Outfitters & Adventure-Travel Operators
Most outfitters offer trips in specific geographic areas only, though some larger outfitters package trips across the country. We'll recommend lots of local operators and tell you about the outings they run. We've found a few, though, that operate in more than one region of Canada.
The Great Canadian Adventure Company (tel. 888/285-1676 or 780/414-1676; www.adventures.ca) offers over 40 different types of guided activities and expeditions -- including all of the standards, plus such options as First Nations and Inuit cultural tours, helicopter- or snowcat-transported backcountry skiing and snowboarding, and a submersible excursion -- in every province and just about every nook of the country.
Canadian River Expeditions (tel. 800/297-6927 or 867/668-3180; www.nahanni.com) offers white-water and naturalist float trips in rivers across western and northern Canada, with the South Nahanni River a specialty.
Canusa Cycle Tours (tel. 800/938-7986; www.canusa-cat.com) offers guided cycle tours along some of western Canada's most scenic highways, including the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper.
Ecosummer Expeditions (tel. 800/465-8884 or 250/674-0102; www.ecosummer.com) offers a wide variety of wildlife viewing, sea kayaking, white-water rafting, dog sledding, photography, and other expeditions in British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut. Ecosummer also offers trips to Greenland and Central America.
Black Feather (tel. 888/849-7668 or 705/746-1372; www.blackfeather.com) leads kayaking, canoeing, and hiking trips in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Ontario, and Labrador. Some tours are family-oriented, while others are women-only.
An Outfitter vs. Planning Your Own Trip
A basic consideration for most people who embark on an adventure vacation is time versus money. If you have time on your hands and have basic skills in dealing with sports and the outdoors, then planning your own trip can be fun. On the other hand, making one phone call and writing one check makes a lot more sense if you don't have a lot of time and lack the background to safely get you where you want to go.
Transportation & Equipment -- In general, the more remote the destination, the more you should consider an outfitter. In many parts of Canada, simply getting to the area where your trip begins requires a great deal of planning. Frequently, outfitters will have their own airplanes or boats, or work in conjunction with someone who does. These transportation costs are usually included in the price of an excursion and are usually cheaper than the same flight or boat trip on a chartered basis.
The same rule applies to equipment rental. Getting your kayak or canoe to an out-of-the-way lake can be an adventure in itself. But hire an outfitter, and they'll take care of the hassle.
Another option is to use an outfitter to "package" your trip. Some outfitters offer their services to organize air charters and provide equipment for a fee but leave you to mastermind the trip.
Safety -- Much of Canada is remote and given to weather extremes. What might be considered a casual camping trip or boating excursion in more populated or temperate areas can become life-threatening in the Canadian backcountry -- which often starts right at the edge of town. Almost all outfitters are certified as first-aid providers, and most carry two-way radios or satellite phones in case there's a need to call for help. Local outfitters also know the particular hazards of the areas where they lead trips. In some areas, such as the Arctic, where hazards range from freakish weather to ice-floe movements and polar bears, outfitters are nearly mandatory.
Other People -- Most outfitters will lead groups on excursions only after signing up a minimum number of participants. This is usually a financial consideration for the outfitter, but for participants this can be both good and bad news. Traveling with the right people can add to the trip's enjoyment, but the wrong companions can lead to exasperation and disappointment. If you're sensitive to other peoples' idiosyncrasies, ask the potential outfitter specific questions regarding who else is going on the trip.
Selecting an Outfitter
An outfitter will be responsible for your safety and your enjoyment of the trip, so make certain you choose one wisely. All outfitters should be licensed or accredited by the province and should be happy to provide you with proof. This means they're bonded, carry the necessary insurance, and have the money and organizational wherewithal to register with the province. This rules out fly-by-night operations and college students who've decided to set up business for the summer. If you're just starting to plan an excursion, ask the provincial tourist authority for its complete list of licensed outfitters.
Often, a number of outfitters offer similar trips. When you've narrowed down your choice, call and talk to those outfitters. Ask questions and try to get a sense of who these people are; you'll be spending a lot of time with them, so make sure you feel comfortable. If you have special interests, such as bird- or wildlife-watching, be sure to mention them. A good outfitter will also take your interests into account when planning a trip.
If there's a wide disparity in prices between outfitters for the same trip, find out what makes the difference. Some companies economize on food. If you don't mind having cold cuts for each meal of your weeklong canoe expedition, then perhaps the least expensive outfitter is okay. However, if you prefer a cooked meal, alcoholic beverages, or a choice of entrees, then be prepared to pay more. On a long trip, it may be worth it to you.
Ask how many years an outfitter has been in business and how long your particular escort has guided this trip. While a start-up outfitting service can be perfectly fine, you should know what level of experience you're buying. If you have questions, especially for longer or more dangerous trips, ask for referrals.
What to Pack
Be sure that it's clearly established between you and your outfitter what you're responsible for bringing along. If you need to bring a sleeping bag, find out what weight of bag is suggested for the conditions you'll encounter. If you have any special dietary requirements, find out whether you can be accommodated or need to pack and prepare accordingly.
While it's fun and relatively easy to amass the equipment for a backcountry expedition, none of it will do you any good if you don't know how to use it. Even though compasses aren't particularly accurate in the North, bring one along and know how to use it (or consider using a GPS device). Detailed maps are always a good idea. If you're trekking without guidance, make sure you have the skills appropriate to your type of expedition, plan your packing well (with contingencies for changes in weather), and bring along a good first-aid kit.
For all summer trips in Canada, make sure to bring along insect repellent, as mosquitoes can be particularly numerous and hungry. If you know you're heading into bad mosquito country, consider buying specialized hats with mosquito netting attached, or full mosquito jackets. Sunglasses are a must, even above the Arctic Circle. The farther north you go in summer, the longer the sun stays up; the low angle of the sun can be particularly annoying. In winter, the glare off snow can cause sun blindness. For the same reasons, sunscreen is a necessity.
Summer weather is changeable in Canada. If you're planning outdoor activities, be sure to bring along wet-weather gear, even in high summer. The more exposure you'll have to the elements, the more you should consider bringing high-end Gore-Tex and artificial-fleece outerwear. The proper gear can make the difference between a miserable time and a great adventure.
If you're traveling in Canada in winter, you'll want to have the best winter coat, gloves, and boots you can afford. A coat with a hood is especially important, as winter winds can blow for days at a time.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.