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How to choose a reputable adventure travel company or guide
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]
Lest 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.
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."
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:
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.
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.
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 insurance
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]
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