Awhile back I was on a travel panel in Berkeley with Richard Bangs, author, adventurer, and founder of Sobek, one of the first and most successful adventure-travel outfitters. We had both been babbling on about the joys of adventure when a young woman stood up and cut us short.
"But how do you actually do an adventure?" she asked.
"Sign up and send your check," joked Bangs, beaming.
"Buy a plane ticket," I retorted.
Half the audience jumped to their feet and a free-for-all ensued. Bangs—whose do-it-yourself credentials are impeccable but who knows the importance of guides—naturally maintained that the best way to take any journey or adventure was to hire an outfitter. Outfitters know the language, the culture, the history, and they have the requisite outdoor skills. Plus they do the dirty work, making all the arrangements so you'll never wind up sleeping in the rain or watching your gear float downriver.
Bangs was correct on all counts, and for flush but flat-out travelers, an outfitter is the answer—especially if your dream adventure involves physical struggle and a healthy element of risk. If you want to climb a mountain but are not a mountaineer, or hope to kayak a river but are not a paddler, you need a guide. Certain trips require such a high level of competence that managing them is beyond the reach of all but the experts and those who pay to be led by them.
That said, I ardently believe that when you hire an outfitter you often cut out something essential from adventure travel. Namely, the entire epic process of adventure, which starts with your first stab at planning and ends when you get your exhausted, mind-blown self back home. It's true that with an outfitter no one gets stuck in a tent on a high desolate pass, no one gets stranded in a remote malarial village, no one gets confused and takes the wrong trail. On the other hand, if you do the trip yourself, you're guaranteed to wind up stuck for the night on that high pass (where you'll see the sunrise that haunts you forever), missing the bus out of that village (where you wind up dancing the night away with the local tribesmen), and taking the wrong trail (down which you meet the fellow-trekker who saves your life and becomes your best friend).
Adventure means embracing both serendipity and disaster, and it happens when you—yes you, no one else—suddenly have to solve a problem in which the wrong move can have dire consequences. So for truly hazardous journeys—or at least until you've learned enough from good teachers and guides to know what you're doing—go with an outfitter. But pay close attention, be a passionate student of outdoor lore, and live for the day you go out and do it all yourself.
Contributing Editor Mark Jenkins writes The Hard Way column.