A gap year by definition is the taking of time out to travel between life stages, also referred to as a sabbatical, often including volunteering or taking part in various projects along the way. Many people question an 'appropriate' time to take a gap year, often worrying that they've missed the opportunity or that that they are unable to commit to a full year. There is however, no right or wrong time to take a gap year, and no traditional length of time to travel for. To experience the benefits of taking a gap year it's important to choose the right sort of trip for you, ensuring you get the most from your time abroad.
A traditional time to take a gap year is between school and university or college, around the age of 18. At this stage in your life, taking a gap year is going to be the perfect way to get perspective on further study, whether that's helping you decide what to study or getting some experience in a particular field of interest. For young people, keen for an adventure travel experience that involves plenty of activity and meeting new people, going away with an organisation can be a good way to ease first-time travel nerves. Guided trails or group expeditions that combine backpacking with volunteering are a fantastic way to bond with a group of strangers whilst at the same time gaining confidence as an independent traveller. Trails also work well as they have an itinerary that runs over a set period meaning you make the most of every moment you are away.
This sort of gap year travel that involves taking part in a trail or joining a volunteer project works well for those with limited amounts of time available. By getting involved with a project you'll be working within a larger group to make a valuable contribution back to the environment or lives of school children perhaps. This will provide structure to your trip and a focus to your travel from which you'll feel the rewards of volunteering and the benefits of getting to know a single place or culture for an extended period of time. Volunteering with an on-going project in this way helps ensure the results of your efforts are making a long-term difference, even if you only have time to join the project for a few weeks in the summer or during a sabbatical.
Taking a gap year after graduating can give people the opportunity to gain some life experience through travel. Volunteering will also help you become aware of the issues we face as an international community, and will demonstrate your interest outside of your academic field to future employees. Working your gap year experience into your CV or résumé can give you a stand-out advantage when applying for future roles, as you will potentially appear more dynamic and engaging than other candidates. If you're thinking of going on to another degree or masters, taking some time to gain more experience in your field of interest, whether that's conservation or the arts, can help cement your desire and passion to study a particular topic.
A gap year project doesn't have to just be about gaining experience or qualifications in a relevant field for your career. Older travellers taking a sabbatical or post retirement trip can use the skills and expertise they already have to make an invaluable contribution to developing countries that lack the same resources. Medical professionals, teachers, ecologists - anyone with knowledge in a particular field can use their time on a sabbatical to make a real difference to vulnerable communities or ecosystems. Alternatively, a sabbatical can be about getting away from your day job entirely, having a new experience, or potentially gaining perspective on your job if you're considering a career change. Joining a project that provides basic training for volunteers is the perfect way to escape; it's never too late to discover a new passion.
There's no perfect time or time span for a gap year; whether you want to go away for two weeks or two years, the opportunities are endless and the perfect time to go is whenever you want to.
Maria Sowter is online content editor at Frontier, a non-profit volunteering NGO that runs 320 conservation, community, and adventure projects in 57 countries across the globe. She can be found blogging on Frontier's Gap Year Blog or posting on the Frontier Official Facebook page.