By Andy Zipser
Owner, Walnut Hills Campground and RV park
Here it is, mid-March as I write this, and Memorial Day weekend is all but booked up. Small is beautiful: Of the handful of sites we still have available, none is longer than 30 feet and all are back-ins. Of course, when the phone rings it’s from someone with a 36-foot motorhome or 40-foot fifth-wheel. No one wants to back in. Everyone wants a full hook-up, even when we offer them the possibility of reserving a honey wagon pump-out at $15 a pop – but the full hook-ups were the first to go. Two months out, and we’re turning away business.
You’re probably thinking that for a campground owner, that’s a nice problem to have. Let me assure you it’s not.
Sure, it’s great to have reservation money rolling in, especially after the fallow months of December, January and February. And it’s reassuring to know we won’t be penalized for dropping our KOA franchise, with any loss of KOA-driven business offset by our reputation and Good Sam affiliation. But wall-to-wall campers diminish the overall experience for everyone, stress out our staff, and discourage those campers who have been coming to our park for years and all of a sudden find themselves squeezed out because they waited too long to make a reservation.
“We’ve been trying to get in there for the past two years and decided to really call ahead this time,” a caller seeking Memorial Day reservations told me on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m sorry, I replied – you’re already so very late to the table. . . .
DON’T GET ME WRONG: On May 29, all kinds of sites will open up, as they will every Monday except July 2 and September 3. But weekends generally, and holiday weekends especially, can be problematic. As Chuck Woodbury and others have noted many times, the era when they could simply roll into a campground without advance notice and score a spot for the night is pretty much over. Gone with it, too, is a simpler, less hectic age of spontaneity, an age when the romance of the road still plucked at the heart strings. Now it’s all about planning and booking and frustrated wheedling: “But I always stay with you when we’re passing through your area,” as if we have a hidden reservoir of sites available only to the faithful.
But there’s another, perhaps bigger problem: A lot of those RVers filling up the pipeline are … well … new. They don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know their equipment, and when you get right down to it, they don’t know how to camp. Which is to say, they don’t know campground etiquette, they don’t know how to relate to other campers and they most certainly don’t know a campground’s “rules of the road.”
Start with the guy – or gal – driving into our park. Most will never have steered anything larger than a minivan – until the day they get behind the wheel of an F-350 towing a 40-foot fifth wheel. No additional training required! No special license needed! How much harder can it be to haul a 16,000-pound Big Horn than a carload of groceries? Except, of course, when it comes to backing up. Or navigating one of our narrow one-way roads on a hill, with tire tracks scoring the grassy uphill side of the curve. We’ve lost fences, had our trees clipped – in one memorable instance had a motorcoach drop off the side of a culvert.
Toy haulers are the worst, their novice drivers oblivious to the amount of overhang behind the rear axle. One such driver camping with us last year was so gun-shy – after hitting one of our trees on a too-wide turn – that he dispatched his teenage son and wife with walkie-talkies, fore and aft, to talk him through the park. I quail at thinking that he’s out on our highways, tooling along at a nervous 65 mph or trying to navigate city streets somewhere without a walkie-talkie escort.
BUT IT’S NOT JUST THE DRIVING THAT’S A CHALLENGE. With each passing year we get more and more RVers who have little to no idea of how to make things work. They don’t know how to flip on the breakers at our pedestals – or they flip everything in sight, no matter how explicitly marked, including breakers servicing our driveway lights, aerator pumps and WiFi towers, prompting us to get locks for those individual switches.
They don’t know about their unit’s internal GFCI outlets and how to reset them. They don’t know how to operate their propane space heaters, fail to heed our warnings to disconnect water hoses at night when the temperature is plunging into the teens and 20s, are clueless about turning off their antenna boosters when connecting to our digital cable system.
It’s as though these folks had bought an RV and been promptly showed the door with no more than a handshake and a hearty “good luck!” Yet at least new RV owners have a vested interest in learning what they don’t know; not so the growing legions of RV renters who sally forth with only the vaguest idea of what they need to do. Dump the holding tanks? Sure – and won’t any PVC pipe sticking out of the ground do the job? Which is why we’ve had hapless RV renters sticking their hoses into water valve housings, clean-out valves and anything else that looks remotely like it’ll accept 50 gallons of sewage.
Then there’s the whole intangible business of campground culture and what is or isn’t acceptable behavior. Experienced RVers have their own set of beefs: novice or oblivious campers who walk across others’ sites, play their TVs or music too loudly, ignore their dogs’ constant barking. We try to patrol for those kinds of transgressions and call out the obvious insults to proper decorum, but then there’s another whole universe of offenses that matter more to us than to our campers.
That would include the campers who drive across our grass, oblivious to the ruts their rigs are creating, because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The campers who disregard our many posted 10 mph signs, barreling along at twice or more that speed despite the abundant presence of ducks, children, folks on bikes and old folks out for a stroll, because 10 mph just seems so slow. The campers who park on an adjacent site simply because “well, there was no one there.” The campers who use their fire rings as trash pits, or who dump their ash trays on the ground, or who stand six feet from our propane station and its prominent “No Smoking” signs while, yes, lighting up a cigarette.
Most of the campers we confront about these missteps are apologetic; sometimes they even mean it. But there’s always the excuses and even straight-out denials: They were tired and not thinking clearly, or they simply didn’t know better, or there’s no way they could have been driving that fast – and of course they had been looking at their speedometers all along. Most of the time we don’t mention that we have two radar guns and usually know what we’re talking about, because that’s not really the issue anyway. The issue simply is that campers need to understand that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way; and while there will always be that small percentage of people who will never care about the distinction, most will. If they’re educated.
So that’s what we end up doing, a lot: educating the waves of new RVers who are washing over campgrounds everywhere. Helping them back into sites when all they want is to have a pull-thru. Showing them how to set their TVs on scan for our cable stations. Explaining yet again that we don’t want them parking on our grass. It’s an exhausting and sometimes stomach-churning business, and often leaves us yearning also for a simpler, more capable and aware age – if one ever existed.
Andy’s family-operated Walnut Hills Campground and RV Park is located in Staunton, Virginia, a short drive off I-81. Learn more at its website. The park receives a five-star rating from the staff of RVtravel.com.