by Lisa Gregory – photography by Nikola Tzenov
Hipcamping: Campers are Finding New Ways to Discover the Great Outdoors on Carroll County Farms
The gate is always open now.
When Jeremy Willet’s family sold the farm that had been in the family for generations, the new owners built a gate to the property. And more often than not, when Willet would drive by, “the gate was closed,” he says.
But it would not remain so. The Willet family bought back the farm several years ago. And that closed gate is now always open, says Willet, welcoming family, friends and acquaintances.
And travelers. Or, more precisely, campers.
The Willet Family Farm, which is located between Taneytown and Westminster, is a participant in Hipcamp, an online marketplace company offering outdoor stays and camping experiences via a website and mobile app. Participants can stay on privately owned land and privately owned farms.
“The best way to explain it is an Airbnb for camping,” says Willet.
Through Hipcamping, farmers and landowners in Carroll County such as Willet, who was the first in Carroll County to embrace the Hipcamping idea, are opening up their private land to visitors who want to get away and enjoy nature and the peace and contentment that comes with it. And in doing so, they’re bringing landowners and farmers an additional source of revenue.
“It is money that is helping us to restore the old barn and fix horse fences,” Willet says of his farm. “It is income that is important to us.”
The Willet Family Farm consists of 13 acres in the middle of over 200 acres of farmland owned by various Willet family members. On his farm, Willet provides a traditional camping site and a “glamping” site for those less inclined to rough it. Glamping combines camping with glamour, and can include a heated tent and a sense of luxury, with blankets and pillows, board games and treats. The glamping tent on the Willets’ farm is provided by Suite Fika in Westminster.
Costs for the camping sites vary from place to place but run the range of between $30 to $55 locally, and $149 for glamping at the Willet farm. Due to county regulations, Willet and other Hipcamping participants can only host one set of campers at a time.
However, since 2019, Willet has hosted over 200 campers from across the United States, including visitors from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City. He has even had a couple of visitors from overseas.
So well-received has the Willet Family Farm been by campers that it has been named the No. 1 site in Maryland by Hipcamp, which based the ranking on bookings, reviews and ratings from campers. Outside Magazine also recently named it the favorite Hipcamp site in the state.
Those camping at the Willet Family Farm can purchase fresh eggs for their breakfast there, as well as other items. Or they can get them from neighboring farms. And Willet encourages campers to visit local restaurants, breweries and other area draws.
Hipcamp, which began on the West Coast in 2013, reached out to Willet in an effort to expand its camping options on the East Coast. Initially, he admits, he wasn’t so sure about the idea. “I read the email and was thinking, ‘Well, this could be spam.’” But then he rethought it. “We did a lot of research on our end. We wanted to make sure that their values aligned with ours. They did. It was a perfect match.”
Diversity and inclusion are especially important to the Willet family.
“They had zero tolerance for any discrimination whatsoever,” he says. “And that has been at the heart of our farm forever. It’s at the heart of our family, being a mixed-race family.”
And Willet has worked hard to make sure all feel welcome. In fact, as one enters the farm, there is a sign that says “Hate has no home here” in several languages. And the word Love is painted on the barn. “It’s the first thing you see when you come down the driveway,” says Willet.
“We’re welcoming guests from the city and urban and suburban locations,” he added. “And so of course, by doing that, we are going to get this beautiful opportunity to meet a whole array of people. And that’s what we love about it: meeting different religions, different backgrounds, different races, different economic statuses.”
While the house and backyard area are for the Willet family’s use only, there is still interaction taking place. “Sometimes we get to meet guests and our kids play together,” says Willet.
As the number of campers coming to the Willet Family Farm suggests, Hipcamping is taking off. And this has been especially true during the pandemic, with its accompanying shutdowns.
“We had families who were doing home school and traveling across the United States during COVID,” says Peggy Dean of Empty Cupboard Farm, which is situated between Taneytown and Westminster and is also a Hipcamp participant. “And people who were able to work from a camper on the internet.”
“For so many it was their first time camping,” says Benjamin Batten of Fiddlers Green Farm in Taneytown, another Hipcamp participant. “They were ecstatic to be out.”
Dean recalls one woman in particular who came to her farm to camp. “She would just sit under one of our big trees and read with her dog beside her,” says Dean, whose grandparents purchased the farm in 1918, and where there is a barn built in 1886.
According to Dean, the woman was involved with statistical research on COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. “She just wanted somewhere to get away,” says Dean, whose farm includes a pond for fishing and a fire pit. “She described the area as serene.”
Batten agrees that a lot of the draw of Hipcamping is getting away from it all. And he has just the place in mind.
“We’ve got this nice peaceful spot,” he says of a campsite on the family farm, which has been in existence since 1744, and where hemp-based CBD products are now grown and produced. “We’ve got the creek running by there, and it’s shaded in the summertime with the trees. And I think it’s just a good spot. It’s been a helpful healing place for a lot of people for a long time — family and friends. So I think that energy is felt when people come there.”
Tiffany Butnaru and her husband, Dragos, came looking for some of that peace with their two dogs, Cooper and Charles, in tow. On a chilly December day, the two came up from their home in D.C. to stay overnight at the Willet Family Farm.
“Even though the city’s wonderful, sometimes it’s nice to step away a little bit,” says Tiffany, who works for the Treasury Department. “When I was searching for a place to camp, I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is something really unique to be on a farm and to be with animals.’ We really love anything that’s unique or quirky. And we liked the idea of being on a farm but also close to civilization.”
For her and those like her, it is about more than just a place to stay.
“I think the reason Hipcamp has been able to get so much traction is because my generation — millennials and even the generation below us — are looking for an experience,” she says.
As for her own experience, Tiffany was especially impressed with the glamping tent. She oohed and ahhed as she surveyed the plush decor. Outside, Cooper, the younger of the couple’s two dogs, is running about happily, stopping once to introduce himself to a less-than-enthusiastic rooster.
“We live in an apartment so he’s loving this,” says Tiffany.
And he isn’t the only one. As she watches her husband attempt to build a fire while struggling with Cooper, who has now stolen a branch from the pile of firewood in the hopes of starting an impromptu game of fetch, Tiffany breaks into a big grin and a chuckle.
“This is so great,” she says.
Glamping is Just a Call Away
by Kym Byrnes – photography by Nikola Tzenov
Born out of a desire for her very own “she shed,” Heather Burker started Suite Fika, a new Westminster-based business that caters to those who want an outdoor experience that offers a little comfort and a touch of glam.
“I had always wanted a ‘she shed’ in my yard to have my friends over for a glass of wine or just a place to get away,” Burker said. “I started sending my husband links to websites to buy me a tent, and I convinced him this would be even better than a she shed. Once we set up the tent and had a few backyard gatherings, I thought this would be fun to offer to other people.”
She knew a lot of people would enjoy the tented, she-shed getaway — she also realized many people might not want to invest in a tent, along with furniture and decor. So a business idea was born, and Burker said she has been pleasantly surprised by how busy it has been.
Suite Fika shows up at your location with the tent and decorations, sets up, and then breaks everything down after the rental and carries it away. They set up in a variety of destinations, including back yards, campgrounds and privately owned properties.
“We are so excited that people have really enjoyed our little business,” Burker said. “I honestly just figured it would be nice to rent out a few times to make back a little of what I spent in furniture and decor. But I think people really enjoy that it’s a unique party idea, and a safe way to get away during COVID when people don’t want to travel too far.”
Burker said she likes working with clients to personalize the experience as much as possible, but there are some general packages to help folks determine what might work best for their needs. Here, in her words, are some of Suite Fika’s offerings:
Glamping Delivered: The Glamping Delivered package is our top of the line rental at $500. It is decorated from top to bottom, and guests have the luxury of having this at their own location. We really try to personalize the tent for this type of party, and everything is included from beds, chairs, plush rugs, inside and outside lights, movie projector, serving ware, etc.
Glamping at Willet Farm: Glamping at Willet Farm is a great option for those who really want to experience camping but maybe aren’t sure that they are up to “roughing it” and don’t want to spend quite as much. Glamping is, after all, “Glamorous Camping.” I like to explain that at Willet Farms they can experience all the beauty of the outdoors with all the comforts of home. It’s a fun little getaway for a couple or some friends. There isn’t electricity there, but we set up solar lights, and there is a firepit and Port-a-Pot as well. Starting price is $150.
Glamping at Gettysburg: This spring we are offering Glamping at Gettysburg/Battlefield KOA, a great in-between option with rates starting at $285. This is a good option for families that would like to try glamping but also enjoy all the activities offered at a larger campground. This campsite offers everything to keep a family busy — swimming pool, nature trail, playground, life-size games, etc. When they arrive at the campsite they can go right from their car to enjoying their stay, since we will do the setting up before they arrive.
Learn more about Suite Fika at www.suitefika.com.