Lance Armstrong might be the one who brought national attention to competitive cycling, but Tom Hale is no stranger to seeing the world through a set of handlebars. As founder and president of Backroads, an active travel outfitter, he and his trip leaders have guided adventurers on biking, hiking, and kayaking expeditions around the world for the past 25 years. From Bali to Belize and Machu Picchu to Montana, what began as a passionate (and perhaps obsessive) hobby has become a full-time job for the man who once logged 5,000 miles on a solo ride through the American West. T+L caught up with Hale on one of his signature excursions in Utah's sandstone wonderland to find out how he started, whose opinions determine the Backroads itineraries, and why he always packs a headlamp.
1) Where are you right now?
I am surrounded by the spans of Arches National Park in Moab, Utah.
2) You started Backroads 25 years ago. Where did the idea originate?
I spent the summer of 1979 on a 5,000-mile bike ride. I started at the end of the BART line in San Francisco and rode down the Pacific coast, into Palm Springs, through the Mojave Desert, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington, and finished at the California-Oregon border. I met so many interesting people and saw such awe-inspiring natural beauty. That journey was the genesis of Backroads.
3) What do you always pack when you travel?
My pad and pen are always with me—it's amazing the inspiration you get for improving trips and developing new destinations when you're out on the road. And I bring a headlamp for early morning runs.
4) How do you craft an authentic experience?
When you travel under your own locomotion at your own pace, you gain a sense of journey and accomplishment—whether it's taking a break from cycling to help rice farmers with their harvest in China, tasting olive oils at Lorenza de' Medici's private Tuscan estate, or kayaking to an otherwise inaccessible part of the Gulf Islands.
5) What is the biggest challenge in planning an active trip?
It's easy enough to find the best hotels or the top restaurants. The challenge lies in weaving these together with scenic routes. You've got to strike a balance between physical activity and cultural immersion.
6) How do you decide what becomes part of the program each season?
I ask myself if my closest friends and family would rave about the trip. If the answer is yes, then I'm happy to offer it.
7) Are any of the original Backroads trips still offered?
After 25 years of fine-tuning, the Death Valley, Bryce/Zion/Grand Canyon, New Mexico, Yellowstone and the Tetons, Glacier, the Canadian Rockies, Puget Sound, and California Wine Country trips are still going strong.
8) Do you have a favorite place to stay?
The Château de la Treyne, a 14th-century castle on the banks of France's Dordogne River. I love getting up early enough to run along the river and catch the mist rising off the water.
9) What advice do you offer travelers about to embark on an active vacation?
Choose a reputable outfit, because they're not all created equal. It's important to choose a company that is committed to service and can ensure consistent quality on every trip. Ask if the company is willing and able to provide guest references. Do they run their own departures?Do the management and staff travel as guests on the trips?Does every trip include a leader with experience on the route?And be sure to do some biking or hiking prior to your trip—a bit of training makes a difference.
10) Your mom was one of the first people to embark on a Backroads adventure—your first trip, a bike tour through Death Valley. How has your family influenced the direction of Backroads?
Both of my parents encouraged me to take the path that was right for me, not necessarily the most sensible one. When I mentioned that I was going to exchange years of college for leading bike trips, I'm sure they thought that this wasn't a smart idea. But they never said so, and I was free to make it or break it. Thanks, Mom and Dad.