Workamping

In 2008 I was a campground host in Colorado. I took this picture about a mile from my camp site. That is Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado.

In 2008 I was a campground host in Colorado. I took this picture about a mile from my camp site. That is Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in Colorado.

If you are interested in adapting a mobile lifestyle by living in a vehicle such as a van, then one of your first thoughts is, “How will I earn money?” The answer depends on your circumstances. Vandwellers come in two types, one lives in a city and works a regular job while stealth parking. The other travels and lives in many different types of places such as National Forests or BLM land, only staying in cities when there is some need for it.

While I have spent time as both types of vandweller, I am currently traveling full-time. I camp in the National Forests or BLM land and travel around to the National Parks, photographing the amazing beauty of this country. I save money by camping for free on dispersed campsites, but with the high price of gas, I found I couldn’t afford to travel as much as I wanted. I needed to find another source of income to keep traveling. A fellow vandweller told me about workamper.com. He had joined the website and had been flooded with job offers working in National Forests as a campground host. That really appealed to me! I could live for free in a campground in a beautiful setting, and get paid for all the hours I work! On my days-off I could travel around the area and take pictures of beautiful scenery. It sounded perfect to, so I paid to join the site ($34 a year), and started looking for jobs.

The first thing you do is write a resume telling about your work experience and describing the kind of job you are looking for. My friend had told me that there were many RVers who wanted the jobs with full-hookups, but there weren’t many people who wanted the more remote campgrounds which only have water and a pit toilet. So when I wrote my resume, I described myself and said I specifically wanted remote campgrounds without hookups. Since I don’t have air-conditioning, one high priority I had was that I needed to work in a place that had cool summers.

Within two weeks I had three job offers. The first was on the Oregon coast in an RV park, the second was in Tahoe National Forest in California, and the third was at the Mt. Elbert campground, just outside of Leadville, Colorado. They would all have been great jobs. They all paid minimum wage for 40 hours a week. The minimum wage in Oregon and California was $8 an hour, and in Colorado it was $7 an hour, but I really wanted to see Colorado, so I took that job. I am just finishing my first season and it has been really terrific. My campground is between the two highest mountains in Colorado, Mt Elbert, and Mt. Massive; I literally can walk from my site to either trailhead in five minutes. I am a few hours away from Rocky Mountain National Park, Aspen, Crested Butte, Vail, and Breckinridge. It is a stunningly beautiful area. As a huge bonus, because I am at 10,000 feet, the weather was never hot.

Whenever I greet a camper to the campground, and they find out that I live in the campground and get paid to do it, they tell me how envious they are. They’re right, it is a wonderful life that I highly recommend to all traveling vandwellers.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1) Don’t workampers trade hours-worked for their camp site?
In most private campgrounds that is how it works. A common arrangement is to work the first 20 hours for your site and utilities, and then you are paid for any hours you work over that. That obviously is not a good deal for vandwellers. What I am talking about is campground hosting in the National Forests.  There are many campgrounds in the National Forests, and the Forest Service contracts most of them out to private contractors to operate. So a private company hires people to be campground hosts and pays them to live in the campground. Generally, there is no charge for the site, you are paid for every hour you work. However, there are a few companies that do charge for your site, so you want that to be clear before you agree to work for them. I would almost certainly not work for a company that charged for the site.

There are some campgrounds that have electric and even hookups, and some are remote and have no services except a hand pump and pit toilets. The jobs with  electric and hookups are in demand and there are a lot of RVers chasing after them. It is much harder to find hosts for the campgrounds with no services because the RV crowd isn’t interested. Lack  of utilities is no problem for a vandweller so you won’t have any problem finding those kind of jobs.

2) What is the job like? Here are your duties:

  • Greeting the campers: Every morning and evening I make the rounds and welcome campers who are just coming into the campground. It’s my job to know my area and be able to answer the questions campers may have. The  majority of my campers are here to climb Mts. Elbert and Massive, so I climbed Elbert soon after I arrived. I also hiked most of the trails in the area so I could describe them. Many of my campers are interested in fishing, so I learned all about the best spots and which bait to use. I am more of a loner than social person, but I soon grew to enjoy greeting people. They were nearly all just really nice folks who are glad to get away into the National Forest and glad to learn what I had to tell them. Their pleasure at getting away from their daily routine was contagious and I nearly always felt better after making my rounds.
  • Cleaning: After every camper leaves, I go into their site and clean out their campfire ring, and  pick up any trash they may have left behind. I had worried this may be a bad job, but I am amazed at how clean most people leave their campsites. There were a few exceptions, but nearly all my campsites were left very clean. I picked up mostly “micro” trash like bottle caps, bread twist ties, and band-aids. My next cleaning job is the toilets. There is no getting around it, cleaning toilets is no fun. But I found that after getting into a routine, it wasn’t so bad. The key for me was to give them frequent light cleaning and not let them get real dirty. The toilets were the worst part of the job,  but compared to how great the job was, they were no big deal.

 

  • Accounting: A big part of the job is collecting the money, recording the amounts, and collecting data for the Forest Service. Most campers fill out the envelope at the fee station, and drop the envelope into the fee tube. When I am making my morning and evening rounds, I get the envelopes out of the tube, and greet the campers just coming in. If there is anyone there who hasn’t paid, I greet them and offer them an envelope to fill out. That saves them the trip down to the fee station. I never had a problem collecting money all summer. There were a few who I suspect didn’t intend to pay, but when I showed up, they willingly paid. After I collect the money, I record it on a daily form the company provides. At the end of the week I count all the money and fill out a weekly summary that I give to my boss who comes out to collect. I also fill out a form for the Forest Service that tells how many campers I had, and which states they are from.

My time was split pretty evenly between these three parts. Like any job, sometimes it would get boring and tedious. But without any doubt it is the best job I have ever had. There were many times when I thought, “Wow, this is a really great job, I’m glad I’m here!” I have never said that about any other job I have ever had.

3) How do I get started?
If you are ready to start workamping, join workampers.com today! They are the main clearinghouse of workamping jobs. Employers go there to find their hosts. You can sign up for a daily email listings of job openings and start watching for jobs that interest you. Hiring for the campgrounds starts in January-March so you want to join before then. While campground hosting is the main job vandwellers would be interested in, there are many other types of jobs posted on workamping.com. One example is that Amazon.com hires for the Christmas rush at their warehouses and they pay $10+ an hour and provide you with a free site at a nearby RV park. Caretaking for lodges is another example. There is a surprising variety of jobs.

4) What questions should I ask when I contact an employer?

  • What is the hourly pay?
  • Do I have to pay for my site, or is it free?
  • How many hours a week will I be paid?
  • Do I keep track of every hour worked or is it 8 hours per day?The reason to ask this is sometimes the campground isn’t busy and you may not work 8 hours, and sometimes it is very busy and you will work more than 8 hours. Over the course of the summer it balances out.
  • Will I have 2 days off and when will they be?
  • Do you encourage or discourage your hosts to leave the campground on their days off?
  • How far away is the nearest town of any size?
  • How long is the work season?
  • What utilities are available in the campground?
  • If there are multiple campgrounds or day-use areas, will I b eprovided a vehicle to drive between them? I had 2 campgrounds and a day-use area, I was given an ATV 4- wheeler to ride between them. That was fine except for when it was cold or raining, then it was a pain in the butt.
  • If you have a pet, are pets allowed?
  • Do you encourage or discourage your hosts from applying for unemployment? This is an extremely important question! Since you are being laid off at the end of the summer, you are eligible to draw unemployment. It doesn’t matter what state you live in, or what other income you may have, when you are laid off you are eligible for unemployment. The way I look at it, I have been paying into the system all my life, and now it’s time to get some of it back.

What are the best things about Workamping?
One thing that makes workamping such a great job is that it lasts a short time. Because of the severe winters in the Colorado Rockies, this job only lasted 3 months. Just when I was getting a little tired of it, it was over! To be honest, I wish it had lasted another month. In milder climates, the season can last 4 to 6 months. Once your season is over, you can do whatever you want. You can start looking for another job, or take time off to travel. In the summer it’s easy to find jobs in cool climates, and then in the winter you look for jobs in warmer climates. That solves one of the worst things about vandwelling: it is too hot in the summer and hard to stay warm in the winter.

Something else that made this the ideal job for me is that it is great if you travel with a dog like I do. I hated the idea of getting a job where I have to leave my best friend in my camper for 8 hours a day. As a campground host, we went for walks in the forest every morning and evening. He went with me when I made my rounds and greeted the campers. He is so well behaved that nearly every camper loved him and he loved meeting them and getting attention. When I pulled into a campground, there was a little cloud of kids gathered around to greet and pet Homer! He loved the job as much as I did.

For me, the best thing about workamping  is spending time in such beautiful places. On my days off I drove a few hours to stunningly beautiful places. I was in Colorado through its short but spectacular wildflower season, and fall colors. It was so beautiful that it would take my breath away.

Update November, 2011
Since I wrote this story, I have worked three more seasons as a campground host. I still love it, maybe even more than ever! My first season in Colorado I worked for Rocky Mountain Recreation Company. I thought they were a great company to work for. The last three seasons I worked for California Land Management (CLM), which is also an outstanding company to work for. I was in the Sierra National Forest in California. The minimum wage in California is $8.00 an hour, but CLM starts its hosts at $8.50 an hour.  The Sierra Mountains have a  longer season than the Colorado Rockies. I only worked 3 months in Colorado, but in the Sierras I worked 5 1/2. The bottom line was that I made more than twice as much money working for CLM. More importantly, I was treated like family. When I was injured on the job, my boss and his wife took care of me like I was kin. I will forever be in their debt. Even though the injury was my fault and cost the company a lot of money, they rehired me, no questions asked. I can’t recommend or speak highly enough about CLM!

Here is a page showing their current job openings:
http://www.clm-services.com/employment/job-openings

Here is a page where you apply for jobs:
http://www.clm-services.com/employment/employment-application

However, the best way to get a job is to call the main office (650- 322-1181) and tell them which campground you are interested in working at. Then ask for the phone number of the Area Manager over that campground. He is the man that does the hiring for that campground. Call him and tell him you have heard great things about CLM and want to host at that campground. Chances are he will do a phone interview right then and you may have a job on the spot.

CLM Services Corporation
675 Gilman Street
Palo Alto, California 94301-2528
(650) 322-1181 phone
(650) 322-1194 fax