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A Complete Guide to Expeditions

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Written by: Richard Sheane

For me an expedition is something a bit more special and conjures up a number of exciting possibilities that ‘normal’ travel doesn’t… an expedition allows you to totally immerse yourself in an unfamiliar culture or environment. It teaches you how to work in a team, overcome adversity and become self-sufficient. It is a physical and mental challenge (to varying degrees) and gives a global perspective on life. The best expeditions live on long after you have returned home – often through the new knowledge that they have brought back. All in all it’s a exhilarating way to see the world!
Walking on an expedition

Everything You Need to Know Before You Go on an Expedition

Can anyone go on an expedition?
The short answer is Yes. Recent developments such as cheaper air travel and safer equipment now mean that people like you and I can go out and explore the Earth for ourselves – not just read about adventures in our bedrooms! Expeditions increasingly cater for disabled travellers too – see our section on inclusive expeditions for more on this.
Your expedition needn’t be a huge affair – start on a small one close to home if you want. The great thing about your expedition is that it is a personal odyssey. You can work within your own limits and fears and challenge yourself on your own terms. Just how you achieve this is limited only by your imagination. You will quickly gain confidence and in the future may want to test those boundaries you once thought you had with more challenging adventures.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!
But hang on a second… before you sling your new backpack over your shoulders and head off into the sunset it should be remembered that this boom in adventure travel has not been achieved without loss. Unfortunately, what we do when we travel can have large negative consequences. For example, the jumbo jet you hop on to Nepal is going to spew out millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases – and what is more, it will affect the poorest in society. Once you arrive in Kathmandu and hand your gear over to a local porter to carry to Everest Base Camp are you sure he or she is being treated fairly and being given a good wage? Our impacts are not just environmental – they can be social too. Exploitation of local people is a real problem in developing countries where natural beauty attracts Western wealth.
That is not to say don’t go… just think carefully before you try to navigate the fragile ecosystems of the Amazon in a 300 horsepower speedboat. Travel responsibly – just because we can travel easily does not mean we have the right to.
The gapyear.com expedition section is for the whole spectrum of gappers out there who want to go on an expedition. Whether this is your first time and you are fretting over which equipment to buy or you have done an expedition before and you are looking for some new ideas.
Whatever your dream, I hope its contents inspire you to discover more about yourself and the world in which you live.

Types of expeditions

Broadly speaking expeditions fall into the following three categories: ‘adventurous’, ‘scientific’ or ‘community-based’.

  1. Adventurous expeditions – Done for the sake of adventure and tend to be more of a physical challenge. They have a geographical beginning and end. E.g. Two week kayaking trip in Scotland.
  2. Scientific expedition – Done to contribute to human knowledge – or perhaps your school or university work! Expeditions tend to stick to one area and involve less travelling once in the field. E.g – Coral reef monitoring in the Philippines.
  3. Community-based expeditions – Done to contribute to the welfare of small (or large) communities in host country. Frequently involves improving health or education of local people. These expeditions tend to be less physical and are often residential. E.g. AIDS education project in rural Kenya.

Although the main aim of the expedition will fall under one of the above, it may well have supporting objectives that fall under the other sections. For example, you may take extra medical equipment on your coral reef monitoring expedition and offer basic treatments to local people. You might also devise a conservation education programme for local schools to explain your work. Here a scientific expedition has social aspects to it too.

What makes a good expedition?

No matter where you are going and what you are doing there are a number of key characteristics that go to make up a successful expedition.

  1. Safety – You want to come back home at the end of the trip. Even the most extreme expeditions can be low-risk if prepared for properly and approached correctly. According to boffins the chance of injury on a well-organised expedition should be the same as the risk of injury when leading a normal, active life back home.
  2. Interesting destination – Experiencing new places and faces is what makes expeditioning such fun. You don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to achieve this though – there are plenty of things to explore close to home too.
  3. Enjoyable/exciting activities – If you aren’t having fun or enjoying yourself then there’s little point in your being there. What constitutes enjoyment will vary from person to person – the ‘pleasure’ of hauling sleds for days on end through sub-zero temperatures on a sheet of ice may not appeal to some, but for many the satisfaction of an expedition comes from overcoming such hardships.
  4. Your team – Getting on with your team (which includes members of staff) is important. If you meet everyone for the first time at the airport then this is a little bit up to chance. However, a good expeditions organisation should select team members carefully and employ experienced staff who are easy to get on with.
  5. In-country resources – If you are going on an expedition for the first time it makes things so much more enjoyable if the organisation you are going with has a good system of in-country support.

This includes everything from experienced local staff, transport, offices, equipment stores, communications and accommodation. An organisation with all these things in place will be able to give you a much fuller gap year experience – you will not simply be dumped by a host organisation and left to fend for yourself. But going on an expedition isn’t just about your experiences. Your activities will have impacts on other people and places, so we should take that into account when we look at what makes a ‘good’ expedition:

  1. Treatment of local people – You may well find yourself in very poor regions of the world where people are desperate for employment. Unfortunately in the past it has been all too easy to take advantage of this and treat workers poorly. Consideration should be especially given to those employed to carry expedition equipment (porters). Even today many powerful western tour operators keen to offer cheap holidays contract out these services to local porter companies who cut workers’ pay to retain our business. Reports by humanitarian charities say that often porters have to pay for food and accommodation out of their meagre wage and most work uninsured. We have the opportunity to change this through our spending power…
  2. Sustainability – A large chunk of the UK expeditions market involves some aspect of environmental or social work – such as conservation work in Costa Rica or building a school in Ghana. At first glance all these schemes seem admirable, but if they are not sustainable (i.e. long term) then they are of little use to local communities. For example, a UK company may work in a village in Madagascar for two years building a health clinic with your help and money, but what happens if the company goes bankrupt or the trip becomes unpopular (or even unprofitable!)? Unless there is a system in place by which local people can run and stock the clinic then it too will close and fall into disrepair. This can be summed up with that well-worn expression: if you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, if you teach him how to fish he’ll eat forever.
  3. Environmentally sound – Just as we should aim to treat people fairly, we must also take into consideration environments. For a start, you should have minimal impact on where you are visiting – e.g. don’t litter, disturb plants or cause unnecessary erosion. And remember your journey to your destination will have an environmental effect – a team of 15 people flying return to Borneo to save the rainforests will produce over 40 tonnes of global warming gases!

Sleeping on an expedition

The costs of an expedition

Unfortunately, like most things in life, price is not necessarily related to quality when it comes to expeditions. Gap year companies that act as agents to local host companies will normally be able offer cheaper expeditions than those who have staff, offices and property to maintain abroad.
Look carefully at what’s included in the price. Due to their nature, most expeditions costs will include accommodation, internal transport (including transfers) and food. Things to look out for which are often not included are: international flights, insurance, flights from regional UK airports, visas, tips, national park fees and perhaps some meals in city/town before you set out on the expedition proper.
If possible get a few quotes for similar expeditions. By investigating what is out there you will get a much better feeling for how far your money will go. Most organisations should be able to put you in contact with previous expeditioners – ask them whether they thought it was good value. Also ask them what a typical day might consist of.
If you are travelling with a charitable organisation you might like to find out what percentage of the fee is ploughed back into projects and local communities.

Planning an expedition

Most gappers don’t organise their own expeditions – but this needn’t be the case. If you are willing to invest a little extra time and the energy you could be the proud leader of your very own expedition team! Sounds impressive doesn’t it?!
Organising your own trip allows you to have complete control of finances, team size, your destination, activities and length of trip to name but a few. Of course doing-it-yourself has its disadvantages too – the main one being that without expert guides you will have to travel within your own abilities. For example, you may want to tackle some rock climbing as part of an expedition – but you can’t just buy the gear and start climbing without either a serious amount of training or the guidance of a professional. Safety, boring as it sounds, is the most important issue on any expedition.

Where do I begin?

For the inexperienced, planning an expedition can seem like a pretty daunting challenge in itself! But don’t worry! The first thing to do is easy – just let your imagination run wild. Here are a few questions you might like to mull over as you stare dreamily out of the window:

  1. Where in the world would you like to go? There are a huge number of destinations out there that cover a multitude of terrain types (from polar mountains to tropical rivers). If you are stuck for ideas just browse through adventure travel brochures and magazines (what is the feature destination in this month’s National Geographic?). And don’t forget that there’s lots to do in the British Isles! Your expedition will be much easier and cheaper to run if you start closer to home.
  2. What sort of expedition do you want to go on? Will it be science-based, more adventurous or perhaps of benefit to a community? You can do a blend of these if you want.
  3. How many people do you want to go with? Small teams are easier to organise for and impact on the environment less. On the other hand, larger teams could tackle community and scientific work more effectively in a short space of time. You may even want to go solo – but this is less advisable as it poses extra safety concerns. Deciding on who goes in your team will also influence how successful it is – good teamwork is really important.
  4. What transport do you want to use? Quite often adventure-based expeditions are defined by the forms of transport used. That is where the challenge lies: cycling ’round Ireland and camping on the way could be viewed as an expedition – driving ’round Ireland and staying in five star hotels perhaps not! It’s not what you do, but how you do it!

But a word of caution: the more complex the transport you use, the more there is potential for problems in-country. Four-wheel drive vehicles have a tendancy to break down when you least want them to. Then again, if you are a bit of mechanical wiz you may enjoy that sort of challenge!
The amount of money available to you will have a strong bearing on the transport you use. For this reason walking will always be a firm favourite! Another really great option is to cycle. Bikes are relatively easy to maintain. They’re cheap to buy and run. They can also be transported easily overseas (quite often just as an item of luggage on a plane).
If you are looking to undertake a scientific expedition or community-based expedition your choice of transport may be of less consequence (as you are more likely to be sticking to one area). Nevertheless you will still have to examine how you are going to access the expedition area.

  1. Would you like to do some specific activities? Spending extended periods of time in the Great Outdoors throws up all sorts of opportunities to try some great adventure sports and activities. Indeed, you may decide that the main aim of your expedition is to get involved in such an activity – like Scuba diving or ice climbing. As you are organising the expedition yourself you will have to make sure these activities are done safely – employing an expert guide from the host country if necessary (this is relatively easy to do with the advent of the wonderful web!).
  2. What would you want to get out of the expedition? Remember, expeditions are a kind of journey with a purpose. When you come back what will you have to show for your effort? New skills? New friends? New knowledge? You may also want to produce some tangible end products as a way of measuring its success – perhaps an expedition report, an article for a school/university magazine, a book, a portfolio of photos or even a television documentary?! Sharing your experience with the wider world is an important aspect of any expedition.

Once you have come up with a few ideas, talk them through with your friends and family. Honestly look at them and decide whether they are within your abilities. Remember, you will be taking on a lot of responsibility, so better to err on the side of caution at this stage. Go back to your ideas and trim them a bit if you think you are being over ambitious.
Walking through the ice

Inclusive expeditions

Gone are the days when expeditions were the preserve of strong, bearded men with square jaws and double-barrelled names. Today people of all abilities and backgrounds are getting involved in expeditions and fieldwork.
In particular, the last decade has seen a significant increase in the number of disabled travellers joining such trips – with their achievements including the circumnavigation of the UK by kayak, journeying across Iceland in an electric wheelchair and hand-cycling through Asia by amputee explorers. Outdoor centres and national sports bodies have also been working towards a goal of ‘Adventure for All’.
Suresh Paul, a long-time expeditioner who designs equipment for disabled outdoor athletes, says in the Royal Geographical Society’s Expedition handbook: “A successful inclusive expedition is a powerful way of challenging social barriers, encouraging participation, promoting access to science and adventure, and removing stereotypes of disability.”
Of course, there will be more to consider at the planning stage for an expedition with disabled team members – but a good understanding of the situation will allow the trip to be as successful as any ‘able-bodied’ one. Things to consider include: understanding team requirements; grouping and buddying; thoughtful packing and insurance issues.
One man who has taken on the philosophy of ‘adventure for all’ head-on is John Dowling. He is a 25-year-old Cerebral Palsy sufferer who prefers not to think of himself as ‘disabled’, just ‘different’. At the moment he is completing his last year of a PhD at Loughborough University and is planning his next escape.
“Many people said I could not do things, so I turned around and asked ‘why not’? Sure enough they were stumped!” he says.
“It is true that being disabled makes things harder but that should not lower your goals, just increase your determination to achieve your dreams. You just have to take into consideration that you might have to take more time and work harder to achieve the same standards as others.”
John’s first introduction to adventure travel came in 1998 when he attended a talk given by the boss of a UK expeditions company.
“When I met Gavin Bate, director of Adventure Alternative, he almost immediately saw through my disability to who I was – an individual, just different. This was a breath of fresh air and through the conversations that ensued I became a member of a team going to East Africa on his Africamp expedition. This trip involved running a camp for street kids, climbing Mt. Kenya, going on safari then relaxing on the Indian Ocean coast. As a result of the trip the adventurous part of my life took off!”
John’s determination has seen him visit Kenya three times, trek to the Tibetan Base Camp of Mt Everest, and climb Mt Elbrus in Russia. He ranks his time solo backpacking along the south east coast of Australia as one of his biggest achievements too – because unlike his other adventures he had no back-up. It was on this trip that he did his first skydive.
“Kenya is a place that I love and can always return to and know that I will have a fantastic time. Whereas the Tibetan base Camp of Everest is something to tell the grandchildren and to inspire others.
“Going on expeditions gave me the confidence to go travelling on my own and push myself to the limit within a relatively safe environment. It also taught me people skills and allowed me to learn more about how different cultures react to people with disabilities. Most importantly it taught me how to be independent and not rely on others.”
Of all the trips he’s been on he says his work with destitute streetkids in Kenya has had one of the biggest effects on him. “Working with the kids reminds me how exceptionally lucky I am and re-emphasises what I have instead of what I have not got, despite the disability. Hence I’m always reminded that there are people in worse predicaments.”
In fact John says that he and the kids have something in common – they both have disabilities, it’s just that they’re different ones: he has Cerebral Palsy, while they have extreme poverty. He says that the children realise this and say how they are lucky to be ‘able-bodied’. Each of them could not imagine living in the other’s shoes.
In all, expeditions combined with his academic pursuits have enabled John to view the challenges in his life caused by his disability as just problems to which he can find a solution.
Obviously days out in field can be really tough for John and he says the worst thing about expeditioning are the long days and often painful hikes. But he adds that if everything was easy then there would be no satisfaction in completing an expedition – which is similar in all walks of life. He truly lives by the adage ‘no pain no gain’.
His advice to would-be expeditioners is simple: plan the essentials well (such as medical requirements), but don’t think too much about everything else – it’s better left a surprise! Go with an open mind and you’ll appreciate it more.
On top of the world

Independent vs organised expeditions

Besides where and when you want to go on an expedition you will also have to decide whether you want to plan it yourself or go with an organisation that will do all that for you.
Your decision will depend largely on how much time you are willing to put into the expedition before you even step on an aeroplane. Other factors that will affect your choice are how adventurous you want your trip to be to be and how much money you are willing to spend.
In fact both options have their advantages and disadvantages (which we’ve put together in a handy table below!). But whether you decide to buy into a commercial trip or go it alone there is still huge potential for you to have a great time…
The best advice at this stage is to research your ideas as fully as possible – trawl the Internet and visit your local library. And don’t be scared to use your imagination! The more you know about your destination before you leave the more you will enjoy your time there – and the safer your trip will be.

Do it yourself


  • If well organised this option can be cheaper.
  • Flexible – you can decide how long you want to spend away from home.
  • You can choose who you go with.
  • It teaches you valuable planning skills.
  • It looks impressive on your CV.
  • You can go even further off the beaten track.
  • The feeling of accomplishment once you finish will be greater.


  • Costs can mount up if you don’t budget well.
  • Expeditions take months to organise.
  • You need to buy/rent all equipment.
  • Less in-country support if things go wrong.
  • Without local experience you may suffer more setbacks.
  • You are limited to doing something within your own technical abilities (e.g. navigating in remote areas unfamiliar to you).
  • The location of your expedition may not be as interesting as you thought!

With a company


  • Easy to get involved with – you just sign up and go!
  • Destinations are tried-and-tested.
  • Companies/charities have good in-country support and contacts.
  • Inexperienced travellers can be more adventurous on their first trip with the help of experts.
  • Mix with like-minded people and make new friends.


  • Less flexible.
  • Tend to be more expensive.
  • You will often be in larger group.

Expedition trekking

Preparation for an expedition

Just because the expedition you are going on is being organised by an established organisation doesn’t mean all you need do is turn up at the airport with your best Hawaiian shirt and jet off into the sunset. To get the most out of your time (and money!) it really pays to do a few preparations of your own ahead of time.
For a start, almost all expedition organisations will send you a comprehensive information pack as soon as you sign up. Read it thoroughly and if you still have some doubts in your mind as to what’s required don’t hesitate to contact the company or charity who you are travelling with. It’s unlikely you’ll ask them a question they’ve never been asked before.
You can use information in the pack as a starting point for your own research …
If you are undertaking a significant physical challenge as part of your expedition (like climbing a mountain or doing several days of trekking) it’s a really good idea to get to grips with the geography of the area. A little bit of research on the Internet on in a library will probably throw up all you need to know about the route you are taking – like the terrain, vegetation, weather and local cultures. If you can, get a good map of the area. It’s unlikely you’ll need it for navigation, but by getting a good mental picture of what you’ll be up against you are unlikely to get any nasty surprises when you arrive!
If you are interested in environmental matters then you could maybe look into the flora and fauna of the region. With a little bit of creative cutting and pasting or photocopying you can easily produce a mini field guide for where you’re going that’ll be better than your guidebook’s nature section.
Many expeditions take place in culturally rich regions too. Researching the history and traditions of the people who live in the areas where you are travelling is an excellent way of gaining a deeper understanding of your destination.
Most expeditions require an element of physical as well as mental preparation. Doing half-an-hour’s exercise three times a week in the months leading up to your departure will pay dividends in the long run. Without this exercise, you would still probably be able to complete a decent trek or climb, but your enjoyment would be greatly reduced. The views from mountains of Greenland are spectacular, but you won’t see much of them if you’re starring at your shoes, puffing and panting the whole day long!

Organised expeditions – questions to ask

Here are a bunch of questions that you should consider getting the answers to when deciding on an expedition… some may not apply to you depending on the type of expedition you are doing:

  • What is the age range of participants?
  • What is the selection process?
  • What sort of person are they looking for?
  • How physically fit do I need to be?
  • How many people will be on each project?
  • What will my responsibilities be?
  • What can expect in terms of accommodation and food?
  • What is a typical day on the expedition?
  • What is there to do in my spare time?
  • What will I gain from going on the expedition?
  • Will my work benefit anyone else?
  • Why are UK gap year travellers needed?
  • Will any projects undertaken continue after I leave?
  • Why does the organisation exist?
  • Can they give examples of successful projects?
  • Can you get in touch with past expeditioners?
  • How has the itinerary been chosen and checked out?
  • Do they have an environmental policy?
  • Do they treat local workers fairly (are they a member of Tourism Concern)?
  • What in-country support is there?
  • Who is responsible for me on the expedition?
  • How experienced are the expedition staff?
  • Are host organisations paid to take me?
  • What is the precise cost and what does it cover?
  • Where does my money get spent?
  • What is the recommended budget for extras?
  • If I have to pay a deposit is it refundable?
  • When do I pay – what if I cancel?
  • Do I have to raise funds – can I get advice on this?
  • Who is responsible for paperwork like visas and permits?
  • Who provides insurance?
  • What vaccinations and health precautions do I need to take?
  • Will I undergo any training/briefing before leaving?

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