Hipcamp, the AirBnB of camping, offers unique experiences like communing with crystals
You likely won’t find a 1,600-pound crystal at a state park. But you will find them at the campgrounds of Dragon’s Gate near Tenino.
Dragon’s Gate is just one of thousands of privately owned properties that are members of Hipcamp, an online booking site that matches private landowners and campers.
What Airbnb did for hotels California-based Hipcamp is now doing for camping. The site is making small, off-beat and sometimes quirky properties available to tent campers, RV users and the occasional glamper — luxury camping.
Some of Hipcamp’s higher-end properties in California wine country can rent for $500 or more a night. But most of the company’s 300,000-plus sites are cheaper than state parks. Some go for as little as $15 a night.
Hipcamp founder and chief executive Alyssa Ravasio started the company in 2013 as a portal to make camping on public lands easier.
After a couple of years, she discovered that public camping hadn’t kept up with the growing demand for it. The website was fine, users told her, but everything was booked.
That’s when she hit on the idea of using private lands as an adjunct to public and commercial campgrounds.
“More people want to go (camping) than can go, and increasingly people also want to get outside in ways that are maybe are a bit more accessible if you don’t have the gear and are more unique,” Ravasio said in a phone interview from her San Francisco offices.
In 2015, the company began working with private landowners to offer unique, one-of-a-kind experiences that public campgrounds can rarely offer.
“Even if you don’t have all the gear, there are tons of great Hipcamps you can still go to,” Ravasio said. “And if you do have all the gear, there’s tons of Hipcamps you can go to.”
The properties Hipcamp accepts fall in line with the ethos of getting people outside, she said. Motels are politely turned away.
Ravasio said she isn’t trying to muscle out public camping. She’s adding to it with more options.
The company’s bookings have grown 200 percent year over year the past three years, Ravasio said.
“People want this,” she said.
Hipcamp has about a dozen properties in Pierce and Thurston counties. Dragon’s Gate could be the most unusual.
The thousands of pounds of crystals on its 126 acres of meadows and forests are only one aspect of what draws campers, said owner Kathleen Auriel Greco.
“The real premise of Hipcamp and of Dragon’s Gate, regardless of the crystals and what they lend to it, is about getting people out in to nature and reconnecting with nature and teaching them and helping them remember how healthy it is for us to get outside,” Greco said.
Campsites at Dragon’s Gate range from meadows to forest. Privacy isn’t guaranteed but it’s highly likely.
2019 marks Dragon’s Gate second season with Hipcamp. So far, Greco, husband Moz Wright and their helpers have been happy with the company.
Greco charges $35-55 a night for her campsites.
Hipcamp charges Greco and its other hosts a flat 10 percent on all bookings. The company offers guidance and even conventions where hosts can learn how to create a better experience for them and their guests.
Greco said Hipcampers want only basic necessities: picnic tables, fire pits, outhouses, hot showers and the ability to bring their dogs.
“We’re very pleased to say we provide all of those,” she said.
Then there are the crystals.
“The majority of the people are interested in having a little time meditating with the crystals,” Greco said.
In a secluded meadow, a gazebo holds a 300-pound smoky quartz crystal. “It’s one of the smaller ones in the collection,” Grecco said.
The crystal is surrounded by small offerings: dried flowers, bowls, art and other crystals.
“The energy is really high in here,” Greco said.
The gazebo is the only building in sight. Dragon’s Gate alternates between forest and meadow. Paths are kept mowed.
“It makes it a lot easier for our hipcampers to move across the landscape and also to know where it’s OK to camp,” Greco said.
Wright said some of their campers need to adjust if they’re used to public camping.
Instead of turning on music, he advises them, listen to nature. Most cell phones don’t have service on their property. That pleases Greco and Wright.
“You are actually quiet enough to experience the natural world,” Wright said.
The property does have its human-made amenities.
A pool, made from faux and real stone, has a hot tub as well as a grotto embedded with crystals that glow at night — thanks to fiber optics.
“The families love the pool,” Greco said.
A commercial kitchen in an octagon-shaped building can handle weddings and large events.
Guests can camp in established campgrounds or a secluded forest clearing at Dragon’s Gate. Either way, they won’t see much of each other.
That’s in keeping with Hipcamp’s standard of three tent sites or fewer per acre. Properties of 20 acres or fewer are required to have toilet facilities, but larger properties can be treated more as wilderness areas.
There is no maximum fee hosts can charge, but the minimum is $5.
“Hipcamp only makes money when you make money,” Ravasio said.
Owners might want to open their property for only a few weekends a year or just for a special event like 2017’s total solar eclipse.
“What a great way to unlock some income with an asset you already own and probably aren’t fully utilizing,” Ravasio said.
Hipcamp isn’t interested in having its landowners fall victim to an impromptu Woodstock.
“You’re not going to see us marketing around Coachella,” she said. “We could totally make a lot of money doing that, but that would not be aligned with our values and our community.”
Instead, Hipcamp associates itself with natural events like the recent California super bloom, butterfly migrations, fall foliage or the dark skies movement.
To lessen owner’s liability concerns, Hipcamp offers a free $1 million insurance policy for all its hosts.
HIP HOST, HIPCAMPERS
The Carbon River runs milky white in early summer as it brings down Mount Rainier’s glaciers one drop at a time.
The rushing water and tumbling rocks are some of the lures that bring a steady stream of Hipcampers to Pat O’Brien’s five acres situated between the river and Pioneer Way East, just outside Orting.
O’Brien, 34, lives on the property that he purchased last year. He commutes every day to his work in Tacoma.
When home, he plays host to the car campers that set up along a forested levee on his property.
O’Brien has created a convivial campground. A piano sits in a three-sided shed. String instruments sit on top of that.
“It’s pretty interactive and fun,” O’Brien said of the property, which is called Bumps and Bruzas.
O’Brien, a towering and gregarious man, greets all his campers.
“I like to meet people and talk,” he said. “People find it to be more personable than a state park because it’s my home. Growing up, I always wanted to be a park ranger. Now, I get to do it from my house.”
That doesn’t mean that Hipcampers have to be extroverts or socially inclined.
“Some people go, ‘I want the farthest (campsite) in the corner, and I just want to unplug,’” O’Brien said.
O’Brien charges $25 for the night, year round.
In the short time he’s been operating, he’s had guests from around the world. “Peru, the Congo, Australia ...,” he said.
Bremerton Navy man Kris Maleport brought his family for a week-long getaway. It was the family’s first Hipcamp.
The couple found the website easy to use and informative, they said. But it wasn’t their first choice.
“Initially, we were looking at state parks and federal parks, and those were always booked up,” Maleport said. “That’s what we liked the most about Hipcamp, being able to see the availability before we had to go too far into the whole process.”
Maleport and his wife, Casey, were taking their three girls, ages 9, 13, and 14, on a series of day trips to Mount Rainier, Snoqualmie Falls and other Washington sights. They also were enjoying the solitude of Bumps and Bruzas.
“State parks, they tend to be a whole bunch of people on top of each other,” Maleport said “That was the big thing for us. Having some privacy while still being able to camp.”
A random check of campgrounds in the Washington State Park system in early summer found many campgrounds booked through the season.
Tent sites at Cape Disappointment State Park at the Columbia River were going for $32, but every spot showed it was booked for August weekends.
In addition, the state system’s website isn’t always easy to use.
“The next reservable dates are between Dec 31st 1752 and Dec 30th, 9999,” the site read inexplicably at one point.
Like the Maleports, Michelle and Jeremy Cheung of Lake Forest Park were having their first Hipcamp experience at Bumps and Bruzas.
The Cheungs have five or six camping trips planned with their daughter Logan, 3, this summer, including at state campgrounds.
“This was easier,” Michelle said of the Hipcamp website. They also appreciated the personal attention from O’Brien.
“We are city slickers through and through,” Jeremy said as he attempted to pound tent stakes into the rocky levee which connects with the Foothills Trail.
O’Brien uses the money he makes from Hipcamp to help him clean up and improve the property. It had truckloads of garbage on it when he bought it.
Despite O’Brien’s high customer satisfaction ratings on Hipcamp, his site is not going to appeal to all tastes. If he does get a bad review, Hipcamp administrators contact him to see if the situation can be remedied, he said.
“I had someone come out and complain there were bugs,” he said, still somewhat mystified. “Welcome to the outdoors. There are ants on the ground.”