Everything’s scrubbed clean at Tahoe Whitewater Tours in Truckee, Calif. The life vests and helmets are sprayed and soaked in a solution and dried in the sun. The clipboards used to sign liability waivers have been doused with disinfectant. Even the pens are sanitized between uses. 

Adventure travel is changing in big and small ways. Why? “We want to stay open,” an employee says as she aims a noncontact thermometer at my forehead.

Beep! I’m not sick.

On a normal Sunday morning, Tahoe Whitewater Tours would haul a school bus filled with summer vacationers to the Truckee River near Lake Tahoe for a river rafting adventure. But this Sunday, like others during the summer of COVID-19, is not normal. The company is operating at half-capacity, with rows of the bus vacant to maintain social distancing. The guides maintain a more than polite distance while they set up their rafts, and even on the river, where they almost reluctantly peel off their masks.

These outdoor adventures are not business as usual

Whether you’re rafting, canoeing, hiking or engaging in any adventure activity this summer, you already know it’s not business as usual. But you might be surprised by how much adventure travel is changing. 

A survey by the adventure platform 57Hours suggests that adventure travel is becoming a solitary but highly personalized affair. A majority of guides (70%) said that during the pandemic, they were only taking one or two customers at a time. Other changes include new “don’t-touch-the-guest” rules and adding doctors on adventure tours. The precautions seem to be working — for now.

Adventure travelers are playing it safe and staying close to home this summer, says Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, a travel crisis response and management firm.

“Adventurers and expedition leaders are proceeding with caution,” he says. “With international travel unpredictable, many American climbers and trekkers are looking at options in the U.S.”

Experts say that adventure travel is in high demand, despite the risks.

“Nature is the best respite during the pandemic,” says Limor Decter, a luxury travel advisor at Ovation Travel Group. She’s participated in several soft adventure activities, including hiking, biking and kayaking. “Social distancing was enforced. Bikes, kayaks and stand-up paddle equipment were cleaned with each use. Public spaces and activities have never been cleaner.”

But keeping safe outdoors isn’t as easy as it looks. 

“It’s a constantly moving target to stay in compliance with best practices, safety, and local and state ordinances,” says Eric Segalstad, a vice president at Gondwana Ecotours. 

How adventure travel operators are making sure you’re safe during the pandemic

Adventure travel companies have made a lot of changes since the start of the pandemic. Some expected — and some surprising.

At Adventure Dubrovnik, which operates sea kayaking tours on the Adriatic, guides may not touch guests except in an emergency. “This means things we’ve taken for granted in the past, such as a simple handshake when greeting guests or guides is simply not allowed anymore,”  says Alexandra Vidak, the company’s general manager. It’s also temporarily banned snorkel mouthpieces and is only offering sanitized masks for use during the snorkeling portion of its tours. 

Jebel Jais Flight, the world’s longest zipline, in Ras al Khaimah, U.A.E., is operating at just 30% of capacity. There are mandatory temperature checks for guests. The shuttle vans transport a maximum of five people at a time to the top of the attraction. Face masks are required at all times, even during the flight. And harnesses are taken out  of service for 24 hours after each use and thoroughly sanitized before they’re reused.

Planet Chopper, a motorcycle tour operator that operates in the U.S., New Zealand, and India, mandates COVID-19 testing before each trip starts. All customers and staff must maintain six feet of distance. The bikes get washed daily. And on some of the tours, a doctor accompanies the group. “We only do excursions where social distance can be achieved, so we will not be white water rafting as planned for our Route 66 tour,” says Ben Van Leeuwarden, Planet Chopper’s general manager. “There’s no room sharing.”

Incredible Adventures, which offers one-day great white shark dives near San Francisco’s Farallon Islands, has made some dramatic changes for its upcoming season, which starts Sept. 26. It’s limited trip capacity to allow for more cage time and space on the boat. The operator is disinfecting the boat frequently and has purchased more diving equipment ,since sharing is no longer an option. “Buffets are also cause for concern, so we’re in the process of finalizing a new plan for providing individually plated breakfast and lunch,” says Jane Reifert, the vice president of marketing at Incredible Adventures. “We’re taking a financial hit to keep people safe.”

Guests are taking the adventure travel changes in stride

Adventure-seekers have been quick to adapt to the changes. In Truckee last Sunday, guests wore their masks until their rafts dropped into the river and quickly replaced their face coverings on shore. Employees seemed to keep an extra-safe distance from guests, staying well outside a six-foot perimeter on land. The rafters reacted as if they’d been doing this all along. 

Vito Valentinetti just finished an adventure trek in Andalucia, Spain, called El Caminito del Rey. It’s a well-regulated, 7.7-kilometer hike over catwalks through narrow gorges and requires you to wear a helmet. 

“Additional COVID-19 precautions included wearing a mask within two meters of anyone outside your personal group of family or friends, and you should try to stay at least 5 meters away from others when possible,” says Valentinetti. “Hand sanitizer stations were added throughout the canyon. There was a short speech about the additional regulations and multiple staff placed throughout the hike for enforcement, along with new posted signage.”

Mimi Lichtenstein, a travel advisor from Hanover, N.H., just returned from a two-week guided glamping trip to Maine. She says nothing was left to chance. The guides presented her with COVID tests before the trip started. Whenever the guides came near her family, they wore masks. The only time they didn’t have face coverings was when they were on their own kayaks.

“We were thrilled to be spending the entire time outdoors, which just naturally feels safer,” she says.

Outdoor adventure awaits — in 2021

Adventure operators are changing this year. If you’re looking for a safe outdoor adventure, check to make sure your operator follows all state and local requirements and goes the extra mile to ensure your safety. That can include “don’t-touch” rules, extreme social distancing — or not going at all. 

That’s the case for Greg Vernovage, program director and Everest expedition leader at International Mountain Guides. He has a number of clients who want to visit Nepal this year. But for now, he’s not making a commitment.  

“Our job is to evaluate climbing risk on Everest and mitigate it,” he says. “One form of mitigation is to simply not climb or trek when the risk is unreasonable or unavoidable.”

 Vernovage is also cautious about his upcoming Mount Rainier ascents. 

“We would always drive people to Mount Rainier,” he says. “Now you have to self-drive. We have a gear check at our office, which is done outside in groups of four or less. We’re not cooking for clients anymore. Instead, we’re providing hot water for freeze-dried meal prep.”

Perhaps that’s one of the most important changes for would-be adventurers in 2020. It’s the ability to turn on a dime, if necessary.

“Adventure travel requires flexibility,” says Caroline Mongrain, the North America marketing manager for World Expeditions Travel Group, a tour operator. “And an open mind.”

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