The Airbnb of camping comes to Oregon

Sara Schumacher
A Hipcamper at a site near Portland

A San Francisco-based platform has big ambitions for Oregon: Ease the overcrowding of public lands and close the urban-rural divide.

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Entrepreneurs have convinced Portlanders to pay $975 for a dorm style room with communal kitchen, $9.50 for a grilled cheese sandwich and now $129 for a tent campsite with no drinking water.

The latter listing comes courtesy of outdoor-oriented sharing economy startup Hipcamp. On Tuesday the San Francisco-based platform officially launched in Oregon. Private landowners, largely in rural areas, are offering everything from heated cabins to patches of grass. Think Airbnb with tents instead of houses.

The high-priced sites on Hipcamp are symptomatic of overcrowding on Oregon’s public recreation lands. But the site’s more reasonable listings, as low as $10, could provide the cure. Many of the 3,500 private sites border state parks and national forests, where public campgrounds, parking lots and bathrooms overflow. The Oregon State Parks system serves 2.5 million campers each year, eighth among the 50 state parks departments.

AlyssaRavasio Hipcamp tentHipcamp CEO Alyssa Ravasio. Courtesy Hipcamp

“Oregon is an amazing state for outdoor recreation because it has such a good public lands system,” says 29-year-old Hipcamp CEO Alyssa Ravasio. “At the same time a lot of the public land is at or over capacity. We’re excited to unlock more spaces in Oregon.”

Hipcamp serves recreationalists seeking either rustic outings or glamping, which Ravasio defines as staying in a structure. Seventy seven percent of Oregon Hipcamp bookings were for tent or RV campsites, according to HipCamp data. Many of the tent sites offer glamping features — wifi, or “morning tea or coffee on request ”— at glamping prices. 

The remaining 23% were for structures (cabins, treehouses, yurts, domes, or provided RVs / trailers). 

From her rangeland on the outskirts of Bend, Carolyn Carry-McDonald watched for 12 years as Tumalo State Park campsites along the Deschutes River filled weekend after weekend. For this upcoming Saturday, according to ReserveAmerica, all 84 sites, from as low as $21, are booked.

“People are drawn to the Deschutes area, and we don’t have the facilities to cover that,” Carry-McDonald says.

The school-to-career program manager rented a porta-potty and began offering $35 Hipcamp sites on her 10-acre property. In four weeks she made $700, and her listing jumped to the second most popular in the state. She’ll spend the cash on hay, irrigation and other drains on her wallet.

“Now there may be a positive side financially,” she says, “instead of the constant drain of owning the property.”

Hipcamp KindredSpiritsCabin AnnNguyenKindred Spirits Cabin, the most popular Hipcamp destination in Oregon. Ann Nguyen

Hipcamp’s ambitions reach beyond crowd control. The platform hopes to unlock the outdoors for underrepresented groups, to “democratize” camping. 

Ravasio says, however, that she doesn’t yet have data on the percentage of Hipcampers who are people of color or low-income people. Carry-McDonald says most of her guests are white, though she noted there’s not much diversity in Central Oregon to begin with.      

Most Hipcamp users (55%) are women. Carry McDonald has hosted “quite a few” women travelling alone, including one 19-year-old girl.  “For them it might feel safer, or at least more private and comfortable” than a public campground, the property owner says.

Hipcamp could also move Oregon closer to a European model of private land use. Brits, for example, enjoy the “right to roam,” to walk freely across private land, provided they leave no trace and close livestock gates behind them. Property owners even help out “ramblers” with turnstiles and deliberate gaps in fencing. Hipcampers resemble ramblers with tents and bigger pocketbooks.

Along with shifting the traditional thinking about private land, Ravasio hopes to bridge the urban-rural political divide. Through Hipcamp, progressive urbanites motor off to remote Eastern Oregon farmlands owned by conservatives. From reading reviews, Ravasio says she’s seen positive results.

“We’re bringing people together across urban-rural divide,” she says, “with that shared set of values with the outdoors.”

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