Operation Groundswell | Backpacking with a Purpose

Operation Groundswell


Operation Groundswell is all about backpacking with a purpose. With ethical travel at the crux of our philosophy, Operation Groundswell designs financially accessible programs that tell a story, addressing key challenges unique to each region and community we work with, told from diverse local perspectives. Each of our programs has a dynamic blend of solidarity-based community service, meaningful learning experiences, and off the beaten path adventure.


205 Church Street
Suite 200
Toronto ON M5B 1Y7


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Visiting Ecuador and focusing our trip on food revolutions was educational, spiritual, and amazing! You are participating in community service that is requested by the partners you are working with so when you leave it is not as if you are leaving halfway completed projects that will never be finished. Your impact is that you are starting and finishing a full idea or leaving work that they will be able to complete themselves. You are traveling with two program leaders which are completely supportive, both of our were fluent in Spanish and very encouraging in every way. We also happened to have a PL that was from Ecuador so we were able to hear her insights about the country and the places we were visiting as well.
If you enjoy working and connecting with nature/Mother Earth for fun, this trip is for you! We did not visit bars or get drunk but we were able to go to bed exhausted every day from working, walking, talking, discussing, learning, and so much more. You will see things you have never seen before- such as having to go down and back up a ravine in order to get into town, but you will never worry about being able to sleep or feeling unsafe in any way.
The only downside to this trip is a TEENY bit of the value. The trip itself is worth every penny of the program fee BUT because of the way the program works, they tell you not to book your flights until your program is full with participants. For us this meant buying them two months before when my $750 flight had gone up to $1,600. Every other participant felt the same way but none of us would take the experience back.

How can this program be improved?
Allowing us to purchase flights when we would like to but requiring flight insurance beforehand in case the trip is cancelled or we need a different time.
Yes, I recommend this program
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Traveling to Tanzania and Rwanda was amazing! I loved experiencing the different cultures and I was also able to participate in a few unique experiences with Operation Groundswell, such as a homestay. At the homestay I stayed with a Grandma and her two grandchildren in a small village on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. It was very interesting to see life from their perspective and help with chores around the house. I also made many Tanzanian and Rwandan friends and during my Independent Travel Time I hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. I'm thankful for the experiences that Operation Groundswell gave me; however, there were times when I was very frustrated with the program as well.

After I was registered for the program and before I left on the trip, it seemed as if the Operation Groundswell staff could care less about me. I emailed them multiple times inquiring about the program, as it was one month after they were supposed to be sending the program itinerary. They failed to reply to all of my emails and two weeks later they sent out an email stating that the program might be canceled due to lack of participants. Only then would they reply to my emails.

During the program, most of my dissatisfaction revolved around the program leaders. I am allergic to gluten and was told before the trip that they could accommodate a gluten-free diet for me. When I got to East Africa it was clear that they had not done anything to plan for this at all. In the beginning, for breakfast I only got a small portion of eggs. At the homestay, I got a couple bananas. I talked to my program leaders and told them that this was not substantial for me. They promised to buy me something else to eat for breakfast; however, it wasn't until the fourth week of a six week program, that they actually bought me some gluten-free oats to eat, and this was after I got upset with them. I felt that they continually ignored my problems and rarely checking in to see if we were doing okay. If you are Celiac or Gluten-Free DO NOT PARTICIPATE in an Operation Groundswell program!!

The leaders also lacked communication with the entire group of participants. They would leave us sitting in a bus on the side of the road, for hours sometimes, while they went off somewhere. They didn't even tell us where they were going or what they were doing until we asked them afterwards. We were left sitting in a hot bus, in a foreign country, all by ourselves with no idea when they were coming back.

Additionally, the leaders were late for most of our engagements. They would tell us to be ready for 4pm and we would all be sitting and waiting for them until around 5pm. This happened almost every day. It was absolutely ridiculous. I felt like I was wasting my time on this program.

A few other things that made me dissatisfied with the program were as follows:
-We were supposed to be focused on animal conservation; however, we rarely did anything with animals. We mostly planted trees, which is fine too, but I would have liked to have known this before the program so that I could have chosen a program more immersive with animals.
-Many of the volunteer opportunities were going to an office and listening to employees talk. I expected to be volunteering more hands-on and at the end of the trip I felt that I barely did anything to help animals in Eastern Africa.
-Only around 50% (I can't remember the exact percentage but it was close to 50%) of the amount that you pay on OG trips goes towards your actual travel. The other 50% goes towards salaries, alumni funds, etc. I paid about $4,000 CAD for this trip and only about $2,000 went towards my actual trip! I didn't know this until the end when our leaders showed us the cost breakdown. As an accountant, I was pretty upset with this info. I would have gotten much better value for my money if I had planned out a trip for myself.
-OG makes participants on the trip participate in "learning activities." Although the message they are trying to express is good, I felt like I was back in Kindergarten again when we had to do these. They treated us like children.
-Being 26 at the time that I participated on this trip, I was older than both of the leaders and almost all of the other participants. I felt a little bit out of place and I think that the programs are designed for younger people with little to no travel experience.

Overall, I absolutely loved East Africa and would love to return there someday. Needless to say, I will not be returning there with Operation Groundswell.

How can this program be improved?
This program can be improved if OG increases their communication both with participants before they leave on their trips and with participants on the trip. I feel that the program leaders need more training in order to better adapt to the needs of participants. OG also needs to allow participants to volunteer with more hands-on activities and change their learning activities to accommodate an audience of young adults.
Response from Operation Groundswell

Hi Kaitlyn,

I'm so sorry to hear about your negative experience on program, but am glad to know how much you enjoyed Tanzania and Rwanda. Clarity and transparency are very important to us as an organization, and it seems that we did not accomplish that during your time with us.

I would like to start by apologizing for the poor communication. I expect we were waiting to respond until we had more information on your program's status, but that's not an excuse for not replying to your emails. We absolutely want to keep participants informed of what's going on every step of the way, even if it's just to answer questions and say that we'll be in touch with more information by a certain date. We are a small team, but our goal is to respond to all emails within 48 business hours, which we certainly did not do here. I'm also sorry to hear that you were emailed about the potential program cancellation. In the case that this is a concern, we always want to try and speak with each participant on the phone so they can hear from us directly, ask questions, and know exactly what's going to happen next, and it looks like we failed to provide that space.

Regarding your on-program experience, I'm sorry to hear that your program leaders were not able to better accommodate your gluten-free diet. At Operation Groundswell, we know that there are certain food sensitivities that are more difficult to accommodate in some regions rather than others, and we would not have advised you to come on an OG program in East Africa if it were a region we felt unsure of our ability to provide you sufficient and suitable food. There is no excuse for this, only that we were unaware until now that you had gone so long without being provided sufficient meal options.

With your program leaders, I suspect that this experience plays into the lack of communication, and what ultimately felt a lack of reliability on the part of your program leaders at large. It sounds like your program leaders failed to meet your, and our, expectations for leadership, professionalism, and risk management. While there is nothing we can do to change the experience you had, your feedback will help ensure we are both hiring the right people, and equipping them with the appropriate training to ensure Operation Groundswell participants are able to have the experience abroad they signed up for.

With regards to the theme of your program - this is something we struggle with every season. Finding a way to responsibly educate around animal conservation and contribute to the work being done in the field is difficult given the many pitfalls of unethical animal tourism, as well as our organizational commitment to only participating in work we are qualified to do. That said, it's a challenge we have accepted, which means we owe it to you, and to future participants, to better meet, or set, participant expectations around this particular theme. If you have suggestions on how to do this, we'd love to hear more.

We know that OG's educational style is not for everyone. We try our best to provide a variety of activities that speak to a diverse learning style, level of education/experience, and that make learning fun. We know that this can sometimes feel childish for participants, though for others it makes the learning more approachable. It is a balance, though one that may not have been the right balance for you.

Finally, we try to be as transparent as possible with our program fees. You can find a breakdown of how our fees are allocated on our website here: https://operationgroundswell.com/programs/fee-contribution/. There are certainly cheaper ways to travel, but we aim for our programs to offer more than just a travel experience. A lot of time and resources go into developing full itineraries designed in conjunction with local partners, establishing responsible relationships with local communities and organizations, building out and responding to risk management strategies, and engaging in outreach to get new team members on board, just to mention a few. If you have any concerns about our fees, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Thank you very much for joining us on program. I hope it was ultimately a rewarding and valuable trip, despite us not living up to your, or our, expectations. This sort of feedback is extremely valuable, and we will always use it to improve our training, communication, and overall experience. If there’s anything you have questions about or that you’d like to discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]

All the best,

No, I don't recommend this program

I have no words for how grateful I am to have partaken in this experience. OG really does make a huge impact and in such an exciting and interesting way. The experience is definitely off the beaten track and includes many interactions with locals and local modes of transport. OG also puts a lot of importance on talking about certain issues in the regions that you’re in (the ones that you’re working on fixing) and it’s really cool to learn what’s going on in those areas as well as hearing the locals talk about it and hearing your travel companions’ opinions. The Amazon trek was definitely the highlight and hardest part of the trip. You get to go hiking through native territory where not even 1000 people have ever walked before. The terrain is challenging and a good degree of physical fitness and proper hiking gear is definitely required, but you also don’t have to worry about carrying your food or tents with you because the guides take care of that. The trip consists of so many amazing experiences but if you’re someone who’s hoping for prime comfort and degustation it’s not the trip for you, but rather for someone who loves adventure and truly authentic experiences. The 10 days of Independent Travel Time are also an amazing asset of the trip; I have not seen any other organization that gives people 10 days to do whatever they’d like while still being able to call the group leaders or regional mentor should something go wrong or should you need help with figuring something out. I 110% recommend this for someone’s first backpacking trip because you get a hang of how backpacking works and you definitely have the chance to make your own choices and be independent but you also have leaders to help you out.

How can this program be improved?
The one thing that would’ve been nice if we were told that hiking poles and a headlamp were needed, but we told our leaders and they took note of it so I’d imagine they inform the new groups of this now.
Yes, I recommend this program
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This trip was well organized mix of community engagement, outdoor activity and social.
Everyone on the trip was great. I think the people are the biggest variables for trips like these and i had an amazing OG group and leaders. We learnt about cultures, the language and experienced a trip of a lifetime. I liked the 10 free days in the middle. I liked the homestay we did. I liked the freedom we had. 100% recommend if you want to travel but not my first choice for people who are more focused on volunteering.

How can this program be improved?
Be cheaper and more accessible to everyone.
Yes, I recommend this program
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This program hands down changed my life. Whenever someone asks me about it I get overcome with joy. My personal values could not align more with the values of the company and the program. I truly support everything they stand for and do (even down to offsetting the carbon footprint of your flight). The program leaders are knowledgeable and deeply caring, they enable you to make true and lasting connections with the people of Peru and with the other people in your program. By going on this trip I felt I received a genuine glimpse of Peru, rather than a typical tourists look at it. I stayed, lived, ate, and laughed with the people of Peru. And my life is better for it. I can not say enough good things about this organization or this program. I have irreplaceable memories, new friendships, and a better understanding of the world. Peru just makes your heart smile. Endlessly grateful for this expierence!

Yes, I recommend this program


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