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by Diane Spicer
Group hiking trips run by outdoor adventure companies can take a lot of the planning burden off your shoulders, so you can concentrate on enjoying the feel of your backpack on those shoulders.
However, not all is fun and games in the world of pre-paid group hiking vacation trips.
The tips shared here, earned in the College Of Hard Knocks, will help you narrow down your choices to the best group trips that make sense for the type of hiker you are.
Hiking is not a complicated sport.
Gear, food, and a map, right?
Not so fast.
Things become exponentially more complicated when you hike with a group, especially with a group of people not of your own choosing.
And that's what you're up against when you sign up for a group hiking trip with a tour operator or private guiding company.
Harness the power of the Internet to zero in upon the trip of your dreams.
Once you have a short list of maybe 3 or 4 trip possibilities, you've already taken some good steps.
To make sure you're going to get the group hiking trip you envision, use this checklist of trip questions.
You absolutely must be able to answer all of them before you consider paying money.
There are many, many more questions to ask, but that should get you started thinking about why group hiking trips are both a blessing and a hassle.
The hiking trip company should set expectations for when you should hear from them, and which topics will be discussed.
Honor the due dates of your trip deposit and final payment, to avoid additional fees or trip cancellation.
Read through what is included in the trip, and make plans (and a budget) to cover the gaps of food, accommodations, transportation, or excluded activities on your own.
I've done my fair share of hiking in groups in the United States, so I can offer a few insights into how things might play out for you.
It's true that you must have total trust in the person or company booking all of the arrangements.
A good question to ask:
If they have, it still doesn't mean you should stop reading all emails and paper copies of the things you are agreeing to do - and pay for.
Trust, but verify, as someone once said.
Tip: Sometimes a travel agent is recommended by the company to help you with transitional times:
The participants, your hiking partners, make or break the trip.
If your hiking trip is rated for strong, experienced hikers and a beginner hiker is allowed to book the trip, the dynamics of the trip will have to change.
Ditto for the reverse scenario, when a gung ho hardcore hiker hijacks a relaxed pace trip.
To avoid misunderstanding:
Don't feel that you are bugging anyone when you have questions.
If you detect attitude toward your "annoying" questions, or a reluctance to spend time with your concerns, look elsewhere for a group hiking trip.
Group trips cost money, a lot more money than if you planned it yourself.
But without fail, budget ~8 - 10% of the total cost of the trip as a tip for your guide(s).
Does that idea sting a bit?
These outdoorsy folks work hard to make sure you have a good time, and even when things don't go according to plan, they are doing their best in most cases to keep you safe and happy.
In my experience, they are underpaid for the heavy responsibilities they shoulder.
So plan to tip your guide above that rate (in the proper currency) when s/he goes the extra mile, sometimes quite literally, for you.
Tip these hard workers!!!
A company which spends a lot of time and money on glossy brochures and responsive websites splashed with dramatic photos has got the marketing angle dialed in.
They should also have customer service and trip management skills on that level.
And always do your own background research.
Example: If your mountain hiking trip begins in June, while your brochure is splashed with late summer flowers and low (or non existent) snow levels, you will be disappointed.
Another red flag: eagerness to get you booked on the trip and deposited, but slow email responses when you have questions.
I'm sure you've already thought about checking online for other hiker's experiences with group trips: Yelp, TripAdvisor, and hiking blogs.
Always be careful to filter out the weird rants and unrealistic expectations (there were no fresh scones in the camp kitchen for days on end!!!!!).
But if the majority of reviews are negative, there's a grain of truth in there somewhere.
As a US citizen I can only share my handful of experiences with you.
Not all of the pitfalls and concerns I've experienced will happen to you.
And other things I never bumped into might interfere with your enjoyment of a group hiking trip in a country other than the United States.
So take all of my tips with a grain of salt, a pinch of common sense, and whatever other cautions feel right to you.
Find out if English (or German, or whatever your native language might be) will be spoken, and by whom.
If the trip guide(s) can't speak English, you will miss some important tips, hiking tricks and safety information.
If you're the only English speaker in the group, feelings of isolation and sometimes even paranoia might begin to creep into meal times and unexpected but vital decision points on the trip.
Be careful about hunting for the type of group hiking trip which matches your hiking style.
Don't assume that using one of those words in your phone and email conversations with the company means the same thing to everyone involved.
If you're keen to explore a part of the world that offers a group hiking trip, and you are all about multi day hiking trips with rustic accommodations, you'll be disappointed when the van pulls up to transport you to your bustling B&B at the end of the day.
And perhaps even more heartbreaking for you, the other way around:
You are expecting moderate day hikes with a hearty meal each evening, and instead you share a leaky tent on rocky ground with a grand champion snorer after a dinner of cheese and salami.
Anytime you pay someone else to arrange a hiking trip, you should purchase hiking trip insurance to protect your investment.
Be sure the policy covers trip cancellation, medical emergencies, evacuation, and trip interruption clauses.
If the group hiking trip experience doesn't sound right for you, you have other options.
Discover how your best hiking vacation doesn't have to be in a large group!
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