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Work-Campers: Footloose Retirees Trade Time for Space at Parks and Campgrounds

Some 80,000 seniors travel U.S. highways as work-campers


Volunteers planting a tree together
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With money tight, especially for retirees with fixed incomes and recession-ravaged retirement savings, creative seniors are finding more ways to do well by doing good. A growing number are hitting the road and becoming work-campers.

Some 80,000 U.S. retirees now work at state parks, campgrounds, RV parks and wildlife sanctuaries in exchange for free camping space and sometimes a little cash. The retirees provide valuable support and maintenance to cash-strapped state agencies and private-park owners for little or no out-of-pocket cost. And trading work for campsites and other services helps retirees on a budget stretch their retirement income by lowering their living expenses.

Life on the Road for Work-Campers
Many work-campers pursue a nomadic lifestyle, driving their RVs from one assignment to another. They settle in one place for awhile—typically working 20 hours to 30 hours a week leading nature walks, maintaining trails or staffing visitor centers—and then move on down the road to the next opportunity.

As they travel, they use email, mobile phones, and social networking sites such as Facebook to keep in touch with other work-campers they've met at various work-camper assignments.

Recession Cuts Both Ways for Work-Campers The recession has forced many state agencies and campground owners to lay off paid employees, which has increased the demand for work-campers, often giving them their choice of assignments in some of the most beautiful places in the United States.

At the same time, the recession has caused some work-campers to be a little less footloose, and to stay at each location longer to reduce their travel expenses.

The Road Leads to New Lives for Many Work-Campers Work-campers take to the road for many different reasons. Some are seeking adventure through a non-traditional retirement, or reassessing their priorities and wanting to simplify their lives. Other work-campers are responding to a personal tragedy, such as the death of a spouse or a late-in-life divorce. Still others are living on a relatively low fixed income and simply looking for some way to stretch those few dollars into a more interesting and rewarding lifestyle.

Some work-campers find more than they were looking for when they first hit the road: a new community of friends; a stronger connection to nature; even romance.

Work-campers come from many different backgrounds and professions. Yet despite their differences in income, education or life experience, most work-campers also have a lot in common.

"It attracts a certain kind of person," said Wendy Forster, 70, a retired biologist who lives alone in her motor home and leads birdwatching walks, in an interview with The New York Times. "There's a lot of companionship and security."

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