Volunteer Vacations: Going Native

Channel your inner scientist, explorer, or environmentalist with travel that combines adventure and doing something good for the planet

Slide Show >>

Lynn Kraus and her husband, Jeff, love to escape the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, where they live and work. They have traveled to many parts of the world, including Europe and Africa, but they consider last July's trip to the desert of Namibia particularly memorable. Through the Earthwatch Institute, a group that pairs volunteers with research scientists around the world, the Krauses spent two weeks tracking elephants through some of the oldest and most sparsely populated desert in the world. "It was wonderful," says Kraus. "I'd recommend it to anyone who likes remote places."

Though she enjoyed the escape aspect of the trip, Kraus says she's proud to have helped with the research. Her team, led by Australian scientist Keith Leggett, is documenting movement patterns of the 500 or so desert elephants native to the area to ensure that future government development won't destroy their habitat.

BIRD'S EYE VIEW.

  Indeed, some of the best places for viewing and interacting with native wildlife are among those most in need of protection. Volunteer trips to wildlife conservation areas offer a great opportunity to do some good while experiencing a dose of raw nature.

Volunteer trips that center on wildlife conservation are generally the most rugged of all volunteer vacations. After all, to get deep into nature requires getting further away from civilization. But the intimate connection with the flora and fauna that the extra effort involves often makes the trip. Sunsets, dips in rushing rivers and placid lakes, and a variety of trips to national parks are the norm on these types of excursions.

Though you may be asked to perform important research and observations, experience is almost never necessary. But since the nature of the work on these trips varies so broadly, make sure you research what your trip might entail. If you're looking for vigorous activity, then you might want to avoid a trip whose main activity is documenting and observing local bird life, for instance.

THE UNBEATEN PATH.

  No matter your preferred climate, there's a volunteer vacation for you. If tracking elephants in the hot deserts of Namibia sounds stifling, Earthwatch also offers a trip to the Caribbean island of St. Croix to help protect the habitat of leatherback sea turtles. Or perhaps you're looking to get into the mountains. If so, you can choose between blazing a new trail in Arizona and maintaining such classic American outdoor havens as the Grand Canyon and the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail.

Africa offers perhaps the most unusual trips in our list, with ventures taking place mostly in the southern region of the continent in Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana. But there is plenty of opportunity close to home, with trips across the eastern region of the U.S. and out west in Arizona.

And remember that these are just a small selection of what's out there. Each of these volunteer vacation providers offers a variety of other trips besides the ones we have highlighted here. Whichever you choose, you're guaranteed an adventure and a trip off the beaten path.Click here for the slide show

More on Volunteer Vacations:

"Volunteer Vacations: Not Free—Priceless"

"Vacation with a Mission"