Scisco Conscientia, 1(1), 1-13 ISSN 1443-0177 Copyright 1999 (author)

Investigating Adventure Experiences:

An Experiential Sampling Approach

Norman McIntyre

University of Waikato

Previous research in adventure recreation/tourism has focused principally on definition, risk management and personal outcomes. Recently, there has developed an increasing interest in understanding outdoor leisure as a process. This paper reports on one approach which is being used to explore the unfolding nature of adventure tourism experiences. A combination of the Experiential Sampling Method and Personal Accounts is discussed in this paper as a means of better understanding the complexity of adventure experiences as perceived by the participant. Instrument characteristics, data analysis techniques, limitations and potential of the method are explored using data from two adventure tourism experiences.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Norman McIntyre, Department of Leisure Studies, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand or sent via electronic mail to and

Increasingly, in today's world, people are viewing adventure experiences in natural settings as a desirable way of escaping from the mundanity which surrounds their day-to-day life. Visits to national and forest parks, especially those within easy reach of urban areas, are increasing although a trend towards shorter more frequent trips is evident in a number of countries. As the desire for nature/adventure experiences increases, but the time available either to develop skills to participate or to undertake the essential planning has reduced, people are relying more and more on private providers to package adventure and nature for their consumption (Hollenhorst, 1995).

Traditionally, research in adventure recreation/tourism, has tended to emphasise description of activities, definition, risk management (e.g. Ewert & Hollenhorst, 1989; Priest, 1992) and outcomes (e.g. Driver, Brown & Peterson, 1991). Recently a number of researchers have begun to focus on examining the experience from the point of view of the participant in a way which recognises the complexity and variability of such leisure events (e.g. Arnould & Price, 1993; Celsi, Rose & Leigh, 1993; Hull, Michael, Walker & Roggenbuck, 1996).

This paper reports on an approach which samples adventure experiences at various selected points during an experience. Two case studies are used to illustrate the kinds of data that can be collected and how this data may be analysed to reveal information about adventure experiences in general and about individual participant's perceptions in particular.

Adventure Recreation Experiences

Nature-based adventure recreation is one type of activity that we can begin to examine and understand by focusing on its experiential qualities. Much research has focused on the beneficial products or consequences of adventure recreation (e.g., stress reduction, and self-esteem) (e.g. Hattie, Marsh, Neill & Richards, 1997). This approach is limiting in the sense that it has focused mainly on pre and post assessments of adventure experiences, and thus failed to give due regard to the richness and complexity of such experiences. If we are to understand these experiences fully, we need also to focus on participants’ immediate conscious experience (e.g., thoughts, images, feelings and sensations) during adventure recreation.

To attempt to measure all the dimensions of adventure indicated in the literature during the lived experience would likely change the nature of the experience itself and would be unrealistic in practice. Given this, and following the advice of Ittelson (1978), Knopf (1987), and the work of Hull and his colleagues (e.g., Hull et al., 1996) I decided to measure recreationists’ focus of attention, their moods, and their feelings of risk and competence during a nature-based adventure experience.


Focus of Attention

Knopf (1987) noted that when people experience nature in leisure settings, they are not simply responding to a collection of physical attributes. Instead, they are involved in a transactional process in which natural setting and person "jointly define one another and contribute to the meaning and nature of an holistic event" (Altman & Rogoff, 1987, p.24). Environmental psychologists have studied this transaction by examining the modes in which people experience the environment (Ittelson, 1978). Five modes seem dominant: focus on nature as an object or place; focus on self and internal thoughts; focus on others; focus on emotions and affect; and focus on task or activity (Borrie, 1995). Preliminary testing of these modes indicated that people did not distinguish between ‘internal thoughts’ and ‘emotions and affect’, so these modes were collapsed into one (thoughts and feelings) (McIntyre & Cattermole, 1997). At any given moment during a nature-based leisure experience, one or more of these experiential modes may be dominant, and the recreationist would describe the environment and his or her experience in the context of this person-environment transaction.

The Focus of Attention scale was adapted from Borrie (1995) and included a differential rating of the degree of focus on self, others, nature and task. The scale consisted of a stem "How much are you focusing on each of the following," and four items: "your own thoughts and feelings?", "other people around you?", "the natural environment?", and "the task you are carrying out?" Responses were measured on a ten-point scale varying from "Not at all" (0) to "Very Much" (9).


Mood is pervasive to the human condition. It is defined as "the subtle subjective state or feelings of a person at any given moment" (Hull, 1991, p.252). It refers to specific sets of subjective feelings (e.g. excited, bored, stressed, relaxed, aroused and drowsy) which occur as a consequence of everyday experiences. Mood and mood changes have been found to be sensitive to the multi-phasic and dynamic nature of the lived and remembered recreation experience (e.g. Hammitt, 1980; Hull et al., 1996). Finally, mood can apparently be measured validly and reliably during the experience without unduly disrupting or changing the nature of the experience (Hull & Michael, 1995). In summary, mood seems to provide a reliable and valid indicator of the quality of recreation, and one which is especially sensitive to the dynamic nature of the recreation event.

Past research in the leisure context has provided particular insights into the way in which leisure experiences and mood states interact. Four key findings have resulted from this research: some moods change in predictable ways during the leisure event; some vary in their patterns of change across recreation contexts; both environmental and person variables shape moods during the on-site experience; and moods are not always pleasant throughout the recreational engagement (McIntyre & Roggenbuck, 1998).

The approach to the measurement of mood was taken directly from the work of Csikszentmihalyi and associates (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987). This scale is a 7-point semantic differential comprised of twelve bi-polar adjectives to describe moods. The adjective pairs in this scale were alert/drowsy, happy/sad, cheerful/irritable, energetic/tired, friendly/angry, active/passive, sociable/lonely, calm/worried, free/constrained, excited/bored, clear/confused, and relaxed/tense.

Risk and Competence

Risk and competence are central aspects of adventure recreation, whether it is undertaken as a personal venture or purchased as a commercial product. Risk is defined as the potential to lose something of value (Priest, 1990). Perceived risk is a measure of the level of risk in a particular context as judged by the individual. Perception of risk is therefore highly variable and depends on factors such as skill, previous experience and personality characteristics such as timidity and fearlessness (Priest, 1990). Similarly, perceived competence is a personal assessment of one’s ability to successfully meet a situational risk (Priest, 1992) and depends on such factors as past experience, skill level, knowledge and personal efficacy (Ewert & Hollenhorst, 1989). The interaction of perceived risk and competence is central to the perception of adventure in any situation (Martin & Priest, 1986).

Perceptions of Competence and Risk were measured on a ten-point scale varying from "None" (0) to "Very High" (9) using the following two items: "How would you rate your competence in undertaking this activity at this time?" and "How would you rate the level of risk for you in the activity at this time?"


The Experience Sampling Method (ESM) was developed by Csikszentmihalyi and associates (Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987; Larson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1983) and involves detailed monitoring of respondents' daily behaviour through the use of electronic pagers which are activated by the researcher on a random basis up to twelve or more times a day. When the pager sounded, the respondent was required to fill out a short questionnaire that focussed on 'where you are', 'what you are doing', 'who you are with' and 'your mood' at the time.

An 'outdoor adventure' version was developed which was basically similar in structure and included identical questions on locality and mood. Major differences were the ten-point focus of attention scales and measures of perceived risk and competence which replaced the activity and social questions of the original. In contrast to previous studies, key localities for sampling were chosen by the researcher. Also, the experience lasted only three hours rather than the three to five days of daily leisure studies. It took approximately two minutes to complete the Experiential Sampling form (ESF) at each locality.

The ESM has the advantage of providing a real-time report on environmental context, feelings and activities which does not suffer from the well recognised deficiencies of other verbal reports (e.g. memory decay, reconstruction, socially desirable responses, over-generalisation and illusory correlation: Borrie & Roggenbuck, 1995). In addition, it asks respondents ‘what?’ ('Do you feel tense?') rather than ‘why?’ questions, leaving the latter to the personal accounts.

A personal account or 'story' about the experience was added as a second departure from the traditional ESM. The purpose of this was to access more in-depth information about the experience. Specifically, to find out about:

The ESM provides contextually specific data at physical locations chosen by the researcher and the personal accounts afford insights into other locations that were significant to the participants and also some initial meanings that individuals attach to the experience. The combination therefore is synergistic, enabling a much more comprehensive understanding of the experience than either method would in itself provide. Close association in time between the two methods also allows for validity checks (e.g. 'are we missing some key variable?' and 'are the quantitative data corroborated by the personal accounts?’).

The Case Studies

The activities chosen were two adventure tourism activities, Black Water Rafting and Horse-Riding. The participants in these trial projects were tertiary university students in the second or third year of a leisure studies course. Each of the activities was approximately three hours in length and represent two examples of adventure/nature tourism activities available to the inexperienced but 'adventurous' tourist.

Black Water Rafting

The study site was at Waitomo, a well-known tourist cave system in the North Island of New Zealand. The specific adventure experience is known as Black Water Rafting and consists of a three-hour trip walking and floating on a rubber tube through an underground stream. Only one participant had undertaken the trip previously.

Data were collected at five survey sites during the Black Water Rafting experience. The first survey site was in the Dressing Area where participants changed from their ‘street clothes’ into wet suits, waterproof boots and gloves and donned safety helmets with battery powered headlamps. After a short drive, participants chose their ‘tube’ and under the supervision of the guides jumped into the stream from an elevated pontoon. They then walked approximately 500 meters to the cave entrance. The first entry into the cave was viewed as an important stage in the journey and was chosen as the second survey site (Cave Entrance). At this point, trip leaders gave participants the standard briefing on details of group management and safety. After this briefing, participants completed the second ESF. Then followed 30 to 45 minutes of walking and floating down the underground stream. At the end of this section, participants came to a 1.5 meter waterfall. The briefing at the top of the waterfall provided a natural break during which participants could complete the third ESF (Waterfall Jump) immediately prior to jumping into the plunge pool below the falls.

After the jump participants floated gently downstream with headlights extinguished, viewing glow-worms on the roof of the cave. At one point, participants left the water briefly to traverse a number of rock ledges and view a tomo (a hole in the roof of a cave). The fourth ESF (Glow-worm Traverse) was completed at this point. Participants then re-entered the water and continued the float downstream, in darkness, viewing the glow-worms. After approximately 45 minutes to an hour, participants reached the point of exit of the stream from the cave, and they then climbed out of the cave and walked or floated downstream to the vehicle. The final ESF (Vehicle) was completed in the vehicle to capture the immediate recollection phase of the journey. On return to the tour operator’s center, participants removed their wet suits, showered, dressed and had a cup of hot soup at the Black Water Café.

During the time at the café, participants wrote about their experience. The research technician suggested that they write as if recounting the experience to a friend or member of their family who had asked them about the trip. The written accounts were collected from the participants prior to their departure.


The methodology was broadly similar to the Black Water Rafting event and also took place in the Waitomo area. This experience involved a three hour ride over rolling rural countryside and along an unsealed road through a mature pine plantation. Some of the participants had ridden previously but not for some years and the majority had never been on a horse before. Weather conditions were sunny and fine, although rain the previous week had made sections of the ride very wet underfoot.

The first ESF was conducted after the participants were introduced to their horses and were preparing to mount. After riding up a long open hill, the second ESF was conducted about 45 minutes into the ride during a respite prior to descending through the pine forest. The descent through the forest was steep and very muddy and participants had to hang on tightly as their mounts slipped and jolted down the churned up roadway flanked by high banks on one side and a steep forested drop-off on the other. The third ESF was conducted immediately on exiting the forest onto the flat.

The next section was across a series of wide flat meadows culminating in a gentle ascent up a long open ridge. Given the open terrain, the majority of participants cantered their mounts in this section of the ride. At the end of this section, there was a short break at which the fourth ESF was completed. Participants then rode downhill and along the main road to the stables. The fifth and final ESF was completed at this point after dismounting and bidding farewell to their mounts. Personal accounts were completed at the Horse-Riding Centre prior to departure.

Analysing the ESM Data

The ESM data lends itself to at least two analytic approaches. ESM data may be analysed using each participant’s response at each location as an individual data point. For example, in the case of the Black Water Rafting the 28 participants provide a total data set of 140 responses (5 locations x 28) participants. McIntyre and Roggenbuck (1998) used this data set in a principal components factor analysis with varimax rotation of the Mood Scale to reduce the number of mood states from the original twelve on the ESF to three which they labelled sociable (i.e. the mood states sociable, friendly, excited, cheerful and happy); relaxed ( i.e. relaxed, calm and free) and aroused (i.e. energetic, active and alert). The aroused/sleepy and relaxed/tense continua are well recognised in mood research in outdoor recreation (Hull, 1991).

In addition, variations in participants’ moods, foci of attention and perceptions of competence and risk can be compared between locations. Because there were multiple administrations of the ESF for each individual, repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) with location as a five-level, repeated measure within-subjects variable and mood states, focus of attention, perceptions of competence and risk as dependent variables, is the preferred analysis. While such analyses indicate if there are significant differences in the dependent variables between locations, they do not tell you which locations are responsible for the differences. A post-hoc test such as the Scheffé test (p=.05) must be used for comparisons of the locations. In other words, the ANOVA provides an overall test for differences in means and the Scheffé test shows which sites are significantly different on the particular measure. This type of analysis is illustrated by using Competence, Risk and the factor Relaxed as dependent variables in the Black Water Rafting case study.

Competence, Risk and Relaxed

Key variables in the construction of 'adventure' are perceptions of risk involved in the situation and perceptions of personal competence to successfully meet the perceived risk (Priest, 1990). A key mood variable is Relaxed which provides a sensitive indicator of the feelings of an individual in 'adventure' situations. The results of the repeated measures ANOVA are shown in Table 1. Competence did not change significantly during or over the time of the experience, whereas both Risk and Relaxed did change significantly with locality.

Participants in Black Water Rafting, on average, perceived their Competence to be more than adequate to meet the Risk entailed throughout the trip. Perception of Risk varied with the changing context (Table 2 and Figure 1), being significantly higher at the Waterfall Jump (M=5.25, p<.05) than at all other sites. Entering the Cave was seen as no more risky than dressing. However, the former was perceived as significantly more risky than sitting in the vehicle. While perception of Risk during the Glow-worm Traverse decreased significantly (M=3.04, p<.05) from the Waterfall Jump, it remained significantly higher than either at the Dressing Area or in the Vehicle.

The mood factor Relaxed (Table 2 and Figure 1) was essentially similar at the Dressing Area (M=4.86), Cave Entrance (M=4.92), and at the Waterfall Jump (M=4.51). It then rose significantly during the Glow-worm Traverse (M=5.71, p<.05), and attained a maximum (M=6.00, p<.05) at the end of the experience in the Vehicle. This indicates that participants were least relaxed in the part of the experience leading up to the Waterfall Jump. Subsequently, there was a significant change to a more relaxed frame of mind during the remainder of the trip.

Table 1. Repeated Measures ANOVAs of Experience Indicators by Trip Location.

Experience Indicators







p < .001




p < .001







Table 2. Post-hoc Analysis of Experience Indicators by Trip Location.




Dressing Area

Cave Entrance


Glow-worm Traverse


Experience Indicators






Relaxed 4.86a 4.92 4.51b,c 5.71c 6.00a,b
Risk 1.11a 2.53b 5.25a,b,c 3.04a,c 0.79b,c
Competence 6.71 6.71 6.21 7.25 7.00

Note. Means with the same alphabetical superscripts indicate significant differences based on post-hoc Scheffé Tests (p=.05)

Figure 1. Risk, Competence and Relaxed by Locality: Black Water Rafting

Levels of Perceived Adventure

in Different activities

The well known "Adventure Experience Paradigm" (Priest, 1990) provides a basis for comparison of perceived variation in ‘adventure’ between different activities. Figure 2 was constructed from the ten-point Competence and Risk scales of the ESM. The subdivisions between the adventure modes (peak adventure and adventure etc.) shown on Figure 2 are illustrative, as there is little evidence on which to base their exact positions. Mean perceptions of Risk and Competence for participants at each site for the two activities of Black Water Rafting and Horse-riding were plotted on Figure 2. Although the spread of adventure experiences is the same in each activity, it is evident that three sites in the Horse-riding as compared to only one in the Black Water Rafting fall in the "Peak Adventure" stage. Overall, it would appear that on average Horse-riding was perceived as more adventurous. This was principally because the participants felt less competent, rather than that Horse-riding was perceived as more risky.

Figure 2. Adventure Experience Paradigm: Horse Riding and Black Water Rafting

Personal Accounts

The personal written accounts are an important source of data in themselves and as a means of expanding or corroborating the ESM data. Analysis involved an initial reading of the participants’ accounts to develop a number of preliminary coding categories (e.g., conceptualization of nature, perceptions of risk, feelings) related to participants’ responses to specific locations (e.g., the Waterfall Jump or the Open Flat/Gallop). These preliminary categories were progressively modified and refined by a number of passes through the data. For example, nature themes were further expanded to indicate the character of the conceptualization (e.g. physical, aesthetic, amazing, beautiful). The site specific commonality and diversity of the coding categories was analyzed by using the 'Method of Agreement and Difference' (Neumann, 1994). This approach involved a tabulation of the various coding categories against the participant’s code number which enabled the identification of those categories which were common to many participants. This same process allowed the identification of coding categories that were more distinctive of individual responses.

By combining the individual's personal profile with data from the personal account, it is possible to reveal a greater depth of understanding about an individual response to a specific context or to the whole experience.

Mary provides an example from the Horse-riding context. Initially Mary was moderately relaxed but felt somewhat incompetent and at risk (Figure 3). She recalled her impressions at that time as follows:

"finally we're off…we find ourselves 5 feet in the air looking down from a beast who would probably rather be doing something else"

Evidently the situation for her deteriorated further and she became very tense as the risk she perceived far exceeded her competence. She recalled it this way:

"off we went to what I imagined to be a gentle stroll on flat land. It turned out to be a hair-raising experience…up and down muddy hills…thru forest land with steep drops…at times I was terrified that the horse would take off…"

As the ride progressed and moved on to the flat, Mary commented:

"back on the flatland I began to feel more confident…I started to trust my horse and I actually started to enjoy the ride… so (I) even got up the courage to run"

While in the end she admitted to enjoying the experience:

"all in all an exciting and different experience,"

there was a sense of relief in her final words:

"thanks Marley [the horse's name]… thanks for not chucking me off."

Figure 3. Risk, Competence, Relaxed/Tense: Horse-riding (Mary)

Elsewhere I have demonstrated that rigorous analysis of the personal accounts can stand alone in shedding light on participants' experiences and provide insights into, for example, people/nature transactions during outdoor adventure experiences (McIntyre & Roggenbuck, 1998). In this paper, I have chosen to focus on how the ESM data for one participant can be explored in conjunction with his/her personal account to enhance an understanding of the individual’s experience.


The approach advocated in this paper is a pragmatic compromise which seeks to utilise the respective strengths of quantitative and qualitative data approaches. It moves beyond the ‘black box’ approach which has dominated much of outdoor adventure research and instead tries to shed some light on the complexity of the unfolding adventure experience. It is pragmatic, in the sense that data is relatively easy to collect and presents minimal impact on the individual and the flow of the experience. Also, it takes advantage of the natural propensity of humans to tell stories about experiences (Bruner, 1990) and as those experiences we study are both extraordinary and vivid for the individual, there is a natural inclination to share them if given the opportunity. There are a variety of ways in which the data can be analysed. At the aggregate level it can inform our general understanding of outdoor experiences and at the individual level it can help us better understand the responses of our clients to particular situations and re-emphasise how unique these experiences can be to each one of them.

Of course, the view presented by the data is partial, akin to opening a door a few times, albeit significant times, on a room full of activity and then collecting an individual perspective on what happened. This is certainly a limitation but the simplicity of implementation, the immediacy of the data and the relative ease of analysis recommend the approach. The paper and pencil approach used in the case studies is unlikely to be suitable in all instances, especially in those activities which do not provide natural breaks (e.g. white-water kayaking) and other ESM approaches may be necessary such as the use of mini tape recorders. While some interruption in the process is inevitable given the necessity to sample at intervals, discussion with participants suggest that this effect is minimal and some participants have even suggested it enhances the experience for them.

The application of this approach to outdoor recreation is limited only by the creativity of the researcher, teacher or leader. Currently, I am applying the same methods to understanding participants' perceptions in guided nature walks, challenge courses and multi-day leisure experiences.


An important means of enhancing participant satisfaction is to improve the quality of the product by tailoring it more specifically to the needs of participants. This paper proposes a methodology which can address the issue of better understanding participant experiences in adventure and nature-based tourism situations. It provides a means of evaluating such experiences that can be used to understand the intensity of emotions experienced by individual participants, their perceptions of risk and personal competence and gives an indication of their satisfaction with various aspects of the trip. Further, it is a useful tool for guide training, sensitising guides to the range and intensity of feelings experienced by individual clients at particular stages of the trip and in particular contexts.

I am arguing that the combination of ESM and personal accounts allows a deeper understanding than traditional methods of the effects of context and the inherent complexity and variability of leisure experiences. In addition, this approach provides access to both immediate contextualised responses and insights on the meanings that individuals construct from outdoor leisure experiences.


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