What Will The Sharing Economy Mean for the Outdoors?


Within a few blocks of my house, I can bor­row a white­wa­ter canoe, a high-performance tan­dem sea kayak, a sprint kayak and a light­weight trip­ping canoe. And that’s in addi­tion to the five kayaks in my garage. I often joke that my neigh­bor­hood dou­bles as a kayak rental shop, the cur­rency of exchange being beer.

The “shar­ing econ­omy” has already rev­o­lu­tion­ized the taxi, bed-and-breakfast, and free­lance indus­tries. Many think its next stop will be the out­door indus­try. Is It? And what will it mean?

At its heart, the shar­ing econ­omy does two things. First, it allows peo­ple who have assets that sit idle—cars, spare bed­rooms, and their time—to turn them into income. For cus­tomers, it’s a run around tra­di­tional ways of doing things: catch a ride from Uber or Lyft instead of hail­ing a cab, stay in a spare bed­room instead of a hotel, rent a car via GetAround instead of Hertz. It offers choice: stay­ing in an Airbnb gives trav­el­ers a choice of neigh­bor­hoods where hotels may not be plen­ti­ful. It also offers a chance to sup­port a real per­son rather than a large com­pany like Hol­i­day Inn.

If the shar­ing econ­omy thrives on big items that are expen­sive, hard to store, and that spend a lot of time not being used, can the outdoors—with lots of gear that spends weeks or months in base­ments idle—be far behind?

The answer is prob­a­bly no. In fact, it already may be start­ing. Sportzy.com is estab­lish­ing a web­site where indi­vid­u­als can rent out their sports and out­door gear, rang­ing from a pair of trekking poles for $3 a day to a 32-foot cabin cruiser on Lake Union at $100 a day. It’s just launch­ing, so most cities have lit­tle avail­able. But busi­nesses are like it are just around the cor­ner, many just start­ing out.

©istockphoto/Jag_czHow Will It Work?
How the shar­ing econ­omy will work with out­door gear in prac­tice is also a mys­tery. Obvi­ously, causal renters of skis, canoes, or other gear will have a wider set of options for poten­tially lower prices. It may also offer more spe­cial­ized options like rac­ing canoes or carbon-fiber road bikes that may not be avail­able to rent in many places, and that out­fit­ters cater­ing to a broader audi­ence may not stock. Addi­tion­ally, it could appeal to trav­el­ers who sim­ply don’t want to haul their own gear when they fly, which is one of the more com­mon rea­sons peo­ple look to rent gear.

The logis­tics may be another story. One pit­fall is the run­ning around that may be involved in pick­ing up gear from dif­fer­ent places, espe­cially for out-of-towners. Rental shops that offer full out­fit­ting will have an advan­tage here. Com­mon and inex­pen­sive gear that isn’t par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to store, like back­packs, may have lit­tle appeal, except for items like camp stoves that are dif­fi­cult to bring on air­planes. The mar­ket will likely focus on expen­sive, spe­cial­ized, and difficult-to-store items: rafts, canoes and kayaks, spe­cialty bikes and so on.

A lot will hinge on the user-lender rela­tion­ship. Seri­ous ath­letes and hob­by­ists will always want their own gear, which they’ll cus­tomize to fit their own uses. They may also be reluc­tant to loan a care­fully fit­ted bike to some­one who may mess with the body posi­tion. So the over­lap between “expen­sive, rare and big” may not over­lap that much with the highly per­son­al­ized way we approach high-end gear.

©istockphoto/Saro17The Down Side?
The shar­ing econ­omy has been con­tro­ver­sial. Legal wran­gling over whether Uber and Lyft dri­vers are inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors or employ­ees is wind­ing its way through the courts, with impli­ca­tions on pay, ben­e­fits, insur­ance, and lia­bil­ity. Hotels that face com­pe­ti­tion from Airbnb and Vacasa com­plain that they undergo safety inspec­tions and pay local hotel taxes that pri­vate res­i­dences don’t. These con­cerns might not apply to peo­ple rent­ing out some out­door gear that’s been sit­ting in the base­ment, but the kind of impli­ca­tions that might arise is a big unknown. One big con­cern is the value of instruction.

Many out­fit­ters use entry-level ser­vices like ski and kayak rentals as a way to intro­duce peo­ple into a sport, pro­vide and incen­tivize instruc­tion, and bring peo­ple into the cul­ture around ski­ing, climb­ing, sail­ing, or pad­dling. While the rental may be the first thing that gets cus­tomers in the door, it often comes with an empha­sis on safety, learn­ing, and con­nect­ing to com­mu­nity. Some­one rent­ing a kayak out of a ran­dom garage isn’t likely to get that. They may already be a pas­sion­ate pad­dler, liv­ing in an apart­ment, and don’t have room to store an 18-foot sea kayak; in that case the con­cern may be moot. But for the begin­ner just look­ing to get intro­duced, the casual out­door shar­ing econ­omy will miss this part. Rentals are often the most prof­itable part of a shop’s oper­a­tion, and they usu­ally sub­si­dize the less prof­itable instruc­tional pro­grams that are the core of build­ing future pad­dlers, skiers, and so on. If we’re not care­ful, we might weaken the scaf­fold­ing of the sports we love.

In the com­ing years America’s pop­u­la­tion will con­tinue to urban­ize. The shar­ing econ­omy will grow. Busi­ness will start and the indus­try will change. The trick will be to fig­ure out how to build the out­door cul­ture and skill devel­op­ment in this brave new world.