Iowa campground hosts busy amid COVID-19

Volunteers take on rush of campers and added chores

Thad Overturf, a campground host at Backbone State Park, talks July 24 about volunteer work he and his wife do at the No
Thad Overturf, a campground host at Backbone State Park, talks July 24 about volunteer work he and his wife do at the Northeast Iowa park. Overturf and his wife, Sherry, are hosts at the South Lake Campground at the park. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

DUNDEE — About a dozen times this summer, campers have pulled into Backbone State Park with spanking new recreational vehicles straight off a dealer’s lot.

Never having leveled an RV or dumped a sewage tank, these rookie campers need advice and often they get it from Thad Overturf, in his third season as a volunteer campground host at Backbone, Iowa’s oldest state park, near Dundee in northeast Iowa.

“Those are folks I’ve specifically helped with their first very time camping,” said Overturf, 52.

Iowans who have canceled cruises, ditched Disney or ixnayed international trips because of COVID-19 have been turning up in droves at Iowa’s state parks. The state park system had 6,400 more camping reservations through July 31 than it had for the whole season in 2019 — and that’s even with a late start this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which has been using campground hosts for nearly 20 years, likes to have at least one host at each of its 66 campgrounds in 64 parks, said Todd Coffelt, chief of the Iowa DNR State Parks, Forests and Preserves Bureau.

Coffelt estimates about one-third of the hosts are locals who grew up fishing, swimming and camping in the state park they now serve. Another third are snowbirds who spend their winters in Florida or Arizona and then set up their RVs in Midwest parks during the summer.

“The other third travels east and west,” Coffelt said. “They are looking for adventure.”


The National Park Service and many other state park systems also use volunteer hosts, so some hosts are travelers who spend parts of every summer hosting at campgrounds in state and national parks around the country. The other host couple serving at Backbone, Overturf said, have hosted at campgrounds in 23 states and are working toward a goal of hitting all 50 states.

Hosts camp for free, but otherwise get no payment for cleaning restrooms, emptying garbage, clearing fire pits, greeting campers and dispensing advice when needed.

“I like helping people get what they want out of things,” said Sean Steele, 44, the volunteer host at Lake Macbride State Park campground, near Solon. “The funniest thing was just the other day. A person wanted to do a walk-in, one-night thing. They were asking about payment options. They asked if we can take Venmo.” (Answer: No.)

Iowa’s state parks have about 4,700 campsites all together, 75 percent of which are reserved online up to three months in advance. The remaining 25 percent are available for walk-up, first-come, first-served camping.

Usually the camping season is mid-April to mid-October, but this year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, state park campgrounds didn’t open until early May. Some hosts stay for the whole season, but others may host for a month or two, Coffelt said.

COVID-19 has put new demands on the volunteer hosts.

This year, hosts are required to do daily deep cleaning of bathrooms that involves spraying hard surfaces with bleach water and letting it sit for 10 minutes, replacing all paper products, scrubbing floors, sinks, toilets and showers. The process takes Overturf about 90 minutes each morning.

He’s had to turn away more walk-up campers — even on weeknights — because the campground is already full.

“This week, I turned four people away on a Monday,” he said July 24. “I’ve never had to turn people away before on a Monday.”

Some state park staff and volunteers get burned out, Coffelt said.


“This summer, it’s busy and we’re getting that ghost look from our employees,” he said. “The hosts are seeing that already as well.”

The Iowa DNR works with haggard hosts to find time they can take off or schedules new hosts to take over for the rest of the season. The agency still has host vacancies at several state parks, including Nine Eagles, Stephens and Yellow River Forests, so if you are interested, check out the Iowa DNR website.

“The bottom line is everyone needs a vacation,” Overturf said. “We feel like we’re helping the general population enjoy a very affordable vacation.”

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