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Like Airbnb for Campers: Hipcamp Booms to Meet Surging Demand
Though the site is widely compared to Airbnb, hosts say the campground platform can avoid the older company's pitfalls by preserving the natural surroundings that attract guests.
CEDAR MOUNTAIN — An unpaved road at the DuPont Bike Retreat plummets into a narrow valley shaded by bigleaf magnolias and brightened by pink-white mountain laurel blooms.
A spring feeds a clear, chilly pond. Eastern towhees sing nonstop. Evenings bring spectacular displays of blue ghost fireflies.
If not for the presence of the gravel road and the absence of three-sided shelters, the small, widely spaced campsites — fitted only with picnic tables and fire pits — could pass for stops on the Appalachian Trail.
Which is why the Retreat has become the go-to mountain getaway for Kathryn Kyker, who has visited more than a half-dozen times in less than two years: it’s like “backpacking,” she said, but without the strain.
“Official campgrounds can be so heavily used and without a lot of trees around,” said Kyker, 60, of Athens, Ga. “You don’t get that same sense of being in the forest, and here you really do.”
She and her husband, Alan Bowden, represent a growing trend in camping, and the Retreat, on the southern edge of DuPont State Recreational Forest, an exploding segment of the campground market.
Sales of recreational vehicles — especially camper vans like Kyker’s — have boomed far beyond the holding capacity of public campgrounds.
This, in turn, has driven the growth of the Hipcamp listing platform — invariably described as Airbnb for campgrounds — which allows property owners including the Retreat’s Tod Schmidt and Cathie Docherty to offer outdoor rather than indoor spaces.
Or helped drive this growth, I should say, because it’s not just RV camping that’s more popular than ever, but camping in general, according to industry giant, Kampgrounds of America Inc.
The company projects that, compared to last year, about 400,000 more families across the country will camp out over this Memorial Day weekend, the start of the peak outdoor vacation season.
To be sure, sales of RVs have followed the same general trend as the larger outdoor industry: a historic boom during the Covid-19 year of 2021 followed by a lull with the renewed availability of other travel options. But even 2022’s sales of nearly 500,000 recreational vehicles were nearly double those of a decade earlier, according to the RV Industry Association.
Meanwhile, the nation’s total stock of public campsites — 607,014, according to the association — barely exceeds peak one-year sales of RVs. As a prime local example of the tight supply, good luck getting a spot at Pisgah National Forest’s Davidson River Recreation Area. It’s booked solid this weekend and is mostly full through June.
“We have folks booking sites months before they are intending to camp,” said Kristen Sikorsky, assistant recreation director for the forest’s Pisgah Ranger District.
Which helps explain why overall demand for Hipcamp sites has climbed by 600 percent since 2019, according to Lydia Davey Crosby, the company’s head of communications, while demand for its RV sites in particular has soared by 1,500 percent.
“In a nutshell, with the popularity of RVs, there aren’t enough campsites to accommodate everyone,” said Tom Dempsey, founder of and chief executive officer of the camper maker, SylvanSport.
“It’s really propelled this need to find alternative places to camp.”
This, in turn, has pushed his industry to make vehicles that can be untethered from traditional, full-service campgrounds, Dempsey said, units equipped with solar panels, wastewater storage tanks and water purification systems.
He told me this in February, which was the first time I’d heard of Hipcamp. Considering that it was founded a full decade ago, our conversation left me feeling distinctly unhip.
But maybe because of the San Francisco-based company’s West Coast origins, or because its real growth has come relatively recently, a lot of my outdoorsy friends also said they were unfamiliar with the platform.
For a long time, so, even, was Katlyn Mobley, a SylvanSport marketing consultant. She learned about it only a few months before opening Nero Coffee Camping, a Hipcamp listing near the Crab Creek Road entrance to DuPont, in 2020.
Some hosts, nationally and locally, offer deluxe stays — an A-frame at Nero, for example, or a yurt in Cedar Mountain. And along with a total of 12 primitive, $50-sites suitable for tents, pop-ups or small RVs, the Retreat rents two apartments in its main building and has plans to add more units when it completes the renovation of its Glass Feather Lodge.
But Hipcamp is mainly about opening up privately owned natural land for camping. Guests can get away from crowds. Hosts don’t need to provide hookups or space for bus-sized RVs.
“I have a really special site in the mountains that I like sharing with people,” Mobley said. “It’s not going to be this polished, perfect thing. It’s my yard and my (Welsh) Corgi is going to be running around.”
The “Sharing” Mindset
At some point, of course, people getting away from crowds can become crowds themselves or, at least, add to the crowds flocking to public lands such as DuPont.
It attracted a record 1.36 million visitors in fiscal year 2021, a number that fell only slightly the following year and that, in recent months, has once again been trending upward, said Kirsten McDonald, the forest’s information and education supervisor.
And Airbnb, to which Hipcamp is so often compared, offers a looming cautionary tale as it is increasingly viewed as attracting throngs of tourists and gobbling up housing stock.
Could Hipcamp bring its own downsides? Yes, but probably not anytime soon. For one thing, it’s still not that big. The platform lists about a dozen destinations in or just outside of Transylvania, most of them offering only a handful of sites.
Also, a lack of impact is the whole point of Hipcamp. Undisturbed nature is the main draw for guests such as Kyker, who said she’d been spending her weekend cycling, birding and wading among blue ghosts. It also tends to attract hosts who appreciate such experiences, which they want to preserve and “share,” a word, or variant of it, that comes up all the time in descriptions of the platform.
Hipcamp’s website urges property owners to “join the land-sharing movement.” Mobley reserves a wall at Nero to allow guests to write comments, she said, and “there are a lot of words like ‘sharing’ and ‘communal.’ It’s that kind of mindset.”
“Our plan for the site has always been to keep it private for campers and not stack sites on top of each other,” Docherty said. “The people we get through Hipcamp have been really great. (The company) says in its literature that guests are supposed to leave it better than when they came, and the people who are on the site are much more in tune to doing that.”
And when I asked Schmidt about the couple’s reasons for starting the Retreat, he offered two:
“I like to build stuff,” he said, and “We have 37 acres. Why wouldn’t we want to share it with people?”
The Retreat’s entrance at the top of a rise on Reasonover Road is marked by both a sign and, leaning below it, an ancient, gold-colored Huffy bicycle. A long driveway leads through thick woods to the Retreat’s largest building, which contains Docherty and Schmidt’s home and the two apartments.
They are avid cyclists, they said, sitting on a nearby patio, and long-time fans of Transylvania and its mountain biking trails.
“We’ve been coming up here for years,” Docherty said.
After the onset of the pandemic — and Schmidt’s serious, 2020 cycling accident on the roads of their former home, Charlotte — they decided to buy the one-time grounds of the Glass Feather Studio, which they opened as the Retreat in August of 2021.
Schmidt, 53, was able to keep his remote information technology job with the Nature Conservancy. Though Docherty, 54, left her software support position at a trucking company to manage the campground full time, they don’t expect it to bring in “living money” any time soon, Schmidt said.
After walking across a garden to the lodge, they pointed to future accommodations on the second floor that are now rented out long-term. Other features at the lodge, available to all guests, showed that stays at the Retreat are actually a lot more luxurious than backpacking. And it established a major theme of the tour, the one related to Schmidt’s love of building stuff. The running narrative was of projects completed, projects in the works, projects in his long-term plans.
Some of the most striking jobs were finished long ago by the studio’s owner, including an ankle-high glass panel of butterflies on the lodge’s side porch and a series of similar plates high on a nearby wall featuring goldfinches, blue birds and a cardinal.
“Beautiful stuff,” Schmidt said.
He has installed a hot tub on the other side of the lodge and a nearby metal-walled outdoor shower with an entrance offering expansive views of Henderson County’s Pinnacle Mountain.
“People rave about the outdoor shower,” Docherty said.
In the category of partly completed jobs is a full indoor bathroom with that same view mirrored in green-and-blue tilework and, spread across the deck, a bridge railing being slowly formed into an arch by an array of clamps.
A subsequent ride on an electric golf cart led past two hilltop campsites a short walk from the comforts of the lodge and suitable for two-wheel-drive RVs. At the bottom of the hill, Schmidt came to the ten remote “pondside” sites that are mostly reserved for tents or pop-ups on four-wheel drive trucks.
These have been leveled, mulched and provided with firepits, and they are stocked before each guest’s arrival with “starter bundles” of firewood.
But less work has been done here, less work is planned, and most of the jobs are aimed at either preserving the forest or making it more accessible by bicycle.
Schmidt and Docherty have transplanted the ferns and mountain laurels that were cleared to create the sites. They hope to treat the hemlocks to extend life spans inevitably shortened by the invasive woolly adelgid. Though a switchback still needs work, Schmidt and Docherty have built a loop trail that emerges on Reasonover less than a quarter-mile from DuPont’s Fawn Lake entrance.
It allows them to advertise “ride-in, ride-out” access to guests, but it also means fewer cars at the often-crowded Fawn Lake parking lot, fewer vehicles grinding up the gravel incline or humming past on Reasonover.
Schmidt parked the cart and stood to look up at the towering hardwoods and savor the constant birdsong and lack of traffic noise.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I like it down here.”