Active Vacations: Types and Preparation

(RxWiki News) Imagine pedaling along scenic coastlines or walking from one charming medieval village to the next. What could be more idyllic than joining a walking or cycling tour, whether here or abroad?


We’ve all heard stories from friends or relatives who thought their bike trip in the South of France, for instance, would be leisurely, cycling from village to village while nibbling on baguettes and cheese and stopping at atmospheric cafes along the way, only to find that the journey was more like an exhausting Tour de France.

Here are some things to consider before you sign up for an active vacation, to ensure that it doesn’t resemble an episode of “Survivor.”

Find out the trip’s physical activity level

Each tour company has its own ranking system indicating whether a trip is meant for:

  • Beginners
  • Moderate walkers/cyclists
  • Serious athletes

The ranking system is often based on the miles traveled each day and the gain in elevation. Some trips are designed for people at any level. Ultimately, though, there is a lot of subjectivity as to how the trip is classified.

  • You can ask the tour operator if the trip you are considering is a good fit for you.
  • A better bet perhaps is to consult previous travelers, if the company provides contact information.

Keep in mind that if you want a physical and mental challenge, signing up for a more advanced trip may sound good in theory, but if your pace is slow, it may:

  • Create problematic group dynamics
  • Make it difficult for you to arrive at your accommodation before dark
  • Result in physical strain and injuries—and ultimately less enjoyment for you

The terrain

Find out what the terrain will be during your active vacation.

  • Is it flat or rolling?
  • Does it include mountain passes?
  • What is the altitude?

A flat, 30-mile bicycle ride may be a piece of cake for you, but 30 miles of cycling that includes a 2,000-foot mountain may be way too difficult.

  • If the tour is described as having undulating terrain, that means you will be climbing and descending mile after mile, day after day.
  • Adding to the challenge is cycling or hiking at high altitude, such as 5,000 feet above sea level or higher.
  • Some bike trips are fully or partly off road, which can be more demanding.

Consider, then, if you are skillful or comfortable enough to deal with uneven terrain or scramble over rocky terrain.

  • Dirt tracks with deep fissures, rocks, and roots, as well as stream crossings, require good mountain biking skills to avoid a spill.
  • In many developing countries, cyclists should expect variable and possibly unpaved or poorly paved roads sprinkled with gravel, dirt, rocks, or even massive potholes.

Other conditions that might be encountered

Some bike tours include considerable travel on high-traffic roads. Others involve mostly dedicated bike paths.

  • If you have any specific fears or phobias, such as of heights (acrophobia) or animals, find out beforehand if you might encounter any triggering situations.

For example:

  • A hike that involves negotiating a “via ferrata”—climbing on ladders or individual metal rungs bolted onto sheer rock faces—would be a nightmare for someone with a fear of heights.

A hiking path or mountain bike trail may become precipitous or require crossing a narrow suspension bridge. Depending on where you go, you may encounter all sorts of animals on the road, from feral dogs to untethered horned cattle.

Program flexibility

Some tours provide mileage or route choices every day, so you can walk or ride a shorter or flatter option. Many also have a support vehicle (“sag wagon”) to pick up cyclists who are tired or injured or would rather just take it easier. Some tours can pick up walkers or hikers at designated points. Or you may be able to skip some days altogether. Some tours provide an option of an electric-assist bike, which can be a big boost, especially on uphill sections.

Who carries your bags?

Human-powered locomotion is strenuous enough. You may not want the additional strain of carrying a loaded backpack when walking or transporting your gear on your bike—what’s called self-contained touring. Cycling with a heavy load also changes the way the bike handles, especially on curves and downhills.

  • If you’ve never biked, walked, or hiked with all your gear, a trip that requires that is probably not your best choice, unless you’ve trained for a couple of months.
  • Instead, there are tours that involve only day treks from a base hotel or that provide a vehicle to carry your gear to your destinations.

Tour guided or self-guided

There are advantages to each.

  • In a self-guided tour, you are given a detailed set of maps with directions. This provides more freedom and flexibility and is less expensive, but it’s not for the navigationally challenged.
  • Group tours, with at least one leader, are generally best for beginner walkers, hikers, or cyclists. They are certainly more regimented, but the guides provide a wealth of information, and you also have the camaraderie, if that’s appealing to you.

Recommended equipment

On a walking or hiking trip:

  • Using two walking poles reduces strain on your knees and hips and also assists with balance when crossing rivers or streams or going over rocky terrain.

On a bike trip:

  • The bike itself is often provided, but you may want to ask what kind of pedals it has if you prefer one type—plain flat pedals or pedals with toe clips or cleats.
  • Padded bike gloves take pressure off your hands when riding.

Most tour operators provide dial-adjusted helmets, but if your head is especially small or large, consider taking along your own. If your bike at home has a comfortable seat, you might want to bring that on the trip, because the provided seat may not be the best for your anatomy (most modern bike seats are swappable).

Getting in shape for your trip

How you physically prepare for a hiking or cycling trip depends on many factors, including your:

  • Level of aerobic fitness
  • Overall strength—leg and core muscles

If you are not well trained, the best way to prepare is to do the activity under the conditions you’ll be experiencing—such as:

  • Walking on rough terrain
  • Cycling up steep hills
  • Carrying all your gear

Start at least six to eight weeks before you depart to give yourself enough time to work up to being comfortable with the maximum daily mileage you’ll encounter on the trip.

Training for a bike trip can include a combination of:

  • Aerobic exercise (focused on indoor or outdoor cycling along with cross-training such as rowing, jogging, or swimming)
  • Strength training

For instance, each week you could do two long rides, gradually increasing the distance by five to ten miles every week or two.

For walking and hiking treks, especially those with significant downhills, consider an activity that involves what’s called eccentric muscle contraction, which puts added strain on leg muscles. Include one or both of these recommended exercises:

  • Strength training that targets this kind of muscle action
  • Weekly treks that have a downhill component

Other workouts can include brisk walking on a treadmill set on an incline, as well as stair climbing.