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Vroom! Boom! Blast off! 7 Extreme Travel Adventures

May 13, 2014

(Photo: Bill Fink)

When the kayaker screams, I know I’ve mastered the jetpack controls. Flying 25 feet above the peaceful waters of Newport Bay, my pack is blasting 17 gallons of water per second behind me as I climb, circle, then dive at startled vacationers floating below me.

Rather than take a quiet walk along the beach, or do some yoga-paddleboarding my adventure with Jetpack America in Newport Beach, California, involved taking the controls of a 200-horsepower, water-fueled exo-skeleton tethered by a thick 30-foot hose to a floating power unit. Reaching speeds up to 30 mph on this 25-minute $259 flight, I dipped and dived over, under, and even jogged on top of the water. An instructor on a nearby boat with a remote kill switch kept me from making a fatal wrong turn into shore. 

To me, this is real adventure travel, not what passes for “adventure travel” these days—getting wrapped like a sack of potatoes into a harness for the “extreme” activity of a bungie-jump, zip line, or rollercoaster.

Hold still and keep your hands at your side? Sorry, that’s not adventure. That’s a couch potato getting tossed around like a bondage victim.

With YouTube videos and reality shows like the "Amazing Race" showing how regular people can perform hard-core travel stunts, there’s been a rise in this kind of finger-on-the-trigger, hands-on-the-wheel kind of experience. In fact, the Adventure Travel Trade Association cites a 62% annual increase in “hard” vs. “soft” adventure travel over the past three years.

In that spirit, here are six more of my favorite thrill drives—not to be confused with “thrill rides”—where you can actually take the controls.

Dream Racing - Las Vegas

“Brake! Brake! Shift! Goooooooo!” Above the primal roar of a 512-horsepower engine, my co-pilot shouts instructions into the headset as I rip around turns at 130 mph on the Vegas Motor Speedway in a Ferrari F430GT. I’m strapped in with a six-point seatbelt, suited up in a fireproof jumpsuit (complete with head-sleeve and helmet), and my hands are firmly on the controls as I push my limits of reaction time and fear.

(Photo: Bill Fink)

Dream Racing is the real "Amazing Race," offering thrill seekers the chance to do laps in a Le Mans-winning Ferrari and a variety of other “supercars” at the NASCAR-hosting track complex, with rates starting at $189 for a five-lap session. Assisted by professional race car drivers who lead simulator sessions and sit beside you while driving, the experience is at once exhilarating and humbling. The rush from handling a high-performance race car is tempered with the knowledge that I’m nowhere near reaching its  top speed of 200 mph.

And for anyone who thinks this is a boys-only activity, the tall blonde giving my safety briefing was not a model like I initially thought: she was actually a professional drag-car racer, and I’m sure a much better driver than I will ever be.

Dig This - Las Vegas

There’s nothing quite like flinging a one-ton truck tire like it’s a kids’ toy. At the controls of a 18-ton excavator I guide the 30-foot arm and scoop to grab, stack, and toss around giant truck tires and piles of dirt. For $249 and up, adults can act out their Tonka-truck childhood fantasies at Dig This, a Vegas-area construction-site playground.

I go through a synchronized training run along with a married couple in the next two machines, all of us lifting the 30-foot yellow arms and buckets to the sky and spinning them around like mechanical giraffe ballet. We use the scoopers to carve swimming pool-sized holes in the ground, then release the dirt into smoking piles. We finish with a finesse competition to use the machine to pick up a basketball and gently drop it through a truck tire “hoop.” 

Sky Combat Ace - Las Vegas

Vegas seems to be the hotbed for extreme adventures. In the $599 “Top Gun Experience” with the Sky Combat Ace tour company, visitors can take the controls of an acrobatic prop plane to do loops, barrel rolls, and even a simulated dive-bombing run. An instructor with a dual set of controls helps guide you through the process, but the intensity is all up to you.

You’ll experience 8G’s of pressure on high-speed turns, practice stalling out the plane for stomach-lurching drops, and even buzz a mocked up SAM missile base. By the end of the session, you’ll either be ready to sign up for flight school or swear you’ll never leave the ground again. 

Desert Wolf Tactical - Scottsdale, Arizona

Bouncing through the Arizona desert past massive Saguaro cactus in a Mad-Max-like Tomcar (a funky all-terrain vehicle designed for the Israeli army), I feel like I’m on a commando mission. This is perhaps because the ATVs are loaded up with a full arsenal; from pistols to assault rifles, sniper guns, and even some explosives. I’ve joined a $199 Desert Wolf Tour outside of Scottsdale Arizona for a chance to prepare myself for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, or at least to blow some stuff up.

After safety-training by certified instructors at a remote desert firing range, I’m handed a Glock and an AR-15 assault rifle and freed to blast away at targets, bullets flying like water from a hose. Once the adrenaline rush dies town, I have to lower my heart rate, kneel and concentrate, as my finger is on the trigger of a .50 caliber sniper rifle aimed at an explosive charge 50 feet away. With a satisfying explosion, I blast a hole in the desert floor, and the family behind me claps with support, the teens shouting “Me next! Me next!”

Xtreme Hummer Adventures - Pismo Beach, California

In the sweeping sand dunes outside of Pismo Beach, motorcycles, dune buggies, ATVs, even souped-up golf carts with monster truck tires churn through the terrain. Some drivers ride with pads and decorative spikes, others are simply in T-shirts and shorts with helmets. The motors rumble together like a mechanized army division as the machines disappear over hills into a swirling yellow wasteland.

(Photo: Bill Fink)

For $55, I get to ride with Xtreme Hummer Adventures, where a professional driver takes us right on the borderline of fun and crazy, jumping over the peaks of hills and and sending up rooster-tails of sand as we swirl through massive sand pits in a one-hour tooth-rattling trip.

Drive a Tank - Kasota, Minnesota

You can roar through the woods of Minnesota driving a genuine WWII-era British Army tank, scaring the bejeezus out of migrating geese—and probably yourself, too—as you try to master the controls before the 60-ton behemoth levels a tree. After classroom training and practice on smaller vehicles, visitors to Drive A Tank’s complex can pay $399 to pilot the tank “buttoned up” with only a periscope for guidance.

(Courtesy: Drive-A-Tank)

For an extra $599, you can add the popular car-crushing feature to the program. Yes, you can actually act out your rush-hour traffic aggressions and utterly flatten a parked car. As their website says, truly “there is nothing as satisfying as crushing a car with a tank.”

Bill Fink is a freelance travel writer for publications including his hometown San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic Traveler, and many others