So you're planning your next active vacation and, having made your plane reservations, the next question is lodging. While air travel has gotten more expensive, more limited, and less enjoyable, the opposite is true for lodging. In fact the variety of lodging options, and the tools with which to find the one that suits you, has just exploded. Covering all the options would be impossible so this blog is confined to short term stays.
Hotels: Hotels offer predictabilty, anonymity, and freedom from interacting with anyone other than the desk clerk. If all you want is a bed for the night, which is often true at the end of a long day or a long flight, they can be your best bet. Here are three possibilities for finding the right hotel room and which is better depends on where you're going, whether you have a car, and your preference for certainty.
- If you have a car: Having a car gives you more flexibility. If your hotel ends up being 15 miles from the airport, it doesn't really matter. In this case I use the 'Name Your Own Price' function on Priceline.com. Before I put in a bid though, I go to hotwire.com. Hotwire is also an opaque site, meaning you don't know exactly where you're staying until you've agreed to stay there, but it offers fixed prices. That gives me a feel for what I can expect to pay. Armed with that info, I go to Priceline and put in a bid that is 10 to 30% lower than Hotwire. Be sure you look at the area map so you don't end up in another town.
I only use Priceline when I have a car because I won't know if the hotel has an airport shuttle; and a taxi fare to a hotel that ends up being 6 miles away can eat up any savings I might have gotten - particularly if I have to return to the airport the next morning.
- If you don't have a car: My favorite website when I want to know where I'm staying is Trivago. Trivago is a hotel metasearch engine; this means it not only lists lots of different hotels, but displays the current rate for each hotel on the date you want on each of the major booking websites (e.g. hotels. com, expedia etc.). It also gives overall ratings as well as the ratings at each of the booking sites. If it's not clear whether they offer an airport shuttle (never assume they do unless it is clearly stated), call them and ask. And while you're talking to them, tell them the lowest price you're seeing on the internet and ask them if that is the lowest rate they can offer.
If you don't see anything you like, another comprehensive and easy to use booking site is booking.com. It has more options in more places, particularly for international destinations. We've found this particularly useful for international bookings. Checking out Priceline's Express Deals, where you can specify amenities such as airport shuttle and free internet, is also worth it.
- If you have a high tolerance for uncertainty: There are an increasing number of booking sites that offer that day's unsold hotel inventory. The most well known is Hotel Tonight, which is only available as a smartphone or tablet app. You can get some great deals this way! Typically, though, it is good deals on higher end hotels and if price is the only consideration, you may be able to find cheaper on one of the other sites. It also only lists hotels in larger cities, so don't count it for finding you a spot when you're on a road trip in the West. And in the end, the uncertainty might not be worth it.
Hostels: Hostels used to serve only youth and often required chores. Those days have changed! The American Youth Hostel Association has been renamed to Hostelling International, because they don't just serve youth anymore and they truly are international in scope. The kind of lodging you'll find under the name hostel has also expanded, but typically you'll find: 1) all or some of the rooms are available to people who don't know each other (i.e. if there are four beds in the room, you may be sharing it with 3 people you don't know); 2) the bathroom is often outside the bedroom and shared by several other rooms; 3) there are cooking facilities available; and 4) they are much less expensive than hotels. An increasing number also offer private rooms and family rooms, and/or rooms segregated by gender.
We stay in hostels for all of our northern Georgia trips (the Hiker Hostel, owned by one of our guides, always gets rave reviews) and for our Canadian Rockies Hiking Holiday. In both cases we rent the entire hostel. This allows us to cook some of the meals, keep the price lower, and, just as important, gives everyone some common space to hang out together - all of which make the trip more relaxed and less scheduled.
I often stay in hostels when I'm traveling personally; in addition to being less expensive, the hostelkeepers are usually great sources of local information and offer an opportunity to meet other travelers. I stayed in rifugios (mountain huts that are like hostels except they provide meals) when I was in northern Italy last year and one of my best memories was the evening I spent talking with a young couple from Bavaria and a cook from northern Italy. The two websites I use are HostelBookers and Hostelworld. However, for people who like having some degree of privacy, hostels are not a great choice.
AirBnB: AirBnB has absolutely revolutionized the options available to travelers. Originally Bed and Breakfasts were homes of people who rented out a spare room to supplement their income. Especially in the US, they have morphed into more elaborate and expensive enterprises that are often more like small inns, although still offering great breakfasts, local knowledge, and the potential for connecting with other travelers.
AirBnB started by returning to the original concept, using the internet to connect people who needed a room with people who had one to spare. In the last couple of years it has exploded: people may choose to rent out a room or a whole house or apartment; it has even become the platform of choice for some small hotels. Both hosts and users can leave reviews, thereby helping to weed out the bad apples. There have been some legal issues in New York and other locales that forbid short term rentals (laws that are usually passed at the behest of the traditional hospitality industy), and critics who say that this provides a way to get around health laws and licensing. But most peopel who write about the travel industry think it is the wave of the future and in most places the issues will be resolved.
This is one of the most rapidly changing areas in travel, withnew ideas, websites, and apps appearing every day. The ones here are all likely to be around for awhile and, depending on what you're looking for in accomodation, all worth checking out.
So after reading "Buying airline tickets for your next adventure vacation - Part 1" you have decided not to use a travel agent and that now is the time you should start looking. These recommendations are primarily for people who have to be somewhere on a specific date by a specific time. If you have flexibility, there are additional options that will be addressed in another blog post.
1. Do you live some place that Southwest Airlines serves and if so, do they fly to where you're going? Southwest has excluded themselves from all the search engines so the only place you can find their schedule and prices is on the Southwest website. Although they are no longer truly a discount airline, there are 3 reasons they are my airline of choice.
- They don't charge baggage fees. If you need more than a carry on, this means you can subtract $50 - $100 from their price when you compare it to their competitors.
- They have a great cancellation policy. They won't give you a refund, but you will have a credit for the full amount you paid to use for up to 365 days. And they make it easy to use that credit.
- Their employees' morale is high. I've chatted with several flight sttendants and I'm convinced that it isn't just for show. I like to support companies that treat their employees well.
2. Regardless of whether Southwest is an option (and it isn't for international flights), you probably want to see what else is available. Here are our favorite websites and why.
Note: All the websites we recommend are actually travel-specific search engines, meaning that they search a variety of different websites including the major airlines (except Southwest). You may find different prices on them so it definitely is worth checking more than one. At the same time, there are lots of them; these are the ones we look at.
- Kayak.com (http://www.kayak.com/). If I was only going to check one site, this is the one I would choose. Kayak has an intuitive interface and many ways to filter results all at the same time - by airport, duration, take off or landing times, layovers, airline etc. If you have lots of choices, Kayak can help you quickly sort through them based on your preferences. For common routes it usually has a Price Predictor, which shows you how low prices have fluctuated over the last 90 days and, based on an algorithm, their best guess whether this is a good time to buy or whether you should wait because prices might drop. You can also set up fare alerts for specific routes, which is a good way to get a feel for price fluctuations if you're not needing to buy now. However, these aren't flight-specific; knowing that the price has gone down $20 without knowing if it's on the flight you're interested in may not be helpful.
The only cons I've found are that I've sometimes found better prices and flights on one of the other sites I'll mention.
- Google flights (https://www.google.com/flights/). This is my new first stop website because it is blazingly fast and has a clean and simple interface. It also gives you tips such as being able to save X dollars if you fly a different day. In addition there is a world map on the initial page with prices for lots of destinations based on your departure city and date. Is it that useful to know I could fly to Tromso, Norway for $1,071 on February 21 from Washington, DC? Maybe not, but it's fun!!
The cons? It doesn't have filters other than other nearby airports. If, for example, you can't leave until 12pm, there isn't a way to limit your flights to those parameters. It also has a box at the top called Best Flights, about which it says "We chose these flights to give you the best trade-off between number of stops, duration, and price." Sometimes that seems accurate but sometimes not (like an American flight that was $10 more expensive and 30 minutes longer was listed over its Delta counterpart.) Is there an advertising consideration? If so, you can still see the other options so just be sure to look.
- Hipmunk (http://www.hipmunk.com). Hipmunk has my favorite interface. It uses bar graphs that allow you to instantly see how long flights are, how many layovers and how long each one is, and what time they take off and land. Another great aspect is the default sort order, which is their "agony index": a combination of price, layovers, and length. This absolutely assures that you don't overlook a much better flight that costs $10 more but saves you 4 hours of travel time. It may or may not find you the cheapest flight.
So why isn't this my go to site? Three reasons: 1) it's slow, sometimes mind-numbingly so - although that may be improving. 2) There have been several instances where the flight I selected "was no longer available". Really? Why waste my time then? 3) You pick your outbound flight and then you pick your return flight. So you might really like your outbound flight only to find there is no good return flight paired with it. It's still worth a look but don't spend too much time there.
There are a couple of other websites to use in specific situations.
Skyscanner (http://www.skyscanner.com) covers all the small discount airlines in other countries, of which there are a growing number. If you have trouble finding an acceptable fare, consider flying to another city and look for a cheap flight from there. When I was going to London and then Dublin last year, it was less expensive (and actually a better connection) to book a roundtrip ticket from Baltimore to London and a roundtrip from London to Dublin. The only caution with this strategy is that your two tickets will not be connected electronically; if you have trouble on one flight you aren't entitled to any help, even if it's the same airline.
If you have a multicity itinerary: For test purposes, I looked at an itinerary that went from Baltimore to Managua, Managua to Madrid, and then back home from Madrid. Using a website that only lets you search leg by leg (e.g. Google flights or Hipmunk might take forever as you go down blind alleys on your second or third leg and have to start all over again). This is another case where Kayak.com really shines as it searches for all 3 legs and presents the options as a package. The best option I found was $1932 after I filtered out flights that took more than 16 hours.
It's also worth taking a look at Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com) one of the oldest and largest online booking websites. Personally, I have never found them that useful and they are another site where I've had the "flight is no longer available" experience. But you can look at itineraries that involve more than 2 cities. Still, when I tried it just now, the only flights it showed from Madrid to Baltimore were on LOT Polish Airlines with a time of 49 hours and 41 mins. And it was more expensive than the one Kayak came up with.
But the winner in my test case? Google flights, which quickly found acceptable flights and was $1751 because it combined flights on American and United.
One other suggestion here - if you go back to a website that you have been looking at, delete your browsing history first. The websites say that they won't track your activity and show you a higher fare just because they know you are very interested. But honestly, I don't believe it. The last time I returned to a site and only found a fare that was higher than the first time, I deleted my browsing history. When I returned for the third time, I saw the same fare that I had seen the first time. While Google is probably one of the biggest collectors of personal information that exists, the Google chrome browser has easy to use privacy settings and makes it simple to delete browsing history.
If you have websites that you like that I haven't mentioned, please leave a comment with what and why - we're always interested in learning!
Incidentally, we just updated our Ebook on Getting Ready for International Travel. If you haven't downloaded the previous one or if you've misplaced it, you might want to download it again. It's clear, concise, and practical and it's free. For once, you'll get more than you paid for!
I've written a blog post about this previously but there are some new considerations and some new websites that make it worth updating. This advice is oriented towards the person who is considering or has booked a specific adventure vacation and therefore is locked into specific dates - perhaps you have a day or two of flexibility but you're not in the position of being able to go anywhere or anytime.
There are three issues to consider: 1) when should you book your airline ticket; 2) should you use a travel agent; and 3) if you book your own tickets, what sites are most useful? I'll look at the first 2 questions in this post and consider the third one in a second.
When should you book your airline tickets?
In the original blog post, I suggested you start looking not earlier than 4 months and not later than 3 weeks. Those are still not bad guidelines, but it's not that simple. Airlines have gotten very sophisticated at projecting demand and basing their pricing on that - the cost of your ticket has virtually nothing to do with how many miles you're flying. If you are going to a popular destination at a popular time of year (e.g. the Caribbean in February, Florida during Spring Break, Europe in July, or home for the holidays), you might start looking 6 to 8 months in advance and you should definitely book early while there are still lots of seats. As planes fill, prices will go up. That is particularly true if you are flying from a small airport, on a route with limited competition, and/or to a place of high demand for your particular departure city. For example, if you live in Michigan and want to go to Florida this March, hopefully you already have your tickets booked. If instead you're going to Minneapolis, you can probably wait a few more weeks.
Of course if seats don't get sold the prices may go down (one website reported that on average, the lowest price was 3 weeks before the departure day); but you take the risk that seats will be sold out and/or prices will go up. You also have to factor in your time and anxiety level. If you think you found a good price, just book it and don't look again. If you don't find a good price, then set up a fare alert. Maybe the price will never come down but at least you will have had time to adjust to the fact that you are going to pay more than you hoped.
Warning: if you haven't flown recently, be prepared for sticker shock. Prices have gone up significantly on many flights in the last couple of years. With continuing consolidation of airlines, this is not likely to improve soon.
Should you use a travel agent?
Travel agents charge a fee (the one we work with charges $35 for domestic tickets and $45 for international flights) and may or may not be able to find a flight that is cheaper than you can find on your own. But in addition to saving you time and relieving you of the paralysis that sometimes descends from looking at too many booking sites, a huge advantage is that you have someone to help you when your flight is delayed or cancelled. Rather than trying to get through to your airlines' call center which is being inundated by 1000s of other stranded customers, you call your agent and she takes care of it, finding you the best alternative there is.
The major disadvantage is that, if you're like me, it's hard to know what the optimal itinerary is until you actually see all your choices. Price is the single most important determinant for me, but it's not the only important thing. I might be willing to pay an additional $50 to get home four hours earlier or go a day earlier to save $120. But maybe I won't - I don't really know until I see exactly what the choices are.
So what websites do we use when we're booking flights? I'll cover that in the next post. There are a couple of new entrants to the crowded field of airline booking sites. And the most surprising thing is that you can't rely on just one!
After the last blog post about How to Stay Warm in Winter a reader asked that question. And in this winter of unrelenting polar vortices and plunging temperatures, it's an important consideration.
Like hands, feet are more prone to get cold since your body attempts to preserve core body warmth by skimping on blood flow to your extremities. But that's where the similarity between hands and feet stops. Hands get cold because you often expose them directly to cold air as you take off your gloves to use your fingers, and because your fingers have alot of surface area.
Feet get cold because 1) your feet sweat. You may not feel it, but they do; 2) your feet are in contact with the freezing ground; and 3) like skin everywhere on your body, there is an imperceptible layer of moisture that protects the skin and needs to be protected. In order to keep your feet warm, you need to consider each of these.
1) Wear synthetic or the new wool socks. Good brands are Thorlo and Smartwool. I say new wool because in the old days we used ragg wool socks, which have their own set of problems. If you're going to be out for more than a couple of hours, bring another pair to switch into if your feet get cold.
2) If you are someone who can wear liners (some of us get blisters from liners), use a sweat-wicking pair as your first layer. You do not, however, want to wear two thick layers unless your boots are really roomy. Otherwise your feet can be so tight in your boots that your circulation decreases and your feet actually get colder.
3) Boots are your most important decision and what you buy depends on where you live and what you need them for. Like every other piece of clothing, you want your boots to be waterproof but you also want them to be breathable and there is always a tradeoff. Completely waterproof boots will also be completely unbreathable. But in cold and especially wet weather, it's a tradeoff worth making. In that case your best choice is to buy insulated boots that have a removable felt liner that you can take out and dry. Sorels are a common brand. The liner acts as extra insulation, particularly from the ground, and the fact that its removeable means you can dry it out. If you live someplace with predictably cold weather, these are well worth the cost.
But what if you live someplace that isn't ususally cold, it's just this winter (think Mobile, Alabama this morning). It's likely you couldn't find Sorels if you wanted to and you won't need them for long anyway. In that case, take your roomiest pair of boots, put some neatly folded newspaper in the bottom for an extra layer of insulation and then seal them up with a layer of duct tape on the outside. Or instead of duct tape, put a shower cap over each boot. Fashionable? Well sure, in that quirky kind of outdoors way. And definitely functional.
4) Get chemical heaters. These are little packets that you activate by crunching them up and they give off an amazing amout of heat. Do not put them next to your bare skin. But a packet placed inside your boot at the tip can keep your feet warmer for hours.
Remember, keeping your feet warm is not just a matter of comfort but of vital safety. Your feet are very susceptible to frost bite, as evidenced by the number of mountaineers without ten toes. But being adequately prepared can make going out in the cold fun and safe.
Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is a dream for many women. It's non-technical, meaning you don't need mountaineering skills or even to be an athlete. It is also truly a physical and mental challenge. If you are finding yourself thinking about it, here are some of the decisions you need to make.
1. Are you healthy enough to climb Kilimanjaro?
It is our heartfelt belief that anyone who is healthy can get in the condition required to successfully complete the climb. It requires determination and commitment to training, and acquiring hiking experience if you don't already have it. But what do I mean by healthy? There are several common conditions that should make you think twice:
- Bad knees The descent is challenging for everyone, even those with healthy knees. If you have significant knee pain, it is unlikely you could train sufficiently. Even if you could, your knees will be incredibly painful when you descend. That being said, many people with some knee pain find that a regular program of strengthening the muscles around their knees (e.g. lunges and squats) will significantly decrease their knee pain. This was true for me.
- Chronic lung disease Air has progressively less oxygen as you get higher on Kili. If you have lung damage that impairs oxygen exchange, trying to get enough oxygen into your bloodstream can leave you literally gasping for breath, even when you are hiking quite slowly. If you have never been diagnosed with lung disease but have a history of heavy smoking, having a pulmonary evaluation would be a good idea.
- Heart disease This is not automatically a disqualifier because there are several kinds of heart disease. If you have had stents for Coronary Artery Disease and can exercise vigorously at high heart rate, you may be fine - check with your doctor. But if you have angina, even if it is controlled with medication, then climbing Kilimanjaro is probably not a realistic goal. The combination of the physical stress of climbing with the thin air means that your heart has to work extra hard to keep up with the demands.
2. What company should you go with?
Tanzanian law requires you to have a Tanzanian guide and at least one porter to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. You can either go through a local Tanzanian company or an overseas company (like us) who works with a local Tanzanian company.
Booking directly with a local operator will cost less. If you want to climb Kilimanjaro alone or have your own group to do it with, and feel confident in your travel planning skills and your ability to pick out a good local operator, this can be a great way to go. If you prefer having all the details arranged for you, having access to people who can give you advice as you prepare, having a Western leader who works with the local leader to make the trip go smoothly and provides extra medical backup, and you like the idea of being part of a group of people with the same goals, then it may be worth the extra cost of going with an overseas company.
Regardless of which direction you take, you should think twice about focussing only on the price. Trips are cheap because porters are inadequately paid and inadequately clothed. We highly recommend that you start with looking at the Kilimanjaro Porter's Assistance Project to familiarize yourself with the issues. Unfortunately they have had to suspend their Climbing Partners program because they are now denied access to the Mountain (due to the government bowing to pressure from local operators who did not meet their standards). However, you can educate yourself about the questions you should be asking any company you want to go with.
3. When is the best time to climb Kilimanjaro?
Kilimanjaro is close to the equator, so you can climb it year round. January, February, and September are considered to be the best months in terms of weather (warmest with the lowest precipitation). The tradeoff is that they also tend to be the busiest and therefore more expensive. The longer rainy season goes from the end of March to early June; you will likely deal with more clouds and lower visibility, plus wetter and muddier trail conditions - but there will be fewer people on the mountain. The summer months (June, July, and August) are drier but colder. There is a shorter rainy season that lasts from November through the beginning of December, where skies are clear in mornings and evenings and afternoon rains are common. So it's all tradeoffs and what is most important to you.
We always plan our trip in February because it offers better weather and coincides with the time that many animals are giving birth - which is an amazing sight during the safari. The specific timing depends on the full moon - we always plan for the final ascent to take place on the night of the full moon because when the weather is clear, the moon is so bright that headlamps are unnecessary - truly a magical experience.
4. What is the best route for climbing Kilimanjaro?
You can read about the 6 different routes on Kilimanjaro on Wikipedia. Again, there are tradeoffs. We have chosen the Machame route for the last several trips because 1) it is very scenic, going through five different eco-zones; 2) it allows adequate time for acclimatization (we break up the route from Barranco to Barafu with an overnight at Karanga to allow one more day for acclimatization); and 3) the drive to Machame Gate is only a couple of hours. The main drawback is that it is a popular route so there are more people on it.
One option some choose is to sleep in the crater at the top (called Crater Camp), which means that they only have 800 feet to climb to the summit at sunrise. We don't offer it because it is colder than most people have ever experienced (it's not only the air temperature but the fact that you feel cold more when you are oxygen-deprived) and sleeping at 18,000 feet significantly increases your risk of altitude sickness. However, one of the advantages is that your summit day is shorter - 800 feet up, then 8,000 down. I know several people who have done it that say it was an amazing experience. Our summit day is 4,000 feet up and 8,000 feet down and it is a very, very long day. However, climbing the 4000 feet up in the dark by the full moon will remain one of my most treasured memories - I wouldn't trade it. But you might!!
5. Can you guarantee success on Kilimanjaro?
But not if your measure of success means getting to the top. While we all talk about "it's the journey, not the destination", that attitude often seems to fall by the wayside when climbing Kilimanjaro and only reaching the top is deemed success.
No, we can't guarantee you will reach the top. That will depend on your conditioning and your luck. Your conditioning is about the only thing you can control - but fortunately, it is under your control. But luck? Not so much. When I say luck, I mean
- weather - one year there was an unsual amount of snow and no one made the summit, on our trip or any other trip going on at the same time
- acclimatization - whether or not you are affected by altitude is largely a matter of genetics (although Diamox can help). Some people will have been fine at altitude their whole life and suddenly become sensitive to it.
- your health during the trip - if you get a cold, bronchitis, or diarrhea, you may feel too weak for the final summit attempt.
On the other hand, if your definition of success is to get as prepared as you can, give it your best shot, and then be open to whatever experience you have (and it will be amazing!!), then absolutely, we can guarantee your trip will be successful.
Plunging temperatures this week may have you convinced there is no alternative to staying indoors with a good book until Spring. Think again! Staying outdoors and active improves your mood, fends off winter weight
gain, and keeps your vitamin D level high. Of course you won’t want to stay outdoors if you’re cold, but follow these 5 simple tips and you’ll be able to play outdoors all day.
1. Keep your hands warm
Research has found that women really do have colder hands than men: when temps drop, the blood vessels in women’s hands constrict more so that blood flow is diverted to the core. The benefit is that women’s core temps stay high and thus help protect against hypothermia. But it also means that keeping your hands warm is more challenging for women.
So are mittens or gloves better? The answer depends on you, the activity, and the outside temperature. If you’re doing something highly aerobic, or you require manual dexterity, then gloves can be fine. But gloves are like sleeping bags – they don’t contribute warmth, they retain the warmth you have. Fingers lose heat faster when they are separated; if you can't find a pair of gloves that keep your hands warm, you are likely to find mittens preferable.
And what material should you use? Wool is the only material that keeps your hands warm if your gloves or mittens get soaked. Synthetics will dry quickly but they lose insulative capacity. Some gloves and mittens are made of GoreTex or a waterproof material and may be useful in damp conditions, but tend not to work in very wet conditions.
A pair of glove liners under a pair of thicker gloves can give you manual dexterity and help keep your hands toasty. However, if you are someone whose fingers don't stay warm in gloves, wearing glove liners under mittens will actually make your fingers colder than if you just wore mittens. Personally my hands do better if I just whip my mittens off when necessary.
2. Wear layers of clothing
Your goal is to stay warm while sweating as little as possible. Several lighter layers both provide more insulation and are much more adjustable than one heavy layer. The only time you might need a down parka is when you are standing around or otherwise not active. Bring a daypack so you have some place to put your extra layers as you warm up or take a break.
Start with a BASE LAYER of silk or "lightweight" synthetic long underwear and liner socks. These materials draw moisture away from the skin (this is called "wicking") and help keep you dry and therefore warmer. Over the base layer wear a second, MEDIUM-WEIGHT layer on your upper body such as "expedition-weight" Capilene or Polartec, and wool pants or a synthetic equivalent such as Polartec or Capilene fleece. Over the second layer, add a third HEAVY-WEIGHT layer. This should be a thick material such as wool or fleece. Typically this layer will not be necessary, even in cold weather, as long as you’re active. As soon as you stop for a break, put this on. If you're overheated, you might think you want to cool down. You don't, at least not abruptly. By the time you think you’re just right, your body temperature is on a downward trajectory that will overshoot. If it’s raining or windy, you will also want to add the outer layer described below.
This fourth and final layer is called the OUTER LAYER. This layer is for protection from wind and rain and should be a parka or jacket made of a coated nylon or a waterproof/breathable fabric like Gore-tex, HellyTech, Membrane, H2No, or Ultrex. Be sure it keeps water out. Before making this important purchase, be sure that it fits you properly. It should be large enough to fit over all your layers. In particular, the hood needs to be effective. It should shield your face from the rain and turn with your head. Movement of your arms should not interfere with the hood. Put on a daypack; can you still raise your arms? Lastly, the wind pants. They should be comfortable, allow enough room for your layers, and permit free movement of your legs (for example, can you crouch comfortably?). Partial or full-length leg zippers are useful for easily putting your pants on over your boots. Even when it is not raining or windy, we lose heat from convection, the movement of air against our body. This layer eliminates that and keeps you substantially warmer.
When you start, you should be just a little on the chilly side. If you're already warm, you will quickly overheat and before that happens, stop and pull off a layer. On a cold day I often start with my lightweight and midweight layer with my outer layer over that, and then pull off the midweight as I warm up.
3. Don’t wear cotton
In the discussion of layers, we mentioned several kinds of synthetic materials. The reason is that cotton absorbs moisture like a sponge and then keeps it next to you. The damp material will cause you to chill severely in cold weather once you stop for a break.
This is just as true for underwear as for t-shirts. A cold, clammy cotton bra next to your skin is uncomfortable at the least and can lead to severe chilling. You will be warmer if you stop and take your bra off, even though that means temporarily exposing a lot more skin to the elements. Prevention is better yet! You can either choose not to wear underwear or you can invest in one made of synthetic materials that wick sweat away.
4. Stay hydrated
The most important part of staying hydrated is to drink plenty of water. Even if you're not sweating, you lose moisture simply because the air is so cold and dry. Like heat, moisture seeks equilibrium between places where there is plenty (inside your respiratory system) and places where there isn't much (the outside air). When you become dehydrated, your body functions less efficiently and you get cold more easily.
Do not drink alcohol until you are off the trail and back in your cozy lodging. Alcohol packs a double whammy in the cold. First, it causes your blood vessels to dilate. That makes you feel warmer, but it causes your body to lose heat faster. Second, it impairs your judgment. Hypothermia, the condition caused by excess heat loss, does the same thing. And of course you really want to keep as many wits functioning as possible when you are out in the cold. Alcohol can also contribute to dehydration if the alcohol content of your drink is above 10% and you drink large amounts.
Of course, if you stay well hydrated you will need to urinate more often. If you are lucky enough to be out in the snow, try a "snow wipe" (using a snowball for wiping yourself) is a true refreshing pleasure.
Another key aspect of staying hydrated is protecting your skin by keeping it protected form the sun and well moisturized. Chapped skin is not only painful, it means that the protective barrier of your skin has been damaged. Moisturizing cream with an SPF of 15 or greater will prevent that
5. Should you wear a hat?
Well yes, of course, it makes you look outdoorsy! And there are so many cute hats these days. But we used to think that more heat was lost from an uncovered head than any other part of your body because of the rich network of blood vessels that feed your brain. However recent research has shown that heat loss through your head accounts for about 7% of your heat loss because the head accounts for about 7% of your body surface. Of course 7% is not insignificant and that plus the fact that hats make you feel cozy make them well worth wearing.
6. Stay hydrated and eat lots of snacks
This is my favorite tip! I started winter camping when I heard that polar explorers had to eat 5000 calories a day just to maintain their bodyweight. That might be a little excessive for a couple of hours of hiking or skiing, but there is no doubt that the snacks you brought with you, washed down by the thermos of hot tea you just happen to have in your pack, are not only tasty but also essential for staying warm.
Zero degree weather? Bring it on!
If you make New Year's Resolutions about diet, exercise, or general self-improvement, the odds are you won't keep them. Don't be discouraged, breaking old habits takes time. But here is one that doesn't require you to sweat, make radical changes, or deprive yourself. Implement it and I guarantee it will change your experience of travel this year.
Disconnect from your electronic devices (smartphones, tablets) when you travel for pleasure.
In the last 10 years I have too often seen peoples' vacations mentally ended by getting news from home or the outside world that they could do absolutely nothing about - but that took their attention from the present and diverted it to needless anxiety.
While cellphones without internet connectivity (i.e. dumb phones) can be distracting, the problem is much worse with smart phones: we not only risk getting interrupted by phone calls, but most of us, as long as our phone is on, will also check email, get text messages, and maybe even surf the web. All those activities shift our focus away from where we are and who we are with.
John Muir said "Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
So let's look at the most common objections to going without and examine some possible solutions.
1. Work has to be able to reach me! Really? Yes, expectations have changed. But mostly we are complicit in allowing those changes to happen and it's time we started fighting back. Twenty years ago, work couldn't contact you and the economy was doing just fine. Would they refuse to allow you to go on vacation if you were going someplace without cell reception (there are still places like that). Of course not. If that's really not possible, then either get a cheap dumb phone just for incoming calls or vacation some place that has a landline and tell them to call you if it's urgent. If your boss or coworkers can't just shoot off a quick email, you are likely to find that all those crucial matters can actually wait for a week.
2. My family has to be able to reach me! Particularly if you have aging parents or kids who are still at home, this can be important to your peace of mind when you're away. But that doesn't mean you have to leave your smartphone on. If you are part of a group tour, leave the phone number of the company running the tour and tell your family to call them. Or ask for your guide's phone number and leave that. If you're traveling with friends, set up a rotating schedule for who has their phone on and leave that with your family. Or get a dumb phone just for your trips. Even just having a few days without connectivity will be refreshing.
3. I use my cellphone for a camera! Two possible solutions here. One is to turn your phone to Airplane mode so you can't get calls or emails. If you know you don't have self-control, buy yourself a camera. Really, decent digital cameras are so inexpensive these days. Your mental health is worth it!
Bottom line: The purpose of vacation is to break clear away from your every day life. Electronic devices, particularly those that are internet-connected, get in the way. Leave them at home. If you can't do that, leave it buried at the bottom of your pack and check it once a day (max). Decide how to minimize your use, even if its only for a day. You'll be amazed at the difference it makes.
Happy New Year!!
We always have hiking poles on the packing list of any hiking trip we offer. Here are the most common questions we get.
Why do you recommend trekking poles so highly?
Trekking poles contribute to your safety by improving your balance and stability, and to your health by saving stress on your knees. In addition they help conserve your energy by transferring some of the work to your arms and chest. As a result, and as an additional bonus, you also get an upper body workout with great triceps training.
What should I look for when I buy poles?
The short answer is to make sure their height can be adjusted, they have an upright (as opposed to cane-like) handle, and have wrist straps that can be adjusted. If you're just starting out, our advice is either to purchase an inexpensive pair (EBay,or some of the big box stores can be a good source) or borrow a pair of poles from a friend. Then go on a hiking trip where you can not only learn what they are all about but the correct way to use them. You’ll also see what others have chosen. Once you’ve gained a bit of experience and you know that hiking is going to be a regular part of your life, you can make a more informed decision about whether you want to invest in the ‘perfect’ pair of poles. For more details, read this blog post: http://blog.adventuresingoodcompany.com/blog-women-travel/bid/153280/Choosing-Trekking-Poles-for-your-Next-Hiking-Trip
Will TSA allow me to carry poles onto an airplane in my carry on?
If you ask TSA, you will most likely be told that carrying on your poles is not legal. However, our experience is that when traveling in the United States, it is very uncommon to be stopped. What we recommend is to pull your poles completely apart and put them in your carry-on luggage; if your luggage is designed to fit the requirements of carry-on baggage, the poles will just fit. Leave enough time at the airport to check your bag if TSA stops you. The advantages of carrying them on are that your hiking poles will definitely get there and it won't cost anything. The downside is that you could get stopped and have to go check your bag.
What are my options if I don’t want to risk a TSA run in?
The easiest is to put them into a checked suitcase. If you pull them apart, they take up very little room. Other options are to package them in rolled cardboard and check them as a second piece of luggage or to mail them ahead to your destination. Both of those can be expensive so another option, depending on where you are going and how long you will be there before you need them, is to buy them once you’re there.
Occasionally someone calls to ask advice on how to start an adventure travel company. Since I love talking about business in general and Adventures in Good Company in particular, I'm always happy to share my experience with the emphasis that it is simply my experience. So here it is:
The best advice I ever got was "Don't quit your day job"! At the time I was working halftime for a boss who was very flexible about how I worked my hours, so it was perfect. But I was past ready to leave and thought that the business could grow faster if I spent all my time working on it. Maybe that's true, who knows? The fact is that it grew much more slowly than I anticipated and I had alot to learn. When 9/11 happened 2 years later and for a few months the phone stopped ringing, I was very happy to have a source of income. It was almost 3 years before it felt marginally safe to leave my job.
The best decision I made was to not be the only guide but to work with women who had guided with me at an organization called Woodswomen. I knew and trusted them. While I would have made more money initially if I had done all the guiding, having other guides gave me the time to build the infrastructure and figure out marketing (two things I knew nothing about) while offering more trips. I did continue to guide because I loved it (one of the reasons I started the company) but by employing other guides too, I was able to build a business, not just create a job for myself.
Many people want to start travel companies because they love to be outdoors and/or they love to travel. There is a difference between loving those and wanting to be the guide responsible for other people loving those (see the post on becoming an adventure travel guide). And there is a difference yet again between loving the outdoors and travel, and guiding, and wanting to be in business. Fortunately it turned out that I loved all three and I loved the steep learning curve of how to run a business. But when I am not out on a trip, I spend just as much time in front of a computer as I did at the job I left. And it was 7 years before I had real vacation (no, guiding is not paid vacation). I'm still lucky if I take 2 weeks of vacation a year. It is also true, however, that when you love what you do, vacation just isn't as important.
Something else I learned was that developing itineraries, while important, was not actually the most important challenge in the first couple of years - marketing was. We could offer the coolest trips in the world, but if no one knew about them, it wouldn't really matter. I thought buying the mailing list of Woodswomen, the company we had worked for that had been around for 20 years, would be enough. It wasn't. Having that connection gave AGC some credibility but basically we mostly had to start from scratch. Fortunately it was just as the internet was becoming more common. The major investment I made of money was having a professionally designed website and the major investment of I made of time was learning how to do internet marketing.
Another key thing I learned was to be careful about how we spent money but to focus on making each trip excellent, not to focus on pinching pennies. This can occur in small ways, like buying a birthday cake. Or it can happen in more major ways. One of our recent trips was supposed to take place in a National Park that was shut down when the government shut down. Since it seemed entirely possible that the shut down would end any day, and since people had already planned their vacations and bought their flights, we didn't want to cancel the trip. But running it meant more lodging and restaurant meals than we had planned. But that was OK, making sure people had a good experience was way more important than making a profit on the trip.
Starting Adventures in Good Company was the best decision I ever made. It has combined constant challenge and learning with meeting lots of amazing people and getting to travel in fascinating places. I'm not sure if having a business plan is critical (I still don't have one and I still can't answer the question of what Adventures in Good Company should look like in 5 years) but knowing yourself, what you love and what your motivations are, is definitely the first step in deciding whether starting an adventure travel company is the right decision for you.
I’ve been looking into boots and I was checking out the Keen’s Targhee II Mid Hiker that you prefer. The guy at REI suggested I go with something a bit more stout (backpacking boot vs hiking boot) since it is a multi-day backpacking trip, rather than just a day hike. Do you have an opinion on that mindset?
Let me know what you think.
Wow --- asking me if I have an opinion is sometimes quite dangerous --- and (surprise, surprise) I do have an opinion.
The Grand Targhee II mid hiker is actually a pretty 'stout' boot and is considered a backpacking boot and not just a hiking boot. Unless you have some medical issues with either your feet or your ankles the lighter you can go, still maintaining support both in the ankle area and on the sole of the boot --- the better.
My preference is to have some ankle support (so the mid height is perfect) and have a sole with at least a 1/2 shank support and thick vibram (or vibram-like) soles. Many backpackers are good with the lower shoe-like profile of other boots that are even more lightweight. The Keen company has actually added a great innovation to their Grand Targhee II hiking shoe --- a tightening mechanism that holds the heel in place much better than before. You may even want to give them a try.
We will also be carrying 30 pounds or less which makes a difference. Perhaps the guy at REI is not familiar with Lightweight Backpacking and is thinking heavier loads? I've actually not heard of anyone thinking the Grand Targhee II is not a backpacking boot.
I'd also like to interject that recently a couple of the women who have taken the Intro trip and have continued to do the Appalachian Section trips with me have gone from the heavier, full leather (really stout) boots to either the Grand Targhee or the Asolo boot that is similar.
Best scenario --- buy the boots that feel the best in the store and take some hikes in them. If you find that for some reason you feel you need a heavier (or even a lighter) boot then REI will take them back as trade in.
Remember --- no matter which boot you purchase to get at least 1/2 - 1 size larger than you normally buy and do purchase a pair of Superfeet (or the equivalent) to use as the inner soles. The inner soles of even the best boot are not sufficient for comfort --- just toss 'em! You'll love the Superfeet!
I love these kind of questions! --- can't wait to hear more of the story.
P.S. Just so you know, I checked with my local REI store and spoke with their 'shoe person' and she was quite surprised that you received this advice. Their training is in line with what I also advocate --- the lighter the better (barring any medical/physical issues) and the 'stouter' boot is generally recommended only for carrying 60 pounds and/or for winter and over and even then, they still feel that you should purchase the lightest weight boot your feet can handle. I would take this guy's advice 'with a grain of salt' though.
Have a gear question? Ask Jan, our very own gear head!