Workamping is a widespread system here in the USA whereby participants are offered a place to live and other benefits in exchange for labor at a specific site, most often a campground. There are many variations. Campgrounds may be public or private; financial compensation may or may not be offered for hours worked; and the type of work can vary dramatically.
Camp host is probably the most common workamping position. Camp hosts may have many different duties, but the basic responsibility is to act as an on-site contact for visitors to the campground. They may take reservations, sell firewood, clean sites and/or bathrooms, provide information, work in an onsite store or visitor’s center, mow, paint, fix fences — the list goes on.
Other workamping opportunities may include office work (my preferred job!), driving shuttles, housekeeping, maintenance, landscaping, security, wrangling all manner of livestock, selling pumpkins or Christmas trees, harvesting produce, working in a fish hatchery, or even working in an Amazon warehouse during the holiday season. This is by no means an exhaustive list – I’ve seen some unusual positions like maintaining a hydroponics system and working at an animal rescue.
Most workamping opportunities include an RV site, though the hookups/amenities can vary dramatically. (Back-country sites will often have a generator, water tank and a massive propane pig instead of hookups.) Some – mostly at really big resorts like those in the western National Parks – include dorm-style accommodations.
Other benefits may include free utilities and laundry, discounts on items sold in the on-site store, use of campground amenities like kayaks or pools, and social opportunities.
Sources for finding these opportunities are varied but are mostly online. Any/all should clearly provide an outline of hours expected, compensation, responsibilities, and time frame.
In our 4 years of full-time travel, I’ve completed 3 very different workamping assignments, and we’re headed to a fourth right now. My preference is for an office position that requires no more than 20 hours of work per week — mostly weekdays so that Shawn & I can explore the area together on weekends.
Here’s a short rundown of my experiences thus far.
Pumpkin Patch RV Resort, Hermon, Maine
The season at this northern park runs from May 1 to Oct. 15. We were asked to be on site a week prior to opening for training. We arrived when the ground was still soft — and indeed it was raining when we arrived — and the truck made some pretty deep ruts in the grass and gravel as we backed into our designated spot. Whoopsie. The owner didn’t mind and told us not to worry about it. I’m just glad we didn’t get stuck like our experience in Tyler, Texas!
We settled in and got to know the other workers pretty quickly. It’s a highly rated, lovely smaller park with only 85 sites. The owners live on-site (unusual these days) as does the park manager and maintenance engineer. These folks are all very hands-on and easy to work with.
Several workampers were no-shows, requiring a rejiggering of the planned office schedule. With only 3 office workers (plus the manager and owner), the office hours had to be truncated slightly. The original arrangement was supposed to be 24 hours a week, in 4 6-hour shifts. We ended up working 3 days a week in 9-hour shifts, with an hour off for lunch. It made for some long days. Luckily one of the workampers wanted to work Sundays, so I only had to work every third Saturday. We also swapped shifts frequently to allow folks to have multiple days off in a row to take longer trips and explore the area.
I learned to run the cash register, use the RezExpert reservation system, and direct guests to various eateries and attractions. The job itself was not difficult, as long as I remember to switch my brain on! I made a few mistakes, but they were minor matters that were pretty easily rectified. I greatly enjoyed the interaction with guests and discovered that I was really good at making people feel welcome.
The park also offered special events like potlucks and pancake breakfasts where I was asked (but not required) to assist. Staff also had occasional Happy Hour festivities at the boss’s place. 🙂
In exchange for my 24 hours per week, we received a nice site near the center of the park, utilities included. I could also do laundry for free at the office during my shift, and we purchased propane at half price. We were able to put the truck into the on-site storage area. I was even able to start a veggie garden!
We really enjoyed our time at the Pumpkin Patch and it was a great way to ease into workamping. I think this was a fairly typical experience for an office worker in a privately owned park.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Aaaaand now for something completely different! The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is the largest event of its kind with 580 balloons, 1,200 Navigators (volunteers, like me) and 850,000 people attending. It’s unique not just because of its size but because you can really get up close and personal with the balloons and crew, mingling in the launch area instead of behind ropes 100 yards away.
We had already reserved a camping spot at the Fiesta for two weeks when a friend asked if I could volunteer on her retail crew, subbing in for someone who had to withdraw due to illness. In exchange for my time, we’d get half off our camping spot, a heavy coat, and a few other minor perks. Sure, why not? Shawn works full-time to afford us this lifestyle and put money in the bank, so it’s my objective to minimize our costs where I can.
I had to complete an online application, then watch a couple hours’ worth of training videos prior to arriving at the Fiesta. I ended up switching roles because I realized the original position would have me on my feet most of the time, which would have likely had my back screaming at me. The Volunteer Director was able to find me a position driving a shuttle (4-6 person golf carts).
Accommodations were not as plush as at The Pumpkin Patch, that’s for sure. All camping at Fiesta is dry camping, which means no hookups. Arrive with your water tanks full and waste tanks empty! We – and many others – paid a fee and the “honey wagon” came to pump out the tanks at least once. Unfortunately our neighbor ran his generator ALL.DAY.LONG about 6 feet from our living room windows, so we mostly kept the windows closed to avoid the smell. Sigh.
We were assigned parking on a relatively flat crumbly asphalt parking lot on the north side at a rate of $40/day – reduced to $20/day in exchange for my volunteerism. I had to work a minimum of 70 hours to get that reduced rate. (Don’t do the math, it’s depressing.)
After arriving, the Director informed me that we’d be getting our site for FREE – woohoo! I still don’t know what changed to modify the contract but I wasn’t going to argue.
So as I said, my role was to drive a golf cart shuttle for the guests. There was only an hour of training for the job, which mainly consisted of piling into the golf carts and getting a tour of the area. We were handed a sheaf of printed maps (until they ran out, anyway) and that was about it.
Each morning I’d show up to the shuttle yard, grab a high-vis vest, a flashlight and a walkie-talkie if available. We were assigned specific area to patrol, but those frequently broke down as we ended up driving all over the park and out to the far-flung parking lots. It was hard to say no to folks who were tired, or lugging kids, or on crutches or — you get the idea. Almost everyone was extremely appreciative of the option to sit down and get a free ride to their destination. It was fun to meet people from all over the world. It was nonstop, except when I took a break to visit the volunteer-only tent to get food or a hot chocolate – that was a really nice perk.
Driving a golf cart is not difficult, and I never lost a passenger. (Heh.) What wore me down was the early morning pre-sunrise shifts in the gosh-dang record-breaking COLD, and the need to be friendly and chipper with hundreds of people. These carts had no windshields, so even bundled up as you can see in the photo I was constantly COLD. And while yes, as I said I did enjoy meeting people, it was hard to do over and over for long periods. As an introvert it just wore me down.
Most days I worked 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., went home and ate lunch, SLEPT for 2-3 hours, showered and was able to walk the dog or wander around the fiesta for a while. Unfortunately due to my schedule I ended up missing a lot of the various events, and there was basically no chance of getting a ride in a balloon (#bucketlist).
I’m not sure I’d volunteer for this particular position again. There are dozens and dozens of roles to play at the Fiesta; I was actually wondering if I could get my volunteering done BEFORE the event — working on setting out the campground lines and flags, packing volunteer gift bags, sorting and setting out merchandise, etc.
We were wrestling with that decision when Covid19 hit and the Fiesta ended up being cancelled for 2020. What a bummer for a million excited people, and a huge detrimental impact on the income for the city of Albuquerque. We’ll see what 2021 brings.
Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum
Covid19 completely disrupted our plans for the summer. Instead of the planned West Coast Heavy Duty Truck Rally and touring Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks with millions of other tourists, we opted to cancel our reservations and hunker down in southwest Colorado for a few months in smaller towns with lower infection rates.
While in Colorado, I applied for several positions with the National Parks in Wyoming, and accepted an unpaid volunteer position at the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum for the second half of the summer.
In late spring / early summer, many states were still restricting travel or campground availability. I reasoned that a workamping job would give us a guaranteed place to stay. As it turned out, lack of cruising and airline travel options opened the floodgates to families in RVs, and RVers quickly swamped many of the campgrounds across the US.
We arrived at the end of June to the small town of Douglas, Wyoming, population just over 6,000. Douglas is in eastern Wyoming, about 45 minutes east of Casper and 2 hours north of Cheyenne.
We had mixed reactions to the accommodations. The Museum is located on the grounds of the Wyoming State Fair, and we were to stay at the Fair campground. While the utilities were all excellent, and Shawn was thrilled with the Verizon tower 100 feet away, the campground was neglected. The gravel was more dirt than gravel, the weeds were huge, and the garbage bins were frequently overflowing. Communications with Fair staff were also difficult.
The Museum consists of 6 large galleries and a gift shop. The same small staff also managed a WWII POW camp museum a half mile away, and an even older Army fort location 7 miles outside of town. The Museum averages around 50 visitors a day on a typical summer day. Not so this year; most days the visitor count barely struggled into the double digits. I was told that the limitation on international travel had a big impact on the numbers. The staff and other volunteers were delightful to work with, though I spent very little time with anyone due to the nature of my duties.
Sadly, due to budget cuts from the pandemic, paid staff had their hours reduced, special projects were put on hold, and visiting hours at the other two locations were drastically cut. Therefore the projects I had hoped to be involved with, such as digitally archiving the museum’s many artifacts and displays or filling in as host at the various locations, were not initiated. That left me with only two roles: maintaining the grounds and flowerbeds, and filling in at lunch at the front desk for the main Museum. And occasionally vacuuming floors or wiping down the glass display cases.
The flowerbeds hadn’t been touched for the first half of the summer, so I spent about 3 hours a day pulling weeds, spreading mulch, mowing, and watering multiple flowerbeds and many hanging baskets. I have never seen so much invasive Virginia Creeper, turf grass, and bindweed! The weather was uncooperative, being sunny, windy and in the 90s most days, so I typically began my day at 8 a.m. after walking Elvis. Then home for a shower and some food before spending an hour or so at the lovely, air-conditioned front desk.
While the groundskeeping work was hard, it gives me pleasure to see the immediate results of my labors. My only regret here was that I did not get to learn any new skills.
On to the Next Location!
So to sum up, workamping has been an interesting experience. We’ve saved money and spent time in locations we might not otherwise have visited. We’ve also learned to weigh the location very carefully, as staying long-term in one place can become tedious if there’s not much to see and do within a hours’ drive. Please don’t take any of the above negativity too seriously. Whiles not every aspect of these experiences may have been exactly what I had expected, overall they were all good experiences and I value what I learned or accomplished at each.
We are now headed to my fourth workamping position, at a Corps of Engineers (CoE) park on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. It’s an unusual position, in that instead of volunteering at one of the many CoE campgrounds which require weekend and evening hours, I will instead be working a weekday schedule in an office setting, performing reception and administrative duties. This is perfect for us, as it leaves weekends free to explore the area. And the area is HUGE, being on the edge of the 7th largest metro area in the USA.
As it’s a large district, I do hope I’ll be able to participate in additional projects in my off-hours and expand my knowledge and skillset. After all, learning about our world is why I love to travel.