People on the Trail ~ John McElwaine, Camp Host
Updated: Jan 8, 2022
I've known John McElwaine for thirty years, from a time we both worked for a large, prestigious northwest photo lab. After that place, John retired and became a Campground Host. I have always wanted to know what a camp host does, how that comes about, how the tasks and responsibilities differ from camp rangers, and what this life is like. I asked him to sit down with a few interview questions about his experiences...
Pictured: Trailer Camping, Ventura California 2015
When in life did you first start camping? Tell us a bit about that~
My first camping trip I was about 6 months old, and tent camping. Sorry, I don’t remember much about that first trip :) It was at Donner Lake State Park in California with my parents and two older brothers. And would be for the next 10 years.
By the time I was 10 we had moved to a small 13’ trailer; by the time I turned 18 they had an 18’ trailer. After a four year pause for college/work, marriage. A month after getting married, it was back to tenting for about 15 years. Then for the last 40 years, it has been 5 trailers.
Pictured: Tent camping in the late 70's
Pictured: Tent camping early 80's
What led you to become a Camp Host?
I love being outdoors and camping. After seeing the Camp Host at Farragut (Farragut State Park, Idaho) while on many family vacations there, it looked like something I would like to try.
What does being a Camp Host entail?
It can be a lot or a little. For us at Farragut, we worked 20 hours a week each, 2 days off. Cleaned campsites, sold firewood, answered questions and reported problems that we could not resolve to the Park Ranger.
How many months out of the year do you host?
At Farragut State Park we would host for 4 months. Mid-May to mid-Sept.
Pictured: The McElwaine's host site at Farragut State Park, 2019
Pictured: Same host site, the hosts' view. Sah-weet!
Do you choose your campgrounds, or apply for them?
You can contact the Park, or the State’s Parks department.
How does the location assignment process work?
The Park has a list of openings. Smaller parks may only have 1 spot; a large park like Farragut has about 11 Campground Host spots, plus another 11 non-Campground Host spots, and adding more.
What is your favorite part of hosting?
Meeting interesting people, both campers and fellow hosts; enjoying the great outdoors, campfires, and especially having wildlife come visit our campsite. We have had a lot~ from hummingbirds, raccoons, a bobcat, deer, a moose, and more! Plus, on our days off we get to explore even more.
Do you have a favorite campground, experience, or story?
Well, that would be Apple Deer and her two fawns, Spot and No-Spot, starting in 2009. Apple Deer was only with us the 1st year, but Spot and No Spot would come by all the time for many years with their own fawns. Spot was hit by a car in 2015 and was gone by 2018. We did not see No-Spot in 2019, but her older kids would come by. We had a lot of deer, sometimes 8-10 at the same time, but the Apple Deer family stood out.
Have you ever had a camp host crisis on your hands? What happened?
7/5/2015~ a fire started near the park. Since the wind was blowing away from the park, the Rangers had let the campers know what was going on in case they wanted to leave. That changed quickly as the wind shifted and it was blowing hot embers into the campground. We had to go back to the campers and tell them it was time to leave NOW! Our 60 sites plus the 40 sites in the campground across were told to leave as well as the three hosts. We decided to stay. With the two campgrounds closed and the four Day Use areas, no one was left down at that end of the Park. We felt someone need to stay to report if any fire did start. We were all packed up and ready to leave. Plus, some of the Hot Shot Fire Fighters were camped in the campground across the road. Luckily no fire started in the park.
What do you do in the off season?
We would do a 4–8-week spring trip to California and the Southwest. Then a 2-2.5 month Fall trip to the East coast, mid September to late November.
Pictured: Trailer camping, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, 2019
What are you looking forward to in your next personal or host camping adventure?
Well, as I write this, we are in the last few weeks of a 2-month trip to Maine. We will be home for 2 weeks then head East to Virgina Beach, then Long Island, New York, then down to the Gulf Shores and home. With many stops along the way, including 4 of the Best States Parks from a list I found on the Web.
What advice would you give to someone considering camp hosting?
Try it! But first, be sure you understand what is expected of you and what you get in return. I have known of people who have sold their home, got a nice new RV, and three months later realized it wasn’t for them. Or people who got FIRED because they won’t follow some simple rules. Then there are people who show up and just don’t like where they have to stay or what they have to do.
For me, it was something I always wanted to do. Signed up for a month, not sure if I really wanted to stay in one place for a whole month! I knew the State Park, just not the campground. Well, we were able to turn the month into six weeks and two years later we were back for the whole summer. For eleven more years!
What is your outdoor mantra?
Get out and enjoy the Great Outdoors! There is so much to see, no matter what you're interested in.
"Roses are red, mud is brown, the woods are better than any night on the town." ~ Earl Dibbles Jr.