Choosing the right adventure outfitter

By Ashley Strickland, Special to CNNUpdated 3rd October 2011
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Whether you want to leap from a helicopter onto the icy slopes below or cycle through the Italian countryside, adventure travel is filled with niche experiences for any personality. But finding one that suits your budget, fitness level, expectations and safety needs can feel overwhelming.
"The first thing is to make sure it's something that you're capable of and enjoy doing, and that it is worth spending the money and vacation time," said Greg Melville, an Outside Magazine contributor and avid adventurer. "And once you're confident in that, then you start researching the best places to go."
Seasoned adventurers, from hikers to hang-gliders, often like to plan their own expeditions, tailored specifically to the experience they crave. Amateur travelers who are used to more mainstream vacations may need a little assistance with planning an African safari, class five rapids rafting in New Zealand, a Costa Rica zip-line experience or a cycling tour of Tuscany.
"You can't book these things online, you really need to talk to someone about what to expect on a trip like this," said Perry Lungmus, who works with iExplore, an adventure travel consulting group.
Online resources can still be indispensable, but first of all, you need to find a trustworthy outfitter.
Who to trust
Adventure travelers trust their outfitters to provide a safe, secure experience while maintaining the feeling of stepping out on the edge. Outfitters are also trusted with payment, accommodations and being able to help should anything go wrong.
Browse adventure travel options online and determine the destination or activity you're seeking. From there, investigate niche outfitters that cater closely to your plan. Reach out to the companies you're interested in and don't be afraid to ask questions.
"The first thing to do is get references," Melville said. "It's best to go with some really world-class outfitter or a local outfitter. If you're going to Costa Rica or on a safari, you want to be able to know that if you're going with local guides that they're going to be reliable. Ask them for references in the U.S., people who you can call, and you need a handful of them."
Melville also recommends checking online resources like TripAdvisor for feedback on outfitters, but beware that the discussion boards might be filled with comments from the companies themselves. If you're staying at a hotel that is reputable, call them and talk to them about outfitters they recommend, he said. Whether traveling abroad or domestically, check to see if your outfitter is registered with the local board of tourism.
When looking into outfitters, have a checklist for yourself.
"Ask yourself, 'Is the company owner-operated?'" said Brad Moss, executive director of adventure travel company alliance Trusted Adventures. "You'll get a more intimate experience with a hands-on approach. Check the 'About Us' page. Are they a huge conglomerate that has lost the grass-roots connection to where they started or are they still an owner-operated company that has developed their goals and values?"
Lungmus also suggested looking into the company's longevity, financial stability, payment plans (Do they allow you to pay by credit card?) and operating standards.
Determine your expectations
Prepare for an experience that is unlike any typical vacation you've planned. This means being honest with yourself about your personal fitness level, time and budget.
When Moss tells people he's in the adventure travel business, people assume the extreme, but you can have an active vacation without exceeding your comfort level.
"It's amazing what adventure travel really means to people," he said. "They have this perception that it's all skydiving and bungee jumping. I want some type of cultural exploration, something that pushes me, gives me a good workout, or maybe a soft adventure, like a walk. It wasn't bungee jumping, but it was more meaningful than that."
If you want to pursue a challenge, prepare for it like you would a marathon. Test yourself locally before jetting off to an exotic location.
"Try something on a smaller scale that's closer to home," Melville said. "People ask me, 'Where's a great place around the world to learn how to rock climb?' Maybe you should go to your local rock-climbing gym first to see if you like rock climbing. If you want to go on a bike trip through Tuscany, try a two-day long weekend bike trip somewhere nearby."
Once you decide on a specific activity, like cycling, diving, kayaking, rock climbing or skiing, visit a local gear shop and ask the vendor for their advice. Odds are, the employees have had their own adventure experiences and are willing to share tips about locations, outfitters and off-the-beaten path insight, Melville said.
Choose your own adventure
Some travelers have a higher threshold for the unknown than others. If you want to avoid the all-inclusive package trips provided by travel agencies, find an expedition leader to go on the personalized hands-on adventure of a lifetime.
Pasquale Scaturro has been leading mountaineering expeditions and river descents for more than 25 years. He knows firsthand the excitement of traveling with a small group of friends to an extraordinary destination.
"A lot of people don't really understand what they're getting themselves into on a trip like this," Scaturro said. "They think, 'I'm going to go on a little river trip.' It's not that -- we're going to the most remote area and do it all ourselves, no (local) guides. When you go with me, it means you're going to do it the good old-fashioned way."
He believes planned adventure packages take the true sense of exploration out of the experience. Rather than doing something yourself, it's like paying to take steps, he said.
"Ask yourself, are you a tourist or are you an adventurer?" he said. "For example, if you want to go to Kenya, buy a ticket, get on the plane, have a carry-on only, grab a taxi, find a hotel and then figure out what you want to do. To me, that's the adventure. It's the process, not just coming back with great photographs."
Scaturro also says if you're going to take the grass-roots approach and endure a rugged adventure, pack light and remain relaxed on your journey. Time should never be an issue, he said.
No matter how you decide to go about your adventure, do the research to ensure it will meet and exceed your expectations.
"In terms of an experience, it is so different than what people think of as vacation, like dropping onto a beach or staying in a resort," Lungmus said. "Here, it is really about a unique experience that changes your life and you come back really different after an experience like this."