By Michael Lanza
What exactly is “adventure travel?” While we may all define it slightly differently, I think there are universal commonalities to it. Real 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. 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 universal 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.
Click on any photo to read my story about that trip, and please share your own tips or thoughts on my tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
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.
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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.
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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.
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No. 5 Eat Something Weird
I’ve eaten dal 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 the 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.
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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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