I was riding hard, focused on the back wheel of the rider in front of me with another bike close on my tail. It was a struggle to stay upright at speed, sliding on loose rocks and sand, but a fall was unthinkable; there was nothing between me and the cactus-strewn ravine to my right. This was supposed to have been a leisurely tour at medium skill-level off-road riding. Medium skill level it was, but at this breakneck speed, it required professional-level experience.
Thus are the consequences of taking off without due diligence. When I was invited to join the trip it sounded spectacular. The area was rich in natural beauty and historical importance and enjoying it was the stated point of the ride. However, a poorly-chosen leader and testosterone-fueled competition by half of the group made it a race. Half of us couldn’t even catch up to complain about it.
Self-organized motorcycle tours are notorious for becoming dangerously competitive, but it can happen with any kind of vehicle or activity: by 4×4, truck or RV, bicycling, hiking, climbing, camping, sailing, cruising, fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, and scuba diving, among them.
Lessons learned? Don’t follow that guy. Have an honest group talk before the trip. And more carefully consider the leadership capabilities of the guide.
I hope the tips in this post will help make your group trip a success, whether it’s led by a professional, by yourself, or one of your friends. Even if it’s only a group of two.
Choosing professional guides
The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) offers a list of competencies for adventure travel guides (PDF). This list is also handy to keep in mind when organizing your own trip. The guidelines are grouped into categories: technical competencies, wilderness medicine and first aid, customer service and group management skills, natural and cultural history interpretation, and sustainability.
- Guides must possess the technical ability, including current, available sport-specific certifications, to safely carry out activities offered.
- Guides must observe relevant safety protocols specific to the company, location, and activities.
- Guides must have received current training and licenses (if applicable) specific to the equipment and vehicles used.
- Guides must possess a first aid certification based on the recognized protocol for the amount of time required to reach definitive care.
- Guides must be trained with an emphasis on customer service.
- Guides must possess strong abilities in verbal and non-verbal communication.
- Guides must be knowledgeable about relevant local history and cultures and present accurate information.
- Guides must be knowledgeable about relevant natural history in the environments that they visit.
- Educational techniques must be used to share this information in an engaging manner with guests.
When you’re selecting a tour, check Yelp and other review sites to learn about the company and the quality of their guides before you book it. The company should also take the time to talk with you about the structure of the trip, contingency plans, and the qualifications of your guides.
Inquire about the others in the group. What if you have mismatched skill or energy levels. Can it be split into two, with guides for each group? What if there’s a breakdown or accident? Does that stop the whole group or is there enough staff to handle it?
Tour operators should be happy to answer questions like these. If not, that’s a bad sign. (Find tour operators I’ve heard good things about in a previous post: A choice of adventure expeditions by air, land, and sea.)
Organizing your own group trip
From my one bad experience with the motorcycle trip, I have since made a point of being absolutely certain that everyone has the same intentions and expectations. Even on local hiking trips, our group checks off items like first-aid kits, tools and equipment, gear, food, water, appropriate clothing (sturdy shoes, sunblock, hats), and satellite communication devices. (See Off the beaten path: Getting into trouble, getting found, and getting home.)
My guide on the motorcycle ride from hell had skills. He was a great rider and mechanic who knew the terrain. But his need for speed overrode the needs of at least half of the group: safety, communication, education, and service.
In addition to the above list from the ATTA, here’s a list of questions I usually ask before heading out in a group, even for a morning kayak tour of my bay.
- What’s the point of the trip? (Ride like Baja 1000 racers or go slow and stop a lot? Find the cave paintings. Picnic at the waterfall. Scuba to 60 feet. Climb the waterfall. Kayak to the second island. Drive to Bahía de Los Ángeles.)
- What does each member of the trip want from it? (Make sure everyone has their say, and that all members are present and listening.)
- What could go wrong? (Flat tire. Road washed out. Vehicle stuck. Wind comes up. Wind dies. Visibility sucks. Injury.)
- Who knows how to fix things and are they bringing tools and spares?
- Who knows first aid and are they bringing a kit?
- Who has a satellite communicator and are the batteries charged?
- Who will go back and get help if needed?
- How often will we stop and regroup?
- What emergency gear are we packing?
- Where will we eat? Camp? Get more water? Gas?
- Who at home base knows where we’re going and at what point will they try to find us?
In Baja, as in other remote areas in the world, things can go wrong, fast. For example, a group of friends from my neighborhood left on a day trip to visit a mission in a tiny mountain village just a few hours away. They piled into their 4x4s with full tanks of gas but they didn’t pack any food or an emergency supply of water, expecting to lunch at a restaurant at their destination.
Unfortunately, the road had been washed out by a summer storm so it was slower going than expected. Then somebody got a flat tire and another had to be wenched out of a gully. They didn’t arrive in the village until dark and by then they were all getting “hangry.”
Most of this stress and discomfort could have been solved by packing nonperishable snacks. Camping gear could have also been on the packing list, just in case. Luckily, the village motel was open and had beds available, and my friends had enough pesos in their wallets to pay for it. The cook had to go kill some chickens, so they still had a long time to wait before dinner arrived.
Competent tour guides are good at setting expectations and making contingency plans. We civilians? Not so much. Plus, friends think they know their friends. Never so well, though, as after a trip.
Every time I look back on that motorcycle trip through those beautiful mountains, I feel sad. We missed out on what could have been a great ride and we were lucky to emerge without serious injuries. Better leadership, planning and a commitment to communication could have solved everything.
Got tips? I’d love to hear about them in the comments, below.