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Plan outdoors trip online

The Web sites that have survived are more useful than ever for preparing almost any kind of adventure.

By MICHAEL SHAPIRO
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002


Even the Web proves Darwin was right. In this case, his unforgiving theory applies to sites about the outdoors: The fittest sites have survived, and the duds have vanished.

The remaining sites, ranging from the astonishingly comprehensive GORP to the tightly focused GrandCanyonHiker.com, continue to add depth and content, becoming more useful than ever.

Use search sites to hone in on specific pursuits, such as rafting in Idaho. For dedicated outdoor enthusiasts, the Net can be an essential tool for preparation.

However, not all site additions have been a bonus to Web surfers. Popup ads and other animated pitches can be distracting, but they generate revenue that helps these sites prosper.

Following is a roundup of some of the best online resources for planning outdoor getaways, from an afternoon hike to an African safari. Tools range from government-sponsored national park sites to professional outfitters' sites, such as Mountain Travel Sobek (www.mtsobek.com). The Web is not the only online resource. Discussion forums such as the Usenet group rec.outdoors.camping can be excellent resources for answering questions or learning more about a topic. Or visit groups.google.com to find Usenet groups by topic.

Listed here are a number of top sites; to see more, go to my collection at www.nettravel.com/adventure.html.

GORP (www.gorp.com): A sly play on the trail hikers' acronym for "good ol' raisins and peanuts," GORP has redefined itself with the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages. A compendium of trail guides, lively features and guidebook excerpts, GORP is a good first stop for trip planning and booking.

The nicely designed site lets you search by activity or destination (GORP is a leading reservation site for dude-ranch vacations). GORP also features a "Gear Guide" and recommends books by topic. Sample book chapters are available for free.

Away.com: With roots in ecology-based travel, away.com has branched out to feature a variety of adventures around the globe. Not every trip is a rugged test of character. Culinary tours have become popular, and away.com can show dozens of tour options for most of its categories.

A box labeled "Trip Finder" is a quick search tool for finding guided trips from about 200 outfitters. Click on "Inspiration" for stories from Outside magazine (away.com's online partner) and links to outfitters providing guided tours.

In April, away.com acquired GORP, and CEO Sean Greene says the combined company will be profitable this quarter, a rarity in the online content world.

IExplore.com: Partnering with the National Geographic Society, iExplore is a good source for outfitted trips, such as safaris or horseback-riding jaunts. A box labeled "Direct Trip Search" makes it easy to find trips by selecting region, country and activity, but only a limited selection of trips is available. Click on the "Trips" button near the top to narrow your search by price, departure date, trip length and maximum group size.

Trails.com: With access to more than 25,000 trail descriptions for North America, trails.com is a superb outdoors guide for hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers and snow-sport enthusiasts.

Trails.com works with leading guidebook publishers, such as Falcon Publishing and Wilderness Press, to provide free overviews of trails. For more detailed advice, you can buy chapters of outdoor guides "by the slice" as company founder Rob Holmes likes to say. These "eTrails" are available for $3.95 each, or cheaper with multitrail subscription plans.

Viewing the trails requires the Acrobat eBook Reader, a free download. After downloading an eTrail, print it out. It's far easier to read on paper than on the screen.

ParkNet (www.nps.gov): The National Park Service site is back online after a court order shut it down for several weeks last winter. With advice on attractions, camp sites and hikes, the site is a valuable tool for planning a visit to any of the hundreds of national parks, monuments, historic sites and seashores.

Click on "Visit Your Parks," then select a park. For more detailed information, click "inDepth" or "forKids" on a park's main page. You can also reserve a campsite online at reservations.nps.gov. Booking is available for 34 parks.

Campsites411.com: With listings for the United States and Canada, this site can help you find a place to park the RV or pitch your tent. FreeCampgrounds.com is a directory of free places to park for the night; suggestions are submitted by readers. Another tip: Most Wal-mart stores (www.walmart.com) allow RVers to park overnight. Another useful site is reserveamerica.com. Specialty Travel Index (www.spectrav.com): Use this site to find outfitters by destination or activity, or click on "Tour Operator" if you have heard of an outfitter and want to look it up. There's another category for "Special Offers."

Using an index such as STI can be a much more focused way to search. Rather than wading though thousands of results on a site, you can get a shorter, more relevant list for your query. However, don't ignore search sites. Google (www.google.com) and others can turn up outfitters not listed on STI.

REI.com: The West's leading outdoor-gear seller features thousands of items online and offers discounts on gear you might not find in stores, especially the smaller outlets such as Corte Madera.

For more bargains, see www.rei-outlet.com. LL Bean (www.llbean.com) and TravelSmith (www.travelsmith.com) feature apparel and clothes for light outdoor pursuits.

- Freelance writer Michael Shapiro, author of Internet Travel Planner, recently launched NetTravel (www.nettravel.com), a Web directory of top travel sites.

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