Maintaining Campgrounds

Photos Courtesy of Recreation Resource Management

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Most people probably think there’s not much involved in maintaining a campground—grass, trees, a lake, Mother Nature. How much trouble can it be?

But ask parks and rec maintenance professionals or other service providers responsible for day-to-day care and cleaning of campgrounds, and they’ll say there’s more to it than people might expect.

In the old days when campgrounds were just that—ground where people could pitch a tent or sleep under the stars—there probably wasn’t that much to do, but in these days those old-fashioned campgrounds are now termed “primitive,” and more maintenance-intense facilities, featuring electrical hookups, sewer systems, restrooms with showers, playgrounds, and a host of other amenities, have been added.

“In our larger camp sites, we will typically have three loops, where one loop will be more primitive for tent camping, with no electrical or water, but they can use a centralized shower house,” explains Jerry Howerton, Chief of Maintenance for North Carolina State Parks.

“The other loops might be for RV-type camping, with water, sewer, electrical, and also access to the central shower house,” Howerton says, adding that almost all of the camp sites except the most primitive have common shower houses. “The loops are generally the same, though they may vary with the size of the park, which will drive the maintenance requirements as well,” he says.

System Overload

Howerton explains that more and more people are camping with RVs, mobile vehicles that vary from the largest motorhomes to smaller campers that slide onto the back of a truck.

RVs in the U.S. can trace their roots, at least conceptually, to the covered wagons that provided mobile shelter and storage for the pioneers as they ventured into the Wild West. But the modern version of the Conestoga has become much more complicated. The size of the newer RVs and the amenities that come with them are translating into more campground requirements. Existing electrical capacity has been outpaced by the high demand of the new RVs.

“It is moving beyond the old days when you came out and maybe just wanted to flip on a light in the RV,” Howerton offers, emphasizing this evolving issue, which is good because it means more people are using the campgrounds. “The newer RVs are so much larger and more complex with the things they offer, such as microwaves, air conditioners, and televisions, that it seems to overload our systems.”

A review of several online discussion forums and camping websites confirms that the type and condition of electrical service at a campground can indeed make or break a camping trip and influence return visits. In one horror story, a million-dollar RV had all of its electrical appliances blown out because the power supply was not compatible with the equipment.

Some campers aren’t knowledgeable about their RV’s electrical load capacity, and don’t know how to test the campground’s outlets before plugging in. When campers continually trip breakers and cause power outages, there will be complaints, or even worse, campers may not return, leading to a loss of revenue, that, unfortunately, solves the problem calls for upgrades.

“In many cases, we have to install all new wire because the old wire isn’t large enough to handle the upgraded services, which can lead to some costly improvements,” says Howerton, who brought private-sector maintenance experience with him into his current position.

Waste Collection

Another area where modern usage has outstripped the capacity of older campgrounds is in handling sewage.  Much of this depends on local codes, which vary from state to state or even among counties within a state.

“Older codes allowed for dump stations, where the RV pulls up when leaving the campground and places their waste into that system,” remarks Howerton. “In many places, new codes require that, if you provide water to a campground, you have to provide a septic system where they can hook up on site.” This problem can be more costly and maintenance-intensive.

One of the most pervasive and manpower-intensive functions at campgrounds—and one of the most important—is trash pickup. A quick way to keep campers away is to have overflowing trash cans and littered grounds.

Photo Courtesy of Recreation Resource Management

At a time when budgets are being cut, staffing is being reduced, and revenue from returning campers is important, finding alternatives to traditional trash-collection methods is wise. Howerton says the parks are trying new ideas.

“We are experimenting with more streamlined trash and recycling systems; in some areas, we’ve completely done away with trash pickup,” he explains, noting that he has about 115 full-time maintenance staff  in 42 state parks, with around 900 campsites that receive about 14-million visitors per year. “Instead, we give the bags to campers and require them to drop them off at a central collection point when they leave.”

In other areas, he reveals the parks have gone to more centralized trash and recycling points, where instead of maintenance crews checking 300 individual trash cans spread over the entire park, receptacles have been consolidated into several sites convenient to campers in order to reduce the amount of man hours and fuel needed to complete the job.

“We are in the people business, bottom line,” emphasizes Howerton, noting that all the maintenance functions are completed with the best interest of customers in mind because there is a need to leave a good impression.  “We do our best to get on these things immediately because we do not want to inconvenience our customers; we want them to come back,” he reiterates.

Private Contractors

One of the ways that local, state, and federal parks and rec agencies are handling operations of their campgrounds is by outsourcing to private contractors, such as Recreation Resource Management (RRM).

This company essentially leases a campground from a public or private recreation agency, and runs it for profit under the guidance and supervision of the agency. RRM has been in operation for 25 years, and runs more than 100 campgrounds for agencies as large as the National Forest Service and as small as large counties or utility districts. Similar companies provide the same type of services.

“The controlling agencies set all kinds of standards for us to operate within,” says RRM President Warren Meyer.  “Then we have an amount that we have agreed to pay in rent, so a percentage of the entrance fee we charge goes back to the agency. We take in entrance fees and totally operate the park; there are no agency employees on site,” he emphasizes.

Meyer suggests that the company can provide more cost-effective service because the headquarters staff is kept lean—two full-time and one part-time—and a staff of field operators, about 500 in the peak summer season. These people are actually on the ground, working and often living at the campground site and taking care of routine- and emergency-maintenance issues.

Meyer observes that his organization generally tends to be brought in when public funding is tight. “It seems like, when money gets tight, the first thing to get cut is maintenance,” observes Meyer, who adds that many times his company comes into a situation in which maintenance has been deferred for many budget cycles.

The advantage that companies such as RMM can offer is a lower operating cost to in providing routine operations and maintenance. “We clean bathrooms, we keep trash picked up, and we handle routine maintenance, such as leaking faucets or toilets that don’t work,” notes Meyer.

For longer-term maintenance, Meyer adds that many agencies put all or part of the money they obtain from the lease back into the facilities. “Since my employees are there all the time, they can see things that need to be done and let the agency know about it; it’s a team effort, and together we can work on making major improvements to the sites,” he says.

While outsourcing has become a common business model in public services, some agencies are still reluctant to have a private business operating their facilities. At the same time, deferred maintenance has created neglected facilities. Consequently, Meyer concedes that his Phoenix-based company has had to change its approach and business model in some cases.

“We used to be able to just go into a campground and start operating it,” he says. “But over time what we’ve found is that we have to invest significant funding up front in order to get the facility back into basically sound condition.”

Meyer acknowledges that cities and counties are generally comfortable with this business model but concedes that many higher-level public agencies are institutionally resistant to such solutions. “We have had success in partnering with agencies when they are in desperate straits and they have no other choice,” he says. “Another compatible situation occurs when an agency does much more than parks and focusing on them distracts them from the main mission, so they’re more willing to have an outsider operate them,” he notes, citing water districts and forest services as examples.

Changing Expectations

Meyer feels that maintenance is one of those areas people take for granted. “Visitors feel like we have this little patch of ground, and it shouldn’t be that much to take care of, but it is a complicated task because there are increasing requirements. Many of these facilities are 40 years old, and people are using the heck out of the public campgrounds. Many of the campgrounds have shifted from a tent camp concept to RV campgrounds that call for a whole new level of service. Now there is a greater call to build campgrounds where people can pull in with their RVs and hook up, or have a cabin with a door they can lock; they want to use their IPhone or computer. People’s expectations are changing.”

The 2012 American Camper Report on documents that, from 2010 to 2011, the number of Americans who went camping increased from 39.9 million or 14.1 percent of the U.S. population, to 42.5 million, or 14.9 percent. From 2011 to 2012, that number dropped slightly. Everything from primitive tents to luxury cabins was included; there is even a new term applied to this glamorous camping, called “glamping.”

The informative 2013 study reports that, although camping has lost some of its more casual participants, those who continue to camp camp more frequently and travel farther to their destinations. Staying in tents, RVs, cabins, bivys, or yurts, each participant spent 13.6 days camping—an increase of a full day from the year before. On average, campers packed up their gear and travelled more than 200 miles to arrive at their camping spot, an average of 10 miles farther than campers travelled in 2011.

Regardless of whether an agency or department provides campground services, someone nearby probably does, representing a new audience for services. People who camp might also be willing to participate for a reasonable fee in activities that nearby city or county recreation departments provide, shop in local stores, eat at local restaurants, or buy fuel at local stations. Today’s campgrounds are not your grandfather’s campgrounds, and you may find that contemporary campers are also potential recreation seekers.

If any PRB readers have experience with campgrounds and would like to share them, write to the editor or me, and we’ll send them to your peers in the field.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email