A century ago, a majority of the planet's residents never managed to make it further than a few hundred miles from their birthplaces. Now, with one billion international arrivals a year, travelers are spreading into the last unexplored corners of the globe. The demand for bigger, better, and more adventurous experiences is skyrocketing. "There's an accessibility that there never was before, and people can do things that were once unimaginable," says Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. "If you can think of it and Google it, there's probably someone who can take you."
Here are nine of the most extreme trips on the planet - and the outfitters that take adventurers over the edge and back again.
Ocean Row Events
When Leven Brown rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 2005, he battled four hurricanes, lost 70 pounds, and set a world record. He liked it so much that he decided to row across the ocean again, but this time, he wanted to take some friends and cut down the price tag, which originally topped $150,000. So, in 2006, the portly, bearded British skipper founded Ocean Row Events, a company that arranges rowing expeditions across oceans and other extremely large bodies of water.
Since then, Brown has organized six trans-ocean rowing trips and set seven world records, including the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic and the longest distance rowed in 24 hours. The company's next expedition is a 3,000-mile journey between the Canary Islands and Barbados slated for January 2014. The goal? Break the 30-day mid-Atlantic speed record, distance rowing's four-minute mile. As of October 10, there was still space for crew members in the second of two boats.
Surprisingly, what it takes to row an ocean isn't necessarily big quadriceps, rowing skills, or even expedition experience. "Character, character, character," says Brown. "We call it the X factor" – or what translates loosely to an ability to withstand a lot of pain and tedium on a boat the size of a bedroom without getting into a fistfight with any of your seven crewmates. "You can teach most people to row, but if they can't deal with sleep deprivation and the calorie deficit and the barrage on your senses, they're not going to be much use in our boats," Brown adds.
It's tough out there. Crewmates sleep and row in two-hour shifts. Most people burn about 10,000 calories a day and lose a minimum of 30 pounds, endure plagues of salt-infested blisters, and tolerate the ever-present threat of 40-foot storm swells, lurking marine creatures, and passing freighters.
There are, however, reasons rowers believe it's all worth it, such as seeing thousands-strong pods of dolphins and watching millions of stars spread across an unbroken sky. There is the preternatural stillness of the sea on a calm day, not to mention the joy of making it back to shore.
"Finally arriving at your destination and literally seeing hundreds of people and sometimes thousands, if you've broken a record, lining up to see your boat – that's the moment when you know that you've done it and your name is in a very exclusive club," says Brown. "There's something like 4,000 people who have summited Everest. There's only about 500 who've attempted an ocean."
More information: Ocean Row Events' next transatlantic row will take place in January 2014 and costs £15,000 (about $24,000). Most rowers raise the funds through corporate sponsorships. In 2014, Brown will also lead rows from Australia to Africa across the Indian Ocean (£20,000) and from Canada to Alaska through the Northwest Passage (£50,000). All expeditions are open to new rowers.
Credit: Ocean Row Events