How Backpacking And Volunteering Can Help Your Career.

What you should consider before volunteering on your gap year

Volunteering on your gap year is a noble and amazing thing to do, providing it is done responsibly of course, but it doesn’t have to be completely altruistic. Both parties can benefit from the goodwill of volunteering and it can also do wonders for you CV and have a positive effect on your career. So for anyone worrying that taking time out to travel will harm their future career, you may find the answer here.

It is no secret that times have been tough for a lot of people over the last couple of decades, a huge recession, a worldwide pandemic, supressed wages and decimated job markets where even graduates are struggling to find work. This is just a simple truth, life has been pretty hard lately, and for those who are dreaming of travel but also want to get on the career ladder, taking a year out to go backpacking around the world or taking an extended holiday and blowing all of your savings seems like the exact antithesis of common sense.

With few jobs available and plenty of highly qualified competition hungry for work and competing for the few jobs available, why would anyone hurt their prospects by backpacking and lazing around a bunch of islands in the Andaman Sea for a year? It sounds like career suicide, right?

Well not quite.

Needing To Stand Out In A Tough Job Market.

I get the fear, I do. The job market is tough. Whether you are a skilled or unskilled labourer or a qualified professional, it can be hard finding work.

Even for those who have found a job or are lucky enough to be in a dream career, the fear is still very real. There is a perception that they have worked hard to make what little career progress they have and they must cling to that dream job all costs. There is often a general feeling that if they do anything to jeopardize it – including taking extended time off – they will stall their progress up the ladder, or maybe even fall off the ladder altogether.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

In reality, the recession and more recently the job losses and furloughs after the worldwide pandemic is fueling the gap year travel sector, especially among young professionals. Over the past twenty years or so, long gap years – or serial, shorter ‘snap years’ – have been on the rise. Recent events seems to have shifted the momentum up a few gears and kicked it into hyperdrive, making students and young professionals one of the biggest contributors to the gap year industry.

Among those recession era and pandemic era gap year travelers are many who, unfortunately, lost their jobs or careers. But instead of staying at home, struggling to find new jobs and praying for economic recovery, many have taken matters into their own hands and turned their stalled professional lives into positive experiences.

And travel is just about as positive as you can get.

How Does Travel Help Your Career?

In any job or career there will always be competition, and a big part of beating that competition means standing out from the crowd. Unfortunately working your arse off and killing yourself by being the first one in and the last one out of the office means nothing, it never has, unless you count being taken advantage of a benefit. Degrees have been so devalued now that they are expected, they are nothing special any more. So what is left? What can possibly make your CV stand out to potential employers?

Volunteering on an awesome gap year of course!

A gap year, especially one where you can demonstrate you have built and developed useful skills, can be a huge boost to your CV and your professional career. If you spin it right.

Spinning Your CV The Right Way.

Some of the world’s biggest employers are increasingly viewing backpacking as a viable and useful pursuit. Some are even offering flexible working conditions to take into account employees dreams of travel, and many universities are now even offering course credit for time spent on a gap year.

Potential employers really are starting to come round to the common held truth that backpackers gain a range of tangible and intangible benefits on the road, hard and soft skills that make them more valuable employees.

Waxing lyrical on multiculturalism and travel-enhanced communication skills gained through years of travel is one thing, soft skills are all well and good after all, but backpacking can also result in tangible skills to list on a CV.

I’m talking about volunteering.

I want to make it clear here that I am not referring to the type of “voluntourism” that involves you paying vast sums of money to an irresponsible for-profit company and offers no measurable benefit to the local community. Paying thousands of pounds to dig a ditch in the middle of nowhere will benefit no one. Many of these voluntourism industries actually cause more harm than good, and benefit no one but their shareholders.

If, however, you do your homework thoroughly beforehand and are engaging in true volunteer work or helping out a real charity or NGO, then you can tailor that experience into a unique advantage when you apply for jobs back home.

First, Explain The Long Gap.

Any traveller has been in this situation in an interview, where your potential employer looks disapprovingly at your CV and glares at you from over their glasses.

‘So explain the two year gap between your last job and now’.

It can be nerve racking to many, I get it. There are still a lot of people out there who believe you should work 20 hours a day, 7 days a week! I know better. I’m more than used to that question now after quitting many jobs and walking back into my career 6 months or more later, and it’s not as difficult to answer as people think.

Simply saying you went travelling or took a gap year to see the world is not a bad thing, and it is time to end that stigma!

It doesn’t matter if you had a forced career break because your place of employment went under or you chose to go off by yourself for a bit, long breaks in your CV can be explained away by travelling. That in and of itself is a viable answer. The key to spinning that to your advantage is showing how what you did in your time will be a benefit to your future employer.

Hard And Soft Skills.

Explaining that you spent some time doing some volunteer work will never be considered a bad thing in an interview, but if you state very clearly what you learned, how you improve yourself or gained specific skills during that time volunteering then you will score serious brownie points, and if you can couple that experience with a great story about a rural village in remote Africa, or the time those damned macaques ran off with your sandals in Southeast Asia (Never happened to me honest! Ahem!) Then at the very least you will make yourself memorable. And that never hurts, right?

Just make sure you skip past the boasts that you spent a month sipping mango juice and lying in a hammock on a tropical beach or that you spent a few months island-hopping to the next party or festival! No matter how awesome you think it is, the ability to chug an entire whisky bucket is not considered a beneficial skill.

The volunteering experience matters most if it relates to your chosen career field. This way you can list your time spent backpacking and volunteering as an actual position rather than leaving that time period blank. For example, if your field is animal conservation or veterinary medicine, time spent volunteering in an animal sanctuary or charity abroad looks great on a CV. How about a few cooking courses in Thailand or India if you want to be a chef or work as a cook? Are you a teacher or planning to retrain as one? Then getting your TEFL qualification and getting experience teaching English abroad counts as a big plus in any interview.

It may strike some as mercenary to use volunteer work in this way, but it’s really not. You gave your time, you get something back too. It’s all about turning a negative into a positive. It’s about taking all of these tangible and intangible benefits backpacking can give you and using them to help yourself find a job or move up the career ladder when you return to the world of work. There is nothing wrong with that.

Michael Huxley

My own volunteering experience hasn’t always related to my field. I was a nurse specialist in my working life. I have spent periods of time volunteering as a medic on various expeditions through jungle, desert, mountain and volcanic terrain in numerous countries, gaining experience and knowledge in a range of travel, jungle and mountain medicine in the process. Career advancement wasn’t my primary motivation for volunteering of course, but listing “Expedition Medic” on my CV has certainly helped me move up the career ladder.

But volunteering has done much more than give me a memorable CV entry. It has also allowed me to indulge some of my passions, including animal protection and conservation, and do a lot of good in the process. While these interests don’t specifically relate to my chosen career, I can still list them on my CV as strong character pieces. I can also use them to attest to soft skills, such as communication, teaching and staff development, time management, and organizational skills, all attributes that many employers prize.

So by all means volunteer in very specific fields to advance your career but also use the time to indulge your own passions, because you can always find something, some benefit or some skill that you can spin in a way that it shows your growth as a person and benefit to your future employer.

Volunteering with elephants

The Benefits Of Travel.

But what if you don’t want volunteering to drive your travel experience? What if you just want to travel? Well that is all good too, and you can still use it to help you get a good job – or even better career than you would have done otherwise – when you get back home. Whether or not you offer your time to charitable organizations, 6 or 12 months spent travelling the world give you an opportunity to show your extensive international background and cultural fluency, not to mention the vital communication and language skills, independent problem solving skills and drive that most businesses require and value.

Time spent trying to learn a foreign language (however badly you may have mangled it) can always be spun as a big professional asset.

Management or administration skills? What do you think you were doing when you planned and organized a round-the-world trip, saving and budgeting, untangling visa issues, currency and other logistical challenges?

Haggling your way to a 50% saving on a long term hostel stay shows you have the acumen to pursuade customers to buy.

All those cultural faux pas you made show that you are a culturally aware and diverse candidate.

That time on the road when everything went tits up and you managed to get out of it shows you are calm under pressure.

These are just some of the soft skills that backpacking gives you almost by osmosis.

Backpacking does change you: It makes you a better person, a more balanced person. Backpacking increases your knowledge and skill sets, and it boosts your wisdom and understanding. You will come back from your travels not only with more education, qualifications and work experience but also with a wealth of world and life experience too, and if you volunteer, not only will that be an amazing experience, if you connect with people and organizations that are making a difference you can make a lasting impact upon a community too.

Both travelling the world and volunteering are wonderful and awesome things to do, and they can help you in more ways than you can know.

When you arrive back to the world of work and corporate ladder climbing, you will find that backpacking has helped your career prospects immeasurably. If you spin it right. And while you’re at it, you will enrich your own life beyond anything you ever expected.

What do you think? Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or please join in the discussion on my Facebook or Twitter pages on this important topic, and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons and spread the word.

If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Related Articles.

12 Questions You Should Ask Before Volunteering Abroad. 

10 Realities Of Quitting Your Job To Travel The World.

A Gap Year Is For Life Not Just When You Graduate.

How To Include A Gap Year Or World Travel On Your CV.

Spotlight On BAWA, Volunteering In Bali.

Study, Work, Career And Gap Years, The Middle Way.

The Big Voluntourism Lie.

What To Do After Your A Levels, There Is No Wrong Path.

What Type Of Volunteer Are You?

What You Need To Consider Before Volunteering On Your Gap Year.

Why Employers Need To Be More Open Minded About Annual Leave.

Why Taking A Career Break To Travel Is A Good Idea.


Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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9 comments on “How Backpacking And Volunteering Can Help Your Career.
  1. The Blond travels says:

    Agree. Volunteering is really helpful and great way to gain experience. Backpacking itself gives you so much more than just extended holidays. You learn how to communicate with others, how to patient, how to navigate in unknown places. Everyone should go backpacking at least once in their lifetime.

  2. Tom Gosschalk says:

    totally agree… the challenge is tracking down these organisations who don’t want your $$$! Even established house hold name organisations ask for 3000$ for 1 week of community work in South Africa… incredible!

    • Exactly, it can be difficult. That is why I think it is so important to know exactly what to look for and what to watch out for. I often find that the best places I have worked with have been ones which I have found on the ground whilst travelling in a country.

  3. Roxanne says:

    I have a dream and a plan to start a voluntourism business that is affordable, beneficial to the traveller and the local community. Bemused backpackers articles are offering great guidance to me. Thank you

  4. Charlotte says:

    I stumbled across your article as I was looking for some information about backpacking. I’m about to graduate from my master in International relations and planned on going backpacking in South East Asia (my first love). I would love to do some volunteering and was considering registering for a long-term program but I think I prefer travelling around in different places. Hence my question : how do you find volunteer opportunities when you dont stay for more than several months? If you could help me out or give me some advices, it’ll be great! Thank youu

    • Hi, to be brutally honest with you any volunteer experience worth its salt requires a decent time commitment and specific roles, it is just the way it is. There are many different NGO’s that will appreciate some help on a short term basis but a lot depends on your specific skill sets, qualifications and what they need too. If you prefer travelling around why not support causes in a different way, such as donating supplies to a charity like BAWA in Bali for example?

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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