The arrival in Canada of a new service for connecting private landowners with campers is bringing the sharing economy to a new category of user. But as ride-sharing and room-sharing did before it, campground-sharing is running headlong into local rules and regulations that in some instances ban the practice outright.
“What we see is the regulations and local rules can vary widely, and also how [the landowner] hosts: in some places it’s tent camping, in other places RV camping and in other places structures. It comes down to what they want to do and how their land is zoned,” said Tegh Singh Bedi, who is the general manager for the Canadian arm of Hipcamp, the U.S.-based online service founded in 2013 to connect campers with campgrounds.
Hipcamp launched in Canada in June, in partnership with Ontario-based startup Pitched. Since then, the service says it already has more than 700 hosts listing Canadian properties and it is adding campers by the day.
Globally, the service says it has enabled more than three million “nights under the stars” through its platform. But like gigantic sharing economy platforms Uber and Airbnb which have run into fights over local regulations, Hipcamp has also faced challenges from local municipalities over how land is zoned for use and whether private landowners can become campground operators overnight.
“We ensure our hosts are working with their municipality to fully understand how the bylaws are laid out. If we are made aware of any issues with a particular host, we’d work with them directly … in some cases we may take them off the platform,” Mr. Singh Bedi said.
However, it’s up to hosts to do their research and obtain any licenses, but they don’t need to provide proof to Hipcamp that they can legally offer a campground before they start booking stays or collecting revenue.
So while it’s easy to sign up and start hosting – but if a municipality comes with fines or enforcement, Hipcamp isn’t on the hook.
“It’s not a requirement of the on-boarding process for them to provide us with that … but it is a requirement of the on-boarding process for them to observe the laws within their jurisdiction,” Mr. Singh Bedi said.
Part of the appeal for a service like Hipcamp is that camping is having a moment. With the Canada-U.S. border still closed for casual travel and cottage booking services reporting record rental rates, people looking to get out of the house for a weekend are rediscovering the simple pleasures of a tent, a yurt or a parking spot for an RV.
In Ontario, some provincial parks report every weekend being booked solid until Labour Day. Leading into the summer, demand was so high that authorities also started cracking down on reselling because a secondary market had sprung up.
Canadian citizens and long-time residents can camp for free on Crown land for up to 21 days, but those looking for a more guided experience are increasingly turning to options like Airbnb and Hipcamp.
But newcomers to the service should be aware that in Ontario, many municipalities have restrictive rules for how long a trailer, RV or tent may be set up on private land. Unlike the short-term rental market that argued it had launched itself into a legal void, even unpaid overnight camping or RV parking on private land is often specifically banned by Ontario towns and regions.
Denise Gough-Rose, who is a seamstress and a home baker in Crediton, Ont., saw a social media advertisement for Hipcamp and decided to try it, launching her listing as Country Camping at Rosemanor for $55 a night.
“It’s a heritage farm and we have the middle property, we have two acres to ourselves with a great big yard at the side,” she said. “At night, the stars above are breathtaking, and you can hear the cows mooing. I’m quite a birder and there’s 20 or more different varieties here.”
Ms. Gough-Rose said she couldn’t get ahold of her municipality to find out whether what she was doing is legal. “I looked into it and couldn’t find anything,” she said. Currently, she offers RV camping with two parking spots and a fire pit. They don’t offer hydro, though they allow generators and there’s water but no sewer hookups.
The zoning bylaw of South Huron, the municipality that includes Crediton, is explicit: “The location or use of a mobile home in any zone is prohibited unless specifically provided for.” There are different rules for residential, agricultural or rural small holdings – but even if allowed, there are limits to how many nights a homeowner can use to park an RV.
Asked whether she would keep hosting if it required a license or inspections: “It would be a deal-breaker,” Ms. Gough-Rose said.
Other hosts The Globe and Mail spoke with had done no research on their local municipality’s rules, and some who preferred not have their names used suggested they’d like to stay below the radar of enforcement officials.
Dani Carlton (a photographer) and Jennifer McCabe (a realtor) offer two “glamping” campgrounds for visitors for between $150 and $170 a night at a 10-acre site the duo live on in the municipality of East Gwillimbury, Ont. Ms. Carlton said because the camping structures were not permanent, they were told they don’t need to apply for permits to host campers. (The first groups stayed over the Canada Day long weekend.)
“We’re pretty booked up already, I think we have two weekends left” for the remainder of the summer season, Ms. Carlton said.
But this does not follow the town’s zoning bylaw.
“The town’s zoning bylaw outlines that overnight, non-serviced camping is reserved exclusively for public or institutional lands. It does not allow overnight camping for ‘agri-tourism use’, therefore, the town does not have a permitting process available for this type of camping,” said Danielle Verneuil, a communications officer for the town, adding that the bylaw department would respond to infractions on a complaint basis.
Mr. Singh Bedi said Hipcamp expects hosts to comply with applicable laws.
“Anything that’s made aware to us, we take action,” he said. “What we are doing is a new type of concept and a new service … we are eager to collaborate and make this a reality so it’s safe and affordable for Canadians to get outside.”
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