Go as Easy as You Can on the Planet
So, you've decided you want to take a gap year. You know you want to travel, probably do something adventurous, perhaps earn some money along the way. However, have you thought about the environmental impact that your gap year may have? With environmental issues increasingly creeping into newspapers, politics and everyday life, how can the gap year traveller do their bit?
Making your gap year environmentally friendly doesn't mean that you have to live in a tree house and eat roots. But with a little extra thought, your gap year can be rewarding and help save the planet. Give Mother Nature a break when you have yours!
The plane truth
When one of my friends mentioned that he thought tourism in the UK 'didn't really count as travelling' and it got me thinking. Gap year travel companies continuously tell us that going off to the other side of the world is essential during a gap year. With most people using plane travel to get there, this is very bad news for the environment. Consider travelling closer to home, and you'll not only reduce your CO2 output (which is the main cause of global warming), but you'll also visit places that are often overlooked by other gappers.
Alternatively, you could use different forms of transport to get there. Europe can be accessed relatively easily and cheaply by train and bus, with cheap offers existing for young travellers. Rail, unlike air travel, gives you a real feeling of the culture that you're travelling through, and you'll end up seeing parts that the normal cheap flight crowd rarely visit. Other options include using a bike instead of hiring a car. Collapsible bikes are now readily available and may make life easier when using public transport.
Consider spending a portion of your travelling time in the UK. There's so much to see and do, especially if you're new to the travelling game. If you haven't travelled widely before, and you're thinking of heading for an exotic destination later in your gap year, then there's no better preparation than a solo trip in the UK. Highly recommended are the Highlands of Scotland, the mountainous areas of the Irish West coast, and Snowdonia. If you're heading out on an organised expedition abroad, you may find hiking experience to be a pre-requisite.
And by sticking to the UK, you can save some of your hard-earned cash while reducing your carbon dioxide emissions. Good offers to look out for include the Scottish night trains, which could see you going to sleep in London and waking up in the Highlands for very little cost.
During my own gap year, I did work experience with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland, helping the Operation Osprey Project. Conservation projects like this will rarely be paid - some may even ask for money - and are usually fairly hard work. They are however guaranteed to be useful experiences for the CV, and, as the clichè says, will give you friends for life.
The scope and range of conservation projects available is huge. For those on a budget the UK-based British Trust for Conservation Volunteers is a good start for local and international projects. On the other hand, you could find yourself shadowing a nature reserve warden from one of the main conservation charities, who are usually happy to take on mature and sensible gappers.
Or maybe surveying wildlife is more your thing. Many of the big gap year organisations run wildlife surveying projects in different parts of the world. Closer to home, you could help out with species protection. For instance, the RSPB's Abernethy reserve in Scotland takes volunteers to monitor the Osprey, a rare fish-eating bird.
If you are looking for sponsorship from grant-making organisations and companies, doing a conservation project can make your application much stronger. With environmental issues becoming so prevalent in the news, those with money to donate simply love environmental projects. If you're doing something a bit out of the ordinary, like a long distance trek or climbing a mountain, consider raising money for a conservation organisation to raise the trip's profile.
Put your money where your mouth is
What you take with you can also be taken into account. Check out funky organic cotton clothing company People Tree for casual gear, or Welsh bike and boarding company Howies for more adventure-orientated garments. If you're heading off on an expedition, or you want easy-care gear for the trail, the Californian brand Patagonia make clothing for the most extreme mountaineers and explorers on the planet. As well as making recycled fleeces, Patagonia even donate one per cent of their profits to conservation organisations.
Be careful what tourist companies you use as well. Look out for companies that have a decent policy on the environment. Some trekking groups for instance are involved in path maintenance and minimising deforestation through firewood use. You can get good recommendations from organisations such as The International Ecotourism Society or Tourism Concern. Responsible Travel also has a good gap year section.
Waste not, want not
Chances are that your gap year will mark some big changes in your life. If you've just left Sixth Form, you'll probably be chucking out a lot of useless junk that you've collected over the last 18 years or so. Save your local landfill - take small items to charity shops. Bigger things that you can't recycle can be given away at Freecycle, or slapped up on ebay.
So, there you have it folks. With a little careful thought, you can make your gap year more eco-friendly than The Good Life, and possibly manage to save yourself a few bucks along the way. Happy camping!