Andrew Heltzel’s bachelor party sounds like the plot of a gangster movie: He was kidnapped, blindfolded, driven into the Arizona desert and thrown out of a plane at 13,000 feet.
His abductors weren’t mob hit men, but a group of his closest friends who’d decided to celebrate Heltzel’s plunge into married life with a surprise skydiving vacation. “They wouldn’t tell me where they were taking me,” Heltzel says with a laugh. “They led me to believe they were entering me into a biathlon or triathlon.”
Heltzel’s dive is an extreme example of a new travel trend: all-male getaways. These so-called mancations have experienced a recent surge in both popularity and variety. Guys can wrangle cattle in Texas, ride ATVs along the dunes of the Baja coast or fly by seaplane to a remote Alaskan lodge for fly-fishing.
“There are more opportunities for people to do stuff like this than there were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Larry Meadows, founder of Mancation (www.man-ca-tion.com), a Web-based network that helps arrange men-only adventures. “Wives take long weekends with the girls, and men make time for the guys.”
These vacations offer men an opportunity to forge relationships – something, frankly, they don’t always do as easily as women. “Men need to pay much more attention to their friendships, especially their core friendships,” says Arnold Robbins, MD, a psychiatrist and specialist in men’s health who teaches at Tufts University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Medicine. “Sometimes men get so involved with their families and their wives that it’s like holding only two stocks. It’s healthier to diversify.”
According to the Travel Industry Association of America, American men took 37 million all-male getaways in 2005. Mancations were especially popular among younger men: Those under 35 accounted for nearly half the trips. Still, the guys have a lot of catching up to do: Women went on 48 million all-female trips in 2005.
Darren Hitz, founder of Franklin, Mich.–based Adventure Weekends, which offers a number of male-oriented vacation packages, says these adventures let men connect with a dormant side of themselves. “My father was able to do lots of things with tools, but I don’t even have a clue what to do if the battery light goes on in my car,” says Hitz. “It’s that traditional, manly trait of being able to build a fire or survive outside – even if it’s only a facade.”
Women are more likely to connect through conversation; men bond by doing. “It’s about putting yourself in unique situations that you can talk about for years on end,” says Hitz. “Yeah, we could go golfing, but if we end up in Dallas on a cattle drive with banjos and a pig roast, you come out with 10 or 15 stories.”
Gary Sowden came home with lots of stories. When his friend was getting married, Sowden wanted to mark the occasion. “All of our friends are in our mid-to-late 30s, so the concept of a conventional bachelor party seemed a little young for us,” says Sowden, 39, president of a manufacturing company in Michigan.
Instead, he and his friends took a white-water rafting trip to West Virginia. “We had one huge wipeout where a couple of us got chucked out of the raft,” he recalls. “I personally went down some class four or five rapids minus the boat.”
Guys often joke that what happens on the trip stays on the trip. But Sowden took away something worth talking about: the kind of authentic friendship that only comes from shared experience. “There ended up being a great chemistry among the guys,” he says.
Finding time to socialize becomes trickier as we get more established, both professionally and personally. For guys who are deeply invested in career and family, connecting with buddies can take time and effort we feel we can’t justifiably spare. But sacrificing those social bonds can hurt us.
Researchers from Duke University and the University of Arizona have found that Americans’ circle of confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades. In their 2006 study published in the American Sociological Review, one quarter of Americans reported having no close confidants – more than double the level of 20 years earlier. And isolation is more than lonely – it’s unhealthy.
A 2002 Harvard School of Public Health study followed more than 28,000 men over a period of 10 years and found that those who were socially isolated were more likely to develop illnesses such as heart disease, or to suffer from depression or other mental health problems.
Gathering with other guys is one antidote. “You can trade notes with each other, learn about workplace issues, and develop a lot of smarts about marriage, the role of men in marriage, and raising kids,” says Robbins. “All those things are really priceless.”
Mancations help men connect with old friends who are spread across the country or too busy to socialize at home. Mancation founder Meadows, 40, a software product manager in Tampa, Fla., goes on an annual retreat with five friends, most of whom have been friends since eighth grade.
They’ve gone hiking in Arizona, rock climbing in Colorado and mountain biking in Washington State. Their tastes range from endurance sports to rock climbing to motor sports, so the group tries to combine two or three activities per trip that appeal to various interests.
They also like to challenge each other as a way to build teamwork. “The whole idea is none of us is going to complete these tasks alone,” he says. “We’re going to push each other to make it to the end of whatever we’re trying to do.”
Through these activities, the men build deeper relationships – even if they won’t always talk about it directly. Meadows and his pals share a history that includes some of the biggest milestones of their lives – graduations, weddings, births – but their vacations together are almost as special.
“It gives us the chance to be away from all the pressures of jobs and family and just be kids again.”
Sharing low-key fun and relaxation is one thing. But Heltzel and his friends also have forged camaraderie by sharing challenges. They’ve gone on 100-mile bike rides and have an annual ritual of a grueling 24-hour mountain-bike race called Montezuma’s Revenge.
“With my guy friends, it’s about going as hard as you possibly can and blowing as much energy out of your pipes as possible,” says Heltzel, a 32-year-old marketing and project manager for a resort real-estate-development company in the Denver area.
So when Heltzel got engaged, it was no surprise that the group took their celebrating to the extreme.
Heltzel’s friends flew him to Phoenix, blindfolded him, drove him to an undisclosed location and sent him across the parking lot on his hands and knees.
When they removed the blindfold, Heltzel found himself – and his fear of heights – in the office of a skydiving business.
“Ten minutes later I’m suited up and taxiing out on a plane and getting ready to jump on a 13,000-foot, 60-second free fall,” he recalls. “I was almost paralyzed with fear. But the guys went to all the trouble to get me there, so the last thing I could do was bail.”
But bail he did – out of the plane. The group took the plunge together, literally bonded together in a tandem jump.
For Heltzel, these adventures provide more than an adrenaline rush. They’re also a chance to see how his friends are changing through the various stages of life.
“Every one of us is different from when we all first met, and yet each of us knows that we can all still come together and have a darn good time,” he says.
Soon another of his buddies will get married. “Now it’s my turn to play on his fear set, which I think is ocean water,” says Heltzel with a smile. “There might be something in the works along the lines of swimming with sharks.”
These companies offer male-oriented trips - with activities ranging from skydiving to deep-sea fishing - that are sure to provide life-changing adventures.
Mancation — Plan the ultimate adventure trip and connect with other thrill-seekers with this Web community devoted to finding the best mancations around; www.man-ca-tion.com
Adventure Weekends — Eliminate the hassle of planning a getaway. Adventure Weekends takes care of everything from lodging to adventure activities, allowing you and friends to travel stress free. Choose from a variety of trips, including skydiving, rafting, mountaineering and fishing. Contact Adventure Weekends for pricing information; 248-910-8152; www.adventureweekends.net
Travel Junkies — These mancation packages throughout Central America and Chile offer activities like bungee jumping in Costa Rica and skiing in the Chilean Andes. Contact Travel Junkies for pricing information; 714-398-8647; www.imatraveljunkie.com/mancations.php
I’m In — Get your trip organized with this site that allows groups to plan everything from room arrangements to flight reservations. After you return, photos can be posted to your group’s private Web page; www.imin.com
First Strike Bass — If fishing’s your thing, explore the Florida swamps with these expert guides. Spend the morning or a full day catching your next trophy. Trips include tackle, snacks, gear and a professional licensed guide. Trips range from $250 to $525; 888-937-6843; www.firststrikebass.com
Hops and Scotch — The Rosario Resort and Spa in Eastsound, Wash., offers a men’s getaway that features kayaking, hiking, Scotch tasting and massage. Packages start at $540; 800-562-8820; www.rosarioresort.com