You don’t have to be an adrenaline junkie or intrepid explorer to think about packing up the family for an adventure vacation. If you’re wary about taking the kids scuba diving or rafting on Class IV whitewater rapids, consider the options. Most kids love to go canoeing in a national park or horseback riding on a dude ranch. And if big thrills are your passion, upgrade to a zipline adventure or the mountain climb of a lifetime.
1.Consider Levels of Difficulty. Adventure travel runs a wide gamut, from a gentle river raft to a Mount Everest climb. “Soft adventure” implies the activity is geared toward people of most abilities, but “hard adventure” generally requires some training and level of skill usually not developed in younger children. If a member of your family is wheelchair-bound, look for a vacation-planning company that specializes in creating and developing experiences for travelers with physical challenges.
2. Seek Adventures for the 10 and Younger Set. For young children, choose an experience that’s enlightening and fun but not too rigorous. In Costa Rica, kids on a jungle stroll might light up the first time they see monkeys or a sloth in the wild. The experience can be amazing because it might be the first time they’ve seen these animals outside of a zoo. A boat ride through a mangrove forest or a not-too-rigorous national-park hike is an ideal adventure for young children. Or saddle up for a dude ranch vacation where horseback riding becomes second nature.
3. Rev Up the Action for Tweens and Teens. Older kids love white-water rafting or kayaking, even if you don’t shoot for the wildest rapids the first time out. Ziplining is a homerun with every single traveler I’ve encountered. It’s a key reason many people go to Costa Rica, where they can sail above exotic rainforest canopies and breathtaking waterfalls. Teens and tweens are hooked in an instant, and it’s equally fun for the grandparents! I once was on a trip with an 89-year-old grandmother who was a bit skittish at first, but she tried the “test” zipline and loved it. She continued on and finished the entire experience. I think it really, truly made her feel like a kid again.
4. Done That? Explore New Vistas. The Incan archaeological site at Ollantaytambo in southern Peru is a lesser known, but surprise gem of a ruin where you can climb up and down in all the nooks and crannies — teens absolutely love it. Why not snorkel in the sea with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, or walk alongside a shepherd in Greece as he makes his way from village to village? On a southeast Asia trip, kids of all ages can get suited up with life jackets for a Mekong River Delta excursion where the family can see the floating markets and daily life of the locals, and cruise past rice fields tended by farmers in conical hats.
5. Think About Trying an Eco-Lodge.Travelers who try to plan their own adventure vacation can become overwhelmed piecing together a day-to-day itinerary. An eco-lodge offers an adventure experience with accommodations included. All around the world there are lovely, intimate eco-properties that employ their own guides and have their own assets like safari jeeps and riverboats. You might find an eco-lodge near the sea that specializes in surfing excursions with top-rated teachers. or a wilderness eco-lodge known for its dog-sledding or fly-fishing adventures.
6. Investigate Tour Operators. If your vacation plan includes travel to several locations and multiple resorts or lodges, consider leaving the details to the experts at a quality tour operator. The best companies provide top-caliber guides and vet each experience included on their adventure-travel menus. They also pay special attention to details. For example, you can enjoy unexpected extras, like warm, fluffy towels and hot cocoa at the end of a chilly rafting excursion. The best tour groups that offer lunch with an activity don’t just throw a PB&J into a brown bag — they transport you to an ideal spot for a lovely post-adventure picnic.
7. Be Prepared. Pack your bags with all you’ll need to have a safe, fun experience. I always recommend wearing lightweight longer pants and long sleeves, even in a warm climate, to prevent sunburn, mosquito bites, and scratches from dense flora. My mantra is: sunhats, sunhats, sunhats! Sunburn will make any traveler uncomfortable and grumpy. Most reputable excursion companies will have basic first-aid amenities, but it doesn’t hurt to pack your own antibacterial salve, bandages and aloe vera gel. And I recommend carrying a bandana that you can moisten with your water bottle and put around your neck or wrists for instant temporary heat relief.
When it’s time to begin planning your adventure, think about the advantages of traveling during low season when rates are discounted. If you don’t mind a bit of heat or rain, you can take advantage of some great deals. Rain or shine, these experiences should be amazing. It might be hot as you explore the ruins of Ollantaytambo in Peru, but you’ll be so wonderstruck that you won’t even notice it!
And don’t worry about training to “run a marathon” for most soft-adventure vacations. If you are in reasonable shape and enjoy gentle hikes on the weekends or bike rides with the kids, you should be just fine. If you haven’t done much walking or exercising, prepare ahead of time by taking walks, short hikes, or embracing some type of fun physical activity about six weeks before embarking on your adventure vacation. You will find it much more fun, and the kids just might have to work to keep up with you!
When families plan their first international vacation, they often worry about what their children will eat and whether the kids will go hungry. The answer is simple. If all else fails, there’s not a country on the planet that doesn’t have French fries, pizza and chicken nuggets.
Heather Killingbeck is director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney, a global leader in guided family travel, and has been helping families live their travel dreams for more than 25 years. She has traveled to 53 countries on six continents (some of her favorite destinations include South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Italy, Alaska and Greece).