Michael D'Agostino just wanted to get away for a relaxing weekend. A couple of years ago he was working in finance in New York and his life not really his own, he recalled. He and his wife drove to New Jersey and got the last campsite at a state campground.
"And we were across the car track from 40 or more people who were having a wiccan party on the night of the full moon."
He remembers people dressed in robes drinking mead under a disco ball. "It was like camping in Times Square."
The next morning, exhausted, they headed back to New York. "But on the way there, we saw a beautiful farm, and I said to my wife, ‘Man, if only we could go camping there.’ And then it hit me like a lightning bolt, what if we could go camping there?"
From that "ah ha" moment came his company, Tentrr. It allows people to book fully equipped campsites on private farms and rural homesteads from Southern Maine to Eastern Pennsylvania.
On the other side of the country, Alyssa Ravasio had a similar inspiration. She started her website, Hipcamp, at first just to help people figure out where to camp.
"But what I learned through doing that really quickly was that there was this bigger underlying problem, which was that all the campgrounds are booked," she said.
She too had the idea to try to unlock access to private land for campers. At first she says it was a slog to sign up landowners. But Hipcamp now has about 15,000 campsite hosts, up from just a couple thousand last year.
Blake Romenesko recently hosted his first campers on his five acres outside Duluth, Minnesota, which he calls “Trembling Gardens.”
The 25-year-old’s campsite is definitely not for those who don't want to rough 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 — and an outhouse.
Romenesko charges $20 a night. Hipcamp offers a platform for campers to find him, and $1 million in liability insurance coverage. In return, it takes a 10 percent cut.
"It’s a really neat thing, it's a wonderful way to share the land, to get people out,” said Adam Lindquist, who signed up this summer.
He rents out two campsites for $25 each on his small vineyard an hour south of Minneapolis, 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.
The website added more than 1,000 sites across the country in just a week recently, Ravasio said, including many along the path of the total solar eclipse.
Tentrr plays a more active role in curating the campsites it offers, sending out scouts to check out possible campsites before signing up landowners.
Landowners, called “camp keepers” by the company, 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. "We feel that there is tremendous demand for this product, and there’s no alternative to the campground 1.0 model. 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.
"I think the more camping options we have in Minnesota, the more people we'll have out camping,” said the DNR’s Pat Arndt. “This seems like it would be something new and different.”