If your friends’ lack of kayaks keeps spoiling your dreams of organizing flotillas in nearby lakes, weep no more: last week, a small group of New Jersey men formally quit their jobs to focus on The Outdoor Exchange (OX), a subscription-based gear closet.
The brainchild of outdoor enthusiast and startup veteran Dariusz Jamiolkowski, five-week-old OX gives subscribers access to a catalog of high-end, expensive gear. Basic subscriptions to OX (there are a few options, the cheapest of which is $100) allow users to rent one item per week. You can rent more items at 10 percent of each additional product’s value. OX recently started an Indiegogo campaign to boost its membership, and expects to be “fully operational” by July, after which point basic subscription costs will double.
So far, most of the rentals come from New Jersey (OX is based in Fairlawn), but subscribers hail from California, Colorado, Florida, and even England. Jamiolkowski estimates the young company rents about 10 items per week, and he hopes to attract more than 1,000 total subscribers by the end of summer, mainly by preaching the company's cause at big events like the Philly Folk music festival and relying on word of mouth.
But while OX is still young (currently it only has a couple hundred paying members), it's run by seven business- and tech-savy teammates whose resumes are padded with names like Lockheed Martin and Novo Nordisk. Jamiolkowski officially left his position as Handybook’s vice president of finance in February after being accepted into startup incubator TechLaunch, while marketing lead Adam Hackett quit his day job on June 6.
That team has come up with a unique gear-sharing model. Unlike GearCommons—another peer-to-peer program that depends on its users to supply gear—OX stocked its warehouse full of gear by working directly with manufacturers and distributors. The majority of the 300 products in its inventory were provided by companies like Black Diamond, Hobie, Maverick, and Folbot, a foldable kayak manufacturer. It's a relationship that benefits both parties.
“The issue (Folbot’s) having is that they have a great product, but it's hard for somebody who hasn't been in a foldable kayak to spend $1,200 on a foldable kayak,” Jamiolkowski said. “So we're putting butts in the seats for these guys. We're gonna get people to try the product and nine out of 10 people are gonna try it and say it was great, but one person is gonna end up purchasing the kayak...And our customers are going to be happy because they get to use a premium product at a low entry-point.”
The company is still working out some kinks, including how to streamline shipping costs. For New Jersey residents, OX will drop off and set up gear at trailheads within 25 miles of its warehouse for $20. But the idea of spending $100 a year on shared gear doesn’t sound as good if you have to pay an additonal $200 in shipping.
This week, OX began testing what its founder calls the Trailblazer Program. For a set $74 per year, subscribers can ship all their rentals for free within the continental United States. Ultimately, the team hopes to open local warehouses where subscriptions are most concentrated to help defray costs.
You may be wondering, “What happens if the gear gets damaged?” Well, Jamiolkowski and his team have set up a system to incentivize good gear treatment. OX rates both customers and gear internally when products are returned. If a customer gets low enough marks, she can’t rent gear anymore. “In order for this to work, it's gotta work both ways,” says Jamiolkowski. “Have you seen Meet the Fockers? We're building the Circle of Trust.
“We have families to support and mortgages to pay for, but we strongly believe in what we're doing, based on everything we've done so far to build a very successful, not only business, but a community for outdoor enthusiasts,” he says.
Next summer, some 110 million visitors will enter America’s National Parks. Among the most enthusiastic will be the paddlers running whitewater sections of the Merced River through Yosemite. That’s because, for the first time since the invention of modern whitewater kayaks and rafts, the National Park Service is allowing them on parts of the river that offer some of the most scenic and challenging rapids anywhere in the world. The opening up of the Merced is part of a much larger project, five years in the making, that will attempt to alleviate road traffic problems, as well as roll back some of Yosemite’s early, ill-conceived development—the ice rink in the shadow of Half Dome will be moved—while allowing more access for some of the sports that have come to define modern adventure.
The Merced River Plan, as it’s called, is a small but significant example of a transformation under way in our national parks. Last October, in a speech before the National Press Club, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced an “ambitious initiative … to inspire millions of young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors.” Among her goals is getting ten million urban kids into the parks by 2017, a response to the country’s evolving demographics and the aging of park users. At Yosemite, the average age of visitors is 38, with the largest group between 46 and 50.
Jewell’s vision of inclusivity should be enthusiastically supported by anyone who cares about the future of our park system. I say this despite the fact that it falls well short of what we need. Because, while she has the right idea in reaching out to new communities, like her predecessors, she’s ignoring the people who are most desperate to be allowed in: the paddlers, mountain bikers, and other adventure-sports athletes who are banned from many of the nation’s best natural playgrounds. It’s an outdated stance that overlooks the role these activities now play in our relationship with wild places, and it seriously undercuts public support for an expansive and growing park system.
Since the Park Service was founded in 1916, managers have struggled to decide which activities to allow. The congressional mandate is to leave the land “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” “Not dented, not scratched, but unimpaired,” says Mike Finley, a former superintendent at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and several other national parks, who now heads up the Turner Foundation, media mogul Ted Turner’s family land-conservation outfit.
Of course, “unimpaired” and “enjoyment” have always been fuzzy concepts, open to interpretation by whoever happened to be making the rules at the time. From the outset, commercial cattle grazing was grandfathered in at a number of parks. Then, in 1957, Congress approved Mission 66, an unprecedented ten-year, $700 million series of construction projects intended to improve infrastructure by building thousands of miles of roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, gift shops, and maintenance bays. The parks as we now know them are a reflection of this single act. In his 2007 book, Mission 66, Ethan Carr, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes that the act “came to symbolize … a willingness to sacrifice the integrity of park ecosystems for the sake of enhancing the merely superficial scenery by crowds of people in automobiles.”
As Carr notes, Mission 66 certainly opened the parks to more people, but it was widely viewed as a disgrace for the Park Service. Oddly, the backlash hasn’t so much been against cars or hotels or sprawling RV campgrounds but against recreation, which many preservationists came to see “as the primary agent of … destruction.” Officially, superintendents, who have wide latitude in determining what’s allowed in each park, weigh the impact of activities like kayaking against that “unimpaired” mandate. Unofficially, though, as Finley explains, the debate is both simpler and more philosophical: “You can’t roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel, nor should you.” Which is to say that adventure sports are banned in parks for cultural reasons.
What all this has left us with is phenomenal natural areas that are for the most part managed like drive-through museums. Meanwhile, a growing number of outdoor athletes, who should be among the most committed park stewards, have been ostracized. The nonprofit Outdoor Alliance, a Washington, D.C., umbrella group for human-powered-advocacy organizations like American Whitewater, climbing’s Access Fund, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), has 100,000 members and skews toward a Gen Y demographic. By comparison, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the historical champion of the national parks, has 500,000 members with a median age in the sixties.
“There’s a real relevancy problem with the parks,” says Adam Cramer, Outdoor Alliance’s executive director. “They’re shutting off vectors like bikes and kayaks for people to have the kinds of meaningful experiences that are the genesis for a conservation ethic.”
Indeed, many young people fall in love with wild places by playing in them. And yet, in a number of instances, park authorities have taken moves to curtail sports. Last December, Death Valley National Park canceled the iconic Badwater Ultramarathon, citing safety concerns for runners in the heat. And despite intervention from Colorado senator Mark Udall and governor John Hickenlooper, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge was denied a permit to use roads that pass through Colorado National Monument.
“It’s a case where the paperwork hasn’t kept up with the sports,” says John Leonard, a ranger in Denali National Park, which requires guides and clients to be roped together much of the time on Mount McKinley, effectively banning guided skiing. “Out of one side of our mouth we’re saying we want millennials to come to the parks, and out of the other we have all these bureaucracies in place that make everything difficult.”
The result is that many wilderness-loving athletes find themselves opposing new public-land designations because the added protections would get them barred from areas they currently use. This dynamic was revealed starkly in 2011 when bikers and climbers sided with motorized off-roaders in opposing the Hidden Gems Wilderness Area near Aspen, Colorado, which would have locked out all three groups. (In the end, the IMBA and others successfully advocated for backcountry land that was bike-friendly but not open to development.)
In another instance of odd bedfellows, last February Cynthia Lummis, a Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, introduced the River Paddling Protection Act, which would give the Park Service three years to figure out how to allow boats on Yellowstone’s waterways. In February, it passed the House of Representatives. It’s hard to say whether the bill was a politician representing her constituents or a shrewd way for a conservative to divide environmentalists, but it effectively set paddlers against the NPCA, which opposes boating on the park’s rivers.
Within the parks, much of the progress has been due to the efforts of advocacy groups. In Yosemite, long an outlier in welcoming athletes—hang gliding has been permitted since the late seventies—the Merced River Plan was championed by D.C.–based American Whitewater. In 2011, the IMBA helped convince managers at Texas’s Big Bend National Park to perform an environmental assessment and allow a comment period for the new Lone Mountain Trail.
If anyone understands the need to evolve the Park Service’s attitude toward recreation, it’s Jewell, who spent 17 years at REI before she was appointed by President Obama. So far, though, she has ignored the topic. If Jewell truly wants to build a park system that will endure, her next move should be to issue a directive for superintendents to study where and when outdoor sports might be appropriate. Nobody is demanding that bikes be allowed on every trail, that kayakers be given license to bomb every creek, or that climbers be granted blanket permission to start bolting routes. But there is room for more sports alongside the quiet reverence.
Imagine the possibilities. You could park near an entrance point, grab your bike, boat, climbing gear, or even wingsuit, and, you know, roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel. When I asked IMBA executive director Mike Van Abel what his dream trail would be, he was ready with an answer: circumnavigating Grand Teton National Park and connecting to Teton Village. Then he offered something more provocative: “There’s some real interest in winter fat biking on the roads in Yellowstone. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Our two-week road trip around New Zealand involved hitting up the South Island's best trails and surf breaks. With bikes on the backs and surf boards on the roofs of our 1970 VW Kombi Camper vans, we were prepared for anything.
One night, we chose to bed down at Meat Works, one of the country's most loved surf spots just outside Kaikoura. After cooking dinner over the fire, we drank cold beer under the stars, talked rubbish, and soaked in the serenity. Much to our delight, the moon began to rise from the ocean and cast the most amazing light around us. We truly felt like we were in the best place in the world.
TOOLS: Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 14mm, 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 400
You're in San Francisco for a work conference. You've got an afternoon free, a mountain bike you've borrowed from a friend, and an itch to check out the singletrack at China Camp State Park, up in Marin County. You don't have a car, so you check an app on your phone that shows where you and your bike can catch the next Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to a station where you can then catch a bus that takes you to within half a mile of the park.
Next time you enjoy this kind of incredible convenience, thank Bibiana McHugh.
While on vacation in 2005, McHugh, who manages the geographic information systems for TriMet, Portland, Oregon's transit agency, realized that it was very difficult to access an online map with quick, easy transit data. The timetables and maps various transit agencies put online—if they even did that—all looked and worked differently. So she started working with Google and transit planners to codify transit data—any agency's transit data. The result is a standardized format that many transit agencies now use and make freely available. Google used this data to integrate directions into Google Maps, and of course anyone who wants to build an app uses the standardized data, too. And there are thousands of such apps, for public transit systems all over the world.
This data standard (called the General Transit Feed Specification) is a huge deal. Without it, transit agencies might still use their own unique databases to store timetables and route information. Google Maps' transit directions would probably not exist, nor would those third party apps exist—or there would be far fewer, and they would cost more. The standard has made public transit an attractive, easily understood, and accessible travel option.
Now, the same type of standardization is happening for data about trail networks, which means the cash-strapped agencies that maintain the trails will be able to liberate that data for anyone to use to build accurate, easy-to-use, and dependable maps and apps. And this is also going to be huge.
Perhaps you've read how Strava, the mapping service designed to help athletes track bike rides and runs, is now feeding the anonymous, aggregate data they collect from users (more than 2.5 million GPS-tracked activities each week, according to the company) to urban and bike planners. The hope is that understanding where and when commuters ride will lead to better biking infrastructure.
Strava is also one of a handful of organizations working to standardize trail and public land data in a manner similar to the way McHugh helped standardize transit data. The nonprofit Code for America, which uses technology to improve local government and public services, is leading the project, called the Open Trail System Specification (or just Open Trails).
Open Trails was born through a project to help visitors navigate the hive of different trails system in Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park, adjacent state and city parks, and trail systems in the Akron and Cleveland metro areas. "The specification is designed to help these parks communicate with one voice and provide one map for their 8 million annual visitors," says Alan Williams, who runs Open Trails development at Code for America.
Most states have at least one similar conglomerate of parks, governed by various agencies who use their own maps to illustrate their trails networks. There are often small feeder trails that link the networks together, but you may not see them on a map produced by one of the parks. But with the Open Trails standard, all the data will live in a standard format and look the same to mapping or application software, which will save a ton of time and expense when creating or updating maps or applications. Parks that are adjacent to or nearby each other will be able to create a single map, for example, making linking up a route through multiple parks a lot easier.
With trail data being set free, parks – many of them operated with small and strapped budgets – will also be able to develop apps that are useful and dynamic. You'll learn about trail closers before schlepping it to the park. Third-party apps will also emerge. Another app might help you get to one trailhead by bike, find a place to lock it up and trail-run to a beach, suggest a good lunch spot, and then find a bus back to retrieve the bike. Or an app designed for trail runners or mountain bikers might help you find races, clubs or training events, or provide an easy way to report a cougar sighting or a down tree to park managers. The maps might also show nearby services – eateries, outfitters, transit stops, swimming holes, whatever. Think of it as Google Maps for trails and parks.
The specification for the OpenTrails standard is now complete (if you really want to nerd out, see it here) and Code for America is already working with parks and other interested parties to start collecting data and building out applications.
With trail data being set free, parks—many of them operated with small and strapped budgets—will also be able to develop apps that are useful and dynamic. You'll learn about trail closers before schlepping it to the park. Third-party apps will also emerge. An app might help you get to one trailhead by bike, find a place to lock it up and trail-run to a beach, suggest a good lunch spot, and then find a bus back to retrieve the bike. Or an app designed for trail runners or mountain bikers might help you find races, clubs or training events, or provide an easy way to report a cougar sighting or a down tree to park managers. The maps might also show nearby services—eateries, outfitters, transit stops, swimming holes, whatever. Think of it as Google Maps for trails and parks.
Trailhead Labs is the brainchild of Ryan Branciforte and Jereme Monteau, who previously developed Transit & Trails, a project of the Bay Area Open Space Council (which I tested out for this story). They've created a software platform called Outerspatial. Using Open Trails data, Outerspatial will serve as a framework so that park agencies and trail managers can create user-friendly maps and apps for park visitors—much more quickly than if they had to start from scratch.
"We are looking at mapping the whole outdoor domain: parks, trails, trailheads, amenities, campgrounds, points of interest, bathrooms, water, etc.," explains Monteau.
Trailhead Labs is already working with some Bay Area park agencies but hopes to expand to parks across the country.
"Our vision is that there isn't just one app that tells you were to go and what to do. There are a whole bunch. I probably use four or five different transit apps just for the Bay Area," says Branciforte. Just as standardized transit data has enabled those different apps, Open Trails will foster the creation of unique outdoor apps. "There might be an app for finding fire pits, or another for playgrounds," he says. "That, ultimately, is how we'd get people engaged in the outdoors."