5 big travel lessons from former Patagonia CEO Kristine Tompkins

Kristine Tompkins has lived a life shaped by two Patagonias.

Her first was the outdoor apparel company that she helped mountain climber Yvon Chouinard launch in 1973. For 20 years, she served as Patagonia’s chief executive. Then, in 1993, she left the company for the other Patagonia — the South American region at the end of the world.

Kris and husband Doug Tompkins, co-founder of the North Face, famously quit the corporate world to focus on the natural one. While building their first park, Pumalin, the conservationists lived in a rustic area without electricity, roads or telephones. As they amassed swaths of land to conserve and sometimes rewild, they learned critical lessons about how travelers can help protect the environment for generations to come. Kris, now 73, is still sharing them.

“There are a jillion ways to be conscious and to make a contribution to these places that we want to visit so badly,” she said. “But you have to decide that that’s the kind of traveler you’re going to be and that you’re serious about it. … I don’t think we have the luxury of being mindless anymore.”

After restoring the land of Patagonia and building public infrastructure, the Tompkinses would donate their projects to the governments of Argentina or Chile. The vast expanses are now national parks visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year.

“We wanted them to be economic drivers for the country and local communities, and we like participating in the protection of the jewels of a nation, which has nothing to do with us personally,” Kris Tompkins said.

In 2015, Doug died on a kayaking trip in Patagonia. Though grief-stricken, Kris persevered with their mission. Over three decades, the nonprofit Tompkins Conservation has helped create or expand 15 national parks encompassing roughly 14.8 million acres of land, plus two marine national parks totaling 30 million acres. Their organization spawned Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile, independent nonprofits that have worked to restore such species as Darwin’s rhea, an ostrich look-alike; the giant river otter; and the huemul deer, Chile’s national animal.

Today, Kris Tompkins’s call to action is instructive and accessible. Even the softest adventurer can incorporate her travel advice.

During a recent stay at the Watergate Hotel, she shared with The Washington Post nuggets of wisdom mined from her decades of conservation work and adventures in Patagonia.

Tompkins admits she is not good at playing the casual tourist; she prefers trips to survey conservation projects or identify animal species.

But, regardless of your agenda, Tompkins urges travelers not to glide over a destination but to connect deeply with it. Seek out its natural features, even in cities, and pay attention to the bigger picture: how your actions affect your immediate surroundings as well as the wider world.

I think everybody should be focused on the state of the natural world, whether you’re going to Paris or Mozambique,” she said. “And be mindful of where you’re going, what’s taking place … and what’s going on with the planet.”

Tompkins encourages visitors to give back to the environment and the local communities whose livelihoods depend on the region’s natural resources.

“Support communities by learning more about them. What are the issues they face?” she said. “Going to places and just having a jolly time, given the circumstances that the Earth is in and the communities around the world are in, is passé. It’s over. Or it should be over.”

Gaze out the airplane window

To survey the large expanses of terrain in Patagonia, Kris and Doug Tompkins flew for hours in tiny planes. Kris described these excursions as some of their toughest — and most joyous — times.

Doug, who piloted a two-seater Husky or Cessna, would slalom through the mountains instead of flying up and over them. In addition to his daring feats, the weather was temperamental and could change while they were aloft. But in his pre-Google Earth era, they had no other option.

“It is the way to understand the land, from the peaks of the border of Argentina out to the Pacific Ocean,” she said. “Those are the most telling and emotional times, by far.”

Tompkins recommends studying the view out the airplane window, especially in smaller planes that cruise at lower altitudes. Memorialize the land below through aerial photography or videography.

“By shooting photographs and taking video, you can become connected to what you’re looking at,” she said.

Cut your dependence on gadgets

Overreliance on technology can lead to trouble, Tompkins said, especially when traveling in remote areas without a cellphone signal. Travelers should sharpen their old-fashioned navigation skills. Learn to interpret a map or ask a stranger for directions.

“The more people get away from paper maps, the less they really understand where they are, because they’re just looking at a blue dot on a screen,” she said.

When I told her about the time I became paralyzed after the Montreal cold zapped my phone’s battery, she retorted, “You need to go to rehab.”

Patagonia’s weather is mercurial. Storms would swoop in, forcing Kris and Doug Tompkins to hunker down till the skies cleared. Tompkins learned to pack for the worst-weather scenario. She always carried food supplies, such as carrots and apples, as well as a tent and sleeping bags — “the stuff you need if you get stuck for three days.”

In the moment, she found pleasure in the hardship. Now I look back and think, ‘Oh, my God, what were you thinking?’” Tompkins said. “But at the time it seemed fine. It was romantic.”

She recommends embracing the challenges that might trigger your survival instincts but also stir your soul.

“Those are the ones we remember in our lifetime, the days we were miserable or scared. Those are the stories we tell ad nauseam,” she said. “Because you feel something.”

Don’t let Patagonia intimidate you

The region might seem impenetrable, but Tompkins said it has become easy to bounce between countries and hop around the multiple parks. She said that family members and friends who “can’t find their way out of their driveway” have navigated Patagonia with aplomb.

“I know people who have developed these quite ornate plans for their trip through Patagonia, going back and forth over the border, and it’s not scary,” she said. “There’s no real way to get stuck on a border.”

New infrastructure is helping narrow the gaps between destinations. For instance, the Route of Parks, her late husband’s vision, links 17 national parks across 1,700 miles in Chile. In and around the parks, visitors can find food and accommodations, even glamping. Last month, Tompkins Conservation and its partners announced a new protected area, Cape Froward National Park, about 60 miles southwest of Punta Arenas, Chile.

Tompkins said her favorite time of the year to visit is April, when fall is around the bend. The summer winds slacken, and the temperatures are still mild. Avoid May through September, when Patagonia is at its most unforgiving.

The locals are far more accommodating. If your car breaks down, Tompkins said, they usually will stop to help.

“It’s a lot like the Midwestern states, where you have small towns,” she said. “It is a culture of: If you see somebody who’s stuck, you stop and get them on their way again.”

Even a flat tire is a chance to commune.

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