Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
Volunteer camp hosts in Washington build strong connections with the campers and campgrounds they serve. | By Cassandra Overby
There’s a small spot of forest 15 miles up the West Chewuch Road near Winthrop, Washington, that Shannon Cramer and her husband, Ron, call home 4 months a year. Although they’ve spent every camping season of the last 7 years there, it’s a place they’ve loved for much longer.
“My husband grew up walking these hills,” Shannon said. “This is the area I went to as a teenager. As a mother, I brought my children here, and my grandchildren are still coming, so it’s very dear to my heart.”
Shannon and her husband aren’t just any campers. They don’t have to pay for their RV spot, and they aren’t subject to any time limitations in the campground. Instead, they’re the face of the campground, the first people folks encounter when they drive in to start their vacation, the experts who share the best fishing spots and trails with visitors — they’re volunteer campground hosts with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
If you’ve ever driven into a campground and been met by folks in an RV who are so well set up, they seem to be permanent residents, you’ve probably met volunteer campground hosts like Shannon and Ron. Programs like the one run by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest can be found all over the nation. The programs were rolled out decades ago as a way for resource-stretched public lands to expand their capacity through low-cost work exchanges.
“(Our volunteer campground host program is) a huge asset to us,” said Suzanne Cable, recreation, trails and wilderness program manager for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. “It multiplies our workforce and allows us to have a presence in campgrounds where we otherwise wouldn’t. Our hosts are often people that really just love interacting with other people, so they’re great ambassadors for us and provide a service for us that we wouldn’t be able to provide, which is great on the visitor-contact side of things, just getting to welcome visitors and answer their questions and provide better service overall for the people staying in our campgrounds.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Cindy Jorgensen, retired volunteer program manager for Washington State Parks.
“(Volunteer campground hosts) free the park rangers up to be able to do higherlevel things,” Cindy said. “Our hosts don’t clean bathrooms but they’ll go in and change toilet paper, that kind of thing. If our rangers are out there doing that kind of stuff, then projects and other things aren’t getting done.”
Although each program is different, the idea is the same: Volunteer campground hosts provide an official presence at campgrounds, answer questions for campers and do basic maintenance like cleaning out fire pits and picking up trash for an agreed-upon period of time, usually weeks to months, although some programs in warmer states utilize volunteer campground hosts year-round. In return, hosts get a free place to live, including free utilities like water and electricity, and occasionally extra perks like a uniform, mileage reimbursement and even a stipend.
Volunteer campground host programs attract a wide variety of people, from digital nomads to teachers on summer break to retired couples looking for adventure. As different as they are, most of them agree on one thing — although the free place to live may be part of the initial draw, a big part what keeps them coming back to their posts year after year, as many do, is the pride they feel in taking good care of what quickly becomes their campground.
“We’re very possessive,” laughed Joy Cowan, who along with her husband, Tim, has been hosting at Fort Worden State Park for the last 14 years. “It’s our campground while we’re there and we take a certain amount of pride in keeping (it) clean.”
“Our philosophy as camp hosts is to keep (the campground) as clean as we’d want or expect it to be if we came in and were to camp there,” said Tim.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Shannon. “I (like making) sure that the area I love is clean and well taken care of,” she said. “I’ve even had poetry written about my bathrooms. I’ve been christened the colonel of the urinal. I’m kind of proud of that. I always tell everybody, you want to camp in my campground because I have the cleanest bathrooms on the Chewuch.”
While pride is powerful, there’s an even greater force that draws hosts to their campgrounds year after year: the friendships they make as they go about their volunteer duties. “We have lots of friends we’ve met through the years that we stay in touch with,” Joy said. “And we’ve become good friends with rangers. That’s another reason we keep going back to Fort Worden each year — it’s because we like everyone so much.”
“There are (campers) who return year after year,” Tim said. “After a while, you know who they are by sight and they know who you are, so you can carry on conversations and sometimes go out to lunch. It’s more like a home away from home.”
According to Shannon, from the pride of caretaking to the friendships you make along the way, there’s no better job than being a volunteer campground host — especially when it comes to after-hours.
“After I’m done with my job, I just visit,” she said. “I can hike ... I go down and jump in the river every couple of hours when I get too hot. I have 5 or 6 hours a week that I have to take care of the camp, but I live there, so I spend a lot more time there than that ... If you like being out in the wilderness, it’s a great thing to do. Just great.”
Although there are volunteer campground host programs all over the nation, thanks to the abundance of public lands in Washington, we’re especially blessed with opportunities to host.
And because the two most established hosting programs in the state — run by the U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Parks — have such a variety of campgrounds to offer, someone looking for a post, whether in the forest or on the coast, on the east side or the west, can usually be matched to a location.
“We have 120ish state parks (alone),” Cindy said. “There are always openings.”
Depending on the program you choose, the application process can look different, but in general it involves filling out an application that includes information on who you are and what kind of hosting opportunity you’re most interested in, submitting your fingerprints and undergoing a background check. Once you’ve been cleared to volunteer, your application will be forwarded to the ranger or person in charge of hiring volunteers for the location(s) you expressed interest in.
At the more popular campgrounds, where experienced hosts accumulate unofficial seniority and return to their posts year after year, it can often take some time to get a placement. But if you’re flexible with where you’re willing to host, or the volunteer position you’re willing to accept, the process can go much more quickly. Joy and Tim, who host at the very popular Fort Worden State Park, first volunteered in the gift shop. During that initial season, they got to know the rangers and the park, which led to them being called up as hosts the following summer. They’ve been in the fort’s rotation of hosts ever since, working from 2 to 4 months a year since 2007.
In addition to being flexible with where you’ll host and what you’ll do, there are a couple of other things you can do to increase your odds of becoming a volunteer campground host. Applying early is one of them. Although most programs accept applications on a rolling basis, you can typically start applying in the fall for the next camping season. By doing this, you’ll be first in line — and top of mind — for any open positions.
The other thing you can do is dedicate your first season to just getting your foot in the door and gaining campground host experience any way and anywhere you can. Choose a campground that’s not very popular (for example, people don’t always want to camp in Eastern Washington in the high heat of summer) or be open to a last-minute posting to replace someone who has to back out of their hosting responsibilities partway through the season.
Once you have some — any — experience on your volunteer campground host resume, you’ll be much more attractive to program administrators. And for certain programs, just being listed in their system as an active or past volunteer gets you access to resources that can make it much easier to be hired in the future. Washington State Parks, for example, has a private Facebook page for their volunteer campground hosts, where they advertise open positions and connect volunteers with rangers across the state.
Regardless of where and how you choose to apply for your first volunteer campground host position, there is so much to look forward to: the pleasure of getting to know a campground as only someone who lives there can, the pride of helping others experience the place you love, the joy of watching your friendships with rangers and your fellow campers blossom more fully year after year.
If you’re even considering it, Joy said, “Go for it.”
“(Especially) if you’re looking for a mixture of camping and being out and doing a little bit of work,” Tim added. “It’s rewarding. Most people who host enjoy what they do and the experience.”
Volunteer time commitment: 1–3 months
More information: Details and applications
Where to apply: Email applications to parks at email@example.com
Application process involves: Application, fingerprints, background check U.S.
Volunteer time commitment: Full camping season (typically May-September)
More information: Contact the specific district you’re interested in applying with (some districts hire via a concessionaire)
Where to apply: If hiring directly, and not via a concessionaire, most forest districts post opportunities. You can create an account, search for opportunities and apply online. You can also contact the specific district you’re interested in applying with for information. Check out a free online training program for U.S. Forest Service campground hosts
Application process involves: Paper or online application, references, interview, background check (sometimes)
Note: Volunteer campground hosts are not expected to deal with any potentially dangerous or negative situations with or among campers. In those cases, hosts are asked to call on rangers or local law enforcement.