Work Camping – A ticket to adventure?

In Adventure, Full-Time RV Living, RV, Travel

Take a leap into work camping?

Considering the full time RV Lifestyle?  We’ve run into so many people over the years who wish they could afford to travel and live in a recreational vehicle.  But their current budget couldn’t fit with “retiring” yet.  In our case, we’re not retired.  Instead we live and work from our Airstream.  Unfortunately, not every job goes hand in hand with full time RV’ing.  But there are jobs out there that could jump start your full time RV lifestyle.

Work Camping is one way to travel and still pay the bills.  At least that’s how many people present work camping opportunities.  Sometimes work camping works out for the best, and sometimes we’ve heard horror stories from work campers across the country.  In this installment of Living in Tin we’re going to talk in detail about work camping.  It may be your ticket to full time travel adventure, but it might also lead to an experience you never intended.

Photography for work campers
In addition to the tech work we do, we also do professional photography work. Good photography is useful anywhere!

The Work Camper Model

Years ago, before I became a full time RV’er, I investigated ways to fund full time travel and still “paying the bills.”  There are a few options out there.  One option is to work in an industry where you can work remotely.  Travel Photographer, Programmer, Database Developer, Writer…….there are many jobs that don’t require you to be in one specific location all the time.  You can create a list of all the mobile employment opportunities out there, but when it comes right down to it, many jobs require that you stay in one place.

During my early research one item that I stumbled across was new to me.  “Work Camping.”  I’d never heard of the idea before, and it intrigued me.  Put quite simple, work campers travel to a destination location and work for the park they’re staying at.  In some cases, larger companies need transient labor certain times a year, and they actually have camping locations available for their temporary labor force.  In the end, you travel to a location to work part time or full time, and one of the benefits of the work is that you get to travel, see new places, and still cover your bills.

Work camper opportunities are offered by many types of businesses.  Of course, RV Parks across the country love work campers.  From small mom and pop parks to the large national chains, work campers are an important park of parks’ labor force.  Beyond the obvious RV Park opportunities, what other types of work camping jobs are available?  Well, our federal government also loves work campers.  They help supplement the work force in National Parks, Forests, BLM locations, and more.  And beyond these types of opportunities?  Amazon.com adores work campers, especially during the holiday shipping season.

Work Camp New Mexico
Want to stay at amazing locations for free? Well, not quite for free, but pretty darned close

RV Park Work Camping

State Park Work Camping
We met several state park “volunteers” while visiting New Mexico Parks this year

The most obvious category of work camping are those folks who work for the parks they’re staying in.  Many RV Parks across the country utilize work campers to supplement their staff and save a little money.  That’s right, I said “save a little money.”

Many parks offer a pretty nice deal for travelers who need employment as well.  They offer “free spaces” to RV’ers in exchange for working so many hours per month.  In some cases there’s pay included with a free site and paid for electric!  For work campers who are already retired, these types of offers are pretty sweet deals.  They’re already receiving their retirement benefits, and the additional pay and a free site are exactly what they need in order to cover their travel expenses.

The model is pretty simple.  Parks usually ask for anywhere between 10 and 40 hours of work per week.  In exchange, campers get their free site at a location they wanted to travel to.  Often the work camper also receives an hourly pay rate, or in the best cases a salary.

Often work campers will be asked to do the basics when it comes to running the RV Park.  Jobs usually include:

  • Checking in new guests.
  • Making new reservations.
  • Lawn mowing.
  • Park maintenance.
  • Cleaning bathrooms and showers.
  • Park management.

The list above is just an example of what typical work campers at private parks are asked to do.  But it gives a general idea of what might be expected if you become a work camper for a private park.  We’ve heard success stories, and horror stories as well, and we’ll talk about both further into the article.

Forest Service and Parks

Work camping at a National Monument
A Westy camped at Chiricahua National Monument

The Federal Government loves work campers, and State Park Services love them too.  With the Parks Service always being strapped for cash and threatening to close this amazing location or that one, work campers and volunteers help round out the staffing issues at parks across America.  And for the work campers who provide labor, they get to stay at amazing places without reservation worries!  It could be a win win for all involved.

Doing a simple search for National Park Work Camping will yield more results than you have time to read.  National forests across the U.S., National Parks, National Monuments, State Parks, BLM Parks….they’re all looking for work campers and volunteers.  For example, one nice site with many opportunities has to be Montana’s Conservation Corps.  They’re just one example, as every state has opportunities.

Normally park volunteers and work campers can be found in the campgrounds they’re working at.  They provide information to park visitors, provide tours to notable locations in the parks, check in guests, take reservations, and work on maintenance issues.  Often we’ve come across more volunteers in the parks than we have actual forest service employees.  So, these work campers help provide the basic services to visitors to the parks.

Often times, the compensation isn’t that great.  Many volunteers we’ve met have told us they’re basically getting their space for free along with electric, water, and sewage.  So, for a few hundred dollars per month, these employees are willing to trade their time.  The big question for those volunteers is simple.  Is it worth it?  We’ll discuss that further below.

Corporate America and the Work Camper

Finally, there are many large companies that also offer work camping opportunities.  One company stands out above the rest due to all the press about work camping opportunities with them.  Amazon.com.

Amazon.com has a page dedicated to Work Campers.  The call it “Camper Force.”  Every year during the holiday season Amazon needs a larger temporary labor force to help deal with the massive volume of online orders it takes.  And every year work campers from across the country answer Amazon’s call.  From their site, the call for 2015 work campers has gone out.  What does Amazon have to say about “Camper Force?”

Amazon is currently recruiting work campers for 2015. We are looking for flexible and enthusiastic RV’ers with a positive, can-do attitude.

The Amazon CamperForce program brings together a community of enthusiastic RV’ers who help make the holidays bright for the customers of the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.com. As a CamperForce Associate, you’ll begin this seasonal assignment in early Fall and work until December 23rd in either: Jeffersonville, IN, Campbellsville, KY, Murfreesboro, TN or Haslet, TX. Join us as we work together in a fast-paced and energetic environment to fulfill Amazon’s mission: to be Earth’s most customer-centric company! Amazon offers great pay, a paid completion bonus, paid referral bonuses, and paid campsites for its CamperForce Associates. Together we’ll work hard, have fun, and make history!

For RV’ers looking to make some extra cash for their next travel adventure, Amazon could be the perfect solution.  Spend a few months helping to ship out every item under the sun, and in exchange you’ll have a place to park your RV and earn some income.

Amazon isn’t the only company that looks for temporary labor force increases.  But they are one of the most well known.  So every year RVer’s take them up on their offer.  Many enjoy the experience, others are exhausted by it, and some walk away as they didn’t plan on spending their retirement working over time.

Is Work Camping Worth it

Work camping retirees
If you’re retired and looking for something to do, work camping may just suit you!

We’ve talked about the different work camping opportunities.  And they’re not hard to find.  There are many publications advertising positions every day.  One of the most well known has to be Workamper.com.  They’re the publishers of Workamper Magazine.  Back in 2006 – 2007 I was a subscriber myself as I was working out how I’d like my full time RV lifestyle to go.  While I never took a work camping position, I found Workamper.com to be a valuable tool.

With so much information out there on work camping, the next big question is simple.  Is it worth it?  The answer is mixed.  In some cases yes, in some cases no.  Like anything else out there, work camping works for some people, and completely fails for others.  So before you apply for a position at a RV Resort in sunny Florida, lets talk about the realities of work camping.

Work Camping is a JOB

Becoming a work camper means you’re going to work.  First word of the title of this article.  Work.  If you’re looking for a carefree retirement lifestyle, work camping is anything but carefree.  So let’s just set that expectation up front.

In the case of small mom and pop RV parks across the country I can safely say more than 90% of the places I’ve visited employ work campers.  The person at the desk checking me in, the person guiding me to my site, the guy cleaning up the bathrooms after someone over flowed the toilets.  So many of my interactions with personnel at campgrounds have been with work campers, not park owners.

One park owner and friend of mine has two sets of work campers on for her busy season.  The 2 work camping couples in her employ receive a free site at her park, free electric, water, and sewage.  They also get a small monthly check as well.  Not enough to live on, or to save for their future.  But combined with their retirement savings, it’s enough in their minds and the “free” site is the selling point.

If you’re a work camper, free sites aren’t free.  You dedicate your time to working in the park in exchange for the site.  You’re getting “paid” through having a free site.  You do work in exchange for something.  There’s nothing free about that.

In the National Parks, Forests, State Parks, and the rest it’s a similar situation.  Work X amount of hours for your free site and other perks.  However, unlike many of the private parks the rewards are even fewer.  Normally a free site is the carrot.  Additional pay is not available.  With that in mind, many of these posts require you to be retired and have another income stream, you will not be making a living or anything close to it.

One rotten apple……

Is work camping worth it?
Work campers in the Park Service get to stay in some amazing places…but is it worth it?

This summer we met a couple work camping at a large RV Resort.  They over winter in Southern Arizona as work campers for another resort.  And this summer they decided to work camp in Norther Arizona.  Their experience demonstrated both the good and the bad about work camping.

For their winter season this couple has been working at the same Resort for years with great success.  One spouse works on the events committee for the Resort they live in.  The other manages guest relations at the resort.  And they both love working for that resort.  A free site, and actual pay for their hours.  They shared with us how great the park they worked in was to them.  And they shared the story for a reason.

We met them at a resort where they were working for the summer season for the first time.  Their agreed to contract was for 40 hours per week between the two of them.  That’s 20 hours per week for each spouse.  The husband told me though, that wasn’t the reality.  They were each working over 40 hours per week (80 hours combined) for a site, a small check, and a lot of headaches.  As seasoned work campers they knew the ins and outs of the RV Resort business.  And the owners of their summer park took advantage of that fact.  The husband told me very clearly, “we will never work with this park again.”

So, one resort had been a great experience for years.  And the new park made them miserable.  There was no retirement resort feeling for either of them.  They were full time employees not being paid a fair wage.  They haven’t soured on work camping, but that one rotten apple has forced them to re-think their summer seasons.

An Economist’s Take on Work Camping

Work camping can be a great experience, or it could be a nightmare. Do your research first!
Work camping can be a great experience, or it could be a nightmare. Do your research first!

After looking at work camping for more than a decade, I have some thoughts on it.  I was formally trained as an economist before I got into the tech business, so I always consider the economics of anything I research.  And in my opinion, work camping isn’t the best route for people who aren’t retired.  Further, for retirees who get into the work camping system, I think there are serious issues to consider.

Work camping is almost a black market of labor.  Some is above table, some is under the table.  Private RV Parks, government operated parks, and even corporations using work campers are all looking for a cheap labor force.  Trading a person a site for lets say 20 hours per week might sound fine to someone with great retirement savings.  A free spot in a desirable location, sounds awesome.  But think about this.  20 hours per week comes to 80 hours per month.  Let’s say that job could pay $10 per hour.  That comes to $800 per month worth of labor.  Often times the monthly rate on a campsite runs around $400 – $500 per month.  Doing the math, you might suddenly feel ripped off.

Both private businesses and the government rely on work campers as a cheap or sometimes free labor force.  Getting labeled a “volunteer” in the parks system means you are working for free.  So the park system is depending on you to provide work and also provide your own income source.  Occasionally when I look through some of the park service offerings the words “indentured servants” pop to mind.  And private parks are sometimes no better.  Free labor in exchange for a site that you would make $400 per month on?  Sign me up for 2 or 3 work campers!!!  I’ve seen parks fully operated by work campers, with the owners out of the picture.  Bottom line, they’re saving thousands of dollars per month, don’t have to worry about medical insurance or social security, and are truly making a killing on their labor input.

During a prime season, what comes into a private RV Park?  Let’s take the example of a favorite park I like to stay at.  Their nightly rate is about $38 per night.  They have 100 sites.  Busy season means they’re full.  So about $3800 per night.  Let’s say the average month has 30 days, and peak season lasts 6 months.  They’re pulling in $114,000 per month, and that’s $684,000 for 6 months.  They have 2 full time work campers on location who cover the office 6 out of 7 days per week…….shouldn’t their labor be worth more than a free site?

While work camping can provide trips to locations you’ve always wanted to visit, you really need to consider the value of your time, retired or not.  If your free site comes with the price tag of more than 20 hours per week, you’d do better getting a part time job at the local grocery and paying for your site.  Defined schedules, benefits, etc.

Bottom line on Work Camping

For some, work camping works well.  Travel to new locations, a free site in exchange for a few hours a week.  It can work.  But if you’re not retired, many of the work camping opportunities aren’t going to pay a living wage, and you’ll need other income sources as well.

Before you sign up for a season with a park service, company, or private campground, we’d suggest you take the time to do the math.  How many hours a month will you dedicate?  And what are you getting in return.  Good parks will not only provide you a site, but they’ll pay you as well.  Bad parks will absolutely try and take advantage of you.  That’s where resources like Workamper.com come in.  Of course, if you’re retired and just looking for something to do, you might not care at all.

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