Tom’s Favorite Trip Improvements

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Tom Hale Running circa 1974I started Backroads in 1979. In that year, the Sony Walkman was a top selling gift, the Bee Gees released three chart-topping hits and Atari launched “Asteroids.” Fast-forward nearly 40 years and here at Backroads we’re still fundamentally doing the same thing we did while wearing puka shells on runs. (Yes, that is me on the right!) We’re as committed to guest satisfaction and trip quality as ever.

Over the decades, we’ve learned a thing or two from our guests, our own excursions and our intrepid leaders.

While I could write a book on our evolution, I’ll narrow it down to a brief(ish) list of my favorite improvements in recent years.

Why blog about this topic? Because your vacations matter. They should create lifelong memories of unique experiences. And they should let you focus solely on what you want to get out of your Backroads trip–closer relationships with your kids, adventure, inspiration… you name it.

If it’s been a while since you’ve traveled with Backroads, or if you think Backroads is just about bike trips, we’ve got some big surprises in store for you!

More walking and hiking trips Waaay back when, Backroads was all about bike tours. We started walking trips 25 years ago. In recent years, we’ve had insatiable demand for walking and hiking tours, which we now offer all around the world–from Japan to Peru to Scotland and beyond. Some people prefer to travel on foot, at a slower pace, and feel even more immersed in the local culture and landscape that way. Of course, we’ve adapted our support strategy to offer the same level of flexibility and freedom found on our biking trips because the world is best explored at your own pace. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Backroads-Walking-and-Hiking-Trips

Backroads Leader playing with Kid GuestMore family trips I’ve blogged about biking with kids and traveling with extended family, so this is obviously a hot topic for me. Kids on Backroads trips range from age 4 to over 18, and we all know that their definitions of “fun” are vastly different! We give families trip options that specialize by age group so the little ones are playing, teenagers are exploring, parents are basking, and everyone’s having fun at exactly their own level.

GPS on bike trips How did we ever manage with paper? I remember some pretty soggy maps on rainy days. Now, I love zipping through 10 turns in a kilometer with nary a worry about getting lost. I won’t go into much detail here since I’ve blogged about the freedom our GPS delivers, but being able to go at exactly my Type-A personality pace and knowing where I am at all times is easily one of my favorite improvements.

Multi-adventure trips Our world is a stunning place and sometimes the best way to experience it is from a variety of perspectives. Our multi-adventure trips were born from the idea that sometimes, to truly experience a place, you need to do more than just bike or hike. Now, we’re also riding camels in India, doing jeep safaris in South Africa, kayaking in the Galápagos, and so much more. Dogsledding, rock climbing, river rafting, even pasta making–the list is endless. While all of our trips have a cultural element to them, these multi-adventure trips go even deeper and are a whole new type of active travel experience. And yes, these are the very same trips that we used to call Multisport. Why the change in name? Because they’ve always been about so much more than just being active.

Backroads Guests Riding Camels in Morocco

Increased individual flexibility (aka “Shifting Gears”) When I travel, I like to mix things up day by day, and I expect that many of you do too. You should be able to customize your experience as much as possible. I’ve personally evangelized the importance of this from Day 1. It’s in our DNA. We’re so passionate about flexibility that we’ve coined the term “Shifting Gears.” It’s easy to say you’re flexible, but it’s another to deliver on it.

The genesis of Shifting Gears was a trip in Iceland, where we’d seen many amazing waterfalls amid absolutely spectacular countryside. Yet when it was time to go visit yet another amazing waterfall, I waylaid a Backroads van because I wanted to go have a drink in the bar instead. Lo and behold, 10 guests got in with me. Lightbulb moment! We’ve always encouraged and empowered our guests to make the most of each moment of their trip. And there is nothing like biking or hiking to naturally enhance this most important feature. With Shifting Gears, we’ve empowered our guests and leaders alike to make their entire trip all it can be. We don’t make leaders or guests follow a prescribed “script” for how the day must unfold, minute by minute. Instead, we enable them to be flexible so that every guest’s experience is unique and completely tailored.

River cruises These offerings really resonate with people who want a more relaxed trip. You’re not packing and unpacking. You can be as active as you want to be. Our ship-based and land-based crew has bikes and maps and adventures ready at every port for our guests, enabling them to explore the roads less traveled. We’re not following the same old beaten track and are definitely venturing far away from the “cruise bubble.” Occasionally, Backroads even takes over an entire ship, like the Danube cruise I’m taking in September.

Backroads Duoro River Cruise Tour

New performance road bikes Henry Ford once said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Back when we started, we used to just have bikes. Just as you can now get a car in any color imaginable, we now offer a multitude of bike options for a variety of rider types.

Tom Hale riding a vintage Backroads BicycleMy favorite, recent bike improvement is the addition of a new, custom titanium bike for our more serious riders who don’t want to upgrade to our amazing Specialized S-Works (which retail for $10,000) option. These new bikes are built from aircraft-grade titanium, are 5 pounds lighter, and offer lightweight carbon alloy wheels, electronic Di2 shifting, and other cool features targeted at experienced cyclists. At no extra cost. (No, they look nothing like the bike I’m on in this picture, circa 1979, but this topic was making me nostalgic.)

eBikes Over 10% of our cycling guests absolutely adore our eBikes (electric-assist bikes). Other than the bit of pushback we got from a few purists when we introduced these bikes, wow, what a hit eBikes have been. Read my blog for those early anecdotes. eBikes continue to gain popularity as they level the playing field and let people of all ages and abilities experience our trips together. They’re pure magic that way.

Straight Talk I’m a straight shooter. I want to hear guests’ honest opinions of our trips and believe we owe prospective guests the same courtesy. So we alert prospective guests to aspects of a trip that might impact their experience. For example, some parts of trails can be pretty rough on our Patagonia multi-adventure tour; the historic lodge on our Crater Lake hiking trip is simpler than our typical standard; and we’re biking in very remote areas in Myanmar. These points may not matter to most guests, but may make all the difference to others, so we arm you with as much knowledge as possible to maximize your fun factor. Our trips are amazing because of our amazing guests–made more so when everyone chose their trip for the right reasons.

I applaud you if you’re still with me… I could write forever about quality and perpetual improvements. Let me know if I’ve missed one of your favorites. Because you’re the reason we are constantly improving.

After nearly 40 years, we’re more committed than ever to knowing what we can do to make your active vacations even better, and then making that happen. Maybe that’s why some of my colleagues have accused me of running Backroads like a start-up – they say it’s like perpetually being in the last mile of a marathon. I just tell them, “You’re welcome.”

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Tom Hale

Tom Hale

Founder and President at Backroads
A native of Moraga, California, Tom Hale possesses a passion for two seemingly divergent interests—business and back roads—which he has powered into the world's most successful active travel company, Backroads. It was the back roads that first attracted him, as a competitive runner at Campolindo High School (where he still holds the two-mile record at 8:57.2) and at the University of Oregon, where he was a teammate of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Armed with a Masters in Environmental Planning from UCLA, Hale was six months into an environmental planning position in Las Vegas when the back roads called again—big time. A middle-of-the-night inspiration to start a bike touring company motivated him to pedal 5,000 miles alone through the West, all the while formulating plans for his new business. Settling in Berkeley, Hale washed fondue pots by night and built his fledgling travel company by day. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he did it all—designed the itineraries, maintained the bikes, led the trips, produced the catalog.
Tom Hale

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