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Follow the Smart Person: Why I Endorse Using a Guide

Sometimes, when I reminisce I don’t even recognize my younger self.  It’s not just the fact that I wore camouflage-colored Crocs in formal settings, or that younger me didn’t have a ghost-white beard. I don’t recognize that younger version of myself because young me was an idiot. If you need a more concrete example than the fact that I wore Crocs to fancy dinners, just look at any of the multi-day adventures that I planned and led, most of which ended in disaster.  

Not life-threatening disasters, but the kind of disasters where I left key gear back at the car. The kind of disasters where my adventure cohorts and I had to share a single beer in the middle of a 60-mile day, because that single beer was the only calories we remembered to bring. The kind of disasters where maps were misread, distances misinterpreted, and athletic ability misjudged. 

If I were to write a memoir about my younger adventures, I would have to call it, “Oops.”

All these self-led disasters were fun in the way that most non-life-threatening mistakes in the backcountry are fun. We can all laugh them off when we’re out of danger and talking about what a shit show the whole affair was over a couple of beers in a bar where we’re safe and warm. 

I’m not saying I regret any of the bad decisions I made. Maybe the Crocs? But there’s a time and place for these ill-advised, poorly planned self-led adventures. I’m a huge fan. Writing about those adventures has occupied a significant percentage of my career. But as I’ve aged, I’ve grown to appreciate the foresight it takes to make a good decision, like hiring a guide who knows what the hell they’re doing. 

In fact, not hiring a guide might have been the most common mistake of my youth. Why would I consult an expert and lean on the knowledge of professionals who know the terrain and can lead us safely through it? Where’s the fun in that? I come from a long line of men who refuse to ask directions or seek the help of a professional (we can taxidermy this animal ourselves, thank you very much!), so why would I get a professional outdoorsperson to guide me through an adventure? 

For instance, there was this one time when I was hiking in the jungle of the Dominican Republic with my wife, and we were looking for a secret beach on the Caribbean that you could only get to via an unmarked hike. I had two options: A) Hire a local guide to take us right to the beach or B) Walk into the jungle on our own using only my questionable sense of direction as a guide. 

It was a no brainer. We braved it solo and stumbled around the jungle for hours, my wife contemplating the pros and cons of divorce the whole time. Out loud. To me.

But I’ve been exposed to really great guides throughout my two-decades-long career of writing about adventure, and my stance on the subject has matured. You should never underestimate the value of following someone who knows where they’re going. The guides have been there before. They know the terrain and they know what to expect from the landscape. A good guide has all the right maps, and then, get this, actually remembers to bring them on the adventure! 

I think when I was younger, I was worried having a guide would put a damper on the amount of fun I could have in the woods, like having an overbearing chaperone on a middle school field trip. But you know what is really fun? Actually making it to your destination. Not sleeping in a cave because you’re lost and don’t have the right gear. Having enough food to eat is fun. 

Maybe just as important, a well-seasoned adventure guide is a professional decision maker. If the sky looks funny and the hair on the back of your neck is starting to stand up, the guide knows to get off the top of the mountain. If the bridge is washed out because of a flood and the water is waist deep, the guide knows to look for another spot to cross. Guides will not only plan your meals and snacks, they’ll tell you when to eat. Literally, they stop what they’re doing and say, “Now would be a good time for a snack.” They tell you where to set up your tent and remind you not to sleep with a Snickers bar in your pocket. Can you put a price on having a professional make all of the right decisions for you?

How many decisions do you make on a daily basis? Work decisions, parenting decisions, what to eat, where to eat, how much to eat, what to watch on TV, what book to read. Should you drink all the beers in the fridge right now or just one? Should you put a taco inside a slice of pizza and call it a Paco? Should you buy the new bike at the bike shop because it’s purple? Should you wear Crocs to the wedding? 

Decision fatigue is a real thing, and going on an adventure with a guide, where you surrender all of those decisions to a professional, can be downright therapeutic. Having a guide is like having a really smart person tell you what to do. Not only am I all in on hiring a guide for the backcountry, I’d be willing to hire a guide for my day to day life, too. Imagine waking up in the morning and over a calorie-packed breakfast, the guide tells you exactly where you’re going and what you’ll be doing, how far you’ll get if you stay on pace. And then at some point he’ll come into your office and tell you to eat a bar and take a nap. Sounds pretty damn great to me. 

I mean, I’m married, so I kind of have that person in my life already, but I might take the directions better if they’re coming from a third party who wears Chacos and always carries a first aid kit. 

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