You scramble up the rocky face of a mountain that's among the tallest in the Rockies. If you slip, a climbing rope measuring just 3/8 to 1/2 inches (10 mm) in diameter is all that will prevent you from falling thousands of feet to the valley below. A gust of wind throws you off balance, but you're able to steady yourself, heart racing. You continue on, clinging to each rock with a white-knuckled grip.
Does this sound like a vacation to you? Such an adrenaline-pumping experience is one example of what the tourist industry calls adventure travel, which includes all kinds of activities, from bird-watching and horseback riding to climbing and kayaking. And it's becoming increasingly popular. According to a 2010 study conducted by the George Washington University School of Business, the Adventure Travel Trade Association and Xola Consulting, 26 percent of respondents said they'd participated in some sort of adventure travel, creating a global adventure market valued at $89 billion [source: GWU].
A small number of those surveyed -- just two percent -- had taken what's called a hard adventure trip. These vacations are higher risk and often require a great deal of specialized skill: Think trekking, climbing and caving. Today, tour operators all over the world cater to these thrill seekers in every way imaginable. Here are 10 examples.
Do you like bouncing down a rocky trail on a bike with knobby tires? Then you'll love Bolivia. This Latin American country might not be the first place you'd think of when planning your mountain biking adventure, but it boasts some of the most thrilling single- and double-track trails in the world. Advanced skills are optional, but nerves of steel are required.
Take the Chacaltaya to Zongo trail, for instance. This daylong ride begins at an elevation of 17,500 feet (5,345 meters) near the top of Mt. Chacaltaya, once home to the highest developed ski resort in the world. From here, you ride for four to six hours on a trail that is 80 percent downhill to the Zongo Jungle, elevation 3,280 feet (1,000 meters). That's a bone-rattling descent of more than 14,000 feet!
And then there's "The Death Road," a winding dirt path that's just as scary as its name suggests. Descending 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), this road was cut from a sheer mountainside and features dizzying 3,330-foot (1,000-meter) drop-offs that will challenge you mentally as well as physically. It could be worse: Before crews completed a new road in March 2007, riders had to share the narrow route with trucks, buses and cars.
Not all hard adventure travel must be human-powered. Those looking for a gasoline-fueled adrenaline rush might consider taking a spin around a racetrack in an actual racecar. One company that offers this service is Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure, founded in 1998 by Jarrett, the legendary NASCAR driver. Here, amateur speed enthusiasts don actual safety gear and racing suits and get behind the wheel of cars once owned by professional drivers. Expert instructors teach advanced techniques like drafting, passing and finding a line, all at speeds of more than 165 mph (265 kph). Though the company's flagship track is at Talladega, Ala., it operates at about a dozen other racetracks across the country as well, from the Chicagoland Speedway to the Homestead Miami Speedway. Fees are charged by the lap, with four-lap rides running an affordable $195, while longer 60-lap rides, costing up to $3,695, are a good bit pricier.
For a similarly turbo-charged experience, check out Doug Foley's Drag Racing Experience. This company tours to different drag strips across the country, offering its clients the opportunity to drive one of its super-fast cars alone or with a professional driver. These rides cost between $150 and $500, but going from zero to 100 mph (161 kph) in just a few seconds will certainly be one of the greatest thrills of your life.
Perhaps the best heart-pounding adventures combine two thrilling activities -- case in point, heli-skiing, where you ride in a helicopter over rugged terrain to the top of a mountain, then jump out and ski down. It's especially popular in Alaska, where remote, pristine slopes draw backcountry enthusiasts from all over the world. A number of tour companies, including Valdez Heli-Ski Guides and Points North Heli-Adventures, operate in the state's Chugach Mountains. With a few thousand square miles of terrain and more than 1,000 inches (2,540 centimeters) of snow per year in some areas, this range is known for its ideal skiing conditions. And the runs are long, too; some can descend nearly 6,200 vertical feet (1,890 meters)!
People usually go on vacation to "take a load off," and in zero gravity, you can literally do just that. The most practical way to have this experience is to climb aboard G-FORCE ONE, a modified Boeing 727 that creates a weightless environment for its passengers by performing a series of parabolic arcs while in flight. The plane, owned by the company ZERO-G, made its first flight in 2004 after an 11-year approval process with the Federal Aviation Administration. Today, its primary locations are Cape Canaveral, Fla., Las Vegas, Nev., and San Jose, Calif., though it tours through other airports as well, giving people across the country a chance to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Better hang on to your wallet, though; eight minutes of weightlessness will set you back about $5,000.
If you actually want to go to space to experience weightlessness, that's going to cost a little more. OK, a lot more. Currently the only way to get there is through a company called Space Adventures, which will put you on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and send you to the International Space Station for about 12 days. The price tag? Twenty-five million dollars. However, companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are now developing more cost-effective ways to send people to space. The former, owned by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is currently selling tickets for a seat on the SpaceShipTwo, which is scheduled to make its first commercial flight by the end of 2012.
Nothing says adventure quite like climbing a mountain, and few summits are more rewarding than the Grand Teton in western Wyoming. This peak, which rises to an elevation of 13,770 feet (4,197 meters), can be climbed alone or together with nearby Teewinot and Mount Owen in a three-mountain route known as the Cathedral Traverse. The Grand itself is a six-pitch climb, meaning you and your partner must set the rope six times on your way to the top. While this may sound harrowing, it's actually an ideal challenge for intermediate climbers (at the 5.8 level) with multi-pitch climbing experience who want to take the sport to the next level.
Just because the Grand Teton is accessible to average climbers doesn't mean that it isn't dangerous. Between 1992 and 2009, 10 people died trying to summit the mountain, and each year as many as 30 major search-and-rescue operations are launched to help distressed climbers. Just to be on the safe side, consider hiring a guide. For less than $1,000 a person, this expert climber can help ensure that you make it up and down the Grand Teton in one piece.
The mental and physical strain inflicted by Navy SEALs training is legendary. Would you believe that some people actually make a vacation of it? You can, too, with Extreme Seal Experience located in Chesapeake, Va. Owned by 24-year SEAL veteran Don Shipley, this company gives ordinary civilians the opportunity to train like they're members of a Special Operations unit.
For just under $2,000, you can enroll in the basic one-week "Advanced Course." It begins with "Hell Night," a challenge and endurance course that the company's Web site describes as "the hardest 24 hours that most people will ever go through." After that, former Navy SEALs will train participants in a variety of skills, including survival, weapons (with live-fire exercises), night patrol, close-quarter combat and rappelling from a helicopter.
If you're a real glutton for punishment, sign up for the "Week of Hell." With a 100-mile (160-kilometer) boat paddle, 30 miles (48 kilometers) of running, and 10 miles (16 kilometers) of swimming, expect five and a half days of "constant physical exercise, long-distance movement, unparalleled mental stress and complete bodily exhaustion." With a vacation like that, you'll probably look forward to going back to work!
If military-inspired vacations interest you, then you'll be excited to hear there's a company that will let you fly a real fighter aircraft. It's called Air Combat USA, a civilian dogfighting school headquartered in Fullerton, Calif. This outfit puts young and old thrill-seekers behind the controls of an Italian-made Marchetti SF260 fighter plane with no experience required. Then, with the help of an instructor, participants will engage in a dogfight, firing simulated bullets that send a trail of smoke streaming from other aircraft when "hit." And the best part? Three digital cameras are mounted on your plane to capture every bank, dive and roll.
Founded in 1988, Air Combat USA tours across the United States offering training sessions at more than two-dozen cities. A basic program lasts two-and-a-half to three hours and includes five to six dogfights at a cost of about $1,400. And while putting a bunch of inexperienced pilots at the yoke of a high-performance aircraft doesn't sound like a good idea, it's actually pretty safe. All aircraft are maintained to strict Federal Aviation Regulations, and participants are required to observe safe minimum altitudes and distances between planes at all times.
For people who know little more about the ocean than what they learned from "Jaws," sharks can seem like terrifying creatures. And it's precisely this fear that has led adrenaline junkies to climb into a cage and surround themselves with these razor-toothed fish.
Shark cage dives are offered in many locations across the world. The species of sharks that you'll see depends on the place where you go diving. At Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, for example, you can swim in the warm, shallow, clear waters that tiger sharks call home. For an encounter with the legendary Great White shark, venture to Simon's Town, South Africa, located just 45 minutes from Cape Town.
Cage diving companies will provide all the gear you need, and because air is typically supplied from the surface, no diving experience is required. Once at the dive site you'll climb into the cage, which commonly measures about 10 feet by 3 feet (3 meters by 0.9 meters) and holds about four divers. It remains tethered to the boat and usually is lowered just under the surface of the water. And while it may sound a little risky, cage diving is quite safe. The galvanized steel cages do a pretty good job of keeping the creatures close enough for excitement, but distant enough to prevent you from becoming fish food.
No, not the professional basketball team in Chicago. We're talking about the running of the bulls during the fiestas of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.
This legendary event originated in the days when the bulls were driven from corrals outside the city, through the streets and to the bullring. Today, it takes place each morning between July 7 and July 14, beginning at a corral on Calle Santo Domingo. Runners line up shortly before 7:30 a.m., chanting three times, "We ask San Fermin, being our patron saint, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing." Then, after the clock on the church of San Cernin strikes 8 a.m., two rockets are fired to signal the release of the 12 bulls. They chase the men 2,784 feet (848.6 meters) down the street to the bullring, where a third rocket is then fired. When the bulls are safely in the bullring corral, a fourth rocket is fired signaling the end of the run.
Clearly, running in the path of a dozen bulls is risky. Typically about 200 to 300 participants are injured each year, mostly with minor scrapes and bruises caused by tripping and falling during the event. Injuries resulting from trampling by other runners or the bulls themselves are the exception, not the rule. In fact, only about three percent of participants are seriously hurt during the event. Nevertheless, since 1922, fifteen runners have died along the route, many from goring.
You've probably seen the movie, but did you know that you can dive to the bottom of the Atlantic to see the actual ship? Take the plunge with the only company that offers this thrill, Great Canadian Adventure Company, based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. For a cool $60,000, they'll put you on a research vessel in St. John's, Newfoundland, bound for the site of the famous 1912 shipwreck. Upon arrival, you'll board either the MIR I or the MIR II deep-diving submersible and descend 12,460 feet (3,798 meters) to the ocean floor. There you'll see the once-extravagant RMS Titanic resting in the same place it's been for a century. Hopefully you're not claustrophobic, though; at 7 feet (2.1 meters) in diameter, the submersibles' passenger compartments are just barely big enough for three people.
In addition to a calm disposition, you'll need some warm clothes for the dive. The temperature inside the MIR I and MIR II drops to a chilly 50 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 14 degrees Celsius) while in the water.
It is the coldest and most inhospitable place on Earth. How much do you know about Antarctica? Take our HowStuffWorks quiz to find out.
Author's Note: 10 Adrenaline Rushes for Your Next Vacation
I consider myself a pretty adventurous person. Just about every time I take a trip it's to do some sort of outdoor activity, like rock climbing, mountain biking or backpacking. But my quest for excitement has its limits. Most importantly, I prefer to get my adrenaline rushes on solid ground as opposed to the air or water. So maybe we'll meet one day on the summit of the Grand Teton or on a Bolivian single-track, but don't expect to see me diving with sharks or flying through space anytime soon. But if you're game, I say go for it!
More Great Links
- Air Combat USA. Homepage. 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.aircombat.com/index.php
- Apex Shark Expeditions. Homepage. 2010. (May 17, 2012) http://www.apexpredators.com/
- BBC News. "Bull Gores Man to Death in Spain." July 10, 2009. (May 17, 2012) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8143744.stm
- Bradley, Tyson. "Steep Skiing in the West -- A Look Back." Utah Adventure Journal. December 2, 2010. (May 17, 2012) http://www.utahadvjournal.com/index.php/steep-skiing-in-the-west-a-look-back
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "CDC Injury Fact Book." November 2006. (May 15, 2012) http://www.cdc.gov/Injury/Publications/FactBook/
- Chang, Kenneth. "Booking a Flight to Space, with Travel Insurance." The New York Times. Jan. 3, 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/04/science/space/spaceflights-prepare-to-expand-customer-base.html?pagewanted=all
- Council of Pamplona. "The Bull Run." 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.pamplona.net/VerPagina.asp?IdPag=287&Idioma=5
- Dale Jarrett Racing Adventure. Homepage. 2011. (May 17, 2012) http://www.racingadventure.com/
- Doug Foley's Drag Racing Experience. Homepage. 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.dougfoley.com/
- Extreme Seal Experience. Homepage. 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.extremesealexperience.com/
- Exum Mountain Guides. Homepage. 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.exumguides.com/
- Graves, Jada A. "Most Dangerous Vacations." U.S. News and World Report. 2012. (May 15, 2012) http://travel.usnews.com/features/Most_Dangerous_Vacations/
- Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Homepage. 2010. (May 17, 2012) http://www.gravitybolivia.com/index.php?mod=homeb
- Incredible Adventures. "Cage Dive with Tiger Sharks." 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.incredible-adventures.com/sharks_bahamas.html
- Meisel, Zachary F. "10 Dangerous Places to Vacation: Why Where You Live, Work or Play Matters for Your Health." Time. July 19, 2011. (May 15, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2083636,00.html
- National Geographic Adventure. "The World's Best New Adventure Travel Trips." 2007. (May 15, 2012) http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/adventure-travel/index.html
- New York Magazine. "The Adrenaline Junkie." April 4, 2010. (May 15, 2012) http://nymag.com/travel/2010/spring/65233/
- Points North Heli-Adventures, Inc. Homepage. 2010. (May 17, 2012) http://www.alaskaheliski.com/
- Prettyman, Brett. "North Face Grand Teton: The Ultimate Rescue." The Salt Lake Tribune. Aug. 21, 2009. (May 17, 2012) http://www.sltrib.com/outdoors/ci_13169395
- Romero, Simon. "Bolivia's Only Ski Resort Is Facing a Snowless Future." The New York Times. Feb. 2, 2007. (May 17, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/02/world/americas/02bolivia.html
- Shermans Travel. "Top 10 Extreme Vacations." MSNBC.com. May 8, 2008. (May 15, 2012) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24509704/ns/travel-active_travel/t/top-extreme-vacations/#.T7cU4L9HtaG
- Siber, Kate. "Ultimate Adventure Bucket List 2011." National Geographic. 2011. (May 15, 2012) http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/trips/ultimate-adventure-bucket-list/
- Sloan, Gene. "Vacations Cater to Adrenaline Junkies." USA Today. March 20, 2001. (May 15, 2012) http://www.usatoday.com/life/travel/leisure/2001/2001-03-20-multisport.htm
- Space Adventures. Homepage. 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.spaceadventures.com/index.cfm
- The George Washington University School of Business, The Adventure Travel Trade Association, and Xola Consulting. "Adventure Tourism Market Report." August 2010. (May 15, 2012) http://www.xolaconsulting.com/Adventure-Market-2010.pdf
- Titanic Expedition: Visit the Titanic. Homepage. 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://titanic.adventures.com/
- Vora, Shivani. "Adrenaline Junky? Best Trips for Thrill-seekers." MSNBC.com. August 27, 2007. (May 15, 2012) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20393614/ns/travel-active_travel/t/adrenaline-junky-best-trips-thrill-seekers/#.T7fMlb9HtaH
- Walsh, Erica. "Extreme Adrenaline Rushes." Travel Channel. 2012. (May 15, 2012) http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/outdoors-and-adventure/articles/extreme-adrenaline-rushes
- Valdez Heli-Ski Guides. Homepage. 2012. (May 17, 2012) http://www.valdezheliskiguides.com/index.html
- ZERO-G. Homepage. 2008. (May 17, 2012) http://www.gozerog.com/index.cfm