Volunteering while traveling in an RV

Driving with Donna: Volunteering While Traveling in an RV

by Donna Weathers

“So, you just drive the cart around the campground selling firewood a few days a week, and they give you a campsite?”

 

Yep. That’s exactly what we did as volunteers this past September at Cape Lookout State Park in Tillamook, Oregon. And back in the spring, we traded time on the trails for a full-hookup site at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge near Austin, TX. This past winter, we were museum docents at Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia and were provided a place to park with full hookups just steps from the museum. We love volunteering during our travels and are grateful that there are so many diverse opportunities.

Workamping vs. Volunteering: What’s the Difference?

To me, any time we are providing a service or contributing hours of labor in trade for a campsite, we are “workamping.” This is the traditional definition of workamping, which started out with volunteer camp hosts in state and national parks tending the campgrounds, assisting campers and living on-site in agency-provided campsites for free. These seasonal jobs were most often filled by retirees who weren’t looking for pay and benefits, but simply wanted to volunteer while traveling.

The modern concept of workamping might also include working in a private campground or for a contracted vendor in a public park, earning pay and receiving a campsite as part of a compensation package. To further complicate matters, some volunteers may receive a stipend or other monetary reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses, but this isn’t pay or compensation, it’s a perk and it makes those opportunities more attractive to some volunteers.

In the verbal Venn diagram of workcampers: All those who volunteer while RV traveling are workcampers, but not all workcampers are volunteers.

Anyone Can Volunteer While Traveling

You don’t need to be a full-time RVer to do this. Teachers or others with seasonal jobs, those on sabbatical and those seeking seasonal work can find short-term volunteer positions. Families with pets and children can find positions that allow alternate schedules. Those with physical limitations will enjoy numerous opportunities that suit their ability. Singles or couples with only one worker have no trouble getting gigs.

Donna and Vic on the beach at a volunteer siteDonna and Vic on the beach at a volunteer site

The only hard requirement is that you just need to have a fully self-contained RV to live in. Since some positions aren’t in campgrounds, you can’t count on having a bathhouse at your disposal.

Why Volunteer While Traveling?

I learned a long time ago that being a full-time tourist is exhausting. After a while, nothing has any charm, and all the fascination is sucked away. Parking in one spot for several months allows us to really get to know a place and live like a local. Volunteering gives us something to do, helps keeps us physically and mentally healthy, and allows us to use our skills and talents to the benefit of the host agency. Parking in a full-hookup site for free also stretches the travel budget, freeing up cash for yummy food experiences!

We’ve learned a lot and have done some pretty neat stuff along the way, too. Did you know that the Golden-cheeked Warbler is the ONLY bird species that breeds exclusively in Texas?

In Andersonville at the POW museum, we helped visitors find the gravesites of Civil War ancestors.

Wreaths on gravestones at Andersonville National Historic SiteWreaths on gravestones at Andersonville National Historic Site

At the wildlife refuge in Austin, we taught 5th graders about bird nests — a subject we learned about just minutes before they did.

And at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina, we were privileged to stay overnight in the lighthouse keeper's quarters before closing it up for the season.

Sometimes you don’t get to do the job you agreed to do, as was the case one weekend in Oregon. Instead of selling firewood, we spent an afternoon tagging firepits and grills with “Fire Ban” tags. As the ones walking through the campground spreading the news of the ban, we became the de facto experts on wind, weather and campfire regulations in a matter of minutes.

Don't You Have to Clean Campground Toilets?

No. In the two years we’ve been doing this, only two positions required a toilet brush. One was a one-month gig at a beachside national park campground during the winter, and the other was a paid gig in California at a private campground. Vic got the short end of the brush on that one, as I just worked in the office answering the phones all day.

In looking for jobs, we’ve seen positions for checking in campers at the entrance kiosks, assisting boaters and paddlers at a boat ramp, leading hikes, helping wildlife techs count birds...the list is endless.

Donna and Vic volunteering as trail docentsDonna and Vic volunteering as trail docents

Where to Find Volunteer Gigs

We primarily use Volunteer.gov, a website that posts volunteer positions for national parks and reserves. Volunteering in state parks is a little less straightforward, as each state has their own volunteer program. Most states have volunteer positions listed somewhere on their website, sometimes in the employment section or the “Get Involved” section. My mother, a full-time workamper, will often call the particular state park she’s interested in and inquire directly.

There are also several short-term, one-off opportunities we’ve discovered. Because schedules haven’t lined up, we don’t have firsthand experience, but hope to eventually volunteer with HistoriCorps, Habitat for Humanity Care-A-Vanners, and A Year to Volunteer.

Know What Volunteer Projects Work for You

When you are searching for and negotiating volunteer opportunities, know what you want and why you are there. Be honest when asked why you are volunteering, picking that opportunity or that location. Is it the length of time you want to volunteer? The right location? Is it a scope of work that suits your interests?

Agencies who rely on volunteers want people who want to be there, and they want them to be happy. Make their job easy by letting them know your intentions up front.

Length of Time

In our experience, paid positions at private campgrounds and RV resorts prefer you to work a full season and may provide incentives for doing so or penalize you if you leave early. Depending on the location, this can mean three to six months. Some volunteer positions prefer six months or longer, but just as many will allow you commit to two weeks or less. It takes some work to find the right combination of location, commitment, scope of work and compensation.

Our sweet spot for being volunteers is about three months. Anything longer and it starts to feel tedious. Anything shorter and we feel like we might have missed out on something. But it really depends on what we are doing and where we are doing it.

The firewood host position in Oregon was a perfect one-month gig for us. Coming at the end of six weeks around the Pacific Northwest, there wasn’t much that we wanted to see or do outside of just being at the coast and the campground provided that with just a five-minute walk to the beach. The job was easy, and we didn’t mind that it was five days per week since it was only a four-hour shift in the late afternoon. The best part of all, was that we never missed a sunset — not even once!

The firewood cart at Cape Lookout State Park in OregonThe firewood cart at Cape Lookout State Park in Oregon

Location

Sometimes the location is the primary factor, and it just works out for convenience.

Last summer at a private campground in Felton, California, the one paid gig we did, and our longest yet at four months, our workdays were longer. However, we had evenings to enjoy dinners out or dancing on the pier and weekends to take day trips along the Northern California coast. Proximity to the Bay Area was why we applied for and accepted the position to start with.

Because of family commitments in Georgia leading into the holidays, we chose our last winter gig for convenience. We were just biding our time until the days grew longer and warmer and we started our travels again. And the work was indoors!

Next summer, we want to visit Maine as tourists. We’ve booked a campground stay for that and will fill in our travels up the coast with volunteer opportunities along the way.

Scope of Work

As volunteers, we are happy to be able to set boundaries for what we are willing to do in trade for a campsite. Not every situation is suitable for us, and we are not suitable for every situation. For every opportunity, we weigh the required hours, duties and the level of responsibility against the value of the campsite and our desire to be in that area. We joke that our ideal job is one with a variety of experiences requiring little skill, very little time and almost no responsibility.

Regardless of your boundaries and limitations, the key to a successful workamping arrangement is to know what is expected and what you get in return BEFORE you arrive. Getting it in writing can help if there are any conflicts. But more importantly, you should be prepared to walk away if, upon arrival, the conditions have changed unfavorably.

Our gig in Oregon turned out to require one day each week over what we anticipated, but it was still acceptable to us. We know other workcampers who arrived at a gig to find out their role was changed, and the hours increased. They packed up and left with no regrets.

Be Clear About Your Campsite Needs

Not all campsites are created equal. Just because it is a host site doesn’t mean it will fit your rig, especially in older state and national parks. Some facilities don’t have campgrounds and you are parked in random places on the property. Know the size of the site and how you access it, just as you would a campsite you paid for. We are always very explicit on our application that we have a tall 5th wheel and a very long truck towing it and that low branches, tight turns and narrow accesses aren’t generally suitable.

Donna’s 5th wheel parked at a Cape Lookout National Seashore campsiteDonna’s 5th wheel parked at a Cape Lookout National Seashore campsite

Our Favorite Volunteer Gig While Traveling

It’s hard to pick a favorite since we’ve enjoyed each one for its unique combination of location and opportunity. However, Cape Lookout National Seashore in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is a special place. It was the first place I was a resident volunteer, spending several months there each spring for several years before meeting Vic and going full-time in the RV. Knowing and loving the place, the people and the work made it easy to choose that for our first workamping gig and was ideal for learning how to live full-time in the RV. Vic became as enamored with the place as I’d been, and we look forward to returning there this spring, our first repeat location.

But first, we’ve managed to snag a volunteer experience in Kissimmee, Florida, working two days a week as Preserve Ambassadors while living full-time on the nature preserve. In Florida, in the winter! How sweet is that?

Next time you visit a national park or wildlife refuge, talk to the volunteers. You’ll be surprised how many are RV volunteers. Oh, and don’t ask them where they are from, ask them what fascinating thing they did that day!

Until next time, safe travels.

About Donna

Lippert Scouts Donna Weathers and Vic Mulieri are retired veterans who have been traveling the U.S. full-time for the past two years. They alternate their time between months-long volunteer gigs at state and national parks and road tripping in between those opportunities. Unencumbered by deadlines, pets or kids, they often have no idea what day it is and have forgotten how to set alarms. Their home on wheels is a 5th wheel toy hauler and they love exploring the outdoors, historic places and great restaurants wherever they visit. To follow Donna and Vic’s RV adventures, be sure to subscribe to Donna’s blog at wheretonowus.travel.blog.

Donna WeathersDonna Weathers