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Startups bring camping into the age of Airbnb

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Blake Romenesko navigates a muddy trail to his campsite.
Blake Romenesko wears rubber boots to navigate the muddy trail to the campsite he rents through a the website Hipcamp.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Two years ago, Blake Romenesko bought 5 acres of land outside Duluth for a private backwoods retreat he calls "Trembling Gardens." 

  It's mostly swamp and marsh, but tucked in a forest of ash and birch he's erected a big tent surrounded by mosquito netting. A small solar panel provides a little electricity. There's an outhouse.

  He purchased the land for a personal getaway. But then he heard about Hipcamp — a website that connects private landowners with campers. He was intrigued. 

  The 25-year-old used to host travelers through a web app that put him in touch with people from around the world who slept for free on his couch. And he liked the idea of extending that sharing-economy model to his land. 

  His campsite is definitely not for those who dislike roughing it. The hike in is through a muddy swamp. But it's cozy, with a small space for a tent, a table and chairs, some Tiki torches and a fire pit. 

Blake Romenesko on his land outside Duluth.
Romenesko on his land outside Duluth. He recently began renting a campsite on his property through a website called Hipcamp.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

  Romenesko charges $20 a night. Hipcamp offers insurance coverage and a platform campers can use to find him. In return, it takes a 10 percent cut. 

  Alyssa Ravasio came up with the idea for Hipcamp after growing frustrated that public campgrounds in her home state of California always seemed booked.   

That's when she had her "aha" moment, "of looking around and seeing all these gorgeous ranches, and big open spaces with nature preserves, and land trusts," she said. Then she realized, "Oh my gosh, there's so much land that we currently consider just outside the scope of where we might want to be able to camp."  

Her idea was to unlock that private land for camping. At first it was tough to persuade landowners to sign up, she said. Then the company began to offer $1 million in liability insurance coverage to landowners. That was a "gamechanger," she said. 

  Now Hipcamp has 15,000 campsite hosts, up from just a couple thousand last year. 

  "It's a really neat thing, it's a wonderful way to share the land, to get people out," said Adam Lindquist, who joined this summer. He rents out two campsites for $25 each on his small vineyard near Northfield, Minn., and said he thinks Hipcamp will be a good way to make a little extra income off his land. 

  So far, he said, he's hosted about 15 groups. Some also take a vineyard tour. He thinks it could take off once more people learn that camping on private land is an option.   

Hipcamp currently offers about 20 private sites in Minnesota. Options range from renting a yurt near the Boundary Waters for $118 a night to pitching a tent next to a trout stream south of Rochester for $25.   

But the website recently added more than 1,000 sites across the country in just a week, Ravasio said, including many along the path of the total solar eclipse. 

  Meanwhile, another startup called Tentrr is growing in the Northeast. Founder and CEO Michael D'Agastino said his company plays a more active role in curating the campsites it offers. 

A Tentrr campsite.
A start-up called Tentrr is growing in the northeast.
Courtesy of Tentrr

  "We really strive to have beautiful, accessible private places for people to go," he said. "We're the anti-campground."  

So-called "camp keepers" pay $1,500 to join. In return, the company sets up a canvas tent and bed on a wooden deck and outfits the site with chairs, a camp toilet and fire pit. The average nightly fee is $127. 

  Forty percent of Tentrr's campers have never gone camping before, D'Agastino said.   

The company is adding two campsites a week. It's not in Minnesota yet, but D'Agastino said it plans to expand quickly, moving to the Pacific Northwest next.   

"We feel that there is tremendous demand for this product, and there's no alternative to the campground 1.0 model," he said. "We're offering something that we think is frankly better."  

Tentrr has raised more than $7 million in venture capital to take on what D'Agastino calls the "legacy" camping industry and try to peel away some of the 40 million Americans who camp every year. 

  So what do public landowners think of these sharing-economy upstarts? 

  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources isn't too worried about the new competition. At least not yet. State park campground occupancy has jumped 21 percent in just the last five years.

A Tentrr campsite.
Tentrr is not in Minnesota yet, but D'Agastino said it plans to expand quickly, moving to the Pacific Northwest next.
Courtesy of Tentrr

  "I think the more camping options we have in Minnesota, the more people we'll have out camping," said Pat Arndt, the DNR's communication and outreach manager. "This seems like it would be something new and different."