Selecting a walking vacation that's right for you

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of May 21-27, 1998
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Selecting a walking vacation that's right for you

Selecting a walking vacation that's right for you
Question: I am interested in a walking vacation but don't know of any tour companies that are absolutely dependable. One of my main concerns is "biting off more than I can chew," i.e., if I think I could handle 5 to 6 miles per day of relatively easy walking, how can I be sure the trip won't involve 10 miles per day of more strenuous walks? Are the tour companies realistic in their descriptions of what is required to take part? Can you recommend any reputable outfitters? Thanks.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Adventure Adviser: Ginny, Ginny, Ginny. Have some faith in tour companies! Surely you don't think they're all out to mislead you? While I understand your concerns, do remember that these companies rely on repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. In other words, they won't purposely try to steer you toward a too-difficult trip. The active travel industry is a competitive place, and a tour company's number one goal is to make you so satisfied and happy that you'll come running back for more (and bring all your friends). And that process starts with helping you pick the right trip.

Of course just how (or how thoroughly) each tour company does this tends to vary. Most employ a rating system for grading the difficulty of each trip offered. In the front of the outfitter's catalog, look for a section called something like "making the right choice" or "choosing the right trip for you," which will explain that company's rating system. Admittedly, these trip keys can be confusing, but don't let that overwhelm you — it's still a good place to start and find important info, like typical elevation gain or hours spent hiking per day. I'd make a list of destinations you're interested in (flip through some catalogs for ideas), then look at the respective ratings for your chosen locales. If you're concerned about a trip being too strenuous, maybe veer away from areas where the walking is bound to be more difficult in general. There's a huge difference between going on a walking vacation in the Canadian Rockies or Norway than ambling through Georgia or Holland.

That said, don't be scared off if one of your choice destinations sounds too difficult at first. If you're dying to check out the Canyonlands, or Tuscany, but scared of the hills, the trip may still work for you. While outfitters definitely want to best match people to trips, they also want to avoid completely alienating anyone from a particular destination. A general rule-of-thumb for travel companies is to offer trips that appeal to a broad range of abilities. This means designing trips that can accommodate individuals, married couples, and full families, all with different physical abilities. To solve this dilemma, some tour companies offer several walking options each day. The Berkeley, California-based outfitter Backroads, for instance, almost always has a daily basic route, a short option, and a longer option. With this nifty arrangement, you can better customize the daily hike to fit your ability.

As far as offering realistic descriptions, well, that probably does differ from outfitter to outfitter. But as long as you're willing to do a little leg work, you can get the full, down-and-dirty scoop on any trip. With the catalog in front of you, get on the phone and speak with someone in the office. Ask to talk to a trip planner or sales specialist who knows more about a trip's day-to-day hikes and options than what's detailed in the catalog copy. Be up front with your concerns and ask their advice. Explain what kind of walker you are, what daily mileage you have in mind, and ask for trip suggestions. Request names and numbers of past clients who have gone on trips you're interested in, or ask if you can speak with one of the guides. The more information you can collect, the more at ease you'll feel. And, it'll give you a chance to check out the outfitter. Obviously if they're not very responsive to your questions, they're probably not the travel company for you.

Given your concerns, better stick to one of the well-known companies for your first walking adventure. I'd recommend both Backroads (800-GO-ACTIVE) and Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson (800-678-1147), both probably as close as you'll get to "absolutely dependable," but of course that assurance comes at a price. These are excellent outfitters with numerous trip offerings worldwide for all levels. They also have strong customer-service reputations and plenty of informed staff to help you pick a trip. Check out their respective web sites for info, and call for catalogs. Mountain Travel Sobek (888-MTSOBEK) and Randonnee Tours (800-465-6488) are also reputable outfitters, and the latter offers self-guided itineraries, another option for making sure you're not in over your head.

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