The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Camping

The $1 Million Gear Shed

These days you can share almost everything, from couches to cars. But outdoor gear? The idea hadn’t really been explored until three entrepreneurs launched GearCommons last August.

Mike Brown and fellow Tufts graduate James Rogers wanted to bring gear to the people. Along with friend Joel Weber, they created GearCommons—a sharing network that helps gear owners find people who want to rent their tents, kayaks, and other equipment that otherwise might spend lots of time in storage.

The basic premise is simple. The GearCommons web portal lets users search for rentable gear by type and location. If you see a product you need, you can review its specs and history, as well as the owner’s. Users first connect and make payments online, but gear transactions and returns have to take place between neighbors, in person. That way, the company claims, users get to meet people with similar interests, building a real-life social network of outdoor enthusiasts. 

Brown realized the potential of a “sharing economy” when he started blogging for Shareable* at the beginning of 2013. A biomedical engineer by trade, Brown’s a zealous outdoorsman with startup aspirations. After using car-sharing company Zipcar’s services in college, he realized that shared technology could curb inefficient spending and material use. It could also make outdoor recreation possible for people who either couldn’t afford, or didn’t have room to store, their own gear.   

“We’re trying to build a community of people who will share gear and reduce their impact on the environment,” Brown says. “We think it’s kind of a waste to be buying equipment you know you’re only going to use once—for, say, a music festival or a one-week hiking trip.”

Musing about a world of shared gear is one thing. Actually creating a social network that connects people and gear nationwide is a whole other animal, requiring immense amounts of research and skill. But outdoor gear is a $120 billion industry, and the trio was determined to tap into it.

The company does have some major hurdles to overcome—chief among them is expanding its user base. A cursory look at the GearCommons website and social accounts shows that the enterprise is still in its early stages.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-site-tent_fe.jpg","size":"large"}%}

GearCommons has about $50,000 worth of gear in Boston, but activity is essentially confined so far to that locale—where Brown and his colleagues are based. Even then, site searches for essential gear show that only a few owners have gotten on board. A handful live in western states like Colorado and California, but no one offers gear yet in New Mexico (to our dismay). GearCommons has declined to say how many people have signed up for its services.

Still, some users say the slow extension westward isn’t indicative of the company’s value. “I think the startup has a really great idea. I know that when they are big enough, they could go nationwide—maybe even worldwide,” says member Neil Suttora, a unicyclist and Northeastern University student. Suttora put a tent, unicycle, and sleeping pad on the site after a mutual friend introduced him to Brown a year ago. But he hasn’t found renters for any of his listings yet. 

Some transactions have gone down, Brown says, although the company won’t say just how many. The other obvious obstacle has to do with liability. No one wants to rent out their personal gear if it’s going to come back damaged—or not come back at all. To address these concerns, Brown and his colleagues allow owners to apply security deposits to their gear up front. Renters pay the security deposit at the start and get their money back when they return equipment (in good condition) to its owners. 

Though other businesses in the sharing economy have run into a mess of regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, Brown says that “there’s really not much in the way legally of an idea like this spreading.” Not yet, anyway. 

{%{"quote":"“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet. By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet, but I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”"}%}

Despite a slow start, some business professionals see potential in GearCommons—or, at least, in the idea behind it. 

Perry Klebahn, a consulting professor in Stanford’s engineering school who helps young entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, predicts GearCommons can carve out its own niche. “Any sort of manufacturer who’s not taking note of what GearCommons is doing and figuring out how they can be involved with the company, or figuring out how they can be involved with reuse of their own products, is nuts,” he says.

But Klebahn isn’t sure creating a new social platform was the way to go. “I might have started on somebody else’s platform, like eBay, and created a store within eBay to prototype the idea,” he explains. “I’m not convinced why the consumer wants another thing in their life.” Instead of immediately opening GearCommons up to all interested parties, says Klebahn, the team should have developed a stronger base of users in Boston before presenting their product nationally. 

Growing pains aside, other big names are seeing great potential in GearCommons as well. The team, which came in second in this year’s Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition, has already been in talks with companies like Patagonia about affiliate programs. GearCommons expects to mine user data to benefit such outfitters and gear developers. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-team_fe.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Two founding members of GearCommons, and an athletic banana."}%}

“If you rate a tent highly, we can then suggest that you go buy it. And so that is kind of like a sharing economy–retail hybrid,” Brown says, adding that there might be discounts on items found through GearCommons. “You know, we’re not trying to keep people from buying outdoor gear. We just want them to make more efficient use of it.” 

Over the next few months, Brown thinks that continuing in earnest with social media campaigns and hosting campus and community events is the way to go. However, the team is considering starting a GearCommons community-rep program that would build brand recognition and get word out in person in key locations—in the ethos of the peer-to-peer model. 

This short-term plan doesn’t reflect the team’s long-term vision, however: understanding your potential isn’t the same thing as realizing it. One hurdle will be staying levelheaded. Though many startups explode over a period of months, GearCommons hasn’t so far done that. The company is barely off the ground, and Brown is already thinking big. 

“Over the next several years, we hope to see GearCommons get people outside in every context,” Brown says, mentioning GearCommons-sponsored travel packages, sport lessons, and the like. “We just happen to be starting with access to gear.” 

“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet,” he explains. “By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet—but, once the word gets out, I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”

*Outside previously reported that Brown wrote for Social Solutions Collective, not Shareable, though the link has always been to Brown's Shareable pieces. 

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Eton Rugged Rukus

As long as you have sunlight, the Eton Rugged Rukus will blast your music by the pool, on a hike, or around the fire.

The solar-powered music player has two full-range speakers that connect to your phone via Bluetooth. Set it up at the campfire or use the carabiner loop to hook it onto your backpack. The speaker can be charged with an USB port, but it also has an internal lithium battery that lasts up to eight hours for when it gets dark. The gadget can charge your smartphone, too.

And don’t worry about getting a little rowdy around the campfire—the speaker is drop-proof and water-resistant.

$100, etoncorp.com

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7 Camp Chairs You’ll Actually Want to Pack In

When you head out into backcountry, you have to find the right balance between being prepared and carrying the lightest load. And camp chairs—often bulky and cumbersome—are usually the first items to be jettisoned. But there’s a new breed of lightweight, compact chair that was born for backpacking. So whether you’re trekking into the wild or just planning a summer backyard-barbecue circuit, you won’t regret taking these comfortable seats along.

Helinox Chair One ($97)

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Best for: Backpacking and bike touring
Weight: 1.97 pounds with tote bag

The Helinox Chair One has won two of the most coveted awards in the outdoor industry, and for good reason. The Chair One’s poles are made from the same TH72M aluminum-based alloy found in the world’s best tents and hiking staffs. With shock-cord technology, the self-locating poles automatically pop into place. All you have to do is slip on the mesh seat cover, and you’re ready to relax. Chair One can hold more than 300 pounds, but weighs less than two. When collapsed in a bag, it’s about the size of a shoe. Helinox also makes a portable camp table from the same materials.

Alite Monarch ($70)

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Best for: Backpacking and music festivals
Weight: 1.15 pounds

The Monarch is not your standard four-legged chair. In fact, it’s not a four-legged chair at all. This seat’s innovative two-leg design lets you use your center of gravity to either sit still or rock back and forth. The coolest part? It works on any terrain. At 1.5 pounds, the Monarch is a very lightweight chair, yet it can hold up to 250 pounds. We reviewed this product a few years ago and it’s still one of the best and most innovative camping chairs around.

Coleman Oversize Quad Chair with Cooler ($35)

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Best for: Car camping and tailgating
Weight: 9.9 pounds

This chair has the same general design as your standard folding camp chair, but with some nice extras. Though fairly inexpensive ($35), it’s more durable than a cheap chair you might get from Walmart. While the Oversize chair is well built and functional, the feature that really sets it apart is its storage space: there’s a built-in cooler bag that can accommodate five beers and some ice. A storage flap on the other side will hold your keys, camera, snacks, and magazines.

Kelty Camp Chair ($25)

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Best for: Backpacking, camping, watching a game
Weight: 1 pound

Everyone should have Kelty’s folding camp chair in their vehicle’s trunk. Simple design and versatility make this a worthy seat. Basically a sleeping pad, its closed-cell, Therm-a-Rest-style foam padding will insulate your bottom from the frozen ground. What raises the chair to furniture status, and not just that of a pad, though, are its internal composite stays (which give it structure) and its adjustable straps (which let you adjust your sitting position).

Chaheati Four-Season Heated Chair ($72)

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Best for: Cold-weather camping and ice fishing
Weight: 8 pounds

This all-season chair has a built-in heater that will keep you warm during those cool spring nights. It uses a lightweight lithium-ion battery (no cords!) that can be recharged in the car as you drive. The Chaheati, which can go up to 145 degrees in less than 20 seconds, uses a single button for switching among four heat settings. The best part? Its battery lasts up to six hours, so you can spend a whole day ice fishing next winter without worrying about a frozen butt. Do keep in mind, though, that this chair is too bulky to bring on a backpacking trip.

Lafuma Futura Air Shell Zero Gravity Camp Chair ($240)

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Best for: Car camping and stargazing
Weight: 17.4 pounds 

This is the perfect perch to watch the sky from. All you have to do is lean back to recline, and resistance levers keep you in position. The chair’s ergonomic design and extended leg support render it the most comfortable on our list. A single-thread weave of Batyline material makes up the breathable, durable mesh. For added comfort, there’s a mattress that clips to the chair and that, along with the 3-D mesh, can be removed and washed.

Eagles Nest Outfitters Lounger Chair ($120)

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Best for: Backpacking and camping
Weight: 3.37 pounds

Have you ever wanted to sit and read a book while hanging directly over a rushing backcountry stream? Then you might want to check out the Lounger. Eagles Nest, which makes some of the most popular camping hammocks on the market, has remained true to its history with the Lounger, a hanging seat you can set up just about anywhere. When teamed up with a carabiner and a strap, the Air Craft aluminum frame can hold up to 250 pounds. The adjustable angle-of-recline and dangling-footrest features let you customize whatever space you choose to occupy.

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