Last weekend, my friends and I went camping at a private spot in Big Sur that has the only fresh water swimming hole in the area. It'd previously been off-limits, but thanks to a new service called Hipcamp, anyone can now book it online. How's it work?
The actual sunset you will actually see from camp.
The Best Campsite In Big Sur
Betty Withrow has lived in the mountains of Big Sur for 43 years. She's six miles down a rough dirt road, in a little hollow it takes serious effort to find, even with a map and directions. With mature apple, plum, fig and avocado trees, not to mention the redwoods that surround her property, it's about as close to heaven as you'll likely find on god's green earth.
And now, you can visit her there to go camping.
We did just that, organising a group of 15 people (the site's maximum) from San Francisco and Los Angeles and rendezvousing there to celebrate July 4th.
We've camped in Big Sur a bunch, first down in Limekiln State Park, which like everything at sea level is crowded, cold and damp. Then, on top of Prewitt Ridge, which is gorgeous, remote and warm, but does get crowded on big holiday weekends.
By booking Betty's place, a bit downhill from the Ridge, we bough ourselves complete seclusion and privacy, positively luxurious facilities (by camping standards, anyways) and that sweet, spring-fed swimmin' hole. While the Ridge a mile or two away was so crowded people had to turn around and leave and where campfires are currently banned, we knew we had our own spot reserved, complete with a permissible fire pit, kitchen, spring water and camp kitchen.
If you haven't been to Big Sur, it needs to be on your list. Rugged mountains come crashing down into the sea, covered in oaks up top and redwoods as you get lower down. Somewhere in between the ridges covered in golden grass, persistent marine layer clouds and rocky coast line there's real magic. No better sunset exists anywhere on earth.
So, it's a popular place to visit and camp. Along the Pacific Coast Highway, you'll find private resorts like Treebones, a few state campgrounds and a couple little turnouts where people park RVs. All of them are crowded, none deliver you full access to the area's natural beauty and, because that fog bank rolls in every night, you'll be cold and wet. Most people just don't get an experience that lives up to the promise, which is a shame.
And that's the problem with camping in organised campgrounds and accessible public land pretty much anywhere. You can book campgrounds, but campgrounds suck. Public land is what you want, but there's no guarantee someone else won't already be there and on it you're subject to many rules and restrictions. Enter Hipcamp.
Airbnb For Camping
It's no mistake that Hipcamp looks and feels like Airbnb. The venture-backed, Bay Area startup is trying to do for camping what that service did for vacation rentals. It aims to make stuff available that no one's had access to before, and make the experience easy and reliable both for the property owners and campers.
It does that by allowing you to search for and browse available spots, with good pictures, descriptions and details, obviously, but also like Airbnb it encourages campers and camp hosts to rate and review each other, giving you an assurance that your experience will match your expectation and weeding out bad apples.
"Over 60% of the United States is privately owned," explains Hipcamp. Its big idea isn't just to open up camping, it's to reap the benefits that outdoors recreation can bring to private land. "It is essential to the future of our planet that much of this land remains undeveloped to maintain wilderness habitats and corridors that allow plants and animals to thrive and migrate naturally. By connecting landowners who want to keep their land undeveloped with responsible, ecologically minded campers, we can use recreation to fund the conservation of this land."
Right now, Hipcamp has launched its "land sharing" program in California and catalogues a handful of properties. To scale, it's offering a $US500 bounty to land owners who sign up and to people who refer new land owners. Know someone that owns a beautiful piece of land? Send Hipcamp their way.
Hipcamp helps those land owners figure out insurance, fix up their facilities and aims to make the experience slick and easy for owners and campers alike.
It also allows you to search, research and book public campgrounds. Just now with a slick, powerful, modern interface.
The Hipcamp Experience
We were the first Hipcampers to visit Betty's property in Big Sur. The company had been out a couple weekend's previously to install signage and help fix up her outdoor toilets, shower, kitchen and other facilities.
After a little bit of a false start due to a stolen sign and subsequent navigation kerfuffles, we rolled into camp and were greeted by a friendly lady and her pet chihuahua. She showed us where everything was, then left us on our own.
Despite being way out in the middle of nowhere and obviously being of a rustic nature, the facilities were clean, well stocked and useful. Betty had laid in a pile of firewood for us to use. That alone solved a major logistical problem.
The meadow where we camped was just up a hill from Betty's house, but she struck the right balance of being there when we needed something (or just wanted to listen to her stories!) and letting us be when we didn't. We felt incredibly welcome on her property and were grateful to be there.
On Sunday, we packed everything up, loaded our trash on the Subaru's roof and waved goodbye. We told Betty we'd be back and we mean it; this couldn't have been an easier or more enjoyable weekend.
Total price? $US300. Or, with 15 of us, $US20 a head. That's enough money to net Betty a return and help her keep her land pristine while still being a hell of a bargain for an awesome weekend in natural heaven. She tells us she's looking forward to sharing it with more people. Go visit.
Camping's Problem, Solved?
"We don't think finding a campsite should be such a time-consuming, convoluted and confusing process," says Hipcamp. And they have fixed that, at least for the small number of public sites that have been fully populated with photos, reviews and tips and for the handful of private properties they have so far enlisted.
What Hipcamp needs now is users. If you have land you want to make money off of, sign up. If you want to find better places to camp, sign up. If you know someone who'd benefit on either side, send them the link. This is potentially something that could be valuable to all of us who enjoy the outdoors, let's help make it viable.
"Campers win, landowners win, Mother Nature wins," concludes Hipcamp.