Looking for a good place to go camping this weekend? Need to borrow a tent to make it happen? The same tools you use to find a new restaurant or save money on hotels or rides are finally coming to the outdoors.
How do you find new places to go camping? If you’re like me, you annoy the crap out of your friends with a long list of Must Haves, sent in text form.
Information around even organized campgrounds is incredibly slim and largely colloquial. The best source of it is other campers, but unless you have friends that camp more than you do, that information is essentially unavailable. The good news is, it’s obvious this is a problem and a few different people are trying to address it.
A few services have been around a while. ReserveAmerica has always been my go-to for campgrounds. It lets you check availability and book them online. Frills are limited though; there’s a couple pictures and, if you’re lucky, a map of the individual sites within a campground. It only covers campgrounds where it can rent sites; in California that’s 500 out of over 2,000. Augmenting that has, since the mid-‘00s been Tripleblaze, which allows people to leave reviews for campgrounds, hiking trails and even caves, as well as collecting pictures of them.
TripAdvisor is less camping-focussed, but does have some first person experience of popular campin’ spots available; particularly useful if you’re going abroad.
New sites are attempting to go further. ParkVisitor is another basic review aggregator that at least allows you to search parks by activity (i.e. mountain biking). More interesting are The Dyrt and HipCamp, which both have a much, much more modern layout and feature set. Dyrt doesn’t appear to have aspirations beyond providing information, but HipCamp has similar functionality to AirBnB in that it shows you reviews, pictures, videos and even custom write-ups for popular campgrounds, then allows you to book sites.
To take them all for a little test drive, I asked each site to show me Leo Carrillo State Park, a popular campground in Malibu that gives campers access to both mountain trails and a pretty beach. It’s the kind of place that’s so close to the city that it’s invariably crowded, noisy and dirty; but also the kind of popular location party campers and families alike will likely want to be researching.
ReserveAmerica shows four (bad) user-sourced photos, a write-up that appears to have been pulled from the State Parks website and a map of the various available campsites. Its main feature is allowing you to check availability and book, by site. There’s no review functionality of any kind.
TripleBlaze has two (bad) user-sourced photos and a (bad) music video one camper shot at the beach. There’s two reviews
ParkVisitor has some little icons identifying activities (watersports!), five short reviews and zero images.
TripAdvisor has 86 reviews. As you’d expect, they actually give you some worthwhile info too, like where to find the tide pools and the fact that you can bring dogs, so long as they stay on-leash. There’s 88 (good) photos.
The Dyrt knows where Leo Carrillo is on a map, but nothing else.
HipCamp does a little better with a single (non-representative) photo, a crowdsourced “tip” and the ability to book a site.
Yelp itself has, by far, the most reviews, with 203 spread across three different listings for the park. There’s plenty of photos and good advice.
Of course, what we’re seeing here is simply a reflection of the number of users each service has. HipCamp and The Dyrt have slick architecture, but desperately need to gain users if their service is going to become valuable. If the campground you’re looking for has been visited by users of those services, they give you the most possible camping-specific information.
Visiting one of HipCamp’s promoted campground pages, we see numerous (good) photos, helpful tips and, again, that ability to book right through that same site. The Dyrt is much the same, with helpful information on how and when to book, the best sites available in each campground and good, local advice like nearby services and whether or not there’s cell phone reception. With a user base, these could be great platforms. And both are heavily recruiting members of the public to participate. The Dyrt is giving away $3,000 in a review contest while Bay Area-based HipCamp is going the tech startup route and raised a $2 million seed last summer.
HipCamp tells us it plans to roll out a comprehensive service by state, starting this summer. It’s partnering with major outdoors brands to do so; expect to see and hear about it when it happens. The company also plans to offer a way for private land owners to rent their camping locations to the public with a service that mirrors AirBnb, just with a spot down by the river instead of a nicely decorated bedroom in Manhattan. Access to new, previously unavailable and special places to camp? Sign me up.
The other big hurdle to getting city folk outdoors is camping gear. It can be expensive, difficult to store and, often, it can also be befuddling to figure out what you actually need for a given activity.
Outfitters like REI have always had good rental programs, in which gear of reasonable quality is available at reasonable prices. But, it makes sense to move these services online, where they’re discoverable, searchable and scaleable as a result.
The Outdoor Exchange is a fractional-ownership club we learned about last year in which annual membership grants you access to tents, backpacks, kayaks and coolers, all shipped to your front door.
But, if you’ve got a ton of gear crowding your closet, why not make it work for you?
GearCommons aims to connect people who have a specific item of gear with people who need that item, but don’t want to buy it. Looking near me, in Los Angeles, I see a set of camping cookware available for $3/day and a two-person, ultralight backpacking tent for just $18/day. The service allows users to set a reasonable deposit amount, covering the cost of the gear should the renter ruin or damage it. Elsewhere, there’s everything from those common camping items to specialty pieces of gear like ice axes and GPS receivers; even kayaks. All of it looks to be close to new and reasonably high-end; it’d be a great way to rent something nice you need for a specific sport you don’t do often. You should also be able to get a good idea ahead of time if the person doing the renting is responsible or if the gear a person rents out tends to be as described. Like AirBnB, users of GearCommons rate and review each other publicly.
But again, these service lack users. Millions and millions of people go camping every year in the US; outdoors gear is a $100 billion/year business. Is this simply an idea before its time?
My feeling is that the rise of the sharing economy elsewhere — hotels, houses, rides — is such a promising, proven and well-liked model and that the outdoor space with its high barriers to entry — limited available information, high prices for infrequently used equipment — is so ripe for change that the rise of services like these is almost inevitable.
It used to be that you rented a car at an airport, paying too much money for something that would otherwise be cheap. Now you just have your own personal driver pick you up and drop you off wherever in a nice car, paying only for the time and miles you’re in it. Right now, you rent a kayak at an overcrowded tourist destination, paying too much for something that barely floats. Will it always be that way?
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.