Our criteria in this category were exhaustive. We looked at the quality of a company’s guides, the authenticity and diversity of its trips, its level of service, philanthropic credibility, safety record, and, most important, clients’ reviews and experiences. While companies like Austin-Lehman Adventures, OARS, and Wild China scored high marks, Geographic Expeditions stood above the rest. For starters, GeoEx has consistently taken travelers to the most remote regions of the world, from Everest’s north side to Patagonia’s glaciers to the far reaches of Papua New Guinea. This year it’s trailblazing new terrain with a 27-day trek to the north face of K2 ($11,450). Guided by Vassi Koutsaftis, a 20-year vet who has led treks in Tibet, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the journey starts on the Silk Road in China’s Kashgar and tops out at the 17,056-foot advance base camp of K2. No need to worry about getting back alive. The company’s emphasis on safety comes from the top: president Jim Sano, a former Yosemite National Park ranger and search-and-rescue team member, is an accomplished mountaineer himself. The price of every GeoEx trip includes medical assistance and evacuation coverage from Global Rescue and medical-expense insurance through Travel Guard. The company has also pioneered relationships with nonprofits and NGOs—37 and counting—like the Maasai Conservation Wilderness Trust, which draws in annual tourism revenues of $750,000, all of which goes straight back to the Masai community. But the primary reason more than half the company’s clients come back for more? Its outstanding guides—from Buddhist icon and scholar Robert Thurman, who leads meditation trips in Bhutan, to mountaineer (and Outside correspondent) Dave Hahn, the only Westerner to have summited Mount Everest 13 times, who runs the company’s expeditions to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The Wilderness Group
In 1983, Wilderness Safaris, now known as the Wilderness Group, was founded with a simple but novel idea: offer a superior travel experience while conserving land, wildlife, and local culture as part of its business plan. The company now runs more than 60 lodges in nine countries across Africa, from rustic tented camps in Botswana to tony desert outposts in Namibia. Proceeds from guest fees go to the Wilderness Wildlife Trust, an independent entity that puts 100 percent of its funds toward conservation work, like reintroducing endangered black and white rhinos in Botswana. But customers return for the bucket-list adventures: driving hundreds of miles over-land between Botswana’s savannas, the Kalahari sands, and the Okavango Delta—spotting elephants, rhinos, zebras, and lions along the way (from $5,400 per person for seven days)—or diving with whale sharks off a private white-sand island in the Seychelles.