Workamping - The New Vagabond Lifestyle of Living in an RV and Chasing Seasonal Jobs
For anyone who dreams of living on the road like a mid-life version of Jack Kerouac, there’s the tale of Duncan and Jessica. Their spunky YouTube series, Traveling On The Outskirts, followed the pair as they crisscrossed America and made their RV home.
“We lived like like everybody else. We had a house, a car payment, a big TV, and a regular 9-to-5 job to try and pay for it,” Jessica gleefully confesses, in each episode’s opening. “One day we got rid of it all to live life on the road,” chimes in Duncan, who looks like 1970s rocker. “And now we are leaving mainstream society and making everyday different and traveling on the outskirts.”
The couple worked in advertising. Season Two, Episode Nine is “Workamping & Making Cash While Fulltime RVing.” Jessica, hair tied back, gets right down to it. “A lot of people think you have to be a millionaire to live this lifestyle. In fact, it’s the opposite,” she begins. “You’re living on less, and therefore you can make less, and live just the same lifestyle—except for you’re on the road. So now we’re going to talk about all the different ways that you can make money while RVing.”
Option one is workamping. The term was created by Workamper.com, which is dedicated to the lifestyle of living in the road in RVs or campers and working seasonal jobs to keep moving. Traveling On The Outskirts is just one of many websites extolling the freedom of tossing a cautionary life to the wind and finding breathtaking scenery, camraderie, and spiritual rejuvenation as a motoring voyager. “Maybe you were a gypsy, vagabond or hobo in a past life, but you think you could never afford to live the life of freedom you long for?” says cheaprvliving.com’s homepage, a go-to site for how to join this band.
“Workamping is where you work at an RV site or some kind of seasonal position,” Duncan explained. “You trade some of your hours for your full hookup site, and then whatever hours you work after that, you get some small salary for.”
There are many ways to find work. Workamper.com has a hotline and ads listed by state, he said. So does HappyVagabonds.com. You can sell things, like Mary Kay or Avon, Jessica said, saying she’s trying that. You can buy cool stuff at flea markets and garage sales and sell it on Ebay, he added. You can take photos and sell them to iStockPhoto or Getty Images, she said. “Most of us had a life before we were fulltime RVers,” Duncan said. “You can tap back into that to make a little money when needed.”
“When all else fails, you go get a regular job—that’s retail, hospitality, anything that pays the bills,” Jessica said, striking a serious note. “When it comes down to it, if it helps you pay the bills, if it keeps you on the road, it’s a good job.”
Nobody knows how many people are full-time workampers, living on the road and working as a subset of the migrant worker universe. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) estimates there are between 500,000 and 750,000 people living in RVs and campers across America, said Kevin Broom, their public relations director who oversaw that study. The figure includes retirees in RVs of every shape and size, seasonal workers in high-paying jobs, and workampers like Jessica and Duncan. But Broom said nobody knew how many people are in RVs and working seasonal jobs out of necessity, where they have no other home and other choice.
“We know there are people who work full-time out of their RVs,” Broom said. “There are some people who are the migrant worker type—they follow the jobs. And there are some, like oil and gas workers, who use them as temporary homes. And there are also professional writers, photographers, financial consultants, doing it too.”
The August issue of Harper’s suggests America is on the verge of seeing a sea of middle-class exiles who will spend their final years in RVs and odd jobs. This is not the estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers now in the U.S. The magazine's feature, The End of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working by Jessica Bruder, profiles the workamper life of poor seniors who hover above homelessness.
Bruder got to know dozens of workampers over more than a year and wrote that they are growing old and frail as they live in RVs and migrate from one seasonal job to another—whether massive Amazon.com fulfillment warehouses or sugar beet factories in the fall, to easier campground hosting jobs in the summer, or staffing RV parks in between. They are a distinct downwardly mobile tribe, she writes. “They [RV parks] were jammed with aging Americans who had fallen a long, long way from the middle-class comforts they had always taken for granted.”
Duncan and Jessica—the YouTube workampers—appear to be a younger version of this narrative. They could only make it for a few years before the RV breakdowns and cash crunches forced them to go back to Florida. “We quit and moved into Duncan’s parents extra bedroom, we sold the popup [camper] and inserted ourselves back into the Matrix,” she wrote, adding they’ve since bought a new RV and are saving to hit the road once more. “If you’re passing through drop us a line! We love to sit by a campfire and laugh about life and the curve balls we’ve been thrown!”
Steve Anderson, editor of Workamper News, would not be entirely surprised with their fate. His website explained that the best way to live on the road is to start out debt-free. That can take years of planning before hitting the road. In his YouTube series, Anderson also explained how people make money as workampers. There’s the jobs, and then how one gets paid: which can include “trade outs,” or paycheck deductions for a RV campsite, utilities, and other expenses tied to the work.
“I will tell you that workamping is not the kind of position where you are going to get rich,” he said. “They are not super high-paying postions. The majority of them are service related. So keeping that in mind, you’re going to see a pay range that’s between $7 to $12 an hour. Maybe a little bit higher as we are seeing the minimim wahe go up the last couple of years. But it’s going to be in that range.”
“Don’t expect to be jumping in making large hourly rates,” he concluded, frowning. “That’s not the idea of workamping. Workamping is providing the opportunity to earn income, and to cover your camping experiences, and see America one job at a time.”
In other words, the dream of life on the road requires a silver living. According to the RVIA, people buying RVs have a median income of $62,000 and are 48 years old. There is no typical RV price, RVIA's Broom said. People can buy a camper trailer for $6,000, or pay $1 million for a giant rig, and there’s “everything in between.” In the Harper’s feature, one women, struggling financially and depressed in her early 60s, became enthralled by a blog that touted the romance of the road. She bought a banged-up trailer on Craigslist for a good price and joined the tribe. She found camraderie on the road, but she also struggled, even though she apparently lucked into one of the better-paying and better benefit package jobs—at an Amazon fulfillment center in Fernley, Nevada.
Amazon has been hiring workcampers for the fall season for the past six years and will hire about 5,000 this year, Workamper.com’s Jody Duquette said. A recent recruitment video explained the jobs, pay, living arrangements and likely problems that these employees might encounter from being on their feet for 10-hours shifts, lifting heavy boxes, and repetitively using handheld tracking devices. They tell you that it’s likely, if you’re older, that you’ll have hard time at first and take extra pain meds.
However, Duquette said that Amazon probably had the best pay and benefits for workampers. They don’t issue 1099 tax forms for the campsite subsidy, as some employers do. They offer a health plan and bonus if you work through Christmas. However, that doesn’t mean the work isn’t physically hard, repetitive and boring.
The next biggest workamper employer was thought to be Delaware North Companies, which runs the concessions at national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. These jobs were in the stores, shops, restaurants and other park facilities. They also are upfront that the work can be physical. Their recruiting video describes the work season, weekly hours, living charges deducted against the pay, and other options—such as a daily meal plan for $52 a week, and how to apply. A third of 250 workamper jobs at Yellowstone were people who returned each year, they said.
Then there were other workamper jobs, like the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota’s Red River Valley each October, which involves a lot of loading and moving 30-pound sacks. This job is closer to traditional farmworker labor, but the sugar companies are trying to lure workampers because the region’s natural gas fracking boom has drawn away its traditional labor pool. They hope to hire 600 people this fall, their video said.
No industry expert could say how many workamper jobs there were. A safe estimate would be tens of thousands. They said that many people who live on the road in RVs and need to work will try to get a job at Amazon for the fall, use those earnings to relax and travel along the country's southern tier in the winter months, and then get a job as a campground host in the summer, and do that again. The most common other job cited was working in RV parks, because, as you would expect, these travelers know the drill and culture. The “fulltiming” message board at Workamper.com seems to confirm this approach.
This fall, Amazon is hiring at four locations—rural Nevada, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Nevada jobs are already filled, its August 6 recruitment video said. Delaware North's team said that people needed to apply online right now to get a national park job next summer.
Workamper.com’s message boards tends to be filled with people who are euphoric at hitting the road, feel good about improvising and making needed repairs as problems pop up, and then, after a number of years, have the financial means to settle down again in a more traditional home. “After 3-1/2 yr of fulltiming we were offered a fantastic, cash only, deal on a lake cabin in Tennessee,” wrote Rolling Thunder. “We decided that we may never get another chance like this; so we purchased it.”
But nobody in the workamper world said they saw an inordinate number of middle-class people forced out of their landlocked houses and apartments and into a new RV-based migrant labor force with no safety net. “I’m sure there a certain number,” Workamper.com’s Jody Duquette said. “But from our perspective, the majority of RVers are folks who are planning to do this for quite some time. It’s a way for people to see America and take your home along with you.”
Workamper.com’s back pages do have posts by people who said they are now on the road, are getting old and expected to die near some scenic spot. They shared many details of their lives, but not falling into old age, poverty and homelessness.
“It sounds like you have enjoyed your journey and that is most important,” wrote Jim and Darlene Wright, commenting on Rolling Thunder’s decision to quit the road. “We have not totally settled on an exit plan yet and hopefully we won't need one for 4 or 5 more years. We will keep going until we can't and hopefully we will have found a spot that we want to die at.”
“DH and I have been looking for our 'old bones' spot from the very beginning of our full-time adventure,” wrote Bobber, in the same thread. “Fortunately, we seem to have our health at this point and can keep looking for that ideal spot.”