The problem with camping for free becoming the ‘baseline’

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By Andy Zipser
Owner, Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park

The problem with camping for free becoming the 'baseline'
Andy in his KOA garb, now gone along with his KOA franchise.

Reading the comments on this and other websites about boondocking, over-nighting in Wal-Mart parking lots and various other strategies to avoid putting money in our bank account,  I’m struck by the insistence that camping should be free — or if not free, at least really, really cheap. At such times, Oscar Wilde’s remark about “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing” comes to mind.


Don’t misunderstand me. I spent many years camping in the most rigorous sense, backpacking into remote areas for up to two weeks at a time. I’ve not infrequently slept in the back of our minivan at rest stops and in parking lots, most recently en route to seeing the solar eclipse in Tennessee. I’ve thrown a sleeping bag and small tent onto the back of my touring bicycle and reveled in the utter sense of freedom and mobility they gave me. And just to be really, really clear, I have absolutely no problem with campers spending the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

WHAT BOTHERS ME is when these perfectly acceptable means of saving a buck or of “roughing it” become a baseline against which all other options are measured. Instead of being viewed as a trade-off between cost and convenience, the minimalist approach becomes the new normal and anything requiring actual spending is a rip-off. And so we have campers who complain about spending $40 or $50 for a site, or who try to argue that they should get a price break because they won’t use the cable/wi-fi/swimming pool/amenity of their choice, or who proclaim that next time they’ll camp at the state park down the road, where they can get a “real deal.”

The problem with camping for free becoming the 'baseline'
Common headline theme these days.

Except we’re seeing how that’s worked out, with the penny-pinching “real deal” resulting in billions of dollars in deferred maintenance and crumbling infrastructure at state and national parks all across the country. Entrance and site fees everywhere are being jacked up because taxpayer support has evaporated, and how else will those expenses get covered? And so what was once a public good becomes a user-supported commodity, just as toll roads displace public highways and public museums charge “donations” for admission.

The fantasy that we can get something of value at minimal or no expense has many gradations, one of them being the public’s fascination with discounts. At Walnut Hills Campground, we announce right from the outset that the only discount we offer is for Good Sam cardholders, but that doesn’t deter the hard-core bargain hunters. I’m a senior citizen, some will persist, to which I reply, “So am I. And?” Others will play the military card, with its implication that this career choice is more worthy of a business’s recognition than those made by police officers, firefighters, inner city social workers or underpaid school teachers. The most extraordinary claim was made by a young Mennonite, who when asked why he should get the discount he was insisting was his due, replied, “Because we do good works.”

The problem with camping for free becoming the 'baseline'
The park lake.

Old folks, soldiers, Mennonites and people from all walks of life do all sorts of virtuous things, but none of that pays our bills. And while it may appear that a campground offers little more than a flat (sometimes) piece of dirt on which to park your motorcoach or fifth-wheel, there are in fact dozens of costs that go into making that dirt serviceable, and dozens more to provide the amenities that campers demand. Our electric bill runs to more than $5,000 a month in season, our insurance bill exceeds a thousand dollars a month, and it costs $1,200 each time we have our septic tanks pumped out. Refilling the swimming pool runs to more than $2,000. Dredging our lake—on which we already spend a thousand dollars a month for algae control—will run to six figures, which is why we haven’t done it yet. Installing a new wi-fi system, which we did take on, cost us $20,000. And on and on.

YET THE DISCOUNT MENTALITY is hard to avoid. One of its most egregious promoters is Passport America, which periodically woos us with the pitch that we’re simply losing money by having sites sit empty, so why not offer them at a 50% discount to its members? An online couple of brokers specializing in RV parks also hypes the program, conceding almost parenthetically, “Of course, the only problem for the RV park owner is the giant discount. However, if the lot is vacant otherwise, does that really matter?”

Yes, actually, it does. For one thing, our operating costs don’t diminish when we lower the price of admission — that $5,000/month electric bill won’t get smaller in deference to our discounted price, even as bargain-hunting campers use just as much electricity as the ones paying full freight. For another, any discounted item or service raises a question of value: if we can afford to sell something at half price, does that mean the full price is inflated? More to the point, does that mean the customer who pays full price is a fool?

Some campground owners, aware of this dynamic, play the game by inflating their base rates, then offering every possible kind of discount to ensure that almost everyone qualifies for one or another. The camper feels he/she got a deal, the campground owner gets what he needs, and everyone is happy. Other campgrounds may leave the base rate at an uninflated level and offer the usual discounts, but tack on all sorts of ancillary fees that quickly drive up a camper’s overall bill so it more than offsets the discounts. Either way, the campground is going to get what it needs—or it won’t, and the long-term result will be the kind of deterioration our state and national parks are experiencing.

As the country’s RV fleet keeps expanding, the number of added new RV campground sites is hardly keeping pace. You might think market economics would change the balance, with supply rising to meet demand, but the fact is that those spaces cost a lot to build—anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 a site if added to an existing campground. Build a campground from scratch and you’re looking at $25,000 to $30,000 a site for a Jellystone Park, while KOA advises prospective campground builders to budget $1.8 million to $2.25 million for a campground with 75 RV sites.

That’s a bunch of money to spend on a business vulnerable to an increasingly volatile climate, and anyone who makes the investment is going to expect a reasonable rate of return. One way to do that is to offer a quality experience and charge what it’s worth, notwithstanding the complaints about high prices and refusal to “make a deal.” Or there’s always the “budget” approach: build cheaply, jam in as many sites as possible, forgo maintenance, hire too few employees and pay them rock-bottom wages—and ignore the complaints about dirty facilities, surly workers and inoperative amenities.

It’s true that you don’t always get what you pay for. It’s also true that you’ll get what you’ve paid for if you’re paying next to nothing.

The Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park gets five stars from RVtravel. It’s one of the nicest campgrounds we’ve found in our travels around the USA. To be clear, the park does not comp our stays or advertise with us. We rate the park highly because we feel Andy and his crew should be commended for their dedication to providing an exceptional customer experience.

 

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Sharon Mathie

Well written and very true. All campgrounds, RV parks and RV resorts have a bottom line. Being new to the RV world, I appreciate the differences in the categories and choose the site that meets our needs. The pricing follows the amenities and location, so we expect to pay more close to a natural wonder that everyone else wants to see, too. But, for whatever I pay, I expect appropriate upkeep. I do not think Andy is blaming boondockers for anything, rather he sites the very real issue that the “paying nothing” mentality effects how we view the expense of camping at established parks. We should be so lucky to find a nice, well maintained camp site at a reasonable price. A price required to keep it that way.

Kevin

I agree with many who have already stated that as campground prices increase due to supply and demand, there will be a point where it is much cheaper to leave the RV at home and stay in motels. One campground near me has just this year increased their monthly start prices $100 Plus electricity. I’m wondering if we are in for a series of yearly increases? When will it level off? Time will tell.

Fernweh Ric

While I agree with many points you made I did a quick numbers crunch. $60 a nite × 365 days is $21,500 & now multiply that by 10 years $219,000 for only one spot. Multiply that by 60 sites and that’s 13,140,000 that’s an outstanding gross for that small pieces of retail space. Sign me up! That’s a god investment

Russ

I have no problem with paying $40-50 or more for a camp site, provided the RV park provides a full quality service in all regards. If I am in transit and only making a quick stop for sleep then I will try to get the cheapest site available that meets those needs. In 8 years of camping, I have only spent 1 night outside a truck stop and that was because there were no campgrounds available.
I have spent many nights at Walnut Hills and it is one of our favorite campgrounds but sometimes difficult to get into as it is fully booked. Only stopped there the first time because traffic was backed up on I81 and we ended up spending a week.. Liked it so much we go back often.

robert kelly

RV parks should increase profitability by adopting dynamic pricing as hotels chains do.

Martin

I just couldn’t resist making a comment concerning camping conditions, specifically at Walnut Hills. We have camped there on three different occasions. The last one will be the last time. I do rate the facility each time we use it, and the last one was so far from a 5, it was shameful. As usual, we had a reservation, and they knew we were a large motorhome. We were “stuck” on a true tiny site sharing water hookups with the camper beside us. it had rained hard a few days before we arrived, and we were in a mud pit. I was told by our neighbors that it was necessary for the camp owners to get the tractor to pull out the unit renting the site the night before we arrived. The neighboring campers said the site had over a couple of inches of water on the lot we got! We only stayed one night, and when we left, we left deep tire marks because our coach kept sinking down in the soft mud. We had asked for a different site, but were told there were none for our size coach. Needless to say, our coach needed special washing after being there, because we had to back out, and the mud slung all under the coach and on both sides. I guess according to Andy, I shouldn’t complain – I got the 10% KOA discount!

SFC Dennis R Strope, USA, RET

“Playing the military card” ? How denigrating-

Smithbrother

My camper I pull with my car. It is only 14 feet long yet I pay the same rate as a 40 foot RV with many slide outs. In addition comparing : A man who served in the military has a far better chance of death that does a fireman and especially a social worker. what a ludicrous example. Lastly why is it 450 /month but $50 /day. Yes daily rates are a huge ripoff. I plan my trips to include mostly Federal parks. which my taxes pay have already paid for.. The options for me, as well as many others, is not to save the money but to either go cheep or not afford to go at all. :

Clwpierce

We stopped at Walnut Hills on our way to the Hershey RV Show last year. It is an excellent campground and very convenient, with nice people. Well worth whatever they choose to charge!

Tom M

Its a free market, don’t like the fees don’t stay there. As for us we prefer state parks, with trails and nature, that’s why we camp and are willing to pay our share, and around here parks are paid for by hunting and fishing license fees not tax dollars. Overnight on the road we will camp Walmart, combined we gave them 40 years of our lives. Frankly, a lot of private campgrounds that emulate Chucky Cheese’s would have to pay us.

mike

$40-$50 a night would be a deal in Pa. Most sites around here are getting close to $70 a night. And I can see that if the place is a resort and everything is well kept. The problem I have with paying that is when the campground is unkept. Grass a foot high, water pressure low, low voltage, and the buildings behind the store are literally taped off with caution tape because they are falling over. Then they want $10 a day for wifi. This is what it’s like at a cg near me and they are $67 a night.
If it’s well kept and loaded with amenities, sure, I can see the higher cost.

James

Right now I am reading this from the bed of a motel. I have a perfectly fine motorhome sitting in my driveway 100 miles away. I will be working in this area for a week and a half, I really don’t need a pool and I’m not on vacation. This almost new Extended Stay location has everything I need including a kitchen with a full size refrigerator, Wi-Fi, full cable and cost less than any of the campgrounds in the area.

Eric Ramey

I appreciate a RV Park that offers a fair price, clean facilities and friendly workers. Also, after driving for a few hundred miles, I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to haggle for the cost of my site.

Thanks to all of the campground owner/operators out there…Keep building and expanding 🙂

OnWeGo

Nothing has any intrinsic worth. Not your house, your motorhome, your labor, or grandma’s flower vase from 1897, must less a campsite. All those items are worth what buyer is willing to pay and a seller is willing to accept. No more. No less.

Tens of millions of people have died, and millions more live in misery every day, because of people’s unwillingness to accept this basic principle of liberty.

“Gouging” can be translated as, “This resource is scarce and in high demand, so it commands more in a free market. However, fairness, whatever that means, must trump that, even at the cost of the freedom of all concerned.”

And then we wonder….

B McDonald

Good article and a business man side of owning a park. We are boondockers because we love the quiet, nature, no neighbors with RV lit up like Xmas. Plus what we do save boondocking we do not mind at all spending at nice RV Park if necessary.

Darrel

” I’ve not infrequently slept in the back of our minivan at rest stops and in parking lots” but don’t you DARE skip my RV park to sleep somewhere else for free or a discount.

LOL!!!

LarryD

Boondocking is a life style, so is being a cheap skate.
In our experience for every decent family owned RV park that manages their business in a cost effective way, providing a decent service at a cost they can make a living at, there 5+ more RV parks that are gouging travelers for the last who knows how many years with parks that are very much in need of updated services.
What goes around sooner or later comes around. I find it hard to believe that owning and operating an RV park when run efficiently can not provide a Family with a good steady income. We certainly know it’s going to be a while before there is a shortage of customers. Safe Travels.

TimL

My idea of RV travel is to just pick up an go, staying as long as I want in a location and then move on. Boondocking grants me that freedom. RV parks on the other hand, typically require reservations which assumes a set planned schedule. Being subject and slave to a schedule is not what appeals to me.

Retired firefighter Tom

Staying in a motel – as we’ve had to do when a family member’s death happens in winter in northern Wisconsin – is nothing like getting into your own RV bed. Take off your shoes in a motel room and walk with white socks to the bathroom and see what color the bottom of the socks is when you take them off. Why go millions of dollars into debt and build a campground? Because 99.9% of campers are great people and you enjoy meeting them. There’s always someone that you can never please – regardless of what you do for them.

Curtis Dowds

Probably all true as far as it goes. But explain to me why anyone with common sense would spend typically well north of $100K for a mini-home on wheels and then pay the equivalent of a Hotel 6 overnight for a park, when with a bit of skill in batteries, chargers and inverters, not to mention intelligent management of your tanks you can live on the road for months at a time. I hope your business thrives but you’re blaming “boondockers” for managing their costs. I’m missing the logic. Sure, every now and again a night in an RV Park makes sense on a trip. But no way I’m paying for a hotel on a regular basis when I’ve got a perfectly functional off-the-grid RV.