In rock climbing lingo, the definition of "sandbag" is: "A climb which receives a much lower grade than deserved. Also used as a verb when referring to the act of describing a climbing route as easier than it actually is." This under-rating isn't intentional - the rating is assigned by the first person to climb it and reflects their own experience, skills, and climbing quirks. What feels like a sandbag to me might feel spot on to you.
There is probably no topic on our active vacations, trip evaluations, and even our guide retreats that engenders more discussion than the topic of the ratings for our trips. Our goal, always, is to get you on a trip that delights you and meets your expectations. Choosing a trip with the appropriate degree of challenge is one part of that.
Your personal experience of how challenging a trip will be are a complex interplay of at least 5 factors:
- your fitness level;
- how many hours of hiking, kayaking etc the trip requires;
- your amount of experience with the activity;
- the current conditions (especially weather);
- your personal reaction to all of the above.
Fitness and activity:
Our ratings system is primarily based on fitness and length of activity. None of our trips are suitable for women who are completely sedentary. A rating of 3 is often interpreted as moderate and it is - but its moderate for a woman who regularly engages in aerobic activity, either jogging, biking, working out a gym, or power walking. Women who are very active during the day but whose regular exercise is walking mostly on the flat will find that trips rated 3 are pretty challenging.
Previous experience in the activity is also a key factor. We try to address that in the section of the trip description called "Is This the Right Trip For You", especially in the Ratings section. Here we describe why it has the rating it does and whether it's appropriate for novices or whether some or alot of previous experience is suggested.
But experience isn't everything. A few years ago on our Canadian Rockies Hiking Holiday we had 2 hikers of very different experience levels, one having hiked a couple of times in the Colorado Rockies and the other having hiked in a variety of places, including several trips with us. On one descent from a pass the trail goes through a scree field, i.e. there are lots of small rocks. Most people, unless they have lots of experience hiking on similar trails, find they have to pick their way down carefully. On this particular trip, the woman who had less experience wasn't bothered by the trail and came down easily. The more experienced hiker had a lot of trouble, felt totally unprepared by our description, and was exhausted at the end. I personally hate descending on trails that are hardpacked with lots of tiny little slippery rocks and can pretty much count on feeling tired at the end of the descent if its more than 30 minutes. We all have our personal reaction to different conditions. Experience helps - I've learned how to safely go down those trails with hiking poles - but I'll never enjoy them or find them easy. And of course the only way to gain the necessary experience is to do them. Experience can, to a degree, also compensate for lower levels of fitness because of the efficiency learned over the years. An experienced less fit hiker/paddler will often have more energy at the end of the day than an inexperienced hiker/paddler who is more fit. This is particularly true if the conditions (weather, footing) are challenging.
Whenever you're engaged in an outdoor adventure (i.e. any of our trips), there are always unpredictable conditions that can change the nature of the experience. A common one is weather. We have been offering kayaking trips in Belize for the last couple of years that we have rated 2 and 3 because there are options for how you balance relaxation time and activity time on some of the days. This year the initial day was quite windy on one trip with bigger rolling waves, and what had taken an hour and a half last year took three hours of hard paddling this year. Everyone successfully made the crossing but they definitely had to work harder than they expected. Based on this experience and the feedback of participants, we have decided to rate the trip as a 3, since we generally want to put the rating at the highest level that might be required for any one day. But next year if the water is calm, we might hear that it deserves a lower rating.
The last factor, your personal reaction, is probably both the hardest to quantify and the most critical - often because you yourself won't know until you're in the middle of it. But that is also what makes something an adventure - we are outside our normal routine, trying new things in new places with new people, and in the process learning about ourselves. You might learn that you don't like something or that you really need something specific to be happy. Or you might learn that you can push yourself further and harder than you ever imagined. I was recently talking with someone who was interested in Trekking in Nepal, a trip that not only has challenging hiking but also a completely different culture and living standards than we are used to. She was quite fit but had done little hiking and no travel in a Third World country. Since I was confident she could do it physically, I told her that I thought it would be taking a big leap to go on the trek; but if that was what she was looking for, it would be an amazing experience.
Our ratings are meant to be a starting point, a way for you to start assessing whether a trip is appropriate for your fitness level. The itinerary will also give you additional information. But the itinerary can't give you context you don't have i.e. if the itinerary says that you will be hiking 4 hours with a 3000 foot elevation gain - but you've never hiked more than rolling hills - you can't have any way of knowing how that will feel. So if you're in any doubt whether a trip is going to be suitable, we want you to call us so we can talk about what your experience is, what you're looking for, and why you're interested in a particular trip. We don't want to sell you a trip, we don't want to talk you out of a trip, we want to help you choose the right trip for you. The last thing we want is for you to feel sandbagged.