New fit-focused volunteer trips give a whole new meaning to "activism."

By By Hillary Chura
December 11, 2017
Photo: WeJourney

You may have heard that there's a growing market for wellness weekends, yoga retreats, and other fit vacations. But the latest in active travel adds volunteer work to the mix for a win-win all around.

"Donating money to a charity is a completely different experience than going somewhere and seeing for yourself," says Lauren Biegler, cofounder of WeJourney, a group that runs five- to nine-day trips that combine active volunteer work with local athletics like yoga and kayaking.

Projects have included refurbishing schools in Guatemala and Mexico, working with Syrian refugees in Greece, and building a skatepark in Costa Rica. Since early 2016, some 450 people have helped in underserved communities, mostly in Latin America. (Related: The Best Yoga Retreats Worth Traveling For)

Exchange of Pace is another group focused on women and children that combines fitness and philanthropy, started by Amber Kelleher, a 49-year-old marathon veteran who quit her job in the travel industry last year to start the nonprofit. The first trip was to Cuba in January, where people completed a 20K bike ride and brought donations to an English-language bookstore that does charity work. It was such a hit, another trip to Cuba is on tap for February.

"All you did was bring a book, a toy, a pair of shoes, or something else that seemed relatively insignificant until you handed it to someone who appreciated it far more than you could imagine," Kelleher says. The second trip was in early November to Merida, Mexico, where people ran a 10K and later volunteered with children at education centers in the Yucatan Peninsula. Participants read books, played games, and hand-delivered financial donations along with small items they collected, including hair bands, Legos, toiletries, games, and flash drives.

While groups like Habitat for Humanity have been building affordable housing through hands-on work since 1976, voluntourism was one of the most rapidly growing travel niches in the past decade, according to a 2015 Travelocity report. The group found that 63 percent of Americans are interested in purpose-driven trips. Interest in wellness getaways is also on the upswing, with nearly one in five travelers expected to take a health-driven trip in 2018, up from just one in ten last year, according to (Related: Gifts for the Adventure Traveler with Constant Wanderlust)

Photo: Roadmonkey

So it makes sense that this new crop of volunteer work is purposefully athletic. Since trips that specifically combine athletics and volunteer work are still "below the radar," according to Elizabeth Avery, founder of Solo Trekker 4 U, which tracks global travel trends, many people opt to meld the two on their own. The easiest way to do this is to first select a cause-say, building a school in Africa-and then independently tack on something active, like hiking a nearby volcano, she says. (Related: Learn How to Plan the Most Epic Adventure Vacation of Your Life)

Of course, voluntourism isn't for everyone-namely, those who like planning their own activities, prefer high-end accommodations, or just want to take it easy with a book and an umbrella drink. In terms of cost, some trips can head north of $5,000 (excluding airfare), but many are bare-bones and run just a few hundred dollars. Some programs are tax-deductible, while others contain a tax-deductible contribution. Program length varies from a few days to four weeks. Group sizes tend to be small, allowing for more intimate activities, and trips tend to skew slightly more female than male.

Courtney Loomis, a 35-year-old director of recruiting and employee events in Chicago, has been on three Roadmonkey trips with colleagues. In Vietnam, people biked to towns and helped build a playground. In Tanzania, they hiked Kilimanjaro and built an outdoor learning center at a school in Zanzibar. Her most recent trip was to Borneo where the group hiked the Pinnacles Trail and built an artificial reef to help restore the aquatic life on Pom Pom Island. The group has adventure-volunteer expeditions to Vietnam and Patagonia starting just after Christmas.

"The volunteer part is the reason we go, and the adventure part is an added bonus," Loomis says. "I always walk away with such a sense of grounding-especially when you work with children. You feel like you're making a real impact in these children's lives. These trips have made a huge difference in my life."

When planning a voluntourism trip, it's important to select a group that has its own boots on the ground or partners with local charities or governments. Firsthand insight helps guarantee that volunteers parachuting in have more than just the right intentions and actually know what is culturally appropriate and needed. "Local partners live and breathe their worlds every day and know what is needed most," Kelleher says.

REI Adventures Yosemite Volunteer Adventure.jpg
Photo: REI Adventures

Looking for some more voluntourism inspiration? These trips give new meaning to the word "activism":

  • Every year, Boston-based Earthwatch Institute (founded back in 1971) offers some 50 scientific expeditions around the world, focusing on field research on climate change, wildlife, archaeology, and ocean health. Activity levels range from easy (snorkeling to help sea turtles) to strenuous (bushwhacking in Canada to study bison). Earthwatch has several trips on tap over the next three months: tracking sea turtles in Costa Rica, exploring by riverboat in the Amazon, helping endangered rhinos in South Africa, tracking Asiatic wild dogs in Thailand, as well as exploring an active volcano in Nicaragua and examining climate change near the Arctic.
  • Oceanblue Divers takes divers to the Caribbean where they help with coral restoration, fish surveys, and beach cleanup. They also hunt lionfish, a foreign invasive species that damages reefs.
  • Play It Forward Adventures has taken volunteers to Nepal, where they trekked and built a sewing room for women rescued from the sex trade, as well as Costa Rica where they kayaked and planted a garden for a women's co-op. Founded in 2007 by a former Wilderness First Responder, the group believes in giving back to locals in places it visits.
  • REI Adventures Volunteer Vacations offers trips to wilderness areas and cultural sites in Europe and the Americas. Volunteers preserve parks, maintain trails, and hike. Expeditions started in 2010 and cover seven itineraries. REI's small groups work with park rangers, conservation experts, and Conservation Volunteers International Partners. A Galapagos trip is planned for the middle of January, and a Patagonia trip will run in mid-February.
  • Divers and snorkelers with Reef Environmental Education Foundation help promote ocean life and biodiversity. Volunteers survey fish populations, research endangered and invasive species, as well as conduct lionfish research. REEF runs 12 to 15 trips per year, with some 275 participants each year.