Do You Know What You Don't Know?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

The Perfect Directions, January 1999

Do You Know What You Don't Know?
The biggest mistake, our globe-trotting experts say, is to set off without doing your homework. But they're happy to let you crib from their notes.

By Shane DuBow

Choosing an Outfitter
Q: I want to go on safari in Zimbabwe, but the number of outfitters boggles the mind. How do I choose the right one?

A: Judi Wineland remembers the early '70s being like a game of Risk, in which her newly established company, Overseas Adventure Travel, and three competitors essentially split up the world: Sobek did rivers, Mountain Travel did Nepal, Wilderness Travel did South America, and OAT did Africa. Today, there are more than 8,000 U.S.-based outfitters alone, and a fresh round of mergers, acquisitions, and even IPOs — the ultimate proof of a maturing industry — is expected momentarily. Wineland, who has since sold OAT and runs Thomson Safaris with her husband, Rick Thomson, admits that choosing an outfitter has become as much of an expedition as the journey itself. Herewith, her thoughts on ways to fine-tune your trip-planning homework.

Start by browsing outfitters' brochures or Web sites. (If you're a real go-getter, watch your paper for ads about travel-industry trade shows, which happen annually in major cities, are open to the public, and offer a chance to meet outfitters face-to-face.) Look for companies that specialize, Wineland says: "If they offer 60 trips to 60 countries, well, you wouldn't order pizza from a Chinese restaurant, would you? Running trips on familiar turf builds a knowledge base: you know how the trains run, when the rivers are swollen, what's around the next bend." After diligent research, you may feel you've found the perfect trip. But don't be lulled into check-writing mode by glossy catalogs that seem to answer all your questions. You're not done yet.

Begin dialing when you've winnowed your literature down to four or five brochures. Run through a list of questions: How long have the owners been in business? (They should have at least five years of field experience, though not necessarily running their own company: Many big-company guides eventually strike out on their own.) Do they run the trip themselves or farm it out to a local outfitter? (The former is preferable; the latter is fine — if it's a longtime working relationship and they can provide a list of satisfied customers.) Ask about their guides. How about the itinerary? Will you be sightseeing in Harare or camping with the birds and beasts? Is there a firm, clear refund policy? (Don't sign up if it's written in suspicious legalese.) While liability insurance is to be expected, few outfitters include health and evacuation coverage in their fees. You can, however, buy a plan covering medical costs, lost baggage, and cancelled trips directly from a provider like Travel Guard International (800-826-1300). Beware of outfitters that demand a deposit of more than $500 or slash their prices at the last minute to fill seats. Price disparity can cause bad vibes when your fellow travelers discover that you paid half of what they did, and what's more, good companies either fill their rosters easily or run trips with smaller-than-maximum groups.

If you've gotten this far, it's time to get a few past clients' phone numbers, and ask them how they liked their trip. While not always 20-20, other clients' hindsight tends to be vivid enough: You'll either sign up or torch the brochure on the spot.

Group Dynamics
Q: Off into the woods with 14 strangers? How do I maintain my sanity?

A: They're bossy. They don't help carry the sea kayaks. They wander off to take photographs while everyone else is breaking camp. Group jerks: Almost every trip has one, and Mountain Travel-Sobek's Olaf Malver has become intimately familiar with the species during his 25 years of guiding exploratory sea-kayaking trips to places like Irian Jaya, Greenland, and the Andaman Islands. But in offering wisdom on how to peacefully coexist, he draws not from his graduate studies in international diplomacy, but from the foolproof pragmatism of child psychology. "Jerks often need attention," he says, doing his best junior-high-school-counselor imitation. "If you give them a little, sometimes they improve." Most jerks, Malver insists, are actually unaware of their offenses. "It's like a skunk not smelling itself," he says sympathetically.

Above all, he advises, don't confront the jerk yourself. If you can't take it anymore, go to the trip leader. "It's the guide's responsibility to be the diplomat," Malver says. "He can take the jerk on a long walk and ask him how to help solve the problem." On rare occasions, if the group's safety is at risk, the guide can even send the jerk home.

In the meantime, Papa Malver suggests, stop obsessing, shrug it off, and get busy exploring the place you paid thousands of dollars to visit. "Let the jerk have the good campsite today," he says. "You'll take it tomorrow."

Finally, make sure it's not you who becomes the trip pariah. Don't brag about physical exploits, or you may find yourself lagging later and becoming the butt of group jokes. Resist romantic liaisons, lest the others, forced to witness your amorous cooings, pelt you with stones. Similarly, for your tentmate's sake, try to bathe at least as often as your average Frenchman. And most important, be flexible. Let go of rigid expectations for the trip's "success," be it seeing a polar bear or rolling a kayak. "The definition of exploring is facing the world with an open mind," says Malver. "If you don't want to have an adventure, stay under your bed with a helmet on."

Q: So I signed up. How do I get ready?

A: From descending Ethiopia's Omo River with Sobek 20 years ago to rafting the Class V Futaleufu in 1996, 75-year-old Southwest Outward Bound School cofounder Fred Weidemann has logged about 50 outfitted trips. And with 60 years of solo experience, if anyone knows how to prepare for the bush, it's him.

Three months before departure, he says, tailor your training to your trip. "Start running, working up to five miles a day. Trade in elevators for stairs, lift weights, and add some swimming." Also, call up previous clients for bibliographic picks: Weidemann allows himself one schlocky mystery and one book about his destination — for the Grand Canyon, say, Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked Through Time. Two weeks in advance, begin to gather gear on a card table. (Pack too early, you forget what you brought. Pack too late, you forget everything.) "Before stuffing," Weidemann says, "I take half away. And I always wish it was three-quarters." Still, he never leaves home without his 20-year-old button-front pile jacket, a headlamp, multipurpose nylon webbing, and a few carabiners. And he always memorizes the local words for thank you and good morning. Finally, and most important, he points out, "If you're going to Russia, learn how to drink."

Travel Medicine
Q: Shots? Check. Band-Aids? Aspirin? Check. Check. Now what else do I need to stay healthy out there?

A: Even your basic clinic nurse can prick your butt and send you on your way. But to extract a tumbu-fly larva that's bored its way beneath your scalp, the doc you want is Leonard C. Marcus, V.M.D., M.D., a Boston tropical-medicine expert favored by the war correspondents of NBC and some of the top guides of adventure travel. The good Dr. M. will advise you to cover the telltale welt with a strip of raw bacon overnight to smother the subcutaneous interloper, inducing an emergency exit. It's just one out of a whole bag of pragmatic tricks he's accumulated in more than 25 years of peripatetic practice, from Uganda to Ecuador, "treating everything that moved, autopsying everything that didn't."

Here's what our specialist says never to leave home without. First, pack an alcohol-based gel, such as Purel, for disinfecting hands after bathroom breaks and before meals in areas without clean water. For tropical journeys, bring pants and long-sleeve shirts and plenty of deet; malaria is by far your most serious health concern. If you're headed deep into the wilds, ask your doctor for a just-in-case antibiotic — ciprofloxacin and azithromycin are the current intestinal nukes of choice — as a hedge against pharmacological isolation. While you're at it, get the name of a good doctor or hospital in the region where you intend to disappear. It's wise to stock up on oral rehydration salts, packets of water-soluble potassium, glucose, and electrolytes for those times when you find yourself, as one out of three off-the-beaten-track travelers does, dropping a lot of what your body needs down a hole in the floor. And if all else fails and you do come back with Schistosoma flukes copulating incessantly inside your intestinal veins, call the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (847-480-9592) to locate the specialist nearest you.

Your Guide
Q: What should I look for in my trip leader: Dr. Kildare, or Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle?

A: Résumés seem effete for professional adventurers, but if Bruce Klepinger typed his up, it would include the 15 years he spent guiding for Mountain Travel (logging 355 field days in a single year), the fact that he's led perhaps more treks than anyone in the business (about 300), and even his auspicious nickname, "the Saint" (bestowed for keeping his cool around loutish clients). Klepinger and a few handpicked veterans now lead all trips for his 10-year-old company, Ibex Expeditions, so his clients can count on proven track records. But with the larger companies offering more outings than ever before, getting the dope on your leader — who is often the key to your journey's success — can take some legwork.

So to help you judge the credentials of your prospective guide, here are the Saint's reconnaissance pointers: Once you've settled on a trip, call the outfitter and ask to speak with the guide. If that's not possible, ask a knowledgeable staffer to answer questions in his stead. First, you want details about the guide's background. While there's no central accreditation organization, you're looking for a man or woman who's, well, well-rounded. "Climbing credentials don't mean anything," Klepinger says. "You need to be a geographer, an ethnographer, a philosopher; to understand weather, avalanches, and glaciers. The more remote the trek, the more of a renaissance guide you need to be." His next suggestion: See how long your guide has been at it, and how many trips he's led in this region. "There are some folks I trust to blind-lead a trip," he says — but if your guide has less than six years experience and is venturing into a new area, be worried. (This is less of a concern with well-established outfitters, who are increasingly using specialized guides: Buddhist studies professors for Tibetan treks, wildlife biologists for Baja sea-kayak trips.) Check your guide's medical training; none is officially required, but an EMT certainly lends peace of mind. And be sure to get phone numbers of a few past clients who can offer valuable insights into his on-the-job demeanor. Finally, Klepinger urges, try to travel with guide teams — one Westerner and one English-speaking native. Not only will a local ensure that your group is more considerate of remote communities, he also may know a few red-tape-cutting tricks. Like, say, how to get past an AK-47-toting Chinese border guard (with a case of beer and a first-name reference to a highly placed factotum who's, ahem, just dying to hear how you enjoyed Mount Kailas upon your return to Beijing).

Illustration by Christian Northeast

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