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Car Culture: Camping can be a working vacation

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

Lucky enough to enjoy a road trip this summer? Tooling along unfamiliar highways, seeing new sights, meeting interesting people, enjoying nature sites and museums and adventures?

For anyone who’s ever thought “Gee, I’d like to live like this all the time,” there is one intriguing way to do pretty much just that.

Known as work camping, it’s where travelers trade seasonal labor at campgrounds and the like for a place to park, utilities and sometimes a small wage.

Deborah and Larry Irwin, formerly of Clarkston, surprised some people when they retired from their white-collar auto industry jobs a few years ago, emptied the family homestead, rented it out and hit the road in a fifth-wheel travel trailer.

They’re employed as one of three work camping couples at the KOA campground in Oscoda and have fallen in love with the lifestyle, Deborah Irwin said.

“I was afraid of retiring and sitting around letting my mind turn to mush,” she said, and finds that the 20-hour-per-week work schedule gives life just enough structure while leaving plenty of time for bicycling, canoeing, walks on the beach or just hanging out.

“We do whatever we want — and a couple of winters we’ve work camped in Florida; this coming winter I’m going to work camp in Texas,” said Irwin.

As at most campgrounds, workers at the Oscoda KOA sign on for an entire season. They handle guest check-in and other office work, run the camp store, clean cabins, rest rooms and laundry areas, perform outdoor maintenance “and basically whatever needs doing,” said Robin Eller, who with her husband, son and daughter-in-law owns and operates the Oscoda KOA. “There’s always something new every day.”

Some of Eller’s staff put in their 20 hours in exchange for a camp site and hookups for water, sewer, electricity and cable TV. They also get free propane, a discount at the camp store and free use of the laundry. Others work a full 40 hours a week and get a wage for the second 20 hours.

The Irwins figure that work camping saves them about $3,400 in campsite costs over the course of the April-October season; along with winter work camping down south that’s a sizeable dent in daily living expenses. And because they joined a KOA membership program for work campers, they get up to five nights of free lodging when they’re traveling between KOA campground gigs.

Still, would-be work campers do need a fairly solid financial foundation — you’re not going to pay off a $50,000 RV loan doing chores for 20 hours a week on the road. Many work campers are experienced RVers who already own, debt-free, a rig and tow vehicle; others use savings or the proceeds from the sale of their house to get set up for life on the road.

Some keep a home base, others completely unfetter themselves. Health insurance portability and other practical matters must be addressed, as well, and fuel costs aren’t cheap when you’re towing your home behind you.

But persistence and determination — along with smaller travel trailers and shopping for used equipment — can make work camping an attainable goal for people of modest means. One solo nomad, Michele LaForest Gray, writes in her recent work camping memoir “Little Big Life” about cashing in modest retirement accounts and outfitting herself on a shoestring budget.

What was intended to be a temporary journey a few years ago turned into a beloved lifestyle; Gray has worked at campgrounds in a number of states and currently has a gig as a tour guide at a large animal rescue facility in Utah. (Unlike the jobs she describes in her book, the guide position isn’t a work camping post but her mobile lifestyle made it possible to jump on a dream job when it opened up.)

Many national and state parks employ work campers, and Amazon.com hires seasonal RVers for its “Camperforce” that staffs distribution centers in the busy pre-Christmas months. Some non-profits enlist work campers to do public service projects in exchange for camp sites.

For more information:

■ Workamper News, job listings and other resources are available at www.workamper.com, and while the term “workamper” is trademarked, it’s a widely used search phrase that will lead you to other useful information.

■ The www.RV.net website operates a well-trafficked message forum that includes a discussion board specifically for work campers.

■ At www.KOA.com, the network of campgrounds explains its work camping policies, and for those interesting in working at public parks, www.camphost.org offers plenty of info. Www.CoolJobs.com lists some posts for RVers, too. And if you have a special interest, skill or favorite attraction, do some web searching; I found oddball work camper job ads at places ranging from a railroad history museum in California to a theme park in Iowa to a sugar beet harvest in North Dakota.

The roving employees and their managers say work camping is a win-win for both sides.

“The advantage for us is that they care about the park — it’s their home,” said Eller. “And every work camper we’ve had has become a lifelong friend.”

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@melissapreddy.com