What Will The Sharing Economy Mean for the Outdoors?

©istockphoto/LockieCurrie

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.