How to do adventure travel on a budget

Greg Witt

Greg Witt is an amazing adventure traveler, who has guided mountaineering expeditions in the Andes, hiked through African jungles, led archeological expeditions across Arabian deserts, dropped adventures into North American golden slot canyons, and explored Costa Rican cloud forests. So he's the perfect author for the new book Ultimate Adventures: A Rough Guide to Adventure Travel.

Earlier this week, we invited our readers to ask Witt questions about how to make adventure travel affordable. Here's the Q&A;:

When I think of adventure travel, I think $$$. How can adventure travel be affordable? Ideas domestically?

There are certainly some pricey high-end options that are gear-intensive (kiteboarding, heliskiing, and windsurfing come to mind) but for less than a tank of gas you can find some wonderful hiking trails wherever you live. A canoe or sea kayak can be a modest investment or an inexpensive rental, and can open up thousands of miles of nearby paddle trails to your use. I purchased both my first pair of cross-country skis and snowshoes on close-out for less than $50 and they've still given me hundreds of miles of use. Even for an extended vacation, a guided river trip or a fully outfitted backcountry experience is no more expensive than staying in a hotel, and eating meals in restaurants.

Specific ideas domestically for a week long vacation? Paddling in the Everglades or the Boundary Waters, hiking in the Colorado or Glacier National Park, canyoneering or hiking in southern Utah or the Grand Canyon. Even outside the US, a week of sea kayaking in the Sea of Cortez or a river trip in Canada is accessible and affordable.I'm curious about cloud forests. What are they? Why are they worth visiting?

Cloud forests are generally tropical montane forests which exist within a narrow band of altitude. T1hey are characterized by a lingering fog or mist. In addition to many unusual plant species such as epiphytes, you're also likely to find interesting and endemic animal species. Some of the best and most accessible cloud forests in the Western Hemisphere can be found in Costa Rica (Monteverde and Santa Elena), Jamaica (Blue Mountains), and Honduras (Celaque National Park). In each of these areas you can spend the better part of the day exploring the cloud forest with a local guide and naturalist, discovering new plants and animals. It's great fun for all ages.
Every year seems to have its hot trend in adventure travel. What do you expect will be the buzz in 2009?
My crystal ball says that there are some great rivers in southern China—the Mekong and others—that will come to the forefront now that the gorges of the Yangtze are out of play. Same could be said for the Sun Kosi and the Karnali in Nepal. All of them are also a good value—once you get there.

Also the recent introduction of high quality, low cost sea kayaks makes me think there are some great adventures close to home that need to be explored. Maybe Isle Royale National Park or Washington State's San Juan Islands will become hotspots.Mr. Witt, I'm a birder. But I've never gotten to see a toucan in the wild. Any advice about sea kayaking, maybe in Iceland? And how to make this within the reach of a middle-school teacher (income)?! Many thanks!

I've long enjoyed and have been mildly interested in birdwatching. Then I went to Costa Rica—BAM—I was hooked—an instant birder! It happens easily in a country with so many exciting tropical species. There are scarlet macaws, trogons, the resplendent quetzal; and with six species of toucans you're almost guaranteed to see one—I saw many in just a few days. In addition to being beautiful and easy to spot, they really have quite a personality and are fun to watch. Costa Rica really is affordable (once the airfare is paid for) and it's easy to travel independently, go to the various national parks and reserves (Carara for macaws, Monteverde for the quetzal, etc), hire a guide at the park entrance and discover an wonderful world of wildlife.

Sea kayaking in Iceland is available in Reykjavik on a self-guided rental basis and there are also some excellent guides that can take you up the western coast to Breiafjordur Bay. In addition to Viking history, you'll have some great marine life viewing, including waterbirds like terns, gulls, auks and skuas. Land costs in Iceland are more than Costa Rica, but you can still do it independently and affordably. You may also have an advantage on airfare, since Icelandair often features some attractive packages from JFK.I read Outside, I watch The Travel Channel, I want to climb, I want to paddle wild rivers, but I just don't get off my candy ass. How can I get motivated?

Start small; start local. Hook up with an outdoor club that has regular outings and different types of activities. The social component is a powerful motivator. Learning a new skill is also a great motivator. For example, just a couple hour from LA you have arguably the greatest rock climbing destination in the world at Joshua Tree, where there is a rock climbing school that offers classes and fun group instructions. The Kern River, is also nearby, and one of the best places in the world to learn whitwater kayaking. Go for it. Adventure is not a spectator sport.

I want to buy boots. What is your recommendation to a weekend warrior who'd like to do some modest hiking in stable, supportive, comfortable boots?

I walk hundreds of miles each year on local trails in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. Then I take off in July and August to guide in the Alps for my company ( where I'll typically do a couple hundred miles on the Haute Route and in the Jungfrau.

I wear out my hiking shoes faster than I wear out my car tires. Still, the key is comfort—and since every foot is different, no one brand will work for everyone. I have a wide foot with a high arch and instep so I also add an arch support to my shoe. In terms of shoe components like a Vibram sole because it's sturdy and has some "gription" on rock surfaces. I also like an EVA midsole. I wear a low-cut shoe on any trail surface, but many people prefer a mid-cut boot for the added ankle support—it's a matter of personal preference and your call.

And don't forget the socks. I find a good wool sock with a bit of synthetic in the blend add a lot to the cushioning, breathability, and comfort of any shoe.What are the misconceptions about ice climbing, in terms of how fit you have to be to safely try it?

Perhaps the greatest misconception is that it is impossibly difficult. In fact, I find it easier and less physically challenging than climbing a similarly pitched rock face. Go initially with an expert teacher or someone with plenty of experience who can instruct you in the elements of balance, pick placement and anchors. Rent your equipment and try some different types. But once on the ice, I think you'll get the hang of it and be able to decide if it's for you. The other misconception? That your hands will stay warm. My fingers always seem to get cold—even numb. I still need to work on that.
I'd like to learn canyoneering. What is the best way to master the basics (recommended schools, tour organizations, outfitters, videos, etc.)?
You can have a great 4-7 days (or more) of canyoneering in Southern Utah. Zion National Park has some spectacular wet and dry canyons to explore. And off-the-beaten-path Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has literally hundreds of hidden slot canyons. I'd recommend going with an experienced guide, one certified by the American Canyoneering Association (Excursions of Escalante is an excellent choice). They can tailor an itinerary based on you skill, interests, and time.

Slot canyons offer some exciting challenges and fun adventures, but they are filled with hidden dangers, and lives have been lost (2 people died just 6 weeks ago south of Escalante in a flash flood in Egypt 3 Canyon) so go with experience and safety on your side. My husband and I are planning a trip to Antartica, December 2009-January 2010. We were hoping for a cruise from Argentina for about 16 days with as much time on the continental as possible. The choices seem really overwhelming. Is there a way to compare? We want a ice hardening boat that holds about 100 passengers, excellent nature guides and lots of time on shore. The accommodations need to be comfortable but not fancy. We are looking for a good value. Suggestions?

Wow. I envy you. Antarctica is the ultimate frontier. And yes, make sure you go for one that offers sufficient land experiences with a focus on wildlife encounters. In such a pristine environment, keep environmental protection and safety in mind. Check with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators ( Their members are committed to high standards and professional practices. And while the choice is still yours, they can help clarify some of the options and connect you with some experienced and reputable operators. You're virtually guaranteed of having a great experience.
I'm trying to organize a Kilimanjaro climb for Sept. 2009 for a small group of 10 or less. The American companies are overcharging for the actual climb. Is it safe to go with an African company such as DAT? Also, I'm having trouble finding reasonable flight fairs. Any way to book less expensive international flights, or is there a company that will do a package deal at a reasonable rate?
For Kilimanjaro, permits, ground transportation, guides and porter can all be arranged on your own in Arusha, but I wouldn't recommend it. Working with a reputable safari company (either US or African-based) that has a solid reputation on Kili is recommended. They will be focused on your safety and well-being and they will be supported by dedicated on-site staff who are treated fairly. This eliminates the logistical headaches and risks. Choosing a less congested route like the Machame or Umbwe also can allow for better acclimatization, better scenery, and increase your chances of summit success.

I know one leading US operator, and while their prices are higher than African companies, they have their own operations in Arusha, they have their own local staff of dedicated guides, porters, and cooks who have been with them for many years, and are well paid and fairly treated. As a result, they offer a high level of service, an exceptional experience on the trail, and have one of the highest summit success rates on the mountain.


Giveaway: Rough Guides offers $6,000 trip (Contest ends Feb. 28, 2009)

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