When I began pitching my tent at a shaded campground in Virginia last month, a little girl at the adjacent campsite stood watching me for a moment.
"We have a new neighbor!" she exclaimed to her sister. I smiled and waved and then turned my focus to wrangling tent poles.
These days, the value of a slight change in scenery and community cannot be overstated. So it's no surprise that many of us have turned to camping — a pastime inherently suited to seclusion and social distancing. There's nothing quite like a focus on basic needs — shelter, food, water, beagle contentment — to dislodge pandemic anxiety. Toss in some wildlife sightings, waterfalls and scenic overlooks, and you've got the perfect (and inexpensive) recipe for getting away.
After a couple of successful nights camping in my backyard in April, I decided to venture farther afield and turned to three camping-related start-up companies for help finding, assessing and booking campsites.
Hipcamp, Tentrr and the Dyrt, born of frustration with conventional camping recommendation and reservation systems, make camping more accessible by streamlining the campground search and evaluation process, simplifying booking (sometimes), creating a community of campers who share reviews and advice, and actually augmenting the number of available spots — helpful at a time when campgrounds are fuller than normal.
Ultimately, the camping nights I booked using these websites weren't more spectacular or memorable than those I arranged using traditional methods. In fact, the camping highlight of the summer wasn't planned at all. It featured an 11th-hour detour to Badlands National Park in South Dakota, a stumble across a free campsite with resident buffalo and prairie dogs, and a night sky glittering with stars, horizon to horizon. But in some cases, these platforms — which are still smoothing out some rough edges — proved invaluable. Whether you're a camping ace or a roughing-it rookie, take them for a spin.
Shortly after my co-pilot, James, and I pulled up to our first Hipcamp site, just south of Missoula, Mont., our camping neighbors — a couple from West Seattle en route to Yellowstone — asked whether we had scrap paper to start a fire. Soon, they were offering hot coffee to the humans and a strip of bacon to the beagle. When the sun set behind the mountains in an eruption of pinks and purples, we all faced the show, in awe.
Hipcamp was founded in 2013 by Alyssa Ravasio, who told me recently that she wants to get more people outdoors so they will fall in love with nature and want to protect it. She also explained that there is a huge problem with public funding and overcrowding at campgrounds.
"That's where private land came into play," she said. Hipcamp's pull is partnerships with landowners, many of whom are small farmers or ranchers, creating entirely new camping destinations.
Today, the San Francisco-based company is often called the Airbnb of camping. The experience is smooth and user-friendly, even if you're a novice camper. You can search by state, city or ZIP code, swipe through alluring photos, and filter by amenities and activities, including stargazing and swimming holes. (Airbnb also offers unique camping stays in barns, campers, dome houses, earth houses, tents, trains and yurts.)
On Hipcamp, users can find beach camping, forest camping, treehouse camping, vineyard camping, retro trailer camping and glamping with breakfast included. Some sites are cabins, some include toilets and showers, and some are arguably not camping at all. Like those on Airbnb, hosts can sell additional services such as wine tastings, yoga classes, nature walks and pine nut foraging.
Ravasio said she enjoys the story behind each listing, such as a host who is using her earnings from Hipcamp rentals to care for land that has been in her family for generations. One of her favorites is a former commune in Northern California, now a 230-acre working farm that rents geodesic domes for $425 a night. Most campsites I explored on the site seemed to be in the $25 to $50 range, and I have seen them as low as $10.
We didn't get the host's story when we stopped in Montana, but the site was available an hour before we were ready to stop driving. The listing said the spot bordered a wildlife reserve, and the description for the yurt, next to the tent area, said the views are "life changing." It showed stunning shots of mountains and wildlife, but it didn't show pictures of the portable toilet or the large garage across from the campsite.
But for $25, plus a $4.50 Hipcamp fee, we were pleased to have a safe place for a utilitarian overnight stay, and the views — while not life-changing — inspired a shared moment of joy. As we fell asleep in the tent, Hammy sat at my feet and stared at the campfire and his new friends, probably thinking about bacon.
In addition to private spots, Hipcamp lists national, state and regional parks for 387,000 campsites, making it hard to beat for one-stop shopping. Searching for nearby spots as we traveled through North Dakota, we used Hipcamp to find Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park just south of Minot (which we booked through the park website since some state campgrounds aren't bookable on Hipcamp).
At another point, after a long day of driving, we looked for camping in Wisconsin, northwest of Madison. James searched on his phone and found a spot for $45, and I simultaneously searched on my Garmin GPS, found a listing and picked up the phone. Turns out we were both looking at Cedar Hills Campground. The man on the phone said he had spots available for $25 and that it was a clothing-optional property: "You OK with that?" After 880 miles of driving, I would have been OK with campers in clown costumes.
We rolled in, paid cash and set up camp near a ridge. The three of us stretched our legs on a short walk, during which we chatted with two friendly guests who wore nothing but hiking boots and bug spray.
Less than an hour after Hammy and I showed up at a Tentrr site in Lillington, N.C., to meet our beagle and human friends from Raleigh, we heard a crack of thunder. Within minutes, the skies opened angrily, and an hour of heavy rains followed. It wasn't perfect camping weather, but we were perfectly happy to have the protection of Tentrr's canvas tent.
Tentrr, as with Getaway, which rents tiny houses in natural settings, has its own private, plug-and-play lodging sites — which means you can pretty much show up with a toothbrush and spend every minute relaxing in nature. No hauling gear, no wrangling tent poles.
When the rain began, we unzipped the large canvas tent, cozied up on the bed (a comfy queen with fresh linens) and opened a deck of cards. Each electricity-free site, located on about 10 acres of private land, includes an extra pop-up dome tent, Adirondack chairs, a picnic table, a fire pit, a grill, drinking water, a solar shower, a wood-burning stove and a portable, eco-friendly camp toilet.
About 70% of the company's 860 listings are these signature sites, starting at $100 a night, but they account for 90% of its bookings. (The rest are backcountry sites.) The company, founded in 2015 and based in New York, has locations in 41 states and Puerto Rico, more heavily concentrated in the Northeast.
Chief executive Anand Subramanian said Tentrr, whose sites are also bookable through Airbnb and Expedia, mostly targets young travelers who want to camp within a two-hour radius of home.
"Millennials don't want to leave the city and go to a campsite with 50 other people right next to them," he said. "They want privacy. They want to check out."
With increased demand during the pandemic, the company is now also setting up camp in secluded sections of state parks. The signature Tentrr tents are available in Utah, Michigan, New York and Maine state parks, with more states on the horizon.
Tentrr is still refining its operation. I found it frustrating to not be able to search by ZIP code on the website, and when I needed to reset my password, the process took three hours. At one point, I had to cancel a weekend reservation because of a rain-filled forecast (full refund if it's more than 72 hours out), but after the weekend, an email prompted me to review the property I had never visited.
Subramanian said his team is working on improvements, and I'll be patient with Tentrr because the camping itself was exactly what I wanted — a relaxed getaway, a quiet visit with friends and the calmness that comes with knowing I wouldn't need to spend a day cleaning wet camping gear back home.
When I thought about booking a campsite in Virginia in August, I was looking for 24 hours out of the city and a place to paddle. I entered "Virginia" into the search bar of the Dyrt, a camping review and ratings site, and looked for campgrounds on the water within an hour of Washington. I often get discouraged reading reviews online — it's time-consuming, and I'm skeptical of the reviewers.
But I felt more comfortable reading reviews on the Dyrt, which seemed like neutral ground compared with sites on which hosts and guests rate each other and may feel compelled to review positively. Although there's nothing stopping each campsite's staff from supplying a bunch of five-star ratings, I went in with an open mind and soon came to appreciate the site's grass-roots spirit. The Portland, Ore., company's co-founder, Kevin Long, compared the platform to Yelp and said that they have been developing it for seven years, focusing largely on building a community.
The Dyrt lists more than 44,000 public, private and RV campgrounds (including all the Tentrr locations) and has 1.2 million user-submitted photos, reviews and tips.
In March, the company launched the Dyrt Pro, which allows paying members to access the entire database offline — useful if you're off the grid. Members also get discounts on campgrounds and gear and access to two very cool features: the trip planner and the maps that show free backcountry camping areas in national forests and on public lands.
The Dyrt has contests that encourage writing reviews, with extra points if you're the first to review a campground. It also allows users to track camp visits on a profile page, a nice feature if you tend to forget the awesome places you have camped.
The platform can be overwhelming until you understand it is primarily a place for research, not booking. (Long said that will change in 2021, with hundreds of thousands of bookable sites.) I found it easiest to search without set dates — since you need to check availability with the campground anyway — and then zoom into different locations. I steered clear of the campground that had "biting flies and mosquitoes," according to one review, and settled on Pohick Bay Regional Park, 25 miles southwest of the District of Columbia, which had 11 positive reviews out of 12. I studied a few maps to understand the distance between water access and camping, and then I booked my night through the park's website.
Hammy and I pulled into camp late afternoon, waited out a thunderstorm in the car and then launched my paddleboard in the bay. The next morning in my tent, I remembered that Long had challenged me to leave a review on the Dyrt. At the time, I figured I would conveniently forget about his request — historically, I've enjoyed leaving reviews even less than reading them. But now, I thought, I'm part of the community. Who wants to be a freeloader? Not only would I leave a review for Pohick Bay but also for Cheboygan State Park on Lake Huron in Michigan, where I stayed in July. In the quiet of early morning, meditating on ratings culture, I found peace.
As the light gleamed through the tall canopy of trees, I packed up the tent and dressed for an early paddle before returning home. I glanced at my neighbor's quiet campsite, bidding the girls a silent farewell. Then I snapped on Hammy's life vest and drove toward the water.