How To Travel The World For Free (Using WWOOF)
Is there anything more appealing than the opportunity to travel almost for free? Perhaps maybe also the opportunity to meet welcoming, kind people that will teach you valuable life skills? Or the opportunity to go to a strange country, sit down with people you’ve never met before around a dinner table, and tell stories with them that teach you about yourself and humanity? I used to hear stories of people that traveled the world with little money, and I wondered how. It almost didn’t seem real. Then, I learned about WWOOF. It’s an organization that provides a platform to connect farmers with anyone that would like to live on their farm in exchange for a few hours of work. The nature of the work, the farms themselves, the living arrangements, and the farmers vary greatly. WWOOF offers everything from spiritual retreats, mushroom farms, forest gardens, permaculture, communal living, to homesteads, and almost anything you can imagine.
The year was 1971. Sue Coppard, a secretary in London, had the humble idea to connect farmers with urban dwellers. Through a contact with the Soil Administration, she was able to arrange a weekend at a biodynamic farm at Emerson College, in Sussex. The organic movement was just beginning, and Working Weekends On Organic Farms was born. Soon after folks were volunteering longer than a weekend, and the name was changed to Willing Workers On Organic Farms. The word work caused confusion among border agents and those traveling on tourist visas, so the roundly accepted acronym is now World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
Going to Denmark.
I first heard of WWOOF during my time at Appalachian State University. I had a professor named Christina that spoke of her travels in New Zealand living and working on farms. Another professor of mine preached travel as the best education. He encouraged us to spend our 20’s exploring the world, to grab ahold of life before life would inevitably grab ahold of us. These two people planted an important seed within me, because a few months later, I was on a plane to Denmark where I spent a month living with a family in their converted barn through the WWOOF organization. However you came to hear of WWOOF, be glad you did. This has the ability to stretch you, change you, and fill your heart up. I did a lot of googling and research before leaving for Denmark, and I still did not feel prepared. I’ve now lived on many farms, and I’m very confident in my experience with WWOOFing. The following information is some of what I wish I knew and a lot of what I’ve learned through experience.
I have Sue Coppard to thank for some of the best experiences of my life. There are a handful of work exchanges to choose from when it comes to volunteer travel, but WWOOF is definitely the most popular. The exchange standard is 5-6 hours of volunteer “work” a day, 5 days a week, with housing and meals taken care of. Each farm will vary from this. It’s important be clear up front about what the farm expects from you, and to be honest with yourself about what you’re willing to do.
WWOOFing as slow travel.
WWOOFing as a form of slow travel is one of the most commons reasons adventurous people leave their comforts to WWOOF. You are living not just like a local but with the locals. Many times you are eating dinner with families, sharing households and bathrooms, going to hidden gems together, and participating in cultural activities as one of the locals. Slow travel can easily turn into long-term travel. The burn-out that occurs from being in a different city every couple of days is not sustainable. This is an alternative to that kind of hectic pace. Travel can be a way to fill your cup up instead of being something you come home exhausted from. It’s possible to stay at a host farm for weeks or months instead of the days we usually associate with travel.
How easy is it go from “I want to WWOOF” to “I’m on a farm?”
Each country has its own individual WWOOFing website and membership. It generally costs about $40 or €30 per country to join as a WWOOF volunteer. The hosts are not responsible for transportation. So, if you’re not financially ready buy a plane, train, or bus ticket, consider finding a farm locally. Once you’ve narrowed down which country or region you’ll be WWOOFing, sign up for the membership of the corresponding website. If you want to go to France, sign up for WWOOF France. If you want to go the United States, sign up for WWOOF US. Keep in mind your hosts will be relying on you, so, do not apply for a farm in an area you are not committed to going to. Once you have joined the WWOOF website, you’ll have access to all available farms and their contact information. It’s as easy as applying to farms that align with your interests and capabilities, then being accepted. It can be overwhelming to see how many are out there. So, give yourself time to send many emails/applications to find a farm that is the right fit for you and for the farmer.
Do I have to be in peak physical condition?
I was afraid when I went to my first host farm that I wasn’t enough. I was afraid I wasn’t strong enough. I was afraid I wasn’t cheery enough to live with strangers. I was afraid I wasn’t thin enough to fit into my idea of a home on the range farmer. I learned that WWOOFing is truly about cultural exchange. Wherever you apply, be honest about what skills you have to offer. You don’t have to be super strong to volunteer. You don’t have to be someone that has ever even worked on a farm before. There are opportunities for individuals with service animals or special needs. Not every farm will be for you, and you will not be for every farm. I have ended up in places that were not perfect fits, but I was living with real people that are kind enough to share their homes, and we made it work.
Get over stranger danger.
“Is it safe?”
“Don’t you get scared?”
I get asked these questions all the time. My first thought when I hear that it’s possible to travel the world nearly for free, live in stunning places, and get to know amazing people that welcome me into their home isn’t that they have some sort of sketchy motive.
All of the basic safety practices you would use to do anything, you would implement to WWOOF. There’s nothing inherently unsafe about it, and even the bad experiences I’ve heard about weren’t particularly unsafe. I understand that this kind of paranoia can be uniquely American. So, please, my fellow American, get over your internalized fears. They are not helping you. They’re hindering you. Life happens outside of your comfort zone. Tell someone where you’re going, Skype your hosts if you’d like to, but do not let fear get in the way trying something new. To answer everyone that wants to know if I’m scared, the answer is no. WWOOFing is safe. I have felt nurtured and safe within the walls of the places I was gratefully allowed to call home. The only thing that was ever in danger was my ego.
Bring farm clothes. Please.
You’ll need a pair of sturdy jeans or leggings. Also, I exclusively use Darn Tough Vermont Socks. They are actually the best socks I’ve ever used. They are able to take a beating, and it’s possible you may spend some time with wet feet while farming. These socks dry very quickly and will still keep your feet moderately warm while wet. They also have a lifetime guarantee. If you’re able to destroy them, Darn Tough will replace them. You’ll be on your feet often. Take care of your feet, and they will take care of you.
Protect your favorite body parts.
Invest in good underwear. There’s nothing like getting an infection or irritation while living abroad. Ugh. Really, it’s no fun at all. While in Denmark, I got BV, if you know what that is, you know it usually is treated with antibiotics. My hosts were kind enough to show me a natural remedy that did help. I called my mom in America to send me underwear from Lululemon after reading reviews online. Now, I personally wear Lululemon underwear for WWOOFing and traveling, because they don’t get gross after I sweat in them. I have been looking for a small slow-fashion brand that creates underwear at this high quality standard, but so far Lululemon is the best for travel underwear.
Bring a few flannels and a T-shirt or two to work in, but whatever you are comfortable sweating in is appropriate farm wear. Some hosts provide work clothes to travelers. Ask! Ask what they provide and what you must bring. Don’t rely on them too heavily, and try to cover what you can.
A pair of waterproof boots, lightweight tennis shoes, or Chacos/Tevas would be appropriate footwear.
It will probably rain.
Keep the weather in mind when packing clothes and shoes. Frogg Toggs make a lightweight rain suit that travels well, and I have used it while both WWOOFing and hiking. I will eventually upgrade to ultralight rain gear, but Frogg Toggs are great beginner/budget friendly rain gear.
How are you getting there?
If you are hopping in your personal car to travel a few hours away, you will be able to pack everything but the kitchen sink. No matter what form of transportation you take, be sure to ask your host how to get there. Don’t make any assumptions about transportation. They will probably not pick you up from the airport or even the train station. You’re there to make their lives a little easier, and taking a day off from their work to pick you up isn’t something everyone will do.If you are going somewhere that does not have transportation directly to the farm and requires walking, you’ll probably want to have a backpack instead of a suitcase. My favorite go-to backpack is the Deuter 45 liter. It’s comfy to wear, it’s super sturdy, and- if it’s not overpacked- it can be a carry-on. The farm I WWOOFed at in Norway had a mile walk through the woods to get to the farm. There would have been absolutely no way to drag a suitcase through the mud, grass, and forest. I was glad to have my backpack. The backpacks pictured below are not the exact backpack I used, because it has been discontinued. However, I’m sure that Deuter has upgraded their backpacks, and the new ones are even better. Each one listed below is 45 liters. Check the dimensions of the backpack against the dimensions of a carry on on your preferred flight if you intend to use it as a carry on. The torso is ultra-adjustable, and it fits me like a glove. I can’t recommend them enough. Click on any of the backpacks below for specs and pricing information.
Trust in what may happen just by arriving.
It will be okay if you accidentally leave something important behind. There are stores everywhere, and you may find something really cool in a local thrift store. I needed a heftier pair of hiking shoes, and I stumbled upon a pair at a horse farm in Italy that were just my size. Invite good things to happen. Some travelers even recommend leaving one thing behind and shopping for it locally in the city they travel to. Just by arriving somewhere, you will be adding to your life mentally, spiritually, and physically.
Leave your comfort zone behind.
There’s more than one way to travel. What works for me might not work for you. WWOOFing is for anyone ready to contribute with an open mind. Put yourself out there. Find farms locally and get to know farmers in your own city. Travel far and wide while living with locals. Meet people that teach you new skills. Get your hands dirty. Take risks. What’s stopping you?