(updated in February 2008)
Finding a location:
There are many ways in which to find possible positions that might be of interest to you. We believe that the best source of information for the new work-camper is the magazine, Workamper News. One of the biggest advantages to this magazine is the fact that they will have advertising for many unique positions that most would not even think of without it. Two examples for us are the stay at a grass airfield and one working at a state forestry tree farm. both of these were great experiences that we probably would never have thought of had it not been for that magazine.
Another source of positions is to contact the state parks where you wish to go. If you have Internet access, you will find that most states have a web page located at www.state.XX.us, where the XX is the two-letter abbreviation for the state sought. Two examples of this are Oregon, http://egov.oregon.gov/OPRD/VOL/index.shtml and Texas http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/involved/volunteer/spdest/ . Do not hesitate to contact the park authorities as they have always been helpful and looking for people to help. If you don't locate them, go to your search engine and type in the name of the desired state, followed by "state parks."
There are many federal agencies that use volunteers and many actively seek people with RVs to life on site and to help with their operations. Most people know about and have heard of campground host positions, but there are many other types of position available. While public contact positions tend to be the most visible there are many locations that seek maintenance help, clerical workers and assorted other skills. the fact that you may not like the idea of being a campground host is not reason to ignore the volunteer positions. Our favorite, and probably the most diversified in job positions is the US Fish & Wildlife Service. If you check our our list of positions worked you will find that we have done many unique and interesting things while volunteering with them. We have now volunteered twice with the National Park Service as well and have had good experiences both times.
We have recently accepted a position with the Army Corps of Engineers for next spring. Last fall we did spend a few days as volunteers for them as visitors to friends who were day-use park hosts at a Corps park and it was such a good experience that we have chosen to try that agency next. We look forward to a new experience.
Some other agencies that use resident volunteers are the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation. Many counties also have parks that use volunteers. As you travel, stop in the office of any park you believe you may want to spend some time in and ask about volunteer positions.
What will we be asked to do?
Before you start your search there are several questions that you need to consider. Give some thought as to what type of work you would be willing to do, as well as where. Cleaning is often a part of the job of a volunteer. Cleaning of restrooms is sometimes one of the duties but not usually. Litter pick-up is frequently a part of any park position. General maintenance and construction is often part or even all of the duties for some positions with some agencies. Enforcement of the park rules is rarely a part of the volunteer's duties. Collecting of park or camping fees sometimes is. The key here is to be sure that you understand exactly what you will be expected to do, and if there is something which you are unwilling to do, let the park ranger know it. We have found that there is a great variation in how well organized parks are when it comes to volunteers. Some have everything written down and organized. Others are very hit or miss and if they have not used volunteers for long, they may not be quite sure what you will be doing. Most of the rangers and staff are very appreciative of the volunteers and their services I would suggest that you make a list of questions which you always want answered prior to accepting a position as well as a list of what you are not willing to do. This should be done before you make contact with the volunteer coordinator at the park to insure that you cover everything. While some positions are very specific about what they want the volunteer to do, there are many that just need help and who are happy to try and find things which need done that the volunteer enjoys doing. Most volunteer coordinators understand that to keep volunteers the work needs to be both enjoyable and rewarding and make a genuine effort to have it be that way for everyone.
While cleaning and general maintenance are the most common types of work for volunteers in parks, there are many other things available if you look far enough. Some other positions to be found are manning an information booth, nature walks, interpretive positions at a historic site, and construction and repair of facilities. If you have previous experience in operation of tractors and equipment, that will also open many doors for the volunteer. It is also quite common for agencies to need clerical help or helpers with good computer skills. The more flexible you are the easier it will be to find a position in the area you want.
How many hours are required? How long must we stay?
The parks themselves are as varied as the positions available. We have held positions that asked for as little as twenty hours per week total and we have held others which asked for thirty two hours per week, each. Typically, state parks tend to ask for fewest hours and the shortest stays. I would think that the average volunteer position will ask for between twenty and twenty four hours per week for each person. Some ask a couple for something like twenty hours each and a single for 32 hours, since the cost of the site is the same for either. Still others do not differ in hours asked between the single person and a couple for each and still others only ask for one person to work and so do not care if you are single or a couple. Most agencies do accept either singles or couples. The state parks usually ask for a stay of one month minimum but there are a few that ask for the entire season. Most federal agencies ask for at least three months stay. Even within the same agency you will find that requirements for work hours and length of stay vary so be sure that you understand what the one you are considering asks you for. Also, keep in mind that these are volunteer positions and not barter for your work so do not be surprised that you put in more time for the value received than you would if working at a commercial location. At the same time, volunteers are seldom asked to do the more unpleasant jobs while the barter folks can expect that to be the mainstay of what the are expected to do. These are very different kinds of position. I strongly suggest that you choose your position based upon things that you will enjoy doing and agencies that you wish to support.
What do I get in return?
Keep in mind that this is a volunteer position and not a barter one. You should not choose this life if you expect to be rewarded based upon the hours worked or the value of your services. Since these positions in parks are volunteer as such they do not get paid. Some do have small a expense allowance associated with the position and a few have a small stipend. Any paid time is will be below minimum wage. While paid positions nearly always ask for you to stay the entire season, only a few volunteer ones do. In return for your services you will usually be provided with a full hook-up campsite. Frequently, laundry equipment is available for your use. Telephones are sometimes available, but generally the volunteer must pay the phone bill if it is in his RV. There are also some positions that will supply propane to volunteers. Some type of uniform is usually provided. Internet access is becoming more common. You may also receive a pass to other parks in the system that you are a part of. Other perks will depend upon where you are. Most parks give first priority for positions in the future to those who are returning for another stay. But the best rewards for volunteers service are the new experiences that we have, the new things that we learn and the feeling of personal satisfaction and accomplishment that we get. And do not undervalue the appreciation of the staff where you happen to volunteer. In addition you will find that you make many new friends both from the staff and among your fellow volunteers.
To us, the very best benefit that comes from our volunteer positions is the unique locations where we live. After nearly eight years of this lifestyle we have come to realize that we would have long ago tired of living in the tightly confined quarters of the commercial RV parks. In fact, we find that we tire of that life after only a month or two and today we think of returning to a volunteer position as "going home." The largest RV park area that we have yet stayed in as volunteers was one with eight sites, other than San Antonio where we were housed in a commercial RV resort. We are fairly solitary people and we have enjoyed many locations where we were the only RV on the site and others where there might be several volunteers but scattered across the facility for security and privacy reasons. We have watched deer graze or nurse their fawns from our windows many times. We have been where coyotes and bobcats were frequent visitors. We have even seen a bear stroll past in his search for an evening snack. The greatest of rewards that come from the volunteer lifestyle are things that you could never experience in any other way!
What paper-work is required?
Volunteers can expect to go through an application process, similar to, but less stringent than, the one for employment. If your position includes driving agency vehicles, it is normal to ask for a copy of your driver's record. Some parks also want a picture of you and your RV. Frequently you will be part of the employer's insurance during the hours that you work, so associated paper work can be expected. There will also be rules of conduct and work rules, as well as the usual job safety requirements. Many positions do require an interview, usually done by phone. It is a good idea to apply for the position you want as early as possible, since the more desirable areas fill their positions first. If your position has public contact, particularly with children, you may well be required to pass a background check. Such checks have become the norm for most park and visitor center positions. We have never incurred any expense associated with these requirements.
There are a few negative factors to consider. First of all, we find that we do not get around the country as rapidly as we had expected. We see the locations we visit much more in depth, but we don't get as many places. Also, this life does mean that you will have to plan your travels more than some fulltimers wish to do. You generally need to work six months to a year ahead in order to find locations where you want to go. That does mean somewhat of a schedule. We usually allow at least a month between stops as we travel very slowly between locations and move by whim to off-set the scheduling that must be done. But the #1 negative that we have found is the fact that you make such good friends where you volunteer that you are constantly leaving friends behind to move on to a new location. If you go back to the places you enjoy it will not be long before you find yourself only spending time in two or three locations, over and over. It is usually not easy to head on down the road but the anticipation of the next experience is what keeps us moving on to new and different places!