Here & There is a weekly newsletter on a variety of outdoor and travel topics, and part of Mountain Gazette.
I’ve previously written about complicated world of campsite “bots” and campsite availability notifiers. Last week, Hipcamp launched Hipcamp Alerts, a service in partnership with Campflare, to provide campsite availability notifications for free.
The new feature fits nicely into Hipcamp’s recent work related to open data and equitable access in the outdoors. They’ve been a longtime proponent of a more open Recreation.gov API, and more recently they integrated different types of map layers into the Hipcamp app — a feature that other mapping services like Gaia, OnX, and others bundle into a paid “Pro” subscription.
“For 10 years, Hipcamp has advocated for open data in public campsite reservation systems, and providing this availability alert system for free is the latest in our work toward an equitable outdoors. You may see other brands charging for this same service, but we’re committed to keeping public data free for everyone.”
In addition the map layers, they’re committed to providing their new campsite alerts service for free — although it’s a bit unclear what affect Hipcamp actually has on this, given that Campflare is already free. It also doesn’t hurt that Hipcamp will be able to market their inventory of private land campsites to campers already frustrated with a lack of availability at federally managed campsites.
The bundling of these different types of services, while a laudable move towards more accessible data, might actually make them harder for consumers to find. I use map layers on Gaia GPS and CalTopo because they’re mapping-focused tools, with a wide variety of features tied directly to tracking, planning, and more. I don’t go to Hipcamp (or Airbnb, or Booking, etc) for maps. An interesting approach might be to release a separate app focused on open data for camping, with the power of Hipcamp’s marketing and brand behind it.
There’s also value in having simple, focused, value propositions. It might be difficult to acquire organic searchers looking for campsite alerts, because the majority of Hipcamp’s SEO juice is around camping/campgrounds. People are likely to still land on Campflare and CampNab directly because of SEO (although Hipcamp is currently running search ads against those queries).
More about Campflare
Hipcamp Alerts are powered by Campflare, which was founded in 2020 by two brothers. As interest in the outdoors surged in the COVID era, Carter Harrison and his brother stumbled across other players in the campsite notification space – the most prominent of which is CampNab, a paid service.
After digging into how these services worked, the brothers launched Campflare, with a strong stance against charging campers for cancellation notifications. Their system now supports all campgrounds that are reservable on Rec.gov, 23 state parks, and most permits. The free notification service has grown significantly, with over 3 million notifications sent in the last three years.
It’s a tough line to walk – making the service available to all and offering it for free is an admirable, if difficult, path. Development time isn’t free, hosting isn’t free, and computing power isn’t free. While Campflare does offer a way for users to give donations, Harrison says the service still costs him money to run every month, chipping into his personal savings. A big driver behind the development of the Campflare mobile app was to lower their costs by utilizing push notifications (sending text messages isn’t free either).
Campflare was approached by a major website in the camping space (not Hipcamp) with an acquisition offer. However, they were concerned by the terms of the deal, which involved integrating the tech into a single platform and charging users for access. Instead, Campflare chose to double down on their approach to accessibility and the Campflare API, which anyone can use to integrate Campflare notifications into their own applications. They hope to continue developing the API and become a robust hub for outdoor data — including integrating additional sources of camping availability data from private campgrounds and other reservation providers.
As always, there are trade-offs
Harrison acknowledges that accessibility (especially with regards to outdoor recreation) can be a double-edged sword. The market for cancellation notifications exists because high interest led to people booking campsites far ahead of time, even if they weren’t sure they could use the reservation. This breeds frustration for many, as available inventory is reserved in seconds. A highly accessible notification system could lead to a similar result, where hundreds (or thousands) of people are notified about the same campsite cancellation causing a mad rush to claim.
That said, the Campflare API still has a unique opportunity to be a sort of connective tissue between disconnected reservation and availability data across the systems of different providers. And based on the stellar reviews, it’s a service that campers are truly appreciative of.
Harrison, who is entering his senior year of college, remains optimistic about the future of outdoor recreation and hopes that he can sustainably work on Campflare after college while maintaining a commitment to providing this service to campers free of charge.