Gap Year Adventure Travel

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With gap year adventure travel programs, participants have the chance to explore new corners of the globe on foot, by bike, or surfboard, gain technical skills, and challenge themselves emotionally and physically. Not all programs are the same either, and will sometimes pair other interests, such as volunteering or environmental education, to assure that your gap year isn’t just about catching the sickest wave, but also gaining a deeper understanding of the places you visit.

South Africa

It’s hard not to travel to South Africa with adventure in mind -- it’s home of The Big 5, some of the world’s best national parks and nature reserves, coastlines great for surfing and diving with Great White Sharks, and countless hikes, treks, and rock climbing routes. For adventure travelers, South Africa’s greatest appeal is the range of activity. Another plus? Affordable cost of living and programs that don’t have language requirements.

New Zealand

New Zealand has long been a popular gap year destination and for an adventure travel gap year, this outdoorsy nation really packs in a lot for its size. In New Zealand, gap year participants can learn about its unique natural features while hiking, biking, or kayaking or work on their outdoor leadership skills through a more structured, technically-focused program like Horizons Unlimited. Prefer an independent gap year? New Zealand’s great for that too.


Although India gets points for its low cost, welcoming vibe, and wide variety of volunteer projects, it is equally appealing for adventure travel. It is, after all, one of the five countries that the iconic Himalayan mountain range crosses through. You won’t be summiting Matterhorn, but gap year programs in India will lead participants on shorter treks through the range, on whitewater rafting and/or kayaking trips, or camel treks through the desert of Rajasthan.


Want a trek that takes you to one of the world’s most well known historical destinations? Then follow Peru’s famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. If this isn’t enough, Peru also has rain forests and surf-able coastline to explore, volunteer opportunities and Spanish immersion to diversify your experience with. Also, did I mention it’s inexpensive?

Patagonia (Argentina/Chile)

An adventure travel gap year in Patagonia offers some of the continent’s most unusual and incredible landscapes, but also a wide variety of adventure travel activities. Combine that with affordability and a chance to learn Spanish or participate in a volunteer project or course in ecological conservation, and you’ve got yourself a well-rounded gap year destination.

Also popular? Tanzania, USA, Nepal, and Thailand.

Single vs. Multiple Destination

Since longer adventure travel gap years tend to focus more on the skills and experiences you are getting than a specific region or language, you won’t always be staying in one place throughout the program. IWLS’s year long adventure travel program, for example, will help students develop skills in outdoor leadership and guiding from as far north as Alaska, to as far south as Patagonia.

In short, single destinations are best for short term gap years or programs that combine adventure travel with a course or volunteer project. Multiple destinations are better if you are taking a longer gap year or want to put a single skill to the test in different locations (surfing the same beach for a year can get old).

Long term vs. Short term

A gap year doesn’t have to be a year. Finding programs for several weeks to a semester are also possible. If you choose a longer gap year, the upfront cost will be more expensive, but you will save money in the end. You can accumulate more college credits, and are able to do more and see more.

Short-term gap years are best for those who don’t have as much freedom to take a whole year off from work/school or can’t afford a full year. For some technical certification programs, long term isn’t necessary -- you only need a few weeks to complete the course.

Types of Activities

Just to give you some idea, here are a few of the activities that adventure travel gap years focus on:

  • Scuba diving
  • Surfing
  • Skiing
  • Bungee jumping
  • White water rafting
  • Hiking/Trekking
  • Ice climbing
  • Rock climbing
  • Kayaking
  • First aid certification
  • CPR certification
Combining Adventure Travel with Volunteer Work, an Internship, or Language Study

You will frequently find gap year programs that also give participants an opportunity to volunteer, study the local language, or engage in an internship during the program. This can be, but isn’t always, a smart move. Combing your adventure travel with another course, job, or project will give you a more varied experience and rounded insight on the destinations you visit, but if you’re goals are more focused on building your job qualifications and technical skills, having variation could be distracting.

Before you start your search, decide what your goals are and what you want your program to be focused on. Do you want to spend a few weeks giving back to a local community or learning Spanish between scuba and ice climbing expeditions? Or would you prefer to focus on outdoor leadership skills and getting your Wilderness First Responder certification? Know yourself, then decide.

Getting Your Family on Board

Especially with a gap year program that has students participating in adventurous activities more often than receiving lectures in a classroom, your family will be concerned for your safety. Ease their concerns by giving them as much information as possible about safety credentials of instructors (how experienced are they? Do they have first aid or Wilderness First Responder certification?) and your program’s plan of action in case of an emergency. Research the country/countries you will be visiting as well to find out what safety concerns you should be aware of ( is a good place to start). Also be sure to emphasize the benefits of your gap year and a plan for financing it!

When To Take an Adventure Travel Gap Year

Timing for your gap year totally depends on what activities you want to do, where you want to go, and whether or not you are flexible in when you can take a gap year. For example, if you want to get certified in rock/ice climbing leadership, you have the option of heading north to Alaska/Yukon in December - February, or south to Argentina/Chile in June-August. However if you are not as flexible in timing (for example, you don’t want to take a year off from college, but have summer/winter vacations to play around with), you will still be able to do a gap year in adventure travel, but you may have to be flexible with the type of activity or destination you choose.

Tips on Funding

Believe it or not, scholarships, fellowships, and grants for adventure travel gap years do exist. Start your search with your program provider, but don’t stop there. If you are getting college credit, you qualify for some study abroad scholarships -- apply to those too. You should always apply to multiple scholarships/fellowships/grants.

For some destinations, such as Australia or New Zealand, you could alternatively cut the costs of your gap year by applying for a working holiday visa and getting a part-time job or paid internship during your time abroad.

College Credit

IWLS, Carpe Diem, and numerous other programs offer college credit for their trips. If this is a deciding factor for you, make sure your college will accept the credit (often as a transfer credit) before you sign up. If you are organizing your trip independently or through a program provider that doesn’t have a partnership with a university to give college credit, ask an advisor at your university to see if you can count your gap year as an independent study course.


If you are taking a gap year through a program provider, they should let you know if they will be taking care of your visa application for you (if needed) or if you should do so on your own. If it isn’t clear, ask. Since you aren’t working, most countries will let you study/volunteer/travel for 30-90 days on a tourist visa that’s available on arrival for U.S. citizens. But not all countries will grant a visa on arrival (i.e. India and Vietnam) and length of stay on a tourist visa varies. Check the State Department’s travel website for more details on each country you plan on visiting well before departure.

Contributed by Jessie Beck


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