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RV Podcast 375: Volunteering at National Parks

Want to save money and camp in beautiful spots? Try volunteering at National Parks!

Most national parks offer free RV pads, hookups, and lots of other perks in exchange for volunteer work at the parks, something we explore in-depth in this episode of the RV Podcast with Tom and Karen Hartley, who have been volunteering at National Parks for several years now.

In all, they’ve been at nine different National Parks and they share their experiences in this week’s RV Interview of the week.

To see a video version of this episode in its entirety, click the player below:

For an audio version, you can use your favorite podcast app from Apple, Google, Stitcher Spotify and other podcast players. Or click the audio player in the box below.

And for a slightly edited transcript of the interview, keep scrolling.

Volunteering at National Parks – Tom and Karen Hartley

Karen and Tom dressed in costume while volunteering at National parks
Karen and Tom in costume as National Park Living History volunteers

Our guests are Tom and Karen Hartley, two veteran volunteers at National Parks whose work has been honored with the distinguished Hartzog Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service to the National Parks. 

The Hartleys are both retired and have been volunteering at National Parks since 2015. They specialize in Living History.

Mike Wendland:

It’s a pleasure to have you guys with us, and I’m thrilled to be able to do this interview because Jennifer and I have talked many times about how much fun volunteering in a National Park would be. Why don’t you introduce yourselves a little bit to the audience and tell them how that all started.

Karen Hartley:

Well, I was a United Methodist Church pastor, and usually, United Methodist pastors move around a lot, but I was at my church where I was for most of my career for 21 years.

And I didn’t get to move around. And so we wanted to do more traveling and moving around once we retired.

Tom Hartley:

I was a professor of electrical computer engineering at the University of Akron, and I was there for 30 years,

Mike Wendland:

The Hartleys are veteran RVers

Photo of RV and tow truck used by the Hartleys while volunteering at National parks.
The Hartleys get free RV parking and hookups while volunteering at National parks.

Had you guys RV’ed before?

Karen Hartley:

Yeah, we started camping with the Boy Scouts a lot and doing backpacking and that sort of stuff. When our son graduated from high school, we had a little Roadtrek and we took that all over the place and spent a lot of time in that. And then when we retired, we bought a fifth wheel, a New Horizons, 35 foot, fifth wheel.

Tom Hartley:

We had a big Ram 5500 truck. So it was a monster.

Karen Hartley:

So it felt like home. It was very comfortable.

Tom Hartley:

It was home. Yes.

Mike Wendland:

And what are you in now?

Tom Hartley:

Well, so at the beginning of the pandemic, we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen, how this was going to go. So at that point, we were spending enough for renting RV pads that we thought, well, let’s just get a little house, trade down the big RV, and get a smaller RV.

Karen Hartley:

We have a 26-foot Leprechaun.

Tom Hartley:

From Coachmen. It’s a Motorhome. It’s a little bit smaller, and it’s definitely a lot more agile than we were before.

Mike Wendland:

That’s a Class C, I believe.

Karen Hartey: Yes

Mike Wendland:

Yeah. Well, let’s talk about volunteering at National Parks and how this all came about for you two, and share your experience.

Karen Hartley:

We do a lot of different stuff volunteering at national parks. We’ve worked at nine different National Parks. And we started it because people kept asking us where we were going to go after we retired. And so we wanted to avoid Ohio winters.

Tom Hartley:

Use Volunteer.gov to find volunteer positions in National parks

For info on Volunteering at National Parks, the volunteer.gov website lists openings across the country
For info on Volunteering at National Parks, this website lists openings across the country

Karen said, “I want to go someplace where it’s not going to snow, where it’s going to be warm.” And so we looked around Volunteer.gov is the place you go to look and see what volunteer opportunities there are. And there are 1000s of them, but I was looking on there and Death Valley had an opening. And I figured, well, that’s going to be a little warmer than Ohio in the wintertime. Let’s see what we can do at Death Valley. And that turned out to be a really good thing.

Karen Hartley:

So we started at Death valley, we worked at Scotty’s Castle. And that’s in the Northern part of Death Valley. And it’s an hour from a cell phone signal. It was two hours from the grocery store. So when you talk about being remote Death Valley certainly was, but we got tour guides at Scotty’s Castle and we had to wear clothing that was appropriate for the period and learn about the period. And we just had so much fun doing it, that we decided that living history tour guide interpretation was what we wanted to do from then on.

Mike Wendland:

Wow. So what is involved in when you volunteer like that, can you actually pick your positions or does it just sort of work into that at each park?

Tom Hartley:

If you go to Volunteer.gov, it lists the parks that need volunteers and what the volunteer opportunities are. And there are lots of different ways to search, but we usually search for RV pad first because if they don’t have an RV pad, we don’t get this. We have to pay for a place to stay. So normally we’re going to work 32 hours a week, four days a week, and they’re going to give us an RV pad and place to park and all kinds of perks that go along with that. So we live for free and we work for free and everybody wins.

Jennifer Wendland:

The Perks of Volunteering at National Parks

So what are the perks, because you’re not getting any pay?

Tom Hartley:

Well, so we get free electric, free water, free sewer, some places you get free Internet, free telephone. Other places you get propane. So most places you get a washer and dryer. We didn’t have one in our RV. So it just depends on the local perks, but you always get a place to live.

Mike Wendland:

So that was your first one, Death valley, right?

Karen Hartley:

Yeah.

Tom Hartley:

Yeah.

Jennifer Wendland:

And now is there a time slot that you go?

Karen Hartley:

Generally, you go by season, so they require for RV volunteers, they usually require a three-month commitment. And so we tend to go like we’re leaving right after Christmas and we’ll start a position on January 2nd. And then you stay for three to four months, and then you might do a summer position that you would start in May or in June.

Tom Hartley:

Typically, they want you to start in May because the holiday shows up at the end of May. And typically that’s a big weekend for them. So they want you train before Memorial Day.

Jennifer Wendland:

Well, my thing is, I want to know where you’re going in January?

Tom Hartley:

You can pick your location for volunteering in National Parks

karen dressed in period clothong at national park
Karen in costume

Well, in the winter, you want to go someplace warm, and there’s not a lot of that in North America. So the last … not last year, because last year was shut down. But the previous four years we’ve gone to Fort Frederica in Georgia, and we’re going back to Fort Frederica again.

Karen Hartley:

It’s Southern Georgia. It’s on St. Simon’s Island. It’s about an hour north of Jacksonville and an hour south of Savannah.

Mike Wendland:

So tell us some of the national parks you’ve been to and what kind of a historical interpretation you did there?

Tom Hartley:

RV Podcast 375: Volunteering at National Parks 1
Tom in one of his costumes

Well, the first one was Death Valley and we did the tours, Karen did the house tour. I did the underground tour at Scotty’s Castle there’s like half a mile of tunnels underground. And so I had to give tours of that. As an engineer, it was fun because it was all engineering. And so I got to really have a good time with that. Second place we went was Chickamauga and Chattanooga.

Karen Hartley:

And there, we only got to be at the desk. We didn’t get to do a lot of interpretation, but you get to meet lots of really interesting people and talk to people every day, and so we enjoyed that. But we learned that there were some questions that we wanted to ask to be sure that a place was compatible with what we wanted to do. We like to explore and do research and learn about a lot of in-depth stuff and be able to use it. So after that …

They’ve made great memories across the country as National Park Volunteers

Tom Hartley:

Looking at my map over here, we went to Kings Mountain in South Carolina. Yeah.

Karen Hartley:

And that was actually an emergency place, we had planned on going back to Death Valley and Scotty’s Castle was in a flash flood and the roads were washed away.

Tom Hartley:

And they’re still washed away.

Karen Hartley:

… they’ve been working five years to rebuild it and reopen it. So we were glad actually because we realized that we didn’t want to be that remote and that far away from everything again.

So we went to Kings Mountain and that’s where we really started getting involved in living history, that’s a revolutionary war site. And we did interpretation for kids. I learned how to do candle making and cooking over an open fire, which despite our years of camping, I hadn’t really done it in period-appropriate ways. So that was 1778. What year was Kings Mountain?

Tom Hartley:

Around in the 1770s.

Jennifer Wendland:

That sounds like so much fun to get to wear a costume, learn the history, go back in history to show people how they did things. I love it whenever we go someplace and there’s the interpreters. That makes it just come alive.

Learning and then teaching history is part of the job

Karen Hartley:

That’s exactly it. And it gets kids involved so much with history, because if you tell kids about dates and events, then it doesn’t stick, they don’t get excited about it. But if you show them roles that are cooking in a bake oven. Or if you talk to them about how to fire a musket, then those are things that they really remember and they enjoy.

Mike Wendland:

What was the most fun of the parks that you have visited and maybe some of the roles that you played in other places? Do you have a favorite?

Tom Hartley:

I don’t know. I’m almost always a British soldier, not every time, but most, most places I’m a British soldier and I do musket demonstrations, cannons, mortars, anything that blows up I usually get to do it. Also, I did a little blacksmithing before, but I’ve been doing blacksmithing.

And as an engineer, I get opportunities that most Rangers don’t get because I know how to do some things. So I’ve had to build forges and build bellows, and that’s been fun. This past summer I learned how to cooper, which is making buckets and barrels. And that was fun too. I like that one.

Karen Hartley:

And we were in Grand Portage, Minnesota, which was the 1790s, and that’s the fur trade. This last summer we spent in the 1850s.

Tom Hartley:

Yeah. They had all sorts of cute gadgets there in the 1850s. Wow.

Karen Hartley:

Yeah. Yeah. Technology.

Tom Hartley:

Like matches, and I’ve had to sweat and steel to start a fire.

Karen Hartley:

Yeah. And that was in North Dakota. That was the fur trade also.

The Living History roles they have done are learned on the job

Mike Wendland:

Do you have to learn these roles or and develop them yourself? Or are you building on something else that the park services already set up and said, “Here’s what we need you to do and be.”

Tom Hartley:

I think the answer is yes to all that. Yeah. So we have a certain skill. The park’s willing to spend time to teach you things. The rangers don’t always know how to do certain things and you have to learn how to do it. Other places, the rangers know how to do everything and they will teach you how to do it. So all the answers, yes.

Karen Hartley:

I’ve only learned how to do the spinning and weaving and the cooking since we’ve been working in the parks, Tom’s learned the coopering and …

Tom Hartley:

And most of the blacksmithing since I’ve been in the park.

Karen Hartley:

Yeah. So they teach you stuff that they really want you to know. They’ll let you experiment with stuff, which is really fun. Like the candle making, I had a person who showed me basically how to do that, but then we’ve experimented with it since then. And sometimes stuff turns out, sometimes it doesn’t, but that just makes it a better lesson for the people who are watching.

There are many different jobs for National Park Volunteers

Mike Wendland:

Now you guys specialize in living history and I imagine you have a pretty good connection now with the whole volunteer community in all of the parks, after serving at nine of them, what are some of the other positions that people should know are available in national parks that are perfect for our viewers?

Karen Hartley:

Well, probably the most common one is campground host. And a lot of the people that we’ve worked with have been campground hosts. We had jobs where we worked 14, 16 hours a day. A lot of times you understand that and we didn’t want to do that in retirement. So we wanted a job that was done at five o’clock. That’s what we get. We close the door, we lock up the visitor center at five o’clock and we go home and we are still in the park, but nobody else is, which is pretty amazing.

Jennifer Wendland:

And you work four days a week and then you get three days off?

Karen Hartley:

Yes.

Tom Hartley:

Yeah.

You can still find places for volunteering in National Parks in 2022

Mike Wendland:

How early do you have to apply? For example, is it too late for positions in 2022?

Tom Hartley:

Well, I think it just depends on where you want to go and what you want to do.

Karen Hartley:

How particular you are.

Tom Hartley:

Yeah. If you go to Volunteer.gov, there are hundreds of different things you can do. You can do maintenance and I do a little bit of that. You can do archeology, you can do computers, libraries just anything that you have any interest in learning how to do or know how to do and want to help out with, they’re going to take you.

Karen Hartley:

There’s a place in the park for you.

Jennifer Wendland:

I’m wondering, did you meet a lot of young people like college kids that were working, volunteering for the parks or is it basically people our age, retirees?

Karen Hartley:

We meet a lot of young rangers and that’s fun.

Lots of positions are available for seniors and retirees

Tom Hartley:

But usually, the volunteers are our age. If they’re young, they’re usually interns or doing something, like they’re getting paid.

Mike Wendland:

Yeah. And you’re there for three months. So you get to really experience the park and you have [crosstalk 00:14:15] time. That’s what I’m saying. You have enough downtime to range out and explore.

Mike Wendland:

It sounds like a great lifestyle and a great use of your RV. We will link to the website and we understand that you guys received a special award for volunteer services for the national park as well?

The Hartleys won a big award for Volunteering in National Parks

Tom Hartley:

We did. It was the former superintendent, the Hartzog Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service, the individual award. And they give out about six awards every year, seven awards. And one of them is for individual volunteer service. And so after the pandemic, we stayed in Georgia because we really didn’t know what else to do.

They had a place for us, but we weren’t doing interpretation anymore, and they needed a lot of maintenance stuff done that wasn’t getting done. So we just stayed there for six months and continued to work. And for all of our efforts there and all the things we did, we received this award.

So it’s one award for this, for the entire year, for the entire country. And that’s out of over 300,000 volunteers, 6 million hours, it’s quite humbling because there [crosstalk 00:15:24] are a lot of people, a lot of things that get no recognition for it, and so this is for all those guys, it’s a pretty special thing.

Mike Wendland:

Well, congratulations to both of you, we can’t wait to come across you in one of these National Parks this year. We may not recognize you in costume.

Karen Hartley:

That’s right. We look different.

Jennifer Wendland:

I think everybody who RVs has a desire to do what you’re doing.

Mike Wendland:

Yeah. Thank you guys so much.

Karen Hartley:

You’re welcome.

Tom Hartley:

Thanks for having us.

Karen Hartley:

Thank you.

Other ways to volunteer and find jobs with free RV spots

We’ve reported on lots of ways to find work from the word, both paid and volunteers. Here are some additional resources:

Working Remotely from an RV wherever you want

How Workamping can help pay for your RV Lifestyle

A New Kind of Workamper

What it’s really like being a Workamper at Amazon

How to make money as a travel photographer

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