Go the extra mile: a Great Wall of China Trek is offered by Classic Tours / EPA

From hiking up volcanoes to biking round Europe, charity challenges have wide-reaching benefits

Victor Baxter has just returned from a sponsored motorbike ride across South Africa. His verdict? "Tiring. Exhilarating. Humbling. Stimulating. Inspirational. Recalibrating. Ennobling. Validating. Awesome." Charity challenges tend to engender such reactions. They're not normal holidays; they can be life-changing adventures.

Charity challenges first appeared 20 years ago. They were bespoke fundraising events: one charity organised an exotic trip involving some element of difficulty (a mountain climb, a mammoth cycle) and participants would badger friends to sponsor this leap outside their comfort zone. Then Classic Tours brought professionalism to the genre, operating the trips as though they were adventure tours – albeit with a purpose.

The late 1990s brought "open" challenges, charity-non-specific trips on which individuals could raise funds for a cause of their choice – a boon for smaller charities.

Financially, both work the same way: you pay a registration fee, then either you pay nothing more but raise a high minimum sponsorship amount; or you pay some costs and raise a lower sum; or you self-fund the trip and raise what you can.

So are some people just getting a free holiday? No, says Simon Albert of Charity Challenge: "These trips take time, effort, dedication, commitment – they're far from being a holiday. And they bring in new fundraisers that wouldn't otherwise have connected with the charities." Indeed, since its inception in 1999, Charity Challenge has helped raise more than £35m for 1,300 different charities.

"Recently we've noticed many adventurers are paying the cost of the trip themselves," adds Sarah Tuckwell, a fundraising manager with off-beat challenge specialist Global Enduro. "They're getting the benefit of the experience but not expecting a free ride," she says

"Free" or otherwise, the options for altruistic adventurers are increasing.


The quick fix

Most charity-challengers are aged 35-plus: "They have more contacts and ways of raising money," says Sally Bromham of Classic Tours. "However, as the market has shifted from mostly long-haul to a mix of long- and short-haul options, it's more accessible to younger people as they can go for ones with lower sponsorship targets."

Classic Tours' 300km "London to Paris Cycle" (22 June or 7 September; classictours.co.uk) is a good example: an action-packed, high-adrenalin, long weekend spread over four days. Either you raise £1,200 or more in sponsorship, or you pay £595 and raise as much as possible.


The charity-specific trip

If you want to raise money for a specific cause, contact the charity first, advises Rebecca Bohling of The National Autistic Society (autism.org.uk): "We can advise on finding the trip that best meets your preferences." Charity challenges are key to the NAS, she adds: "They're great fundraising tools as there are endless options for supporters with different interests."

The 10-day "Great Wall of China Trek" is organised by Classic Tours and graded "fairly challenging". It combines hikes on sections of the fine fortification with Beijing sightseeing. Participants can either raise the full £2,700, or pay £1,342 and raise as much as possible for NAS. "The amounts can be substantial," says Rebecca, "so people should seriously consider whether they're prepared to make that commitment."


The big one

Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, embodies the perfect charity challenge: iconic, epic, tough yet manageable. "And after we organised the 2009 celebrity Comic Relief climb, we witnessed a 500 per cent increase in Kili trekkers," explains Simon Albert. "It's still our No 1 by a long way." Charity Challenge runs frequent 11-day assaults on the 5,895m high mountain (from £2,680 sponsorship).

Other options include Classic Tours' "Sisters to the Summit" departure: the first women-only Kilimanjaro charity trek (14 March 2013; from £3,500 sponsorship). Or climb for Save the Rhino (27 Sept 2012; from £4,100 sponsorship; savetherhino.org). Since Douglas Adams joined its 1994 expedition, the charity has arranged an annual slog up the Tanzanian volcano, which includes rhino-tracking in Mkomazi National Park.


The new challenge

Charity Challenge's "Cardamom Mountain Trek" in Cambodia is new for 2012. "It's very basic, sleeping in hammocks in the jungle, carrying your own gear – it'll be a real challenge," says Simon Albert. The 10-day trip includes yomps amid the peaks, waterfalls and swamps that once witnessed fierce Khmer Rouge resistance. The region has only recently reopened to visitors, and it's hoped that the trek, run in conjunction with a local community initiative, will help generate tourism (26 Oct 2012, 8 Feb and 15 Nov 2013; from £2,415 sponsorship; charitychallenge.com).


The off-road fundraiser

Global Enduro reckons its trips are unique: "Although we have an itinerary, it's rare that all goes to plan," Sarah Tuckwell explains. "Let's just say that rerouting 42 Ambassador cars round an Indian landslide without a map can be a lot of fun..."

Enduro Africa (3 Oct 2012; £4,995; globalenduro.com) is a rugged motorbike adventure in South Africa, raising funds for four charities, including Prince Harry's Sentebale. The riding is demanding but you don't need to be a pro-petrolhead, and a training weekend in May will boost your skills and confidence. Or try Karma Enduro, a 2,000km drive in an old Ambassador car across south India, from Goa's beaches to the Keralan backwaters (Jan 2013; £4,750).