Private-land camping startups offer alternative to public lands

Sarah Gilman
High Country News
camping in mountains
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

On a sticky June evening, I pull onto the narrow shoulder of U.S. 30, 12 miles northwest of Portland, Oregon. Cars speed past my little Tacoma camper as I stroll down a short hill singed yellow by the heat wave. Nearly hidden from view behind rambunctious apple trees is Carey Haider’s two-story Quonset hut. Blackberry brambles creep along its edges, growing into a high thicket on the other side of the railroad tracks that run less than 20 paces from his back door. Beyond a towering power line, more mushroom clouds of greenery explode along the banks of the Multnomah Channel, blocking it from view.

Haider, who sports a beard and suspenders, leads me past an overturned toilet to piles of sledgehammered sheetrock and siding. There, he points out a flat spot where I can park and lay my head for the night. “It looks like a meth house right now,” apologizes the 31-year-old graphic designer and photographer. He bought the property in December and is in the midst of overhauling it. “Whatever,” I tell him. “It beats KOA.”

I mean it, too, even though Haider’s planned noise-blocking fence, camp trailers and wood-fired hot tub aren’t yet in place. Finding a private, pleasant spot to sleep outdoors, especially near a city, can be tough. Try a pullout or parking lot, and you’ll often find a police flashlight in your face at 2 a.m. And state and national park and forest campgrounds overflow with generator-grinding RVs. Haider has signed up with a new Portland-based startup called LandApart to provide campers with another way: Access to private land via an online service.

“We wanted to improve the camping experience” — especially for folks who aren’t sure where to start, says CEO and cofounder Ven Gist. “A lot of them look on public lands, which are awesome, but also overused. And, a lot of times, they don’t go because they think sites are unavailable or will be too crowded.” Meanwhile, he says, the potential supply of private land is enormous, and campsites and event spaces can provide landowners with extra income and incentive to keep it undeveloped.

Generally, landowners set their own rules and prices, and the company facilitating the transaction takes a cut. Land-Apart sites, geared more toward primitive camping, now range from $5 to $60; Hipcamp’s are pricier, from $30 to $300 for a group geodesic dome.

Like Haider’s place, LandApart is under construction. The company, which is ironing out details with invite-only guests and 20 to 30 mostly Northwest-based hosts, aims to offer everything from backyards to ranches and to open its website for general use by fall. Only a handful of sites offer similar services. Venture capital-funded San Francisco startup Hipcamp, already a clearinghouse for public-land camping info, launched its own private-land sharing initiative this summer. According to founder Alyssa Ravasio, the company is working with 50 to 60 hosts and had 56 California sites bookable at press time, with 50 more in the pipeline. And, foreign-based Campr and Gamping (think garden camping) can set you up with landowners around the world, though Western U.S. offerings are sparse.

Generally, landowners set their own rules and prices, and the company facilitating the transaction takes a cut. Land-Apart sites, geared more toward primitive camping, now range from $5 to $60; Hipcamp’s are pricier, from $30 to $300 for a group geodesic dome.

Nathanael Siemens anticipates being in the middle of Hipcamp’s range. The drought hastened the sale of his family’s almond orchard, and he’s hoping the ocean-view group campsite he’s listing will help support the new farm he’s running on 120 acres outside Lompoc, California, where he and his wife grow and mill grain. With courses in cheese making and friends staying to help out, “it’s become a learning farm,” Siemens says. “I hope people come because they want to hang out with animals or learn to milk instead of busting out coolers and beers and using our property as a launch pad.”

That vision fits well with private-land camping’s sharing-economy business model, which targets urban Millennials more interested in unique experiences than owning lots of stuff. But, companies are thinking bigger, too. “We want to move more landowners into a protected space,” says Ravasio — and eventually blur the line between public and private land to support recreation and preserve wilderness corridors. Campsites could financially bolster open space and even conservation easements — wherein landowners exchange development rights for tax benefits — and provide taxpayers more access to what they’ve paid for.

It’s too early to tell if that will pan out, says Darla Guenzler, executive director of the California Council of Land Trusts. Still, “if people have more ways to enjoy and connect with the outdoors, their appreciation will grow. There are a lot of ways to protect lands other than having big iconic parks.”

But, building and sustaining a large inventory of campsites may prove difficult if financial rewards aren’t high enough — especially since hosts would be liable for accidents and commercial insurance can be expensive. The first wave may be mostly larger landholders who have policies for existing operations, says LandApart’s Hosted Lands Manager Dallas Hemphill, who is listing sites on his family’s 500-plus-acre cattle ranch near Philomath, Oregon.

Haider is essentially offering his backyard, but it’s zoned commercial/residential, so he has commercial insurance. And, though the income will be nice, he’s more excited about offering people a cheap but interesting haven off the beaten path. “That’s kind of how I travel, too,” he says. “It all just comes back to a good story.”

After Haider leaves, I wonder what story I’ll tell about this place. It won’t include the trains that Haider says roll through slow as ghosts, because when I walk the tracks in the failing light, none come. And, it won’t involve being murdered by bloodthirsty hobos because the human-like silhouettes I spot in the distance never move. If I didn’t have to work tomorrow, I could visit the clothing-optional beach on neighboring Sauvie Island. Or jog in Forest Park, a public preserve just to the south. I lie in my sleeping bag and stare toward the Multnomah. The highway traffic trickles to silence and the forest creaks with frogs. As I drift off, I hear what I imagine to be the channel itself, whispering on its way into the arms of the Columbia.

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