Seasoned volunteers describe what’s involved in this experience.
By Terri Blazell-Wayson
Pull into any state or national park campground and you’re bound to be greeted by a camp host. It may be easy to take them for granted, but they play a vital role when it comes to enjoyment of one’s camping experience. Most volunteer their time in exchange for a free campsite during their stay.
Recently, I caught up with two couples who have 35-plus years of camp hosting experience between them.
As lifelong lovers of Yosemite National Park, FMCA members Vinnie and Mary Kay DeFalco, F309209, began camping at Yosemite’s Upper Pines Campground with their children in 1973. They progressed from a tent to a Volkswagen pop-top van, and finally to a 2002 Beaver Monterey motorhome. Over the years, they came to know the camp hosts and learned how the hosts facilitated their family’s enjoyment of the park.
When the DeFalcos bought their motorhome, in their own words, “We wanted to give back.” Within months of submitting their paperwork to the National Park Service, they were on the job. As Vinnie noted, “RV experience is not a requirement, but loving the park is.”
Fifteen years later, their smiling, friendly faces and matching vests have become a fixture in Yosemite every April through June. But they paid their dues, working through frigid Februarys and maniacal Marches before earning their coveted spot during the most beautiful time of the year.
Bob and Doreen Hanna started out in a tent camper with their children before working their way up to a fifth-wheel. After retirement, they spent four years RVing for six months of the year and then became full-time RVers, which they’ve done for the past 16 years. These 21-year veterans of the campground have hosted in a variety of facilities, including Yosemite National Park, Morro Bay State Park, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, and New Brighton State Beach in California, as well as Silver Falls State Park in Oregon.
Both couples were happy to answer a few questions about their camp hosting experiences.
Q: What are some of your responsibilities as a camp host?
Doreen: Each park is unique, with its own special needs. Here at Brighton Beach, we do a morning check and a noon check of all 111 sites, which takes about 1½ hours; then we sell wood at 4:00. They give us a golf cart to drive around in. Not all parks do that. It depends on the size. We’ve cleaned sites when people have left. We’ve cleaned fire pits. We take campers out and help them get to know the parks. We’ve even served hot cocoa and marshmallows.
Vinnie: We work in the kiosk and check the sites. I check in the visitors and make sure they know about proper food storage, and the rules and regulations. We’re usually available at our site after hours, too. We don’t have to do cleaning and maintenance.
Mary Kay: At the kiosk, we check everyone in who has a reservation. We get a list every day. Retired people over 62 get a 50 percent discount. You have to know what you’re doing, but I love it. I love welcoming the people, and there is a lot of work to it, but I don’t see it as work. My role is making sure people know where they are going and putting them in their right spots. There are 240 sites to keep track of. Vinnie goes and does all the other stuff. Vinnie is more gregarious. I’m the bookkeeper.
Bob: It’s just the opposite for us. Doreen is the people person. She’s the one who gives the “bear talk.” I do the paperwork.
Q: Do you have to commit to a certain length of stay?
Doreen: That varies from park to park. Morro Bay wants a commitment of six months. In Brighton Beach, it’s no more than three months. Some are month-to-month. All places have a host coordinator. Our first year, we stayed at McArthur-Burney Falls from Mother’s Day through the middle of October. That was too long to be in one place.
Vinnie: We stay in Yosemite for three months at a time, but they prefer only two-month stays. We were grandfathered in because of our longevity.
Q: Do you share the responsibilities with other people, or are you on your own?
Mary Kay: In Yosemite, we have a whole support team. We work 20 to 25 hours a week, and we get two days off, but there is always a knock on the door and someone asking questions even when it’s our off time. We have a head host who is a ranger and other rangers who work with us in the kiosk. And they have a lot of respect for us because we volunteer.
Doreen: Yes. There’s a whole team. There are many ways to volunteer at a campground that don’t involve hosting. Some do the recycling. Some work in the visitors center. Some walk the trails.
Bob: There are two camp hosts in our current park. We each work three days on/four days off; then we switch the next week and work four days on/three days off.
Vinnie: There are people who come in and service the bathrooms; there’s people who teach about the wildlife; there’s even a church and the people who run that. It’s very special, and you get very close. There are four of us here at our campground, and we have nine hosts in Yosemite who are in different campgrounds. We stay in good communication with each other and support each other any way we can. We have an office staff of rangers and law enforcement.
Q: What kind of problems have you run into?
Vinnie: With 240 campsites, there’s always a few campers who like to push the limits. Alcohol-related issues are a common one. If there is any trouble, we determine if we have to call law enforcement. If we do, they are here in five minutes. We don’t put ourselves in jeopardy. A camp host can’t enforce the rules — law enforcement writes the tickets. If someone is running their generator after hours, I’ll handle that. We’ll remind folks to observe proper food storage; things like that.
Mary Kay: At 5:30 one morning, a bear got into a bear box and pulled out steaks. (It hadn’t been locked properly.) Bears have even broken into RV storage compartments and stolen food. We had a situation today — a sow with two babies. They are very dangerous when they have their babies with them. We call the rangers and they come right out. You can be fined if you don’t observe proper food storage. It’s a major violation, because of the danger. We go around and warn people first, and if they don’t listen and don’t lock up their food properly, that’s when the rangers are called out. It’s a $125 fine here. Even raccoons have been known to open the tents.
Doreen: A tree fell on a tent once in Yosemite. A 3-year-old girl (in the tent) slept right through it, but she was lucky. Another time, a tree fell and hit a pop-up trailer. The parents were on one side and the kids on the other. It went right down the middle and no one got hurt, but the fire department had to cut open the trailer to get everyone out.
Bob: When we were in North Pines, the creek and a river merged, creating an eddy. People would be rafting and get caught in it. The water just swirls in a big circle and you can’t get out of it. We had to send in rescuers in wet suits and ropes to haul them out.
Q: Is it all volunteer work?
Doreen: Yes. We don’t get paid, but we get a free full-hookup spot. Some hosts consider it a full-time job, but we don’t.
Mary Kay: We get a lot of satisfaction in volunteering. The more you give, the more you receive. It’s a giving process. We view it as helping all of our visitors have an enjoyable time in Yosemite. They come back and remember us year after year. We view ourselves as ambassadors of the park.
Q: What type of person would make a good camp host?
Mary Kay: It is best working as a couple, because we’re so busy. But couples need to get along and enjoy what they do. They can’t be too shy or be know-it-alls or have an attitude problem. They have to be easygoing and have some elasticity. They have to love the park, too. If the first question a potential camp host asks is, “Do I get a free spot?” that’s a red flag. You have to love being around people and helping people.
Vinnie: You have to be open to learning, and you must follow the rules. You have to be realistic about your people skills. That’s what this job is all about — the people. Some folks don’t have realistic expectations about this being a job. You need to be willing to offer after-hours support, too.
We like to talk to people and see them enjoy the park. Our longevity here helps. We’ve seen it all, so we can spend more time hosting. We don’t have as great a need to go out hiking and exploring. Retiring helps a lot, too! We have the time. I’m not able to hike these trails like I did a few years ago when our kids were young. If you start when you are in your 50s, you’ll have a lot more time to enjoy this than if you wait until you’re 70.
Q: What happens when RVers have service issues?
Doreen: You can always call someone. There are service centers nearby. Even smaller rural campgrounds will have a mobile guy who comes out. Most parks will have a phone number and address of someone who you can contact.
Mary Kay: We have a garage in the village with specialists. So, our RVers can get service if they need it. Last year, our step wouldn’t go back in, and we had to have someone come out and help. The garage in the village has house batteries in case one goes dead and (a road service) will also come out and jump a battery. We get propane service, too.
If it’s a major RV issue, they’ll call the dealer and sometimes he can walk them through it and resolve it over the phone. Right now, we have a situation with an RV that’s missing a part, and it’s not going to get here until this week. If someone is stuck here because of a service issue that can’t get resolved right away, we don’t kick them out if it is past their time to stay.
Q: You mentioned filling out an application. What type of questions are asked?
Vinnie: Knowledge about the park. What can you contribute? What would make you a good volunteer?
Mary Kay: Why do you want to be a camp host? What draws you to this particular place? They want to know how much you love the place.
Vinnie: And there’s all the usual questions that you’re asked for any application, plus there is a background check.
Q: What are some of the best things about being a camp host?
Doreen: Once while we were walking through the campground in Yosemite, an elderly lady was sitting at a table. She asked if I would sit with her and talk to her. The rest of her family had gone on a hike and she was lonely. I spent about 20 minutes talking with her and it made her day.
Mary Kay: We see a lot of families with babies. They come back every year and make this a part of their tradition. We see the little ones grow up. It’s very special. This year, we’ve noticed more newcomers than ever before. When they leave, they make a point to stop and say good-bye. They tell us they’re going to see us again next year, and they do!
Bob: A few years ago, there was a devastating fire in Oregon. People lost everything. A lot of them ended up at the campgrounds, because they had nowhere else to stay. One guy in a van said that he was lucky because he was able to save his goldfish. It was the only thing he had left.
Vinnie: We have fourth-graders who can come to the park with their families for free. It’s a part of [the U.S. government’s Every Kid In A Park program]. We’re developing a new generation of campers. Once a first-timer comes, it’s hard to stay away. On the trail you hear languages from all over the world. We just checked in three campers from Germany and someone from Latvia. It’s just amazing.
Mary Kay: We’ve met people from all over the world and all over the U.S. We’re excited that they’re going to see [Yosemite] for the first time. We love to share the park with them. “See this waterfall.” “Go on this hike.” They come back and they are just wowed.
Q: What would you say are some of the disadvantages to being a camp host?
Mary Kay: [Laughs] Getting up early in the morning. Having a regular work schedule when you’re used to retirement and setting your own hours. Also, late-night knocks on the door.
Doreen: I hate getting up early in the morning. Usually, I have to get up at 6:30 so we can do a morning check at 7:30.
Vinnie: You’re in the middle of your meal and someone has a dead battery. But the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages! People are out walking, animals are all around, you sit around a campfire and share stories, laugh, roast marshmallows. There’s something intimate about it that’s indescribable.
There are many ways to volunteer at a campground. Camp hosting is just one of them. Each park is different and will have varied needs, but some of the ways you can volunteer include: cleaning fire pits, picking up litter, checking out nonindigenous plants, working in the visitors center, and even fund-raising. State and national parks have their own volunteer office. To get started, contact the office at the park where you are most interested in volunteering. Or do an online search using the words “Camp Host” or “Volunteer” along with the name of the park. FMC