By Tim Slack
Growing up – and as grown-ups – my wife and I relished the outdoors: the mountains in California or Colorado, deserts in the Southwest, grasslands in the middle American states. Wherever we lived, we loved getting outside, whether day-hiking, backpacking for days or traveling with a small RV. As we planned our retirement, we wanted to continue to roam this country while giving back as an expression of our joy and appreciation of our public lands.
Living an RV life doesn’t require a large bankroll. It’s very possible to work or volunteer while traveling. We first thought of RV campground hosting and tried it at a private campground on the West Coast but weren’t very satisfied. It wasn’t close enough to nature and it didn’t promote the lands we had so enjoyed.
We next chose an Oregon state park, which was beautiful in itself but also gave us a taste of staffing a visitor center – answering guest questions, providing information about the area, exchanging stories with fellow travelers. We really liked that diversity and immediately narrowed our search to visitor center positions.
This placed us in a matrix of county, regional, state and national parks, almost all of which have official visitor centers and are happy to trade a few days of volunteering for a full hookup site, commonly within the park itself.
The challenge is how to decide where to work. And for which agency? We decided to prioritize what environment we wanted to explore, as well as what month or season would be best for us to be there, while paying attention to distance and direction of one to the next (we didn’t want to randomly crisscross the country).
Researching several websites (listed below), we put out some applications and pieced together our first year. Then did the same the following year, then the next … and we are still doing it going on eight years full-timing now.
We’ve worked nearly two dozen exciting, fun and rewarding positions: for the U.S. Forest Service in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho; Nature Conservancy properties in Arizona and Florida; U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Wildlife Refuges in North Carolina, Indiana and Kentucky; several coastal parks for Oregon Parks Department; two Arizona State parks; one Maricopa County park; and a couple winters for Boyce Thompson Arboretum, a wonderful nonprofit outdoor arid plants acreage outside Phoenix.
By providing our labor to these organizations we free up paid staff, save the agencies money, and we get to learn about and experience some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
But money can be an issue without a bankroll to start with. Costs for fuel, maintenance, laundry, RV sites while in transit from one position to another all add up. So from time to time, we also accepted two paid positions. Both of us met the criteria of supporting public lands, being fascinating places to work, providing a free or low-cost FHU site, and paying a fair wage. One summer we worked on the South Rim for Grand Canyon Association, and another summer for Grand Teton Association at the Jackson, WY, visitor center.
Each person or couple will have their own set of guidelines or requirements for where they’d like to work and positions they’d like to have or be willing to accept. You need to figure out that part by yourself – you have control of what you do by what you apply for and what you accept – whether it’s about a wage to replace travel expenses or volunteering to help run a park or a campground.
Use these resources to begin to narrow your choices:
Volunteer.gov – A website listing volunteer positions for local, county, state or federal properties or agencies. Many will have RV pads or alternate housing options; some won’t, so check carefully.
(your chosen state)parks.org (or some variation thereof) – A site specific to a state’s Park and Recreation opportunities, generally volunteering, generally providing RV pads; but again, check carefully.
Nature.org – The website for The Nature Conservancy, a world-wide nonprofit working to save habitat in the interest of preserving diversity of plant and animal life on the planet. Also houses their Legacy Club, a donor-sponsored fund committed to their preservation goals.
Workamper.com – An organization dedicated to helping people get the best out of their RVing experience, offering employers a venue to advertise jobs and job-seekers a venue to list their resume. A mix of paid and volunteer positions, some including housing or RV pads.