Outside Magazine, February 1995
In this era of 60-hour workweeks and credit-card adventuring, outfitters have thankfully micromanaged the details of their trips so well that few decisions are necessary from the moment your 747 touches down. They take care of the hard part, the nitty-gritty details, so that you can taste some of the thrill of an expedition with no more headaches than on any other ambitious vacation. All you have to worry about are the few basic decisions that must be made before you let the experts take over. Not that these can be taken lightly -- the choices that you'll be making will ultimately determine whether your trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a two-week, $5,000 downer. Here, you'll have no veteran guides with 15 years of in-country experience to point the way. It's up to you to settle on the right destination, pick the most appropriate outfitter, get yourself insured and vaccinated, and bring along the little extras you'll need to be comfortable in the rough. That said, here's a quick guide to preparation, designed to make the period before your trip as hassle-free as possible -- after all, you're just trying to get out and have some fun, not boldly go where no man has gone before.
The Big Decision
PICK THE ACTIVITY FIRST. In adventure travel, unlike cultural tours, where you go can be far less important than what you do when you get there. So if an obvious destination doesn't jump out at you -- if you haven't, say, always been dying to go to Nepal -- choose an activity that you either already like or have always had a hankering to try.
AVOID SELF-DELUSION, PART ONE: PHYSICAL FITNESS. Assess your conditioning and capabilities with unblinking objectivity. Not how fit you were back in college. Not how fit you could be in a few months. How fit you are now. If you have any doubt as to whether you're up for a given trip, call the outfitter. But keep in mind that some companies, loath to discourage potential customers, take an unrealistically upbeat attitude. Even if the trip is no problem for you, the company's failure to seriously screen its clients' fitness levels may mean that other overmatched group members will end up slowing everyone else down.
AVOID SELF-DELUSION, PART TWO: MENTAL TOUGHNESS. Does a smelly bathroom turn your stomach? Does being cold and wet ruin your whole day? Everyone has his or her own comfort level, and it's crucial to match yours with that of your trip. Try to gauge how flexible, stoic, and good-humored you are in the face of deprivation, adversity, and odor, and choose accordingly.
REQUEST DETAILED ITINERARIES. For many of the trips, we've listed multiple outfitters. Each is a capable company, and you shouldn't go wrong with any of them. But similar-sounding trips can vary greatly, so take some time to pore over the schedules of each, looking for the subtle differences (local guides in each region, earlier starts each morning) as well as glaring ones (in-country plane travel versus buses, deluxe camping versus participatory). Also, be sure to compare apples to apples. Internal airfares, national park fees, hotels in gateway cities, and certain meals may or may not be included.
ASK WHETHER THE OUTFITTER RUNS ITS OWN TRIPS. Brokers may offer lower prices, but full-service companies typically provide their own guides, hotels in the staging city, and thorough pre-trip information, all of which leads to tighter quality control. (Profiles of trip leaders in the catalog are usually a tipoff that the company runs its own trips.) Ask for the phone numbers of previous clients, and then carve out some time for cross-examination. And try to talk directly to the trip leader as well. This may be difficult -- they tend to be peripatetic sorts -- but it's worth the cost of an international call to talk to the person who'll be in control of your destiny.
Managing Your Risk
When you buy a trip, the only things you have any protection against are accidents that are clearly the outfitter's fault -- and only if the outfitter has liability insurance. Many do, but if yours doesn't and something goes wrong, you'll be stuck with the tab. In the case of medical emergencies, your own health insurance should cover you (a quick call to your policy provider should give you all of the details). But every other type of unforeseen trip-spoiler is your responsibility, from missing a plane to losing your luggage to having to cancel the trip because you twisted an ankle training for it.
The remedy for this sort of exposure is travel insurance. Though most commonly sold by travel agents, many large outfitters also sell "customized" policies along with their trips. However, this customizing has to do with price only, not the type of travel. In fact, none of the major travel insurance companies that underwrite the policies offers coverage specifically geared to adventure travel, just as there is no coverage for such "high-risk" activities as skiing, skydiving, scuba diving, hang gliding, ballooning, or bungee jumping.
The decision regarding whether or not to insure is, obviously, quite personal, but if you do decide to get coverage, what you buy should depend entirely on how much your trip costs. Take, for example, the customized policy for clients of Mountain Travel - Sobek provided by BerkelyCare (800-645-2424), which costs $189 for any trip up to $3,500. It provides, among other benefits, a refund of the total cost of your trip if it is canceled or interrupted; $20,000 for emergency helicopter evacuation (something not covered by most health insurance); $3,000 of medical coverage; $1,000 if your baggage is lost or $200 to tide you over if it is temporarily misplaced; and $30,000 for accidental death or dismemberment in the event of a plane crash.
Whether or not that's a good deal depends on the trip. If it costs just $2,000, a policy offered by Travel Guard International (800-826-1300) will provide virtually the same coverage for $109, an $80 savings. And they'll throw in supplier default insurance as well, which for obvious reasons customized policies never offer. But if the trip costs the full $3,500, Travel Guard's policy shoots up to $199. Similarly, policies available from Tele-Trip (800-228-9792) and Access America (800-284-8300) are based on both trip length and cost. For instance, while their most comprehensive coverage for a ten-day, $1,000 mountain-bike tour in Vermont costs just $103 or $111, respectively, the price of a policy for, say, a 17-day, $3,000 trek through the Ethiopian Highlands is more than twice as much -- $243 from Tele-Trip, $248 from Access America. Bottom line: Get a quote on insurance from the outfitter, and then shop around.
The Educated Pincushion
Panicked, you call your doctor. And that's when you really start to feel sick, because you discover that you're looking at $300 to $500 in vaccines and prescriptions. Maybe you should just stay home. Or maybe you just need to be more specific, in terms of both whom you consult and what you consult them about.
For instance, provided that you're up to date with tetanus and polio boosters, you can safely travel to Santiago and Patagonia. Those other illnesses pose a problem mainly in tropical areas of South America. Thus, you can be somewhat more cavalier than someone who intends to spend two weeks diving in Brazil's Rio Negro, a backwater deep in the heart of the Amazon.
Your family doctor isn't likely to know this, but a travel clinic is set up to assess your particular needs. You'll find travel clinics in nearly every sizable city; Travelers' Medical Resource (ICS Books, $19.95) lists more than 50, in 23 states. If there isn't one in your area, call the nearest clinic for specific recommendations that you can take to a local doctor. To get you started, here's the lowdown on the preventive measures you should consider, the ones you more than likely don't need, and the ones you'd be foolish to head off without.
TETANUS AND POLIO (required). A tetanus vaccine lasts ten years and, at $40, is cheap insurance. A rusty nail is the classic way to acquire tetanus, but it can also be a result of compound fractures or animal bites. Ask your doctor about a polio booster ($50) as well. Chances are you're already covered, but it can't hurt to be sure, especially if you're heading to a country where the disease is still endemic.
HEPATITIS A (recommended). An immune serum globulin shot for hepatitis A is short-lived (it lasts only two to five months, depending on the dosage) and some people find the $55 cost to be as painful as the admittedly unpleasant injection in the butt. But it is a very effective prevention for a very unpleasant illness, one that's easy to contract in most of the so-called developing countries. If you're going anywhere outside North America, Europe, or Japan, bend over.
MALARIA (recommended). Chloroquine, for years the antimalarial drug of worldwide choice, is now effective only in Central America and the Middle East. So if you're going to South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or southeast Asia, you'll want to make sure that Larium (mefloquine) is the drug prescribed. Remember, though, that no antimalarial drug is foolproof -- especially if you fail to take the full course of prescribed pills. (For a two-week trip, the required supply will cost you about $30 - $35.) Equally important is to reduce your chances of being bitten, so use mosquito netting and insect repellent that's at least 35 percent deet.
TYPHOID (recommended in certain circumstances). Unless you're planning to travel in the bush of Africa, Asia, or South America, you probably shouldn't bother. This vaccine, which typically costs around $80 for a two-shot series, is about 85 percent effective, but the risk of contracting typhoid has been estimated to be as low as one in three million.
YELLOW FEVER (generally not recommended). These days, the only real reason to protect yourself from yellow fever is that some countries require a certificate of vaccination before they'll allow you to enter -- no American has contracted the disease anywhere in the world in the last ten years. But before you drop $80 on the injection, double-check the entry requirements, because they often depend on where you've just been. While nations such as Cameroon, Mali, and Niger require everyone to be vaccinated, others, such as Ecuador, Gambia, and Nicaragua, require certificates only from people arriving from certain infected areas.
CHOLERA (generally not recommended). True, there have recently been widespread outbreaks of cholera in both South America and Africa, and a new strain is emerging in Asia. And this may well be what you'll hear at the travel clinic, right before they blithely inject you with a $35 vaccine that's only 50 percent effective. Unfortunately, they may fail to tell you that it can simulate the worst 24-hour flu of your life. Instead, minimize your risk of exposure by vigilantly heeding the usual Third World precautions -- i.e., boil it, peel it, cook it, or forget about it.