This is the deal. Spend a month or a summer in the woods of northern Idaho and enjoy an RV campsite for free. In exchange, you are expected to volunteer up to 24 hours a week. Since the usual fee for an RV campsite with hookups is $24 per night, that works out to $720 per month of free camping.
This bargain can be found at Priest Lake State Park in Idaho, but similar opportunities exist for volunteers at state parks throughout the West.
Lonnie Johnson, manager of Priest Lake State Park, said volunteers are essential for the state park system. Anyone who has tried to reserve a campsite in July or August knows that you must call months ahead because campgrounds fill up fast. All those campers require a permanent staff of rangers, seasonal employees, and a large number of volunteers (17 at Priest Lake) to ensure that the camping facilities are safe, adequate and clean.
Volunteers at Priest Lake help in many ways. Visitors need to be screened as they arrive to determine if they are day users or overnight campers. Tent campers and recreational vehicles must be sent to separate camp loops. Volunteers are needed to watch over each campsite loop, help visitors locate their sites, answer questions and explain and gently enforce park rules. (The rangers handle hard-core troublemakers or in extreme cases a county sheriff is called.) Campsites and fire pits need to be cleaned for the next visitors. Volunteers may be asked to help with day activities and evening programs.
Camp stores use volunteers to help the permanent staff restock shelves and run the cash register. Camping cabins must be cleaned and maintained. And there is a never-ending list of maintenance projects that may require work by volunteers as well as rangers and other employees.
Volunteers who serve as camp hosts are the park’s ambassadors. They greet visitors, hand out information, replace restroom supplies, clean campsites, pick up litter and inform rangers about potential problems. At Priest Lake, each volunteer receives a free campsite with hookups and a uniform consisting of a cap, shirt or vest, patch and nametag.
Hours of work vary and an eight-hour day is possible, but the rangers at Priest Lake try to limit work to 24 hours a week. They want volunteers to have time to experience the area’s trails, lake and other features for enjoyment and also to equip themselves to answer questions from campers.
Volunteers are needed and used in all northern Idaho state parks, including Priest Lake, Farragut, Heyburn, Old Mission and Round Lake. The four rangers at Priest Lake need all the help they can get with 151 campsites, five camping cabins, a store and a group camp with thousands of visitors each year.
Short work hours and days off give volunteers plenty of free time for outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, water skiing and boating.
Just as it is advisable to reserve campsites early, volunteers also need to apply early to get the park assignment they would like. Volunteer in the spring and you could have a summer stay in a premier campground.
There is some benefit to first visiting the park where you would like to volunteer. If you walk into the park office and inquire about opportunities for volunteering, you will be told how to apply and chances are you will meet one of the people who would train you.
You can find detailed information on volunteer positions at Idaho State Parks and Recreation online, and you can print out a two-page application form. The screening process includes a criminal background check.
Other states also have websites that offer information on volunteering at state parks, including arrangements that offer free campsites for RVers. Here is a list of websites and contact numbers:
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Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.