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The Best Way to Vacation in 2018: Volunteering

Whether you want to dedicate a few hours or a few weeks, here's how to give back on your next trip

A family working with sea turtles in Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica with Give A Day Global. (Courtesy Give A Day Global)

Whether you want to dedicate a few hours or a few weeks, here's how to give back on your next trip

This year, pledge to take a trip that gives back to the community you’re visiting in a meaningful way. Whether it’s donating your time doing trail work or beach cleanups or saving endangered species, you’ll feel like your trip has a greater purpose. Plus, planning volunteer vacations can save you money—many come with discounted rates on lodging and food, insight from local guides, and a tax-deductible chance to explore the less-touristy side of whatever country you’re visiting.

Build a High-Altitude Home


Give a Day Global partners with nonprofit organizations around the world to help you donate a day of community service on your next international trip in areas like community health, wildlife conservation, and environmental initiatives. Have a stellar vacation planned in Thailand or South Africa? There’s probably a way to spend one day giving back. In Bolivia, spend six hours helping build a house for a local family outside La Paz, where you’ll lay bricks, dig a foundation, or paint walls for those in need. Free.

Help a Glacier


This 11-day Alaskan trip with REI Adventures and Conservation Volunteers International Program starts with a service project in Juneau. There, you’ll help with vegetation management and erosion control near the Mendenhall Glacier. Next, you’ll head out via ferry through the deepest fjord in North America before arriving in Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, where you’ll help restore the historic 33-mile Chilkoot Trail. The trip includes lodging at bed and breakfasts, all meals, and bike rentals, just in case you want to take a spin after your trail work is done. There’s ample time to explore the local area. You can also enjoy a ride on the scenic White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. From $2,995.

Repair Fire and Flood Damage


The massive wildfires that ravaged the California coastline made headlines around the world. Now you can do your part to help restore these afflicted areas. The American Hiking Society leads volunteer trips all over the country, including an upcoming weeklong trip to Santa Barbara, scheduled for April 2018, where you’ll restore trails damaged by recent wildfires and flooding in Los Padres National Forest. You’ll hike up to six miles a day and camp in tents at night. From $300.

Become a Citizen Scientist


You don’t have to be a climate scientist to join researchers on this Earthwatch Institute trip to Australia’s secluded St. Bees Island, off the Queensland coast and within the Great Barrier Reef. On this nine-day trip, you’ll study how rising temperatures and frequent droughts affect the local ecosystem by conducting surveys of native plant and animal species as you hike along the coast. The trip includes three meals a day and accommodations at a field station on neighboring Keswick Island. From $2,975.

Restore Scenic Trails

North Carolina

Led by the Sierra Club and the U.S. Forest Service, this is a weeklong trip to North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest to develop, maintain, and restore local trails. In the past, crews have rebuilt a 2.5-mile section of the Appalachian Trail and constructed a wheelchair-accessible fishing path. You’ll stay at a historic lodge surrounded by old-growth trees, where you’ll be treated to breakfast, dinner, and one day off from trail work to head out on your own. From $1,035.

Save Endangered Turtles

Costa Rica

Spend two weeks working with local biologists on a turtle-saving mission with the Bamboo Project on the beaches of Costa Rica. You’ll start the trip with a walking tour of the city of San Jose, then move to a remote spot on either the Caribbean or Pacific coast, where you’ll patrol the beaches for endangered turtles, move nests to hatcheries, count eggs, and do community outreach to educate locals on the plight of the leatherback and olive ridley sea turtles, all while staying with a local host family. $1,350.

Remove Invasive Plant Species


Spend a half-day volunteering with the Pacific Whale Foundation and you’ll get a ride to the top of Haleakala, a 10,023-foot-high dormant volcano and the highest point on Maui. In Haleakala National Park, you’ll work with Park Service staff and a trained naturalist to remove invasive plants, then be set free to hike and explore on your own. Volunteer days are scheduled twice a month and include a picnic lunch. Free.

Filed To: Bolivia / Conservation / California / Beaches / Family / Alaska / Australia / Costa Rica / Lodging / Maui
Nicolas Henderson/Creative Commons )

San Marcos, Texas

Billed as the world’s toughest canoe race, the Texas Water Safari, held each June, is a four-day, 260-mile jaunt from the headwaters of the San Marcos River northeast of San Antonio to the small shrimping town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. There’s no prize money—just bragging rights for the winner. Any boat without a motor is allowed, and you’ll have to carry your own equipment and overnight gear. Food and water are provided at aid stations along the way. Entry fees start at $175 and increase as race day approaches.

The Ring

(Courtesy Quatro Hubbard)

Strasburg, Virginia

The Ring is a 71-mile trail running race in early September along the entire length of Virginia’s rough and rocky Massanutten Trail loop. To qualify, you need to have run a 50- or 100-mile race before the event and win a spot through the lottery system. Entry is free. Complete the run and you’ll become part of the tight-knit Fellowship of the Ring and be eligible for the Reverse Ring, which entails running the trail backwards in the middle of winter.


(David Silver)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Each spring, competitors gather in Santa Fe’s historic plaza with a simple goal: be the first to reach 12,308-foot Deception Peak, 17 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain away. Competitors run or bike the first 15 miles to the local ski area before transitioning to their waiting ski-touring setups for the final push to the top. Time stops only when they’ve skied back down to the tailgate in the resort’s parking lot, which is funded by the modest entry fee of around $25. To add to the sufferfest, some participants sign up for the Expedition category, in which they strap their skis, skins, boots, and poles to their bikes for the long ride up. Start dates vary depending on snow conditions, but look for the event page to be posted on Facebook in late March or early April.