What Is an Iron Ranger in a Campground?

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A sign pointing to a campground.

There are park rangers who assist in national parks and campgrounds. There are Bark Rangers who visit national park sites with their furry friends. There are Junior Rangers who complete activities and earn badges. But have you ever heard of an iron ranger? 

Unlike those above, an iron ranger is an inanimate object. Have we now piqued your interest? Let’s look at what an iron ranger is, its function, and its advantages. 

Does Every Campground Have Staff?

If you’ve always stayed in an RV resort or campground with full hookups, you’ve likely always had a ranger or staff person to check in with upon arrival. Frequently, there’s a ranger station at the gate or an office building once you enter the property.

You might see a maintenance technician working on projects, a housekeeper cleaning bathrooms, or an activities coordinator playing games with children during your stay.

However, not all campgrounds have staff. Some primitive campgrounds, local parks, or federal lands campgrounds won’t have anyone to welcome you. You’ll find no check-in process or forms to sign.

You simply submit your payment by putting an envelope in a box and then find an empty site. These campgrounds rely more on guests to keep the property clean and orderly than other developed campgrounds.

What Types of Staff Work at Campgrounds?

Depending on the campground type, you may encounter maintenance workers, housekeepers, office staff, retail staff, activities directors, and more. There may be a staff person who rents kayaks or paddleboards. 

You may also see a staff person dipping ice cream or picking up trash. Large RV resorts have many staff members to keep the campground running efficiently. These are usually more expensive luxury RV resorts.

However, the cheaper locations like state parks or Army Corps of Engineers parks may only have a camp host. And unless you have a problem during your stay, you may not even have an encounter with this person.

The camp host lives at the campground for a season, welcomes new travelers, and provides answers for guests as needed. They may also be responsible for cleaning the bathhouse, keeping the grounds clean, and other maintenance duties.

What Is an Iron Ranger?

An iron ranger is an unattended fee collection box. These are simply metal boxes with a slot insert. Campgrounds that don’t have staff will use an iron ranger to collect payments.

Other places like parking lots, trailheads, and day-use facilities may also use an iron ranger. At the end of the day or week, someone will unlock the iron ranger and take the payments to the main office or headquarters.

Close up of an iron ranger box at a campground.

Are There Different Types of Iron Rangers?

Most iron rangers look the same. They might vary in size, but their design is the same.

Depending on the number of campsites and the campground’s popularity, one location might need an iron ranger with a 50-envelope capacity. In contrast, another location might need an iron ranger with a 120-envelope capacity.

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What Are the Advantages of an Iron Ranger?

The main advantage of an iron ranger is that there’s no need to pay an employee.

Whoever owns the campground will have to pay the upfront cost of the box but won’t have to pay an hourly rate or salary for a staff member. It might be $1,000 for a box, which pales in comparison to paying a staff member to be onsite.

An iron ranger is also simple. Guests arrive at the campground, put money in the provided envelope, and deposit it into the slot. Then they find a campsite and enjoy their stay. For less-busy campgrounds that only have a handful of campsites, it’s not worth paying a staff member to be onsite when this fee collection box can do the same job.

Is It Easy to Steal From an Iron Ranger?

Although they take precautions to ensure no theft, no self-pay station is 100% theft-proof. Unfortunately, thieves will find a way to break into almost any collection box. In Chugach State Park, just south of Anchorage, Alaska, six thefts occurred within two weeks in 2016.

A park ranger explained that they tend to come in waves. There will be a couple of years with no activity and then one year with a surge in thefts.

These iron rangers have a lock. But if thieves want in bad enough, they’ll find a way to break in and steal the envelopes.

Is it easy? No, but not impossible. It’s certainly a disadvantage to having these pay stations at campgrounds instead of people. With a staff person, thieves are less likely to attempt robbery.

Pro Tip: Before your next camping trip, make sure you know about these 10 camping rules you should never break!

Are Iron Rangers on the Way Out?

However, even with the easy accessibility and cheaper cost, iron rangers may not be the future. With more people paying with credit or debit cards instead of cash, these iron rangers are being replaced with more high-tech payment machines and mobile apps.

These self-serve payment machines only accept credit or debit card payments and are used at boat ramps, beaches, campgrounds, and parking lots throughout the U.S.

These machines have replaced some old iron rangers that only accept cash or checks. They still have the same function but allow visitors to use the form of payment they use the most.

Will Your Next Campground Have an Iron Ranger?

If you tend to stay at more luxurious RV parks with many amenities, you will likely never see an iron ranger. Perhaps you’ll use one at a trailhead or parking lot. But if you enjoy dry camping or staying in more remote locations, you’ll probably see an iron ranger sooner rather than later. 

Will it be a fancy machine that accepts cards, or will you need to pay with cash or a check? Do your research beforehand so you arrive with the correct form of payment.

Have you ever used an iron ranger to submit a camping fee?

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