Taking a gap year can be a transformative experience that expands your horizons, fosters personal growth, and unlocks new dimensions of self-development.
At NOLS, we believe that exploring unfamiliar environments and challenging yourself through novel experiences can inspire you to pursue newfound passions and goals, grow your cultural awareness, and teach you valuable new skills.
However, when it comes to planning a gap year, one of the biggest decisions to make is whether to embark on a solo journey or join a group program.
Join us as we explore the pros and cons of both options so you can make an informed decision about your own gap year adventure.
Photo by Mauricio Clauzet
Understanding Gap Year Programs
Before we delve into the specifics of solo and group gap years, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what exactly a gap year is.
A gap year can take many forms, from volunteering in a foreign country to backpacking across continents, and everything in between. While a gap year is different for everyone, most use this time to pursue personal interests, gain unique experiences, or develop valuable skills that just aren’t taught in traditional settings.
What is a Gap Year?
Essentially, a gap year is an extended period of exploration that is spent in a purposeful and meaningful way. Many take a gap year after high school before starting college, while others choose to take a gap year after they finish college but before starting graduate school or entering the workforce.
During a gap year, individuals have the opportunity to step outside of their comfort zones and explore unfamiliar environments. This personal and cultural exploration can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the world, and can even motivate individuals to pursue new or more refined passions and goals.
For example, someone who has always been interested in environmental conservation may choose to spend their gap year volunteering with a conservation organization in a remote part of the world. This experience could give them a deeper understanding of the challenges facing our planet, and embolden them to pursue a career in environmental science or policy.
Photo by Mauricio Clauzet
Reasons for Taking a Gap Year
At NOLS, we believe that taking a gap year offers a unique opportunity to explore broad horizons, challenge yourself, and discover that sweet spot where your passions, skills, and goals overlap with focused action that the world needs.
While most individuals have one particular reason for taking a gap year at the onset of their adventure, many discover the true value and meaning of their gap year experience later on. Still, it’s important to start with a goal and ask yourself why taking a gap year is important to you. This can help you come up with gap year ideas and shape the experience you want to have.
Some may be looking to explore unfamiliar cultures and gain firsthand experience of different ways of life. Others may be seeking to gain new skills or knowledge that will benefit their career prospects and future plans. And for some, a gap year is simply an opportunity to take a break and enjoy some time off before returning to formal education or work.
Many embark on a gap year because it’s an opportunity to develop important life skills such as adaptability, resilience, problem-solving, and self-reflection. These skills and experiences can be invaluable in both personal and professional contexts and can help you succeed in your future endeavors.
Regain Momentum & Clarify Goals
Taking a gap year can be a great way to gain clarity about your life goals and career aspirations.
For students, a break from school or college life often results in a renewed sense of academic momentum upon your return to the classroom.
For professionals, stepping back from the daily grind is often just what you need to recalibrate your relationship with your career.
For many, one of the most exciting aspects of taking a gap year is the opportunity to immerse yourself in different cultures, allowing you to gain a deeper appreciation for diversity and develop cross-cultural communication skills.
Ultimately, your reasons for taking a gap year will be unique to you, but whether you're exploring new cultures, gaining valuable life experience, or gaining clarity about your goals and aspirations, a gap year can provide you with the tools you need to succeed in your future endeavors.
Photo by Mauricio Clauzet
Solo Gap Year Pros and Cons
For those that value independence and self-reliance, a solo gap year may be the way to go.
Solo gap years offer a level of flexibility and customization that can be hard to come by in group programs. However, they do come with their own set of challenges and may not be the best option for everyone.
Pros of Solo Gap Years
Personal Growth and Independence
When traveling alone, you'll be forced to navigate unfamiliar environments and connect with people from different backgrounds, which can be a great way to build character and develop life skills that are best learned via experience.
Traveling solo also offers the chance to become more self-aware and reflective. Without the distractions of a group, you can take time to really focus on your own thoughts and feelings. This can be a great way to gain insight into yourself and your place in the world.
Flexibility and Customization
With the freedom to set your own itinerary and make changes on the fly, you have the flexibility to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and truly immerse yourself in local cultures.
Without a group, you will find yourself interacting with locals more frequently and learning about their way of life. This can be a fantastic way to gain a deeper appreciation for different cultures and ways of thinking.
Building Self-Reliance and Problem-Solving Skills
When there’s no one else to rely on, you’ll be forced to come up with creative solutions to unexpected challenges. This can be a great way to develop your critical thinking and decision-making abilities and become comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Cons of Solo Gap Years
Loneliness and Isolation
Perhaps the biggest challenge of a solo gap year is the potential for loneliness and isolation. When traveling alone, there may be times when you feel disconnected from others and long for the companionship of fellow travelers. At NOLS, we encourage our students to stay connected with friends and family back home and to seek out opportunities to meet other travelers along the way. Joining local clubs or organizations can be a great way to meet new people and make connections, and we believe that the relationships you forge during your gap year can last a lifetime.
Risk Management Considerations
At NOLS, we understand the importance of managing risk during a solo gap year. Without the support of a group, individuals may be more exposed to potential dangers. However, by taking the appropriate precautions, these risks can be minimized, ensuring a safer and more enjoyable experience.
Before embarking on your solo journey, we advise thorough research on your intended destination. Familiarize yourself with the local customs, culture, and potential risks. This knowledge will help you make informed decisions and better prepare for your trip.
Staying in well-lit and populated areas is crucial for your safety. Avoid venturing into unfamiliar or secluded places, especially at night. When meeting new people, be cautious and trust your instincts. Keep your personal information secure and do not disclose it to strangers.
Communication with friends and family is essential during a solo gap year. Share your itinerary with someone back home and establish a regular check-in schedule. This practice ensures that someone is aware of your whereabouts and can act in case of emergencies.
Potential for Higher Costs
It’s important to note that solo gap years can be more expensive than group programs. Without the cost-sharing benefits of a group program, you may be paying more for accommodations, transportation, and other expenses. However, there are ways to save money, such as staying in hostels, cooking your own meals, and using public transportation. You can also look for volunteer opportunities or work exchanges to help offset costs.
Photo by Oscar Manguy
Group Gap Years with NOLS
For those looking for a more structured and social experience, a group gap year program with NOLS can be a great option.
Our programs offer the benefit of a built-in support network, as well as the chance to meet like-minded individuals from around the world. With the right program, you can gain valuable skills, make lifelong connections, and create unforgettable memories.
Pros of a Group Gap Year with NOLS
Structured Programs and Support
With a group gap year program, you’ll have a clear itinerary and support from our experienced program leaders throughout your journey, which can make for a more productive gap year. This can be especially important for those that may be new to traveling or want an experience with better risk management. You can rest assured that we’ll provide you with a supportive and enjoyable experience, with activities and excursions planned out for you.
Social Connections and Networking
Whether you’re looking to make new friends, network with other travelers, or simply share experiences with others, our group gap year programs offer a unique opportunity for social interaction. You can bond over your shared experiences and learn from each other’s diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
Shared Experiences and Memories
When traveling with a group, you’re likely to have many shared experiences that can create lasting bonds and memories. From exploring distant towns to trying unfamiliar foods, you’ll have plenty of stories to tell and memories to cherish for years to come.
Our group gap year programs can also offer a sense of community and belonging, as you navigate vast cultures and experiences together.
Cons of Group Gap Year Programs
Perhaps the biggest downside to a group gap year is the limited flexibility it offers. With a set itinerary and group schedule to follow, you may be restricted in the activities you can do and the places you can visit. But structured programs are still very organic—you're navigating novel experiences together after all.
Group Dynamics and Conflicts
Group dynamics can be another potential drawback of group programs. When traveling with others, there’s always the chance that conflicts may arise or personalities may clash. This, however, prepares you for compromising and communicating effectively to avoid unnecessary conflicts—a vital professional and life skill set.
Potential for Higher Program Fees
Depending on how well you budget on your own, a group gap year can also be more expensive than solo travel. While the cost may be offset by the benefits of a structured program and group support, it’s important to factor in the total cost when deciding which option is best for you. You’ll want to consider not only the program fees, but also additional costs such as flights, visas, and spending money.
Photo by Matt Hage
A Gap Year Is Never the Wrong Choice
Whether you choose a solo or group gap year is a deeply personal decision that will depend on a variety of factors. For those that value independence and flexibility, a solo gap year may be the way to go. For those that value structure and social interaction, a group program with NOLS may be the best option. Whatever you decide, a gap year can be a transformative experience that will provide lasting memories and personal growth.
NOLS is a nonprofit global wilderness school that seeks to help you step forward boldly as a leader.