Volunteer Traveler’s Resources

Welcome to the resource page for Grassroots Volunteering and the Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. This page complements the book and provides additional resources and information for any volunteer or traveler looking for ways to become a responsible traveler with sustainable tourism at the roots of their trips.

Jump to a specific topic on this page, or scroll through the information. And if you’re interested in the travel specific side of volunteering–packing, budgeting, planning–my sister site A Little Adrift has an in-depth travel planning resource page. If there is something not covered that you’d like to know about travel or volunteering, contact us and we’ll point you in the right direction.


Understanding Development Work

I am a proponent of pre-trip reading and research. Much of this can be done at your local library and on the Internet. My focus in this research is to learn the history of a place, but also to glimpse the way of life through local authors, personal accounts of past events, memoirs, and famous literature from the country and culture. Research means soaking up the political history (both present and past), local legends, and the personal journey of the people. It means filling yourself with a breadth of knowledge, as well as cues about cultural norms, behaviors and attitudes, that will help build your cultural sensitivity to the country you’re visiting even before you leave home.

It’s difficult to encapsulate why the developing world is currently developing, how, when, and the effects of international aid. Research is a good first step before volunteering, so I suggest you start with some of these books:

Useful websites and magazines:

This GV post, Why is the Developing World Developing? is often updated with a list of podcasts, online reads, and books to further your understanding and research in the developing world. And this resource page of great travel books will help you find the memoirs and country-specific books.

Understanding Company Structures

No matter which type of volunteering you choose, it’s important you understand what types of companies are out there so you can effectively assess where your organization falls into the mix and how that meshes with your personal values.

For-Profit: These run the gamut and can include organizations that—directly or indirectly—cause negative societal problems (like pollution, worker exploitation, etc). On the flip side, donating to social causes is directly within the mission of some companies.

For Profit, B-Corp: B-Corps are a more recent crop of businesses and they place social good before profit. The company’s mission is met before profits are taken.

S-Corps: Some S-Corps operate similar to a non-profit but are able to more easily sell merchandise without the non-profit (501c3) status.

Non-Profit: Non-profits use revenues to serve the NGO’s goals instead of distributing money (from donations, grants, or otherwise) as profit. These organizations traditionally attempt to advance culture, raise awareness, or correct social problems. [i]

NGO: (Non Governmental Organization): A broad, general term; organizations fall somewhere within the non-profit sector and seek to correct some social or civil societal situation.

What if you find a great organization you want to work with, but you’re not sure where that company fits into the spectrum?

Ask them.

No matter where the company falls within this spectrum, there are some companies with darker motives. Start with basic level research on any company you’re considering:

  • Google the company’s name, plus the word “scam” to see what comes up.
  • Better Business Bureau: Check to see if others have reported the company if it’s US-based.
  • Google Alerts: Find out if they’re in the news lately and see what others are saying.

What Questions Should You Ask Before You Volunteer?

Empowering yourself with knowledge about your company is the first step toward understanding if you should volunteer with or through them. Research the company’s information online, read their back story and frequently asked questions, and find out what others are saying about the organization on the internet. As you’re researching, fill in this outline of the questions you should know the answers to before you volunteer. The post gives a long list of questions–pick those relevant to your situation, sit down and research. Anything not answered should go in an email to the volunteer coordinator.

Travel and Gear Insurance

Travel insurance is highly personal and you know your health best (if you have specific conditions, adventure activities or gear you may need additional considerations. Also, some voluntours (volunteering through tour operators) include some levels travel insurance in the fee. I feel every volunteer traveler needs travel insurance, and I highly recommend both IMGlobal and World Nomads for personal insurance. And if you travel with expensive camera or electronics gear — consider insuring that too with Clements.

  • World Nomads: I used this company on my RTW trip. They offer great coverage for backpackers and adventurous travelers and have an active, supportive staff.
  • IMG Global: IMG Patriot insurance is the company I have used and enjoyed while traveling with my niece.
  • Clements: Insure your electronics and expensive possessions separately from your travel policy (which likely does not include cameras, computers, etc.)

This comparison post has a full list of all the things your insurance should include, as well as very important reminders about things you need to do when you plan to make a claim.

Volunteer Packing Lists

The A Little Adrift travel resource page has full details on packing basics for travel (male, female, family, couple, etc). But there are some unique considerations volunteers might face in packing for a trip. Also consider this WWOOFing packing list, it’s a great round up of items you should pack if you plan to work on organic farms as you travel.

Great Travel Apps for Your SmartPhone

  • XE Curreny App: This currency conversion app works on iPhones, iPads, Android, Blackberry and others.
  • Emergency First Aid & Treatment Guide: Handy for volunteers, particularly in remote locations (pairs well with your medical kit). An Android version works well too.
  • Trip It App: I love with this app and website for collecting planning details. It’s a phenomenal organization tool.
  • WiFi Finder: I work from the road and love the interface and ease of use in finding easy access to wifi hotspots.

Staying Healthy on the Road

Diligent and thorough research is needed before you head out to volunteer. This is particularly true for long-term or remote volunteer locations. Volunteer placements run across a wide range of landscapes, locations, climates, and conditions. As such, your health concerns will often be regionally specific. Take good care of yourself. This is the most important task you have before you, and it’s one that can sometimes be tricky in developing nations, out in the wild on conservation projects, and even in urban, inner city environments.

Determining Your Shots & Vaccines

Put aside your fear of needles and plan a trip to the travel clinic near you because chances are, you’re going to need a handful of vaccines and booster shots before you can safely leave the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (CDC, cdc.gov) lists regional diseases, risks, and health concerns for many countries around the world. This is a great starting point once you have your region of travel pinpointed. The Public Health Agency of Canada website also offers a wealth of information (publichealth.gc.ca). Even with these resources, travelers should still consult travel healthcare specialists.

Common Travel Vaccines
You may need some of these, you may need none. I am not a doctor, and this should not be considered medical advice, but these are some of the commonly recommended travel vaccines:

Hepatitis A
Hepatitis B
Tetanus Booster
Meningococcal (for Meningitis)*
Yellow Fever*
Typhoid (they have both pills and shots)
* Some countries require proof of vaccination against these before entry.

Use these websites and information to discern which vaccinations you might need, potential malaria risks, and regional-specific precautions.

  • US Government Travel Site: Health tips and safety warnings from the US Department of State.
  • CDC site: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated travel vaccinations lists and resources.
  • ISTM.org – The International Society of Travel Medicine’s global travel clinic directory (under the ISTM Activities) locates trusted travel clinics worldwide.
  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vaccinations (on Kindle) by Michael Joseph Smith and Laurie Bouck
Keeping yourself in good health is also important. I recommend:

Your Travel Medical Kit

Packing a good medical kit can solve a lot of minor problems you might encounter in remote and rural placements. In urban placements, you can usually find easy access to local medicine to treat illnesses. Here’s what you might want to pack before you leave, or stock up on locally before you head to a rural placement.

  • over-the-counter medicine for diarrhea
  • antibiotics for more severe traveler’s diarrhea
  • anti-inflammatory medication
  • general pain or fever reducer
  • antihistamine
  • anti-motion sickness medication
  • epinephrine auto-injector (for those with serious allergies)
  • bandages of varying sizes
  • clean syringe (I’ve never carried one, but have friends who do)
  • anti-itch cream
  • anti-bacterial and/or anti-fungal ointment
  • oral rehydration salts (I highly recommend these; you can replenish them on the road.)
  • antiseptic wipes
  • moleskin (for blisters)
  • first aid quick reference card

RedCrossStore.org and TravelDoc.com both offer well-stocked travel medical kits. I recommend this medical kit at the very least.

Carrying Prescription Medications? 
If you’re carrying prescriptions from the U.S., there are a few extra steps and considerations. Although many developing countries sell prescription medicine (from the United States/Europe) over the counter without a prescription, this is not always the case. There are also different laws about which drugs you can legally carry without a prescription, which is why it’s imperative to have all your documentation.

  • Carry your original prescription slip and send an electronic copy to yourself in case you lose it.
  • Keep the medicine in the original containers.
  • Carry enough to get you through, or clearly confirm you can replenish it before you leave.
  • Know the generic names for your medication (rxlist.com).

Mosquito-Borne Illnesses

Volunteers and travelers have a lot of considerations when it comes to the range of mosquito borne illnesses that could create an issue on their trips. The most well known one is Malaria, which we will cover in depth, but there are some other serious illnesses that also pass from mosquito bites. These include Dengue, Zika, Chikungunya, West Nile, among others.

This section looks closely at what these are, where and when, as well as considerations for you and your doctor.

Precautions: Don’t Get Bitten
Even if you choose to take the antimalarials, it’s important to take precautions against being bitten. In this way, you not only to prevent malaria, but also the range of other possible mosquito-borne illnesses that can also have serious side effects. Trust me, they can have a long-term impact on your health and well-being (read this account of getting dengue and feeling the last effects for years).

Here are some thoughts:

  • Many mosquito populations grow throughout the rainy season and peak in the weeks and month when monsoons end. Plan on even more precautions this time of year, although recognize that infections can occur throughout the year.
  • Wear long-sleeved clothing and pants, especially in the evenings.
  • Spray repellent on your clothes as well so the mosquitos do not bite through. Repellent with DEET is important, especially in high-risk times of the year.
  • Consider soaking a set of clothes in something like permethrin before you leave as this has a longer effect and would give you a solid preventative options in the evenings.
  • Consider bringing a portable net for your bed if you are at peak mosquito season.
  • Use coils and candles and other insect repellents that you can burn in your room or at the dinner table and such.

Should You Take Anti-Malarial Medicine?
Malaria is a mosquito-borne infectious disease. Symptoms include an intermittent and remittent fever caused by a protozoan parasite that invades the red blood cells. Malaria is widespread in tropical and subtropical regions. Risk zones can change and are often seasonal (depending on the monsoon and dry seasons).

Generally, there are malaria warnings in effect for areas of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America, South America, and Oceania. And the major malaria medicines include: Malarone, Lariam, Chloroquine, Primaquine, Doxycycline.

Malaria risk in 2015

Image from Upriser.com and also, the CDC has a great map feature for finding current risk areas.

Ultimately, whether you take antimalarials is a question that should be asked at your local travel clinic. They will know which medicines work best in the region of the world that you’re visiting. It’s also worth contacting your placement organization to find out if they recommend volunteers take the medicine—they are on the ground and have a good understanding of regional risks and potential resistance to the medication in the local mosquitoes.

Taking antimalarials is the big debate for many. There are mixed opinions online. Some volunteers share their war stories of the terrible side effects of Lariam. Others have describe horrible episodes of sickness and traveling far for a clinic. There’s no easy decision on this considering how much of the world is affected by malaria.

Taking and not taking the medicine has separate drawbacks. Some volunteers in areas for a couple years start out with the heavy-hitter antimalarials like Malarone and Lariam. But these often have negative side effects like hallucinations and worse. Then there are drugs like Doxycycline, which is most prescribed for travelers in a location for weeks or a few months. There are also regional issues about resistance to some medications, and if it’s better to just take a medicine once infected. So many conflicted ideas. Truly the only way to decide is to talk it out with your doctor, and also your placement. They will know the likelihood of malaria at the time of year you are visiting.

If you decide to take antimalaria medicine, follow the directions given by your doctor exactly. Some medicines require you to take the pills in advance while others must be taken for several weeks, even after leaving the malaria region. Never miss a dose and never be without your mosquito repellant. Symptoms can include chills, headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting. If you believe you have it, seek medical help and begin to treat malaria immediately.

Here are a couple places to continue your research:

  • Travel Doctor UK: This is a fantastically detailed resource explaining every aspect you might need to know about how malaria works and how to prevent.
  • CDC: Detailed list of pros and cons for each drug
  • The Travel Clinic: Another long-read with tips and advice.