Are you curious about what it’s like being a camp host? Kathi and Tim Noble are avid campers and hikers from New York, who volunteered for the first time as camp hosts this spring. They spent a month volunteering for the U.S. Forest Service at Sherando Lake Recreation Area.
How did they find this opportunity? The Nobles utilized resources like volunteer.gov.
Sherando Lake Recreation Area is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 65-site campground offers hiking, fishing, and swimming. Beyond the grounds are wineries, historical landmarks, and the winding Blue Ridge Parkway that connects Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks.
We asked Kathi and Tim to tell us about what it’s like being a camp host.
Why did you decide to become camp hosts? Why did you choose the location you did?
Tim: We liked the area, so when we were looking into being camp hosts, we put areas down that we liked, and locations that weren’t too far to tow our camper. [Blue Ridge Mountains] was about as far as I wanted to go, and we just started looking to see who was looking for hosts and found [Sherando Lake Recreation Area].
Kathi: We’ve been going down to Shenandoah National Park in the fall for a few years now. We like Shenandoah, and this is just a little bit south of it so we figured we’d maybe explore more in the Blue Ridge Mountains instead.
What was your camp set up like?
Tim: It was a big site and all of the sites are on pea gravel, so there’s absolutely no mud. They’re all leveled… you don’t have to set up blocks on one side and dig a hole on the opposite side to try and even your camper out. It was an easy setup.
We had a canopy on the front of our camper, a big picnic table, a bear box, a pop-up tent, and a screened-in porch.
Kathi: I thought we’d need [the screened-in porch] a lot for bugs, but it wasn’t buggy at all that time of year. We also had a hammock that we put up between some trees. The site had full hookups, so we had electricity, water, and sewer.
What were some of your necessities for a month of camping?
Tim: This is the first time we ever camped with full hookups. We’re used to just dry camping. For necessities, it’s just the usual stuff like a sewage hose and a water line.
Kathi: We bought a filter for our water line, which we never had.
Tim: We bought a breaker that we plugged our camper’s electric cord into, and that breaker into the outlet because at most campgrounds they’re grounded, so if there’s a bolt of lightning or something it can short your camper out. That’s a lot of money, and these things [breakers] are over a hundred bucks, but it’s way cheaper than replacing all of the wiring in your camper.
In addition to a breaker, the Nobles also recommended using a surge protector.
Were you the only camp hosts in your campground or were there other volunteers?
Tim: There were three loops; our loop, White Oak Loop (loop A), was the biggest one. It had a lower part and a hill. There’s one guy at the lower part, and that’s where the big bath house was. We had 18 sites in the upper part, and he had 17. For the other two loops, there was one couple for each loop.
Kim: There was a group area that had another host for group camping.
Did you socialize with the other camp hosts?
Kathi: Yes, they’re all nice people.
Tim: We were the only rookies.
Kathi: One couple had been doing it since the ‘90s—they were well into their 80s.
Tim: Since 1994. They had a big fifth wheel too.
What is the average amount of time people volunteer for?
Tim: The campground likes a minimum of 4 weeks. Some other campgrounds ask you to be there the whole season. That’s another reason why we chose this one.
What was your day-to-day like and what were your responsibilities?
Kathi: We had Wednesdays and Thursdays off.
Tim: The other camp host in our loop, Brian, had Mondays and Tuesdays off. So everyone had to work the weekends because that’s the busiest time. Another camp host would cover you on your days off, and you would cover them. For daily duties, you only have to work 4 hours per day, in total. But we did way more than that because I like staying busy.
You would go around to the sites that people left. You raked up the site, cleaned it up, and picked up any liter. Moved the picnic table back to a general spot, emptied the fire pit.
Kathi: Checked the bear box.
Tim: Your bathroom had to be cleaned every day. We had four toilets, two men’s, two women’s, and a sink on each side. It was in rough shape when we got there … Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the bathroom hadn’t been open for 2 years.
Kathi: We were there when the campground opened, and we went around the first few days and raked all the sites and removed debris from the winter. It was a lot of work at first. Once you got each site cleaned the first time around it was easy.
On a Saturday, because the sites were all taken from Friday night, you didn’t have much to do. You just went and checked the bathrooms and maybe cleaned them if needed.
Tim: Saturday is an easy day because most people were still there. On Sundays, most people check out and that’s when you’re hustling.
Kathi: During the week it was quiet. We really didn’t have anybody there, which was nice because we were the only ones in our section.
What was your favorite part of the job?
Tim: Camping for free with full hookups in a national forest. Some people call Sherando Lake the jewel of the Forest Service campgrounds down there. At Sherando there are two lakes—one is a 25-acre lake, and the upper one is a 7-acre lake that’s a dam. There’s a stream that comes between the two lakes. There’s a beautiful picnic pavilion. It’s nice with miles and miles of hiking trails, and you can walk right up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s also a popular place for mountain biking.
Kathi: Getting up in the morning and being outside. The work was fine, that wasn’t bad at all, and just being outside and talking to people about their adventures, learning from other people about the different ways to do things camping.
Tim: I liked that a lot, seeing the different setups and rigs, especially the vans and people with trucks with rooftop campers. I have a big interest in that. I spent a lot of time pumping them for information.
What was your least favorite part of the job?
Kathi: I was most worried about the bathrooms. It was fine, but I would rather not have had to clean up [bathrooms].
Tim: It wasn’t that bad—thankfully most people weren’t pigs. But that’s the number one reason why campgrounds are short on camp hosts; it doesn’t matter where. A lot of people want to do it, but when you tell them that one of their duties is cleaning toilets, they won’t do it. That’s the biggest factor keeping people from being camp hosts.
What was a surprising part of the job?
Kathi: For me, the national forest paid workers were all trusting that we were going to do what we were supposed to do. They went over everything the first few days, and that was it. They were around and would stop by and check in, but nobody hounded us.
Tim: I would agree; I thought it was going to be pretty regimented. They [national forest rangers] weren’t anything like that. You couldn’t ask for nicer people. If you weren’t comfortable doing something, that’s okay; they would take care of it.
Did you have any notable camper interactions?
Kathi: There was a group of people that came every year. They’re professional bluegrass musicians, and set up a tent and play music all weekend—other people would come and join them. That was fun.
Tim: One guy was from Ohio, one was from North Carolina, and the others were from Virginia. They know each other from the circuit. They do short hikes and play some music during the day; at night they strung up LED lights around the canopy and played—they’re fantastic.
Will you be a camp host again?
Tim: Oh yeah.
Kathi: We’re planning on going back there again.
Do you have any advice for future camp hosts?
Kathi: Just do it. Don’t be afraid to do it. Don’t be afraid of cleaning the bathrooms. Don’t let that stop you. Make sure you know what your expectations are before you get there, so you aren’t surprised.
Tim: Do some research on the region because if you’re going to do it for a long time you want to go to a place where in your afternoons you can do something. On your days off you can take advantage of what the region has to offer.
Editor’s note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity.