Disruption has so much baggage now due to the unintended consequences of various social media platforms, not to mention other tech juggernauts, that another disruptor does not make me think I can’t wait to try it. And disrupting camping? Hmmm. For these and other reasons this article is at the top of my reading list for this week:
Can a startup save the wilderness by disrupting it?
In Northern California, booking a public campsite is a blood sport. The Bay Area overflows with young people who have R.E.I. Co-op memberships and drawers full of sweat-wicking apparel—people who spend Friday and Sunday nights packing and unpacking their Subarus, who own cat-hole trowels, who love to live here because it’s easy to leave in pursuit of the sublime. From Big Sur to Mendocino, many public campgrounds are booked months in advance; Yosemite is a lost cause. It’s common practice to wake at five in the morning to hover over a computer, poised to nab a site as soon as it becomes available. This is both a regional issue and not. Across the country, America’s national parks are overcrowded and overbooked. The reservation system is riddled with bots. A cottage industry of apps and services has emerged to monitor campsite availability and, in some cases, provide alternatives.
Around 2016, I began to notice that friends were passing around listings from Hipcamp, a platform for campsite booking. People shared the listings with some suspicion: life in the Bay Area encourages a wariness of V.C.-subsidized services, and the campsites in question were all hosted on private, not public, land—a vague affront to the more hardcore among us. Still, the Hipcamp Web site was clean and cheerful, with a millennial-friendly user-experience flow reminiscent of Airbnb’s. Filters selected for swimming holes and rest rooms; aspirational, high-res photographs featured serape blankets and speckled tin mugs. For the neurotic planner who likes to know what she’s getting into, Hipcamp was reassuring. Most important, it had nothing but open sites in areas where even minimally desirable public campgrounds were booked solid for months.
Camping, on Hipcamp, is loosely defined. The company’s mission is simple—“Get more people outside”—and its marketing tends to take a gentle, inclusive tone. Posts on its blog, Journal, include “All the Animals You Can Meet at a Hipcamp Farm Stay” and “9 Fresh Ideas to Repurpose Your Old Wooden Pallets”; its target audience isn’t intrepid backcountry survivalists but families, mixed-athleticism friend groups, and the adventure-curious. In total, the site lists about three hundred thousand campsites. Around eighty per cent are on government land, and can’t be booked directly, but the other twenty per cent are privately owned and often available. The minimum land requirement for a Hipcamp site is generally just two acres, and some listings look like ordinary suburban back yards. There are also off-grid plots, R.V. hookups, Airstreams, yurts, ski huts, farmhouses, tepees, tiny homes, tree houses, cabins, and cottages. Many listings have electricity and plumbing and would not be out of place on Vrbo or Airbnb. Some hosts offer vineyard tours or cheese-making tutorials; others, directions and a padlock combination.
Alyssa Ravasio, Hipcamp’s founder and C.E.O., is not a purist. For her, camping is a leisure activity, an escape valve, a business opportunity, a wealth-redistribution system, and a political strategy: an avenue to environmental awareness, engagement, even activism. Exposure to the outdoors, she hopes, will catalyze interest in efforts like rebuilding the agricultural system, increasing biodiversity and soil health, and providing cleaner water. “I want people to remember they’re part of nature,” she told me. “I want to fundamentally shift our relationship with the natural world and start to respect the animals and the plants and the water and the soil, and to see ourselves as part of that whole. I want people to stop being so afraid of climate change. I want people to stop being depressed and sad and overwhelmed and anxious. I want people to get curious and excited about what they can do and start to see themselves as the solution and not the problem. Geologists have decided we’re in the Anthropocene now: our impact on the earth is what defines the era. I want people to get over their shame of that fact. This is where we are. Let’s make the Anthropocene a good one.”
On a warm afternoon earlier this fall, I visited Hipcamp’s headquarters, in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. The office felt like a workspace set up in the loft apartment of a Greenpeace activist with family money. Braided wicker love seats with plump salmon cushions were arranged around a well-worn rug scattered with meditation pillows. On the walls were photographs of sun-flooded landscapes, taken at Hipcamp properties, and a poster with a quote from Walt Whitman: “Resist Much. Obey Little.” In a conference room verdant with potted plants, Ravasio pointed out the window, toward a gigantic mural of a monarch butterfly that had gone up on the front of a building a few blocks away. “I think the monarch butterfly is this super amazing symbol,” she said. “If we can get people excited about butterflies, we’ll be good, do you know what I mean? The butterfly, to me, is the litmus test.”
Ravasio is thirty-one years old, with cyan eyes, wavy brown hair, and the unblemished skin of a young person diligent about hydration and sunscreen. She is earnest and calm, with an air of self-possession, and transitions smoothly between startup-speak and the sort of mellow, New Age lexical habits of longtime Californians. While she’s talking, her hands often look as if they’re rehearsing a card trick; on both middle fingers are small, lettered tattoos, which, during our first conversation, I struggled to read surreptitiously. Hipcamp had recently raised a Series B of twenty-five million dollars, but Ravasio—dressed in black yoga pants and a teal T-shirt bearing the logo for Touristenverein die Naturfreunde, a nonprofit outdoors club on Mount Tamalpais—was more excited to talk about a meeting she’d had, in 2016, with Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a professor at Chiba University known for coining the term “forest bathing.” She was particularly taken with Miyazaki’s scientific approach to studying the somatic and psychological effects of time outdoors. “When we look at the rise of chronic illness and depression and anxiety—but also cancer and autoimmune and heart disease, all these things that are so high in America right now—going outside can be huge,” she said. “Just giving your body time to calm down. We don’t calm down anymore. We’re always on, always on, always on, always on. I really think the trend of people getting outside is more of a movement that will continue to grow and build—and so it’s also a growth market.”
Hipcamp’s core key performance indicator, or K.P.I., is “nights outside.” Broadly speaking, nights outside are on the rise. Camping has always been a popular American pastime, in part because it is relatively affordable, but it has seen a surge in popularity in the past few years. According to the latest edition of an annual survey conducted by Kampgrounds of America, in 2018, about seven million new households in the U.S. and Canada have started camping at least once a year since 2014. (The total number is now just under eighty million.) Ravasio chalks the rising popularity of camping up to two main factors: the “pressure cooker” of contemporary life, and Instagram. “To use an annoying Silicon Valley growth term, I see a growth loop there,” she said. “As more people go outside, they post on social media. And they create moments of inspiration, where people are, like”—she gave a small, theatrical gasp—“ ‘I can go outside. And it’ll feel great!’ And then more people go outside.”
She pointed to a decorative loft bed in the open-plan office, where she sometimes meditates, or tries to. “Self-care,” she said, sighing. “Have I meditated, have I done yoga, and do I have a killer executive team that I’ve delegated to effectively?”…
Read the whole article here.