to take the path of least resistance. Walk up the hill above town for sunset. Go outside at night to see the Milky Way. Explore a bit more on your trip’s last day rather than hanging out in a hotel room. You’re there for an adventure—make it happen.
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