Can I do it?
Like the idea of an exotic trip but aren't sure whether you're up for it? The reality is, you'll never know until you're in some strange place doing whatever you've paid thousands to do, but I've seen all types of people handle adventure trips. As with all things, the key is to ask lots of questions beforehand.
Picking a trip
Comparison shop: If you find a trip you're interested in, look at what other companies offer. Western operators tend to offer trips with similar itineraries, so you can gauge the relative comfort, difficulty and cost of any company against another.
Go local: Your travel company likely will be working with a local operator, and that group ultimately will determine how well the trip is run. Ask who the local operator is and search for testimonials and complaints about them or, better yet, ask to talk to previous travelers about their experiences.
Be realistic: Vet any trip for the good and bad. If you want beautiful mountain views, for instance, also ask specific questions about what it will take to see them. High altitude means thinner air, colder temperatures and harder work climbing. Isolated places mean no creature comforts, like beds and bathrooms.
Know your limits: Going on a long day hike is different than trekking for days at a time. Consider that when looking at trips, and ask travel companies how they assign their difficulty grades. Their "moderate" might be difficult - or easy - for you.
Ask about your leader: You should know whether the trip leader speaks the local language, how well they know the country and if they've led this trip before. Local leaders often know more about the area, but they might not know how to best serve you. Western leaders often have skills in a particular activity, but their knowledge about a local area varies.
How to prepare
Train your body: Try to replicate what you'll be doing as closely as you can. The treadmill is a lot gentler on your joints than a trek along uneven terrain. Cycling off-road is harder than peddling on a paved path. Likewise, build up endurance so you can handle multiple days of activity.
Shop and verify: Companies will tell you what gear you'll need and what's optional. In any case, buy well-made basic equipment and break it in before you go. If you're unsure, talk to your travel company and the folks at local outdoors shops about gearing up.
Pack well: You won't need a new shirt every day if you're in the middle of nowhere, but you will need layering options and just enough variety in case something gets wet. Bring one change of clothes that you can leave in a separate, locked bag at the hotel where you'll start and end. Having something clean to change into at the end of a trip is a lovely prize.
Make yourself happy: Most trips have weight or space limits, but carve out a little room in your backpack for a few creature comforts. Wet wipes are a popular way of keeping clean; for me, lip balm and throat lozenges that protect against the sun and wind make a big difference.
Roll with it: Once you're there, your job is to have fun. So don't let minor hiccups bother you. Especially in group trips, you'll have a much better time if you're going with the flow instead of focusing on the things - or people - that don't go smoothly.
National Geographic Adventure has a good listing of companies at adventure.nationalgeographic.com. Here are a few more starting points that offer a wide variety of trips:
KE Adventure Travel: keadventure.com
Mountain Travel Sobek: mtsobek.com
Wilderness Travel: wildernesstravel.com