We Actually Fear for Your Life: Confessions of Adventure Guides

The lesson is: your guide has a lot to hide. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Some of us travel purely for the adrenaline. We hike, climb, speedboat, jump from planes, and dive with sharks for pleasure. Somewhere in the back of our brains, we know that we are risking our lives. But what about the people we pay to guide us through the insanity? Yahoo talked to some adventure guides and equipment renters to see what they really think about us and our crazy tendencies. They all spoke only on condition of anonymity, primarily because they love their jobs (and want to keep them), but also because of liability issues that arise when your business involves the possibility of injury or death of your customers.

Your hiking guide is rating you. (Photo: Thinkstock)

They rank us. Several guides we talked to have a ranking system for patrons most likely to cause themselves bodily harm. They rank us on things like how physically fit we appear, how comfortable we seem in the situation, and how closely we listen to them when they speak. “Pam,” a mountain hiking guide, divides people into categories. She mentally labels everyone as a one, two, or three. The “threes” she turns loose because they appear capable and comfortable. The “twos” get a little closer attention and she sticks to the “ones” like glue. “The worst customers are usually overweight, undertrained, and oddly over-equipped,” she says.

Related: Confessions of a Divemaster: Your Scuba Instructor Wants to Drown You

“Alyssa,” a horseback trail guide, says before a ride even begins she knows exactly who is likely to hit the dirt or be slapped in the face by a low-hanging branch. She says her categories are a little cruder than numbers, but the principle is the same.

Don’t annoy your rafting guide — you might not get suited up. (Photo: Thinkstock)

They punish blowhards. “Alyssa” says her biggest pet peeve is know-it-alls. “Do people really think that they can fool someone who has twenty year’s experience in the saddle?” she says. “I can spot a fake by the worn spots on their jeans and so can the horses.” She and the other guides agreed that they would much rather inexperienced people just own up to it. Trying to convince the guide otherwise could get you the most stubborn horse, the oldest scuba gear, or the wettest seat on the raft. Whitewater raft guide “Amy,” says more than once she “forgot” to offer a wetsuit to a customer who bragged too much about prior experience.

Your guide is bored. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Some of them are bored. It is hard to imagine ever growing tired of what you are most passionate about, but it happens. Marina owner “Bob” laughs and says, “There’s a reason I rent boats instead of running a brothel. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t like boats anymore.” To avoid getting a burnt-out guide, choose services that take small or private tours. Also, look for companies that use expert, volunteer, or part-time guides. Deep sea fishing guide “Lewis,” concurs. He fishes for extra money, not his primary income. “If I was forced to help people catch fish to earn my living, I think I would hate it,” he says.

How to avoid a burnt-out dive master? (Photo: Thinkstock)

They fear for our lives. All of the guides we talked to respect the fact that we trust our lives to them. They train for accidents and could theoretically handle a life-threatening situation. Most of them hope they never have to use that training. A couple of years ago I was thrown into a rock by a rogue wave on a nighttime shore dive, dislocating my shoulder, making it impossible for me to push myself up out of the water. My dive guide reacted quickly to help me first get my face out of the waves, then up and onto shore where he assessed my injuries. I am sure my tumble gave him a few frightening moments, but he stayed calm and let his training take over.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Their bosses fear for their equipment. Boat rental owner “Gary,” says he spends thousands of dollars every season repairing damages caused by renters. He, too, ranks his customers — by the type of credit card they use. He has no fear of people who carry American Express cards or airline mileage cards. “They usually have enough credit to cover most damages, and rarely refuse to pay for something they did to the boat.” He says credit union cardholders are also usually a safe bet. He gets nervous about debit cards and refuses reservations on pre-paid cards of all kinds.

Related: We Think You’re Annoying and Other Confessions of a Tour Guide

They all fear lawsuits. There is a reason you must sign your life away before you can jump from a plane or off a boat into shark infested waters — nobody really wants to be responsible if you die. In general, you will find two approaches to liability in the adventure business. The first is the go-ahead-and-try-to-sue-us approach from the companies that have no real assets other than their equipment or are in a foreign country that makes litigation challenging. These companies carry little, if any, liability insurance. Companies with assets, like when a resort also owns the adventure company, are usually heavily insured, in addition they’ll have you sign a waiver. That gives both you and the company a bit more peace of mind than those without insurance.

Scuba: it’s a dive of a business. (Photo: Thinkstock)

The owners make money; the guides are just in it to support their own habit. Ask any dive master about their finances and you get the same answer: they are broke. The same seems to hold true for most adventure guides. There is very little money in guiding. It’s all about the tips and lifestyle. Kayak guide “Kevin” sums it up with this: “I could live hours away from what I love and do it only on vacations the way you do. Instead, I live in a shack and get to do what I love every day.”

Related: Your Children Make Us Lie to Them, and Other Confessions of Amusement Park Employees

You may never get the best they have to offer. It’s not likely that you will ever hike the best trails, see the most secret reefs, or drive the fastest watercraft by using an adventure guide. They put limiters on engines, use old horses, and guard their personal secret spots as if there is a pot of gold hidden there. The best shot you have at seeing the good stuff? All of our guides agreed that it’s more about trust than money. “Juan,” who leads shark diving tours, sums it up. “Show me that you aren’t going to wreck my world and I will take you to it.”

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