In my book “Lost Angel Walkabout,” the chapter, “Falling in the Footsteps of John Muir,” relates the scariest situation I’ve experienced in my travels. I tripped and fell on a splintered log that broke two ribs in the heart of the High Sierras at about 10,000 feet surrounded by even taller granite spires that blocked cell phone transmissions. The total medical arsenal of my guides consisted of one sleeping tablet. My young, inexperienced guides asked me what I wanted them to do! I told them I could not ride or walk five hours from the campsite to a hospital, and scribbled authorization for a helicopter on a paper bag.
I do want to thank my wrangler guides. These young men saved my life. One of them rode five hours at night on a rocky downhill run to get to a phone to call for a helicopter. The other stayed with me for the next 14 hours until the helicopter circling overhead could find a place to land. It was not their fault that the outfitter had not trained them and prepared them for what was my closest call.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Not All Outfitters Are Created Equal!
When considering an outdoor adventure with an outfitter, do your research and ask questions before putting your life in their hands.
Do your guides have basic medical training? There are safety courses that good guides take to prepare themselves for injuries in locations where help is not close at hand. Get a little medical training, at least First Aid and CPR, and carry a basic emergency kit yourself! You can’t always rely on others and you may be called on to help someone else.
Do they employ local guides with an intimate knowledge of the terrain? The young wranglers on my High Sierra horse pack trip were from British Columbia and had never taken a group out before. This was the spring thaw run on a trail they were riding for the first time. While they were experienced wranglers and good horsemen, they were total strangers to the qualifications of good guides responsible for the wellbeing of a group.
Ask what organizations they are affiliated with, such as the United States Tour Operators Association. Research the outfitter before committing. Google is your friend here. Get a list of outfitters that run the same trip and compare. “The biggest issue with bad trips is a lack of complete information on the part of the consumer before the trip begins,” says Chris Doyle of the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
Ask the outfitter basic questions. Be specific about what it is you hope to get from the trip. If their answers are vague, be cautious.
- What is the guest-to-guide ratio? Be certain there will be help if you need it.
- How long have you been in business? An established company will have tested their offerings and have experienced guides.
- What will the weather be like?
- What gear should you bring?
- What is the terrain like?
- Will you be entering high altitudes?
What are the demographics of the riders and their level of experience? Be careful about getting in over your head. Sometimes outfitters will tell you anyone can take their trip, but the fact is you need special training to be safe on the trip. Horse companies, in particular, often take out novices with absolutely no experience who are not wearing the right clothing for the outing. This is extremely dangerous for you and for them. Inquiring about demographics applies to any sport; river rafting, kayaking, hiking, etc.
Does the company arrange for emergency travel insurance? If not, you need to do it yourself. I get emergency medical evacuation insurance (under $50) whether the trip is domestic or international. It is quite costly to get air-lifted out of remote terrain and the outfitter does not pay for this. I use Travel Guard, one of about a half-dozen companies.
Part of your homework should be looking at peer reviews. Sites like Tripatini.com, Gorp.com and Away.com, even Facebook; all have responses from people who may have taken the same trip. The outfitter will usually have testimonials posted on their site and National Geographic Adventure magazine publishes a list of good companies annually.
A Final Note: I have a personal bias for using companies that respect nature and leave no trace behind, who care about the environment and the people who there. They contribute to local economies by staying at locally owned lodges and employing local guides.
By Linda Ballou
Adventure-travel writer, Linda Ballou, has a host of travel articles and information about her books at: LindaBallouAuthor.com; and a blog: LindaBallouTalkingtoyou.com, where you can receive updates on her books and travel destinations.