When backpacking, generally you are travelling around alone or with friends, meeting people as you go, staying in hostels and seeing new things. You will have the freedom to do what you want and where as you please, as long as your finances hold up. But will you truly see the places you visit and experience their cultures and traditions?
On the other hand there’s volunteering, which is essentially working for free or for food and board and actually usually paying a fee for the privilege. However your spend a lot less money, stay in one place for longer, meaning your making friends with the local people rather than other backpackers, learn about local culture, language and religions, broadening your life experiences.
So is it not possible to do both?
In some ways it is, however responsible volunteering is not paying a fee and turning up at and orphanage or school for the day, taking a few photos and reading a book to children, this sort of activity is neither beneficial to the organisation you go to or your experiences. While it will provide a talking point it will not really boost your life experience or career skills.
In order to meaningfully volunteer you should commit a minimum time period agreeable to both parties, usually requested by the organisation and can range between 2 weeks and 2 years.
So how can a backpack while volunteering?
Most if not all organisations give you time off and actively encourage you to see the sites, experience local culture and will usually help you to do this cheaper and easier than if you were just passing through, either by people involved with the organisation arranging and taking you or putting you in contact with the locals who run the excursions rather than having to use a tour company.
You don’t have to commit a year to volunteer at each place, most organisations are happy with 3 – 6 weeks which will allow you to gain experience, skills and also make a real difference in the community you volunteer within.
OK, backpacking you may visit 25 countries but your only spend a couple of weeks in each and never really get to experience local cultures, customs, see the sites other than the tourist trail. By volunteering you may only get to see 5 – 10 countries but your come away with new transferable skills, cultural experience and knowing you have made a difference somewhere, however little.
So maybe it’s worth considering combining both, especially if you fall in love with a region of the world and decide to spend longer there, that way you will experience the true county and not just the tourist trial. For the most rewarding experience try grass roots volunteering.