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How to Cook Over a Fire with a Dutch Oven

Perfecting the technique of using a Dutch oven over an open fire gets you cooking outdoors, keeps your fire-building skills sharp, and, well, just feels like a good skill to have in the event of the End Times. 

Dutch ovens work effectively because they retain heat and cook evenly in the imperfect environment of an open fire, says Emily Rahravan, an editorial assistant at America’s Test Kitchen, where she’s also known as the camp cook extraordinaire. For four years she did much of the cooking for her outdoors club at Allegheny College, including many big-batch meals in Dutch ovens.

A cast-iron Dutch oven will also unequivocally survive the apocalypse. “I love Dutch ovens because they’re basically bulletproof,” says Matt Carter, chef and partner at Fat OxThe Mission, and Zinc Bistro restaurants in Arizona. When Carter takes river trips, he packs two cast-iron Dutch ovens. They’re no worse for wear after getting a little banged around, he says, and when he’s done cooking, he simply scrubs them out with a little river sand. 

Here’s how to put yours to work. 

Pick Your Pot 

Sticking that gorgeous, $400 enamel-lined number you got for your wedding into a fire isn’t the best idea if you want to stay married. When Carter describes Dutch ovens as bulletproof, he’s talking about the cast-iron versions. Both he and Rahravan own models by Lodge, which are relatively affordable (they start at $49) and almost impossible to break. You can also often find them at secondhand stores and yard sales. 

If you do buy a used one, make sure it comes with the right sized lid—it’s important that it fits tight. The other features are optional. Rahravan has one with three stubby legs, which makes it easier to stuff hot coals under. But you can achieve the same effect by propping a pot up on a few rocks. Pot hangers, which dangle over a fire and make your Dutch oven look like a cauldron, are unnecessary, both Rahravan and Carter say. You will, however, want good heat-proof gloves or oven mitts (preferably constructed with silicone) and a safe tool for moving hot coals around, like a small shovel. 

Choose Your Recipe

There are few things that don’t work in a Dutch oven, but hearty recipes—think chili, stew, and pork shoulder—which can stand up to long, slow cook times, are a great place to start, says Carter. He almost always tucks a whole pork shoulder into the coals of a campfire before going to bed the first night of a camping trip. If you have enough hot coals, he says, it should be warm enough to keep that pork slow-cooking all night. The next day he feasts on tacos and pozole.

Of course, you don’t have to be a carnivore to dive into Dutch oven cooking. Rahravan would often make mushroom risotto on camping trips in college. (The trick is to stir regularly to keep the rice from scorching.) Soups are an easy, no-meat option too. 

The only thing Carter says he avoids making in a Dutch oven are eggs and delicate cakes. Both are likely to burn on the bottom before being completely cooked on the top. Any other recipe that was written for a Dutch oven at home, however, should work outdoors, says Rahravan. 

Build Your Fire

Cooking over a fire is a misnomer, since it’s not the flame so much as the coals you want. Rahravan says building a fire is usually her first step when she gets to a campsite. She’ll set up her tent while she waits for the fire to generate the glowing coals she’ll use for cooking. You know coals are hot enough when they glow red in the middle. “They should be kind of shimmery,” she explains. Or, if it’s daylight and it’s hard to see them glowing, Carter says they should have a greyish coating of ash on the outside. 

If you want to sit around your fire and cook on it, you’ll need a two-sided fire. Keep feeding half the fire, while letting the other half burn down to hot coals. Besides keeping you warm, a two-sided fire generates extra coals that will keep your Dutch oven toasty all night long. 

Put Everything Together

If you need to sear or sautee, place your Dutch oven on a squat little pile of coals and let it heat up. This direct heat is too hot for low-and-slow braising, but it works well for browning meat or turning onions translucent. Once you’re done with this step, though, you’ll want to chill things out a bit. To lower the temp, either place a wire rack over your pile of coals and elevate your Dutch oven, or place it on a few rocks. 

For dishes that will cook for a long time, like stew, avoid messing with the food once you put the lid on the pot. Each time you do, you’ll be releasing valuable heat, says Rahravan. For the most evenly cooked product, top the lid with more hot coals, so that just like an oven, heat is coming from all sides. Carter will sometimes seal the sides of the Dutch oven before placing it on the fire, wrapping foil around the lid and the lip just to be extra sure no ash gets in. Rahravan says it’s probably OK to skip this step. “I find the kind of person who is going to making shakshuka or a pork roast fireside is not that worried about a little extra carbon in their food,” she laughs. 

Be Patient

When adapting an indoors Dutch oven cooking recipe for outdoors, you’ll need to adjust expectations for how long it takes. Rahravan says things generally take longer over the fire—up to 20 percent more time, she estimates. 

When you get to about the time the dish would take to cook indoors, crack open the lid and take a peek. “Cooking over a fire definitely makes you a better chef because you start to learn the visual cues for when things are done,” she says. As a general rule, meat should be brown, stews should be bubbly, and veggies should be soft. If things seem are moving especially slowly, grab more coals (this is why you build a two-sided fire), and slide them underneath your pot. 

Dish Up and Enjoy

By the time you’re done, you’ll have that woody smoke smell in your hair and a bowl full of hot, nourishing food. Bonus: you’ll know that even if society breaks down completely, you can, at the very least, cook a damn good meal.    

A fresh corn chowder is one of Rahravan’s go-to dishes for campfire Dutch oven cooking. She adapted the following recipe slightly for outdoor cooking from Cook It In Your Dutch Oven, an America’s Test Kitchen cookbook. For this dish, place your Dutch oven over a fire on a metal grate or rack, which will be hotter for sauteeing. If you don’t have a grate, let the fire burn down, and then bury the oven well into the coals so there’s plenty of heat.  

Fresh Corn Chowder

10 ears corn, husks and silk removed
4 slices bacon, finely chopped (optional)
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups whole milk
12 ounces red potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1/4‑inch pieces
2 bay leaves
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Salt and pepper

Working with one ear of corn at a time, stand each of four ears on end inside a large bowl and cut kernels from the cobs using a paring knife. Grate the remaining six ears over the large holes of a box grater into a separate bowl. Using the back of a butter knife, scrape the remaining pulp from all the cobs into the bowl with the grated corn.
Cook bacon over medium heat until crisp, five to seven minutes. For a vegetarian version, swap in a tablespoon of vegetable oil instead—if you do, heat until oil shimmers. Stir in onion and cook until softened, about five minutes. If you don’t hear sizzling when you add onion, the pot isn’t hot enough and you need to move it closer to the heat or build up the fire. 
Stir in garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. 
Stir in flour and cook for one minute. 
Slowly whisk in broth and milk, scraping up any browned bits and smoothing out lumps. Stir in potatoes, bay leaves, and grated corn and pulp mixture. Bring to simmer. If your soup is actively bubbling or boiling, move your Dutch oven away from the heat by raising your tripod or shifting it further away on the grate. Cook until potatoes are almost tender, about 15 minutes.
Stir in remaining corn kernels and cream. Cook until corn kernels are tender yet still slightly crunchy, about five minutes. Discard bay leaves. Stir in parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste.

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Rock Climbers and Conservationists Unite Behind Indigenous Nations to Defend Bears Ears

In May 2017, Luke Mehall, publisher of the Climbing Zine and the author of five books about rock climbing, was scouting new routes among the sandstone buttes of Indian Creek in southern Utah when he noticed something alarming. A small portion of the land had been blown apart, and lying atop a scattering of rocks was a box of old explosives. Not realizing what they were at first, Mehall moved them slightly, soon realizing his mistake. Shortly after that, Mehall noticed the start of an abandoned uranium exploratory mine. Mehall contacted the local Bureau of Land Management office, and a BLM official hiked out to the mine with Mehall to locate the explosives for eventual removal. The miners’ casual disregard for the landscape—not to mention public safety—served as a sharp reminder for Mehall about “why the industry has to be so heavily regulated.” Especially, he says, “on sacred lands where they shouldn’t be allowed to mine or extract.”

Much of southern Utah’s sandstone slot canyons, high mesas covered in piñon and juniper, and blue-gray badlands were once protected as national monuments. In 1996, President Clinton established the vast Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, nearly 2 million acres of canyonlands floored with perennial streams and velvet ribbons of cottonwoods. In December 2016, President Obama created Bears Ears National Monument after a coalition of five southwestern Native American nations spearheaded a historic campaign to protect and comanage their ancestral lands. But two years ago, in an unprecedented move, President Trump ordered the near-abolishment of Bears Ears and a dramatic downsizing of Grand Staircase–Escalante. It was the largest rollback of protected public lands in US history.

Old explosives found by Mehall while scouting routes in Bears Ears during Spring 2017. | Photo courtesy of Luke Mehall

Now, the Trump administration is moving ahead with a plan that—if it withstands court challenges from Indigenous nations and conservation and outdoor recreation organizations—would allow for new oil, gas, and mineral extraction in the once-preserved landscapes. In February, Trump’s BLM released its finalized Monument Management Plans for Grand Staircase–Escalante as well as the remnant areas of Bears Ears—what the Trump administration is now calling Indian Creek and Shash Jáa units of the Bears Ears National Monument. The plan will permit fossil fuel and uranium mining companies to lease around 1 million acres of land in the former Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments. Oil and gas companies have already submitted to the Interior Department 230 nominations for areas they would like to explore, stretching across some 150,000 acres of public lands. At least 30 tentative leases are within five miles of the original Bears Ears National Monument boundaries, with some as close as one mile to the monument. 

The push for increased mineral development and fossil fuel exploration fits squarely within a larger effort by the Trump administration to use the pandemic as an opportunity to push through its long-standing extraction agenda. In March and early April, on the heels of a request from the American Petroleum Institute, the federal government eased permitting regulations in national forest lands for exploration, development, and mining, as well as temporarily eased EPA regulations on polluting industries such as the oil and gas industry

The administration is also fast-tracking the leasing of oil and gas permits, and now offering noncompetitive leasing—resulting in a massive auctioning off of US public lands to the oil and gas industry at rock-bottom prices. In late April, the Energy Department released a report announcing that the government “will take bold action to revive and strengthen the uranium mining industry” while also calling for a loosening of “permitting and regulatory burdens.” Conservation groups say the administration’s push for expanded uranium mining threatens the landscapes of southern Utah, which are known to contain significant uranium deposits.

“Along with many other reasons, the Trump administration should rot in jail for the atrocities of shrinking the monument,” says Mehall, who has spent two decades climbing in the Bears Ears region and who, this spring, proposed to his fiancée at one of the area’s remote campsites. Feeling lost and angry following Trump’s election and the monument rollback, Mehall has tried to channel his energy into environmental activism to save Bears Ears.

Named after its lunar pictograph, the Moon House is a multiroom cliff dwelling on Cedar Mesa, dating to the 1200s A.D. It has been affected by looters who have swept the site of its artifacts and has been threatened by overuse from visitors. | Photo courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM

Dave Marcinowski on a route called Microdose in Indian Creek, Bears Ears National Monument. | Photo courtesy of Luke Mehall

Mehall is part of an ad hoc coalition of rock climbers, scientists, Indigenous nations, conservationists, and ranchers fighting to defend the region from the Trump administration’s agenda. Each group holds different connections to the lands of southern Utah. For some, the high desert country is a place to play; for others, it is the site for sacred ceremonies passed down from ancestors; for others, it is a working landscape or a research site. But whether they are invested in the land for cultural, recreational, or scientific reasons, all agree that the former monuments should be preserved. Friends of Cedar Mesa, a local conservation group, and the Access Fund, a rock climbing organization, have joined Utah Diné Bikéyah and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in filing lawsuits against the proposed monument reductions. Those groups—along with nine national conservation organizations including the Sierra Club—argue that the Trump administration’s proposed rollback violates the Antiquities Act, and they have asked a federal court to put the monument management plans on hold while the case is being heard.

“For us, as Indigenous peoples, Bears Ears is the same as how some view churches,” says Alastair Bitsoi, communications director of Utah Diné Bikéyah. The Indigenous-led grassroots organization has been at the forefront of efforts to establish—and, now, defend—the area known as Bears Ears, which holds cultural and sacred significance to the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian, and Pueblo Zuni nations (known collectively as the Five Tribes). Members of those nations have long used the territory for hunting and fishing, for gathering medicinal and sacred plants, and for cultural ceremonies that pay respect to their ancestors who have resided in those lands since time immemorial. “We have different histories, ceremonies, and worldviews, but there are also universal values across each of these unique cultures with connections to Bears Ears. That’s the beauty of Bears Ears. There is not just one culture, society, or language that can fully emphasize how important this landscape is to all of us as Indigenous peoples, as humans.”

For non-Indigenous climbers like Mehall, the effort to defend Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante has led to a deeper understanding of the cultural connections, traditions, and values of Bears Ears to the Five Tribes and how the climbing community can support them in the fight to preserve the land. This understanding came into stark focus one day in April 2016, when Mehall completed the first ascent of a crack system rising to the top of a red sandstone butte that overlooked sagebrush, piñon pine, and juniper trees as far as he could see. Given how remote the rock formation was and the inaccessibility of the 400-foot sheer cliff face rising to the top of the pinnacle, Mehall and his climbing partner wondered, “Gosh, are we the first people to be here?”

“As I was thinking about it, I looked down and saw a bunch of beautiful pieces of broken pottery,” Mehall says. “It gave me goosebumps. A place where we thought we were maybe the first people to stand, people had stood 1,000 years ago, up 400 feet of sheer vertical rock, and must have carved Moki steps, surely risking their lives.” Moki steps are hand and toe holds carved into the steep sandstone walls by the Ancestral Puebloans so they could access cliff dwellings and storage areas. “The narrative a lot of times is the first climbers came along in the ’60s and ’70s,” Mehall says, “But truly the Ancestral Puebloans were the first climbers.”

“The tribes have been taking care of this place since time immemorial,” says Chris Winter, executive director of the Access Fund. “And so we view everything we do in Bears Ears through that lens of supporting the tribes’ leadership, and putting an emphasis on securing permanent protection for the cultural values of this place.”

President Obama’s designation of Bears Ears marked the first time that rock climbing was explicitly mentioned in a national monument designation, and the Access Fund has focused much of its efforts on defending the Indian Creek Climbing Area, parts of which Trump removed from monument protection with his administration’s attempted rollback. “Being 150 feet up on a vertical wall, looking out over sandstone towers; it’s hard not to come away from that experience wanting to ensure that the landscape is protected for all time,” says Winter. “That’s what we feel as climbers. We go down there, we fall in love with it, we bring back that inspiration with us, and turn it into advocacy.”

Along with supporting Indigenous nations in their advocacy, the Access Fund has also invested in trail maintenance, stewardship, and public education to climbers in Bears Ears in an effort to minimize climbers’ impacts on the landscape. Such grassroots land stewardship is especially important today, since the Trump administration’s proposed monument management plan postponed for five years the creation of a comprehensive recreation strategy—a situation that could allow for more recreation without adequate oversight, and put cultural resources in jeopardy.

Local conservationists and Native Americans have already witnessed what can happen when the area is left unprotected. Josh Ewing, director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, says that not long ago he came across an area where “a dirt bike rider left the designated road, drove across up a steep slickrock slope and into a cave containing burials that are at least 1,500 years old.” Once in the cave, the dirt bike rider drove in circles, scattering bones and leaving human remains strewn across the site. He says that the Trump administration’s division and dramatic shrinkage of Bears Ears has left “a monument in name only.” 

As the legal challenge to the Trump administration’s monument rollbacks slowly winds its way through the courts, the Bear Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is continuing to develop its own land management plan for Bears Ears. The coalition’s plan centers on “native and traditional ways at land management,” while also relying on cutting-edge science, says the coalition executive director, Patrick Gonzales-Rogers, who previously worked as the Senior Native Advisor at the US Fish and Wildlife Service as well as general counsel to the US Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The coalition’s draft plan would allow for the autonomy of each of the Five Tribes to steward the sections of Bears Ears that are most important to them while also prioritizing land management strategies tailored for a changing climate.

Under the original Obama administration monument designation, the area was supposed to be comanaged by the federal government and the five Indigenous nations. Even the Trump administration planning process identified the tribes as “collaborative managers,” and the BLM says the agency maintained frequent contact with the coalition “in order to incorporate tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge” into the new monument management plan. 

But Gonzales-Rogers says the Indigenous nations haven’t been treated as full partners. “The BLM says they’ve done appropriate consultation—that’s just a bald-faced lie.” Gonzales-Rogers is an expert on federal government relations with Native nations—while at the USFWS, he coauthored the agency’s Tribal Consultation Policy handbook—and he says that, in the case of Bears Ears, the BLM has failed to follow best practices for government-to-government collaboration. The consultation period was far too short, he says, and it seemed that the important decisions had been made before they were reviewed by the monument’s advisory committee. “Tribes are the top collaborative manager, but they did not even include tribal leadership to be on this advisory committee—and 10 of the 14 spots were for industry. It discounts the vantage of Indian Country in a formal way.”

Such inadequate representation has allowed for some controversial land management practices to be included in the proposed monument management plan. For example, the BLM is proposing to allow the “chaining” of piñon and juniper trees—a practice in which a chain is strung between two bulldozers to clear out the conifers, with the putative goal of restoring sagebrush habitat. “Piñon and juniper are cultural resources that most tribes use in the Four Corners region in foods, medicines, and ceremonies,” Bitsoi says. 

Just as in Bears Ears, the BLM’s new management plan for the remaining half of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument also includes extensive and criticized vegetation treatments. Christa Sadler, a researcher who has worked in Grand Staircase–Escalante as an archaeologist and paleontologist and written several books about the region, says the practice of clearing piñon-juniper stands can have horrendous effects on the local ecosystem. She remembers how once, during a paleontology expedition in Grand Staircase–Escalante, she and her team came across the largest alligator juniper she had ever seen—so big she doubted the group of four could link their arms around it. “It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, providing habitat for so many creatures over the years,” Sadler says. When the team returned to the site a few weeks later, they were met with a scene of devastation. The wooded area had been chained and the massive juniper knocked down. Sadler stood there sobbing in front of the chewed up trees lying there in piles. “It was absolutely heartbreaking to look at that landscape.”

Paleontologists like Sadler come from around the world to conduct research in southern Utah, which contain types of fossils found nowhere else. The Kaiparowits formation, for example, has allowed paleontologists to understand some ancient ecosystems in their near entirety, from beetle scrapings to enormous dinosaurs. Of the thousands of paleontological sites recognized within Clinton-era Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, Trump’s downsizing removed 731 sites from protections—most of which have not been fully studied. Paleontologists have examined just 10 percent of the original monument for fossil deposits—potentially putting thousands of more sites at risk. According to Sadler, amateur fossil collectors have already taken some paleontological resources from areas that were once protected by the monument. “The original monument is a place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” she says. 

When Trump announced the proposed rollback of the two national monuments in December 2017 during an event in Salt Lake City, he said that Bears Ears had been established “by the whims of regulators thousands and thousands of miles away.” Given that the monument creation had been spearheaded by a coalition of Indigenous nations, this was patently false. But it was part of the president’s usual political script of attempting to pit Americans against each other while advancing a sometimes-unpopular agenda. Internal agency documents have shown that fossil fuel and uranium deposits within the two monuments were central to the Interior Department’s downsizing of the two monuments. But in an opinion essay for CNN, then–Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke left out any mention of oil, gas, coal, or uranium while explaining the reasons the monuments were downsized. Instead, he claimed that the Antiquities Act had been used as “a weapon for presidents to arbitrarily restrict the uses of hundreds of thousands of acres of land to prevent uses like timber harvesting and cattle grazing.” 

Conservationists point out that in Grand Staircase–Escalante, roughly 97 percent of original grazing leases carried over into the national monument; in Bears Ears, according to the US Forest Service, grazing permit and leasing laws in place before the monument’s creation were intended to “continue to apply to ensure ongoing consistency with the monument.” 

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument by horseback. | Photo courtesy of Bob Wick/BLM

While the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association did applaud the monuments’ reductions, some local ranchers say they are in favor of these federal protections for southern Utah.

One such rancher is Heidi Redd, who has tried to make her Dugout Ranch a model for how ranchers, recreationists, and conservationists can collaborate in these lands’ preservation. “We work with the Access Fund on camping sites, access, and eliminating some of the overuse problems so we can be partners rather than adversaries,” Redd says.

Redd came to Indian Creek over 50 years ago at the age of 26 and married Robert Redd—a descendant of Utah pioneers—and established Dugout Ranch. Redd remembers her first descent into the canyon, coming off the highway, dust flying. “From the minute I came down to Indian Creek’s sandstone walls, I felt like I was being embraced,” she says. “I can’t think of any person that could come into Indian Creek and not feel a spiritual connection, and in that connection, feel a strong desire to protect it.”

Today, the ranch consists of 5,000 acres of private land and another 335,000 acres of grazing allotments on public lands, including along the biologically and culturally rich climbing mecca of Indian Creek. Throughout the Dugout Ranch area, Ancestral Puebloan rock art and dwellings dot the sandstone walls—including the famous Newspaper Rock. The Nature Conservancy acquired the ranch in 1997 at Redd’s request in order to save it from acquisition by developers. It is now home to Canyonlands Research Center, which examines the interrelations among climate change, cattle grazing, and recreation.

“As you come further down the narrow canyon, and it opens up, there are huge monuments of rocks that seem like they’ve been here overseeing and protecting this place for eons,” Redd says. “I feel they’re not only protecting me, but also that I have a responsibility to protect it.  That feeling has ridden with me as I’ve spent days, months, and years on a horse from daylight till dark. Because that feeling of needing to protect it—and whether I’m successful at that or not—will determine when I die, whether I’m able to be one of the spirits walking these canyons.”

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What the Future of Adventure Travel Looks Like

If there’s one thing that the travel experts we talked to agree on, it’s that the future of adventure travel is still bright despite the unprecedented challenges presented by the global pandemic. “There is nothing in my 35 years in the adventure travel business that comes close to this,” says Ben Bressler, CEO of the sustainable-travel company Natural Habitat Adventures. “But if 9/11, SARS, and the financial collapse of 2008 taught us anything, it’s that adapting quickly is vital, and that we’ll come out the other end more resilient.”

That’s especially the case for adventure travel, which by its very nature has all the makings of a post-pandemic antidote, with its focus on small group outings, less touristed destinations, and wide-open spaces. According to an ongoing survey by Destination Analysts, a tourism research and marketing firm, more than half of American travelers say they plan to avoid crowded destinations once the bulk of restrictions have eased.

What can we expect from the next few months and beyond? Our experts acknowledge that it’s impossible to be certain about anything as we experiment with a new normal, and they note that if a second wave of COVID-19 hits, travel rollbacks will occur. Our return to travel will depend on a variety of factors, including “when economies and borders reopen, how businesses change their operations, whether airlines provide rapid COVID-19 testing, and, ultimately, when a vaccine may become available,” says Sandy Cunningham, a longtime adventure travel outfitter and the cofounder of Outside GO, Outside’s travel company.

Mounting findings show that travelers are ready to get out there once it’s safe to do so. A recent report by Skift Research, the data-analysis arm of the travel trade publication, found that “one-third of Americans in our survey indicated they would start to travel within three months after travel restrictions are lifted.” Most of our experts agreed that just as states and countries are now practicing phased reopenings, travel will probably mirror that process, initially with more close-to-home excursions, camping, and road trips, then domestic air travel, eventually followed by international travel. The first steps are already underway as national parks, beaches, and other parts of the country begin to reopen.

Many industry experts also noted that their clients have chosen to postpone trips rather than cancel them, indicating that once it’s safe to try the waters, they will. Such postponements have helped some outfitters stay afloat during this time. Outfitters are also seeing an increase in new bookings for the future.

Meanwhile, there’s hope that travelers will venture out in more thoughtful and sustainable ways. “We have the opportunity to enact change that perhaps we never felt the freedom to do before,” says Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). “If there was ever a time to rebuild right, the world has the opportunity.” 

From new health and safety protocols to a spike in more meaningful bucket-list trips, here’s how our experts predict travel will change going forward. 

Adventure travel will be the first to return. 

adventure-future-travel_h.jpg(Photo: Bobby Stevenson/Unsplash)

“Adventure travelers are by nature more intrepid, more willing to make the sacrifices needed to experience the extraordinary, and they will likely lead the way,” says Richard Bangs, cofounder of the adventure company MT Sobek and the travel app Stellar and a member of Expedia’s founding team. Stowell agrees: “Some of the aspects of adventure travel mean that it will be a more attractive option than ever. Enclosed places like mass-tourism resorts and packed tourist sites will be much less attractive.”

MT Sobek’s future bookings reflect travelers seeking more remote destinations, with increased interest in Alaska and chartered raft trips. To cater to this demand, the company also recently launched a series of private trips to national parks and other domestic wilderness areas.

Intrepid Travel, the largest small-group adventure company in the world, is noticing a similar turn toward these types of trips. “From our North American customers specifically, we’re seeing a surge in interest for active tours that include outdoor experiences like trekking, hiking, and cycling,” says its CEO, James Thornton. 

James Sano, vice president of conservation travel at the World Wildlife Foundation, who has 35 years of experience in the industry, says he has witnessed the repeated return of adventure travelers after past disruptions like SARS. “They’re often early adopters, and their tolerance for risk is greater,” he says. “I think they’re going to be on the leading edge.” 

The first wave will be a return to local and domestic travel, with an emphasis on camping and road trips.

Our experts all agree on how travel will open up, but the timing remains uncertain. Put more simply, Bangs refers to a quote from novelist William Goldman about the movie business: “Nobody knows nothing.” Bangs anticipates the return in stages: “One: explore where we live. Two: take road trips to nearby state parks and beaches. Three: go on interstate road trips to national parks, river trips, and hikes. Four: make short, domestic air trips to wilderness destinations. Five: international travel.” For many states and national parks that have begun phased reopenings, the first two steps have already commenced.

Phase three may present some challenges. Travelers will have to stay on top of the news and follow federal and state health precautions. But this hasn’t stopped road-trippers from planning—there’s been a spike in bookings at Outdoorsy, an RV rental service. “We have seen our average daily bookings grow at an encouraging rate of 50 percent since April 1 and more traffic to our website than the year before,” says Jeff Cavins, its CEO, who is working closely with RV owners to implement new cleaning practices. “Once it’s safe to get out there, I think people will have a strong desire to control the cleanliness and safety of their environment, give themselves distance, and not have to worry about security lines, cramped seating, or crowded places.” RV Share, an Airbnb-like RV-rental marketplace, recently announced the highest recorded bookings since its founding—a 650 percent rise since the start of April.

Camping is positioned to become even more popular following lockdown restrictions. A recent KOA survey found that camping is likely to account for 16 percent of leisure trips post-pandemic, compared to 11 percent recorded before. The report also indicates that the lockdown could create a new class of campers, as 32 percent of leisure travelers who’ve never camped before expressed interest in starting. Campers are also planning to venture out responsibly—70 percent said that they plan to camp close to home, and 68 percent are willing to travel to less popular locations to avoid overcrowding. 

Camping and road trips are also more viable when many of us are dealing with financial uncertainty. “A critical factor the travel industry as a whole will have to consider in coming months is that many people have lost their jobs or had to take pay cuts during this time, so far-flung travel may not be feasible,” says Cavins of Outdoorsy. Of the prospective campers surveyed in the KOA report, 41 percent noted that they were most interested in its affordability.

Then we’ll start flying again.

plane-future-travel_h.jpg(Photo: James Coleman/Unsplash)

Next will come domestic air travel, with adventurers seeking off-the-grid, wilderness destinations for both DIY and small organized group trips. “Guided activities provide an opportunity for an adventure without assuming some of the risk that comes with independent ventures,” says Alex Kosseff, executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association. While its approximately 6,000 guides and instructors experienced mass cancellations this spring, they’re hopeful for a big comeback once it’s safe to travel domestically. 

As for international travel, outfitters are noticing a scheduling trend among clients. Intrepid Travel’s Thornton says that “May 2021 is the most popular time frame for rebooking trips, which is generally a longer booking window than we’re used to seeing. Those making new international bookings are planning to travel a little earlier, with the majority in March 2021.” Meanwhile, a few countries, like Iceland, Vietnam, and Greece, plan to reopen their borders in mid-June.

Scott Keyes, founder of the flight-deals newsletter Scott’s Cheap Flights, believes that until there’s a definitive breakthrough—whether that’s a vaccine or herd immunity is achieved—travel will return sporadically. “There won’t be an all-clear signal like the end of a fire drill,” he says. “Instead, certain places will open before others, and some places will likely go through waves of opening and closing.”

There will be a spike in bucket-list trips. 

What most of us have been missing during this time aren’t material things. We’re missing experiences. “That trip you’ve been telling yourself for six years you’re going to take but just haven’t yet, more people are going to make those trips happen when we feel safe to travel again,” says Daniel Houghton, the former CEO of Lonely Planet and the author of Wherever You Go: A Guide to Mindful, Sustainable, and Life-Changing Travel. According to a recent survey of 2,200 travelers in the U.S., the UK, and Australia conducted by the booking site Skyscanner, “Bucket-list travel is high on the agenda, with 80 percent of Americans likely to travel to their dream destination once restrictions are lifted.”

This is reflected in the most popular destinations for rebookings and new bookings. “The demand we’re seeing indicates a desire for remote places with natural surroundings, while also checking off bucket-list experiences,” says Thornton. His company is seeing most of its rebookings for Peru, Ecuador, Antarctica, Greece, and Japan and most of its new bookings for Antarctica, Ecuador, Peru, Egypt, and Morocco, in order of popularity. Similarly, Outside GO is seeing the most interest in Alaska and British Columbia later this year and New Zealand in 2021.

Now is also a good time to mark your calendars for those hard-to-get permit-only adventures that need to be booked up to a year in advance. 

And there will be deals.

“When it’s safe to do so, I’m not sure there will be a better time to be a budget traveler,” says Houghton. “The industry has been hit hard, and when the time is right, trips we once only dreamed of being able to afford could be in reach.” That’s especially the case with flights, as airlines continue to slash future fares to encourage travelers to buy now for trips down the line.

According to Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of the Points Guy, a travel website focused on loyalty and credit-card programs, “Now is a great time to start planning trips for a post-coronavirus world.” Kelly has been seeing airlines offering fares for less than $100 to the Caribbean, wide-open date ranges for award tickets to Europe for the winter holidays, and first-class tickets to Japan for just 55,000 miles in January 2021. 

There’s also been a 40 percent surge of what Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights calls “mistake fares”: when technical glitches cause airlines to post fares at huge discounts. “With airlines doing major surgery to their schedules, one side effect has been a spike in the number of mistake fares,” says Keyes, who saw a $210 round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile. 

But before you jump on any deals, be sure to closely read the terms of an airline’s change and cancellation policy and look into cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance.

Airlines won’t be the only place to find deals, either. Visit Sicily recently announced that it will cover half the cost of a traveler’s airfare and a portion of their hotel stay to inspire tourists to return to the Italian island. And some hotel chains are offering ways travelers can spend now to travel later, which helps keep hotel staff paid or on health care. Cayuga Collections, a group of sustainable hotels in Central America, is offering a green bond program, in which your investment in a future stay now will double in value when you’re ready to book. Other travel deals are likely forthcoming.

We’ll want to spend quality time with friends and family.

Multi-Ethnic Hiking Family Posing for Selfie on Remote Wilderness Beach(Photo: Pamela Joe McFarlane/iStock)

“With so many people forced to be separate from friends and family, we anticipate travelers wanting to make up for lost time with loved ones through meaningful experiences,” says Allison Fleece, cofounder of Whoa Travel, an adventure travel company that caters to women. “The pandemic age we’re living in is teaching us all about what’s important in our lives and how fragile life can be, and we think that will be reenforced by people’s travel decisions.”

Multigenerational trips will be a popular choice post-lockdown. “Reconnecting has become a huge part of our pause, and what better way than doing so with all our loved ones in safe, wild places,” says Cunningham of Outside GO. In fact, the glamping operator Collective Retreats has seen an “uptick in inquiries for smaller weddings and elopements, as well as delayed birthday and anniversary celebrations,” says Peter Mack, its CEO.

We’ll use travel agents and outfitters more often. 

When thousands of Americans got stranded overseas as lockdowns quickly closed international borders, those who had a travel agent or an outfitter to lean on had a much easier time getting home than those who didn’t. 

“When the COVID-19 crisis began, our first priority was ensuring the safety of our customers and workers around the world,” says Intrepid Travel’s Thornton. “Our local tour leaders and global-operations team worked around the clock to help more than 3,000 travelers get home safely as borders were closing.” Outside GO also went into emergency mode: “From getting clients safely evacuated out of countries before lockdowns went into effect and advocating on their behalf with travel-insurance companies to working with our ground partners to offer refunds for unused portions of trips cut short, our team worked long and hard to get this all done,” says Cunningham.

“There has been so much frustration for so many people who booked through online services [like and Orbitz], with recordings that lead to nowhere,” Cunningham adds. “Human-to-human contact is more important than ever going forward.”

Because the travel landscape will look very different for a while, and information found via online sources in forums and other places may be out of date, a travel agent or outfitter will have more accurate information about access, businesses that are open, and where it’s safest to go to avoid crowds.

Outfitters are building closer relationships with clients right now, sharing memories of past trips and dreaming about future ones. “We make regular outreaches with imagery and stories to keep our guests and potential guests dreaming,” says MT Sobek’s Bangs. There’s also been a bonding within the travel industry itself, with outfitters supporting each other. The ATTA has been bringing outfitters together through online seminars, and on May 26, it will launch a free community membership for financially compromised companies, laid-off employees, and others wanting to try out the organization to stay connected. (This link will be live on May 26 for those interested in signing up.) 

It might take longer than ever to get through an airport.

At the airport with a face mask(Photo: AJ Watt/iStock)

If you thought it took a long time before COVID-19, post-pandemic travel could be even more intense. “After 9/11, many new security measures were implemented, such as the introduction of TSA, bulletproof and locked cockpits, and the requirement of government-issued identification,” says the Points Guy’s Kelly. “The impact of COVID-19 will most likely lead to new health-based policies, such as boarding smaller groups of people at a time, requiring the sanitization of seats, and even eliminating seat-back pockets.”

While most airlines have already increased plane sanitation and require crew and travelers to wear masks, the FAA has yet to enforce any industry-wide regulations. This has resulted in an uneven response from domestic airlines, ranging from Alaska Air blocking off middle seats on large planes to other airlines announcing potential temperature screenings for passengers before boarding. 

Certain airlines have led the charge in instituting pre-boarding health screenings. “Emirates is already offering rapid-result COVID-19 testing,” says Cunningham. The airline has plans to expand that testing to all flights departing to countries that require arriving passengers be screened.

Many of us will remember the yellow card, a now defunct pamphlet issued by the World Health Organization in which a traveler’s vaccination dates were recorded. “For a big part of my career, certain countries required vaccinations for diseases like yellow fever, tetanus, and typhoid and as part of the entry process would ask you to produce your yellow book,” says Sano of the World Wildlife Foundation. “I could easily envision a digital version of this, like a QR code, where you have electronic proof that you have been vaccinated.”

A similar movement is gaining momentum in the form of “immunity passports” that would be issued to those who have recovered from the virus and may have antibodies. According to CNBC, during a first-quarter-earnings call on April 22, Delta CEO Ed Bastian indicated that the airline was considering instituting a number of measures, including immunity passports. “Could there be a new public-health agency coming out that requires a new passport to travel?” he asked. “We’ll be on the forefront of all those advances.”

Chile has already started issuing health passports, while other countries, including the UK, Germany, and Italy, are considering doing so. (It’s important to note that a number of health organizations have said not enough is yet known about the immunity of those who have recovered from the novel coronavirus.) 

When it comes to the future of airports, Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and Vienna International Airport are good indicators of what to expect. Luis Muñoz Marín has installed thermal-imaging cameras that screen passengers upon arrival for temperatures above 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who exceed that threshold and show symptoms will be evaluated and quarantined. Meanwhile, travelers arriving in Vienna will get a swab test for COVID-19 that will be processed within three hours and cost $204. Those who test negative will be given a certificate and allowed to move freely, and those who test positive will be subject to a 14-day quarantine. Biometric check-ins, TSA appointments, and barring non-passengers from entering airports are among the other protocols that could be implemented.

Travel companies will rethink their approach to health and safety.

companies-travel-future_h.jpg(Photo: Courtesy The Nomadic People)

Adventure travel outfitters are using this time to revamp their protocols. At Backroads, a company that specializes in bike tours, that means “enhancing safety training for trip leaders and working with hotel, restaurant, transport operators, and other vendors to abide by rigorous enhanced safety protocols for cleaning rooms, handling baggage, and preparing food, among others,” says CEO Tom Hale. He adds that “prior to the trip start, our guests will be asked to run through a pre-trip health screening to make sure we’ve done all we can to ensure that they’re good to go.”

Intrepid Travel will consider implementing similar steps in addition to “contactless check-in processes and increased transparency on hygiene,” Thornton says. Kathryn Walsh, founder of the expedition company Backpack Alaska, says they will begin “making single tents available for everyone, including a final bleach-solution rinse on the dishes after meals and individually packaging food to prevent cross contamination, to name a few.” And OARS, known for its whitewater-rafting and sea-kayaking trips, plans to conduct “guide and guest screenings before trips, enforce PPE when applicable, and give heightened attention to handwashing and the sanitation of vehicles and communal surfaces,” according to Steve Markle, the brand’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Host-driven rental companies have had to rethink their protocols as well. On May 1, Airbnb launched an initiative that will certify hosts who practice its new cleaning guidelines (developed in partnership with former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy) and implement a minimum 24-hour waiting period between bookings. For hosts who can’t abide by the guidelines, the company has suggested waiting 72 hours from when the rental was last occupied before hosting new guests. Others, like the camping-booking site Hipcamp, have sent out recommendations to hosts on new cleaning and guest-interaction protocols. Hipcamp CEO Alyssa Ravasio says it has also “added an extra step to our booking flow where all Hipcampers have to check a box to self-certify their booking doesn’t violate any local regulations or travel bans.”  

Glamping operators are poised to make a quick comeback due to the nature of their lodging setups. “Unlike traditional hotels or accommodation rentals, our air-handling systems consist of fresh air, our hotel lobbies are big canvas tents, and our hallways are winding paths through open fields and natural landscapes,” says Collective Retreats’ Mack. The company operates five locations across the country. “Over the past few months, we’ve continued to operate our retreat in Austin, Texas, and have started selling out many weekends,” he says. “At Collective Governors Island, in New York, we’ve had under ten cancellations post July 4, and for August, September, and October, we’re currently projected to be ahead of where we were last year at this time.”

Under Canvas, which operates luxury tent sites just outside national parks, is set to open its Great Smoky Mountains location on May 28, followed by Zion and Moab on June 4, then Grand Canyon and Yellowstone on June 11. Each site will abide by its location’s reopening policies. Individual check-in via a touchscreen kiosk, takeout food and beverages for in-tent dining, and hand-sanitizing stations throughout camp are among the new precautions the company is implementing.

Travel will change for the better.

Our experts agreed that travel will become more intentional going forward. “We definitely think people will be more appreciative and attracted to meaningful experiences, responsibility, the environment, and moments that bring people together to learn and grow from each other in the post-pandemic world,” says Whoa Travel’s Allison Fleece. Walsh of Backpack Alaska agrees: “I know I’ve fooled myself before in thinking that substance would spontaneously arrive out of traveling to a far-flung destination that sounded exotic. This pandemic has highlighted that many people are craving something real and lasting.” 

Others noted that this time could lead to both travelers and travel companies prioritizing sustainability and ethics. “I think there will be a thinning of mass tourism, a thinning of meaningless experiences. People will be looking for deeper experiences and less instant-gratification tourism,” says Outside GO’s Cunningham. Stowell of the ATTA recalls what Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves said at the association’s 2009 summit about climate change: “I’m not optimistic, I’m not pessimistic, I’m determined.” Stowell says: “We at ATTA and in our community are determined to see travel done better. In terms of some of the more destructive types of tourism, those should be reimagined and rebuilt entirely to start being healthy for destinations. Now is the time for destinations to take charge and demand that tourism be helpful to their environmental efforts and supportive of locals instead of harmful or exploitative.”

Many companies are already looking at how they can recover in a way that’s more sustainable, which the World Wildlife Foundation’s Sano says could turn out to be more profitable. “As we’ve been able to see from the impact this pandemic has had on the environment, travelers will likely be more aware of their impact than ever before,” he says. Hipcamp’s Ravasio adds: “In moments like this, where it has become incredibly clear that we are all connected, travel provides us with an opportunity to practice empathy. How can I respect and take care of this community that I am visiting?”

All of our experts see a promising future. “I’m more hopeful for the future of travel than I’ve ever been,” says Daniel Houghton. “Travel offers something you can’t fake or create at home. All the things that we long for in quarantine—fresh air, places we’ve never been, having dinner with people we just met—these are travel’s finest qualities that are endlessly available, no matter where you find yourself on the planet.”

And MT Sobek’s Bangs emphasizes that travel always comes back: “This passion for adventure does not go away or flatten with time. It is a fundamental desire, a curiosity itch, and when the road opens, there will be travelers, top down, full speed ahead.”

Deputy Editor Mary Turner and Assistant Editor Kaelyn Lynch contributed to the reporting of this article.

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