A guide to charity treks overseas

Will someone really want to pay for my holiday? We find out how charity trekking works, and whether it can do enough good for charities and local communities to justify the big fundraising ask.

Charity trekking holidays are organised challenges where you can do a famous trek for a good cause. You’ll fundraise before you go. In return, you get your trek partially subsidised by a charity.

The wins are threefold here. First, you get to do the kind of trek that makes bucket lists – like going to Everest Base Camp, or trekking to Machu Picchu – for a price that’s significantly lower than the cost of the average organised walking holiday.

Second, a charity will receive donations thanks to your fundraising efforts – at a bare minimum, 50 percent of your fundraising will go to a charity.

Third, a growing number of charity trekking companies are, like many tourism companies, striving to make sure that their trips also do good in the destinations they visit. That’s a win:win:win.
We see all sorts of weird and wonderful things on the trek. There was a Jedi club – they wanted to have the highest lightsaber duel ever at Everest Base Camp.
“Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or this is something entirely new for you, it’s an incredible fulfilling rewarding way to spend your holiday,” explains Rob Stables, chief operating officer at our charity trekking partner Choose a Challenge. As for the charity aspect? “The additional emotional commitment that you’ve made to a charity can really elevate your emotions on the trek.”

Read on to find out all about charity trekking challenges.

Charity trekking is...

a great way to have a lifechanging experience, and benefit a charity and a local community.

Charity trekking isn’t...

about paying people to go on holiday.

Go on a charity trekking challenge if…

…You want to raise money for charity… as at least 50 percent of your fundraising will go straight to your chosen cause. …You want to do a once in a lifetime challenge… with the caveat that there are lots of people who return to do another challenge. …You also want a holiday. Who says you have to come home straight afterwards?

Don’t go on a charity trekking challenge if…

…You don’t want to fundraise. Even if they self-fund their trip’s cost, most people on the trek will also fundraise for a cause. …You don’t like commitment. Once you start raising money, you should see your challenge through. However, you can always defer your place if life gets in the way. …You don’t want to train. These challenges are challenging and the months of fundraising are also a good opportunity to get fit and prepare.

What are charity challenges?

Charity challenges – from moustache-growing to sponsored hikes – are very popular and have existed in various forms for decades. You might well have sponsored someone before. In recent years, social media has done a lot of the legwork for keen trekkers looking for sponsorship.

It's not supposed to be a walk in the park. Trekking challenges usually take place on routes that are well known for their difficulty. They involve multiple days of trekking to reach a particular goal, whether that's a whole lost city in the Colombian jungle, or the clutch of stones that mark the 5,150m base camp of K2 in Pakistan.

How to do a charity trek?

To do a charity trek, you first pay a registration fee for the trek. This is a lot lower than a trek’s usual cost, the idea being that your charity then pays the rest of the holiday cost out of the donations given by your fundraising efforts. This means that to do a charity trek, you need to raise the required amount to go on the trip, plus – and this is the crucial bit – at least the same amount of money again, which will go to the charity.

It means that you can trek to Everest Base Camp for a few hundred pounds (excluding flights), providing you get enough sponsorship.

Will people really want to fund my holiday?

For charities, backing a charity challenge is a long-term investment. Pay for someone to do a trek; that person ends up paying the charity back many times over, over a lifetime of support.
A criticism levelled at trekking challenges is that one person’s ‘challenge’ is another person’s idea of a holiday. Up to 50 percent of fundraising efforts for charity challenges go on funding the trip itself. For example, if someone sponsors £10, up to £5 may end up being used to fund your trip.

How can you justify this to your donors? First, because money is going to a charity that would have otherwise received nothing. The social pressure of sponsorship drives many to donate who usually wouldn’t of their own volition. On top of this, many charity trekkers exceed their fundraising targets; this excess goes straight to charity. In the UK, the fundraising regulator has set a code of practice that means that charity trek fundraisers need to be very explicit to every donor that a portion of their donation goes towards the trek, not the charity.

If this feels unjustifiable you can opt, as many do, to pay for the trek yourself – treks are still good value even at full price. You can fundraise on top; in this case, 100 percent of your fundraising goes straight to charity.

Access for all

How else to justify the practice? Well, there’s a reason charity challenges are often targeted at students; it’s a question of access. Charity treks allow those for whom such an experience might be unaffordable to see the world and achieve something remarkable. They also give the same people an opportunity to raise money for charity when they may not usually be in a position to be regular donors. Charities often get lifelong supporters out of charity treks, from sectors of society who would never usually donate. “It’s about attracting a young demographic of fundraisers who will be advocates for the charity for life,” Rob says.

For charities, backing a charity challenge is a long-term investment. Pay for someone to do a trek; that person might end up paying the organisation back many times over, over a lifetime of support.

The challenge of fundraising

The criticism that by forking out for someone’s charity challenges you’re paying for them to have a good time often forgets that a lot of the ‘challenge’ comes from the task of fundraising itself. Explorers throughout history spent painstaking amounts of time before their expeditions courting fundraisers for their travels. Charities employ salaried fundraisers full time.

Asking people for money isn’t easy, nor is coming up with original ways to be sponsored. What’s more, people tend to rely on bankable skills, such as art or design, to fundraise; for example, auctioning art for charity when they could as well sell it. This is all work that in some ways is more challenging than the trek itself.

Charity support

Scores of charities fully support this style of fundraising. Charities can choose whether they want to sponsor a challenge, but many big names do – charities like Amnesty International, the World Wildlife Fund, the Teenage Cancer Trust. “In the current economic climate charities are looking for any source of income,” says Rob. “It’s not the easiest climate to bring in donations, so any fundraising is really well received.”

Ultimately, if people do not want to sponsor a charity trek, they do not have to. Donation is voluntary by its very nature, and all parties to the sponsorship are willing participants.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Charity trekking or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Does charity trekking do good?

Critics are at their most rabid when there’s even a sniff of hypocrisy in the air, which is perhaps why so many charity companies seem to be faced with more criticism than the average corporation. Choose a Challenge has helped fundraisers raise over £20 million since it started running trips in 2008. It’s unlikely that much of that money would have otherwise gone to charity.

Challenges bring participants together – nothing unites people like a cause, making these trekking groups close knit and supportive. You’ll meet people who are trekking for very worthy causes, often with very personal reasons for doing so. “We get inundated with stories,” says Rob, “They never cease to remind us that it’s a big part of what we do.”

Does charity trekking do good in the destination?

Another argument levelled against charity trekking is that it benefits charities and holiday companies in the participant’s home country, and often not the country where the trek takes place.

Mindful of this, trekking challenge companies are keen, like many holiday companies, to prove that they do good in the destination, too.

Carrying the flag

During peak season, Kilimanjaro’s summit is an encampment of exhausted trekkers. Many carry flags sporting the logos of charities who have sponsored the trek, and local businesses who have donated to have their services advertised at altitude.

A disaster then, that a group climbing Kilimanjaro this year on a charity trek left their flag in their hotel room before they set off.

“The ground team underwent this whole mission to restore it. Someone jumped on a motorbike, and then a porter chased the group down,” says Rob. The flag was restored, and let fly for the summit photo op.

Charity trekking challenges rely on local people for so much more than flag-restoration. They require porters, cooks, lodge owners, and guides – all to get flags, and often flagging trekkers – to the top. It’s crucial that these trips benefit local people, not just trekkers and charities.

“We don’t use destination management companies, we don’t use big companies based in the UK or US – we work directly with local suppliers,” Rob explains. “As much as possible of each traveller’s spend is going into local communities.” When Choose a Challenge was founded, it supported Tanzanian guides who had just established a trekking business, employing their services for their charity Kilimanjaro climbs. “We still work with the same guys in Tanzania today, 15 years on – they’ve grown their business alongside ours,” Says Rob. Choose a Challenge are currently looking at involving themselves in a local Tanzania reforestation project, too.

Charity trekking gets more criticism than the average holiday, despite raising millions for charities, and allowing people for whom the experiences would be unaffordable to do something amazing.

Can I fundraise for a charity that operates in the destination itself?

You can if you are relying on your own funds to pay for your trek. But if you want the charity to subsidise your trip, they need to be UK-based, “We need to be able to invoice the charity,” Rob explains, “We can’t vet all the different charities outside the UK.”

What does a charity trek entail?

How difficult are charity trekking holidays?

Everyone has a different threshold for what difficult trekking looks like. When you sign up to a charity challenge you might find them graded from moderate treks to challenging and extreme. Grading doesn’t just account for how fit you might need to be, but also accounts for altitude, remoteness, and weather conditions – which can affect even the toughest trekker. For example: a trek to Colombia’s Lost City is low altitude, but humid, making it a ‘challenging’ trek. Going to K2 Base Camp? That’s ‘extreme’ because as well as altitude, you have adverse weather and the remoteness to consider.

The difficulty of the trek doesn’t necessarily affect whether people will sponsor you or not, nor should it.

What if I don’t make it to the top?

“A lot of our travellers are extremely well prepared because the fundraising journey is such a long one,” Rob explains. “Travellers book trips a lot earlier than you might on a whim… it means there’s a lot of time to give information on how to prepare mentally and physically, and how to experience a culture. It gives you a firm footing for actually taking on the challenge.”

“Fundraising is part of the challenge – whether you’re successful at the end – the very fact that you’ve attempted it is worthy of recognition. If you have been fundraising along the way, that’s a big achievement in itself. Put it this way, we’ve never had someone ask for their sponsorship money back.”

How difficult is the fundraising?

Charity trekking challenges should be seen as much as fundraising challenges as trekking challenges.

Asking for money is always a daunting task – even if it’s partially for charity. Actually, especially if it’s for charity: as anyone can attest who has seen how moral discomfort can make people aggressive to charity fundraisers.

No one knows how daunting fundraising is like charities themselves, and they can help. “The charity partner we work with has dedicated and committed and passionate staff to help with fundraising,” says Rob. “You aren’t off on your own, the charities will give all the support in the world. They’ll give you ideas for your campaign, and they’ll put you in touch with other fundraisers. There’s support throughout that journey.” Your chosen charity may send items of practical help, such as a fundraising pack.

Are charity trekking holidays just for students?

Whilst charity trekking is very popular within student communities, they will go on large student-specific treks, usually organised by their university. Outside of these so called ‘university challenges’, you’ll get people from all walks of life walking with you. “Our typical group on a Kilimanjaro trek is 10 people, no more than 15 – with a full range of ages from 18 to 80+. The common denominator is that they’re young at heart,” says Rob.

A whistlestop history of charity fundraising

Charity fundraising is a centuries-old practice, and started within social and religious institutions. Records exist of an organised bell ringing in Rouen to fund the construction of Milan cathedral, way back in the 14th century.

In 1992, a charity challenge company called Classic Challenge was founded, and calls itself the original charity challenge company. Charity trekking has grown since then with the rise of adventure tourism.

In 2014, the ice bucket challenge to promote awareness of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) went viral on the internet, signalling how social media has changed the reach of charity challenges. The campaign raised over $220 million.

Research from 2019 suggested that people are growing marginally less likely to sponsor smaller events or sign up for shorter endurance events – like 10km runs – given the growing popularity of worldwide organised running events like Park Run. Yet the pandemic years brought plenty of charity challenges that were much closer to home.

Looking for the win:win:win

The concept of charity challenges shows no sign of going away, and presented with inexpensive treks across the world, it’s easy to be swept up in the ‘good’ that walking up a mountain can do for a charity. Your walk might represent thousands of pounds of fundraising but the irony is that people in the destination you visit won’t see any of this. Look for charity challenges that are striving to do good for local people too. Responsible charity trekking holidays should be able to justify themselves to potential sponsors and to potential participants, leaving you to fundraise with a clear conscience.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kyle Taylor] [Is/Isn't: Choose a Challenge] [Go on a charity trekking challenge if…: Choose a Challenge] [Will people really want to fund my holiday?: Choose a Challenge] [Carrying the flag: Tom Cleary] [How difficult are charity trekking holidays?: MChe Lee] [Looking for the win:win:win: Choose a Challenge]