SPOKANE, Wash. — In the field of RV camping, Susan and Larry Dach are pros.
Since retiring in 2008, the Dachs have made a fifth wheel their full-time home in campgrounds across the USA.
“This winter we were in California, on a beach with 70 acres of campground in a beautiful neighborhood we’d never be able to afford to live in,” Larry said.
To make ends meet, they arrange for free campsites and utilities for six to eight months a year by volunteering as campground hosts.
They’re camping this summer just north of Spokane, where they both were raised.
The Dachs, both in their 50s, are hosts at Dragoon Creek Campground managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. Duties include locking the gate at night and opening it the morning, checking for Discover Passes on vehicles and reporting violations.
“We’re observers, not enforcers,” Susan said, noting that the main thing agencies want is their presence at the camp. “We help educate campers and explain the rules, but we call enforcement if needed.”
“This has been our lifestyle, and a way to stay retired,” Larry said as he relaxed on a lawn chair with the barbecue nearby and their bicycles next to the covered picnic table on their one-acre host site.
They had just finished the required first-aid training. The Washington State Patrol did a background check before they were assigned.
The Dachs are accustomed to the requirements that vary from state to state and park to park. It’s part of their routine for settling into one delicious campsite for a few months before traveling a month or two and settling down again.
In January they start applying for host slots with state and national parks and line up their year in carefully researched locations.
“Arizona campground host jobs in particular are in high demand during winter,” Larry said. “We like Zion National Park (Utah) in the fall, but you have to pay attention. Nearby Bryce Canyon looks just as inviting, but it’s at 8,000 feet elevation, where it can snow in October while it’s nice down in Zion at 4,000 feet.”
Being campground hosts didn’t occur to the couple when they first hit the road.
“Right after we retired, we traveled the United States coast to coast,” Susan said. “That was our plan and we sort of got that out of our system.
“When you’re traveling, you see areas superficially. When you stay put, you have time to explore the area more thoroughly, meet people, get tips from locals, discover trails — and restaurants.”
They were hunkered for the fall in Zion that first year and, while moving from campground to campground to avoid the 14-day time camping limit, they got to know several campground hosts and park staff.
“They asked if we’d fill in for a host who had to leave suddenly,” Susan said. “We tried it and liked it.”
Next they were asked to fill a short-term opening at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, where their greeting party included Border Patrol commandos who burst from the brush with assault weapons.
“We were taking a little walk and they mistook us for undocumented aliens,” Larry said.
Nevertheless, the Dachs realized that campground hosting was their ticket to full-time camping.
“With fuel more expensive and campsites fees going up — $40-45 a night with hookups in California state parks and $28 in Oregon — the costs add up fast,” Larry said.
After their substitute term at Organ Pipe, the Dachs were in the loop.
“We had good references and it was easier to apply and get a host spot,” Larry said.
Campground host duties vary.
“At sites managed by concessionaires, the hosts are paid but they have more responsibilities and duties, like cleaning restrooms,” Larry said.
Agencies that manage their own campgrounds have maintenance crews.
The Dachs have enjoyed host sites where their duties were minimal, such as the season at Big Lake on Oregon’s Santiam Pass.
“Our schedule: Check in campers in the morning, hike all day, check in campers at night and sell firewood, go to bed. Repeat,” Susan said.
They enjoy big campgrounds that have two or more campground hosts.
“You can work things out to have one host cover so you can take a week off to do something special,” Larry said.
As their campgrounds become temporary homes, they always find volunteer projects.
At one California park, Larry used his gardening skills to prune trees that hadn’t been tended in years.
Back in California the next winter, he took on clearing a 2.5-mile bike trail that hadn’t been maintained in eight years.
“I worked on it a little here and there all season,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to leave a place better than you found it.”
Even though they’re on the go every few months, they make lasting friends among park staffs and other campground hosts.
“Since campground hosts have similar lifestyles, we meet up all over the country,” Susan said.
Overall, the campground hosting experience “has been 99 percent positive,” she said before looking at Larry and chuckling. “Well, maybe 97 percent positive.”
One of the quirky things they’ve noticed is that campers are reluctant to knock on their door when they need something.
“They tend to stand by the window and yell to get our attention,” Susan said. “I made a sign that says, ‘Campground host on duty. Please knock on door.’?”
Pets can be a problem at many campgrounds, but they’re not allowed at Dragoon Creek.
So far, they’ve rolled smoothly over every pothole campground hosting has presented.
“We made a clean break when we retired,” Larry said. “Our dog had just died and our son had a job in Pullman and moved into our house with the two cats.”
“We told our son we’d see him in four years,” Susan said. “Six years later, he’s still in Pullman and we’re still on the road.”