As the world comes to a standstill as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we encourage all of you to hunker down right now, too. In the meantime, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to get back out there.
We live in the 21st century, but it still takes a good 30 minutes to board a plane (on a good day). And don't get us started on the lodging horror stories! The outdated guidebooks! The soul-sucking process of renting a car!
That's why we are rooting for these seven revolutionary ideas. From an Airbnb for adventurous car rentals to pain-free new ways to board planes, these innovations are changing how we get out and see the world.
1. Hipcamp Is Revolutionizing Campsite Booking
On New Year’s Eve in 2012, Marin County, California, resident Alyssa Ravasio drove a few hours south to camp in Andrew Molera State Park, at a coastal meadow in Big Sur. It was the perfect place, as she puts it, “to take in the first sunrise of the year.” The only hitch: the park’s website—a bare-bones dot-gov run by the state of California—neglected to mention a nearby surf break. A big swell was coming in, and Ravasio was caught without her board.
Inspired to create a better resource for campsite info and reservations, Ravasio, 27, learned how to code and launched Hipcamp in 2013. The site originally had 90 California state park campground listings, each with photos tracked down by Ravasio’s sisters and friends. But it grew quickly, transforming into a sleek hub with stunning photos, detailed information on more than 8,000 campgrounds in 50 states, and search tools that allow you to filter by activity or browse on an interactive map. Today, Hipcamp boasts more than 250,000 active users, and the company raised $2 million last year.
Hipcamp’s goal is to be a one-stop source for everything from learning about to securing a spot in the nation’s campgrounds. Its main hurdle? The way the government handles reservations for public campsites. Since 2005, a company called Reserve America has administered Recreation.gov and controlled campsite reservations for the Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, among other agencies, giving it a monopoly but little motivation to provide better descriptions or features like user comments.
So last year, Hipcamp partnered with the Sierra Club, REI, and more than 50 other companies and nonprofits to pressure the government to open Recreation.gov to third-party booking. The campaign was a success: within two years, Recreation.gov will allow access to Hipcamp and other apps, and we’ll be able to say farewell to clumsy government booking.
Hipcamp is also creating a national network of campsites on private land. All too often, campgrounds owned by companies like KOA are grim roadside dirt patches packed with RVs. Hipcamp aims to change that, turning underutilized properties—farms, ranches, even big backyards—into campsites by allowing owners to use its platform to rent them out. There aren’t many available yet, and they’re mostly in California, but the company is aggressively scouting for openings and offering a bonus to anyone who refers a new host.* Meanwhile, campsite info has broken out of the Stone Age. Had Hipcamp existed before Ravasio’s trip to Big Sur three years ago, she could have seen one commenter’s tip: “Make sure to bring your surfboard.”
Our favorite private properties on Hipcamp
The Spot—Upstate New York
Sleep in the shadow of the legendary walls of the Shawangunks, then wake up for a full day of sending. $38
Heart of the Wild—Central California
A perfect chance to sleep in a huge meadow overlooking the Pacific in Big Sur with a group of your friends. $300 for up to 15 people
The Domes—Northern California
No tent required here: a pair of off-the-grid geodesic-dome cabins, just steps from the Garcia River on the coast. $325 for up to ten people
*A previous version of this article stated that Hipcamp was offering bonuses to new hosts. The bonus is in fact only for referrals of new hosts.
2. New Companies Let You Use Your Neighbor’s Gear Shed or Borrow Their Stuff
Some make more sense than others. Presented on a scale of “not so sure” to “sign me up!”:
Spacer: Stash stuff in a neighbor’s space
Bon Appetour: Eat a meal cooked by a stranger
DogVacay: Pet-sit someone else’s best friend
KitSplit: Borrow cameras and other equipment
Boatbound: Rent a stranger’s vessel
3. Adventure Beta Is Better Than Ever
Ask a rock climber about his favorite crag and odds are he’ll direct you to its Mountain Project page. The online guide, run by a company called Adventure Projects, is the biggest name in climbing beta—three million users have contributed detailed, up-to-date information for more than 130,000 routes across the globe, from annotated photos of sport walls to guides to 31-pitch routes in Yosemite.
The site was co-founded in 2005 by Boulder, Colorado, climber Nick Wilder, 43, to harness the recent explosion in climbing info online. But he didn’t stop there. Wilder began turning Adventure Projects into an all-purpose outdoor resource when he launched MTB Project in 2013. The site gives mountain bikers the same kinds of information that climbers have come to rely on, and in two years it has grown to half the size of its sister site, with 51,000 miles of user-added trails in its database. In April 2015, Adventure Projects added Hiking Project, Trail Running Project, and Powder Project (for backcountry skiing).
The reach and depth of information on these sites attracted the attention of REI, and in May Adventure Projects was acquired by the retail behemoth. “The sale gave us this opportunity to forget about selling ads and focus on building great products,” Wilder says. These will include smartphone hiking guides to national parks, in conjunction with the National Parks Centennial in 2016. The guides will offer descriptions and ability level for every single trail, and like the company’s other products, they’ll work offline, so you won’t need a cell signal or Wi-Fi.
Some users think there’s a downside to Adventure Projects’ expansion. Don Morris, a Denver-based Mountain Project user since 2007 who has made more than 400 contributions to the site, said he wasn’t interested when he got an e-mail invite to Powder Project. “It totally doesn’t make sense to say, ‘Here’s a great place to backcountry ski,’ ” he said. “Once I’ve published that, I go out there for my day and it’ll be trashed.”
Wilder doesn’t see it that way. “I use the sites and find all kinds of great trails and go places that I wouldn’t otherwise. I believe in sharing this stuff.”
4. Your Next Guide Could Be a Badass
New, small guiding outfits are making their mark with extremely overqualified employees.
Escape and Explore
This two-year-old South African operator specializes in urban thrills in and around Cape Town and pioneering trips throughout the continent, from SUPing Botswana’s Okavango Delta to hiking South Africa’s undiscovered Wild Coast. Its guides’ résumés include competing in the Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships and summiting Kilimanjaro barefoot.
Book This: Nine-time South African women’s surf champ Nikita Robb leads excursions out to the remote Maputaland Marine Reserve to access empty waves near Zulu villages. From $4,900 for eight days.
Two Crested Butte, Colorado, companies joined forces in December 2013 to offer year-round adventures, like mountaineering in Bolivia and backcountry splitboarding in Japan. Its guides are experts, like former North American ski-mountaineering champion Jeff Banks, but also down-to-earth enough that you’ll look forward to sharing a drink with them around the fire.
Book This: Big-mountain skier Donny Roth has appeared in critically acclaimed ski porn like Solitaire and Valhalla. He’ll take you to the powder promised land during Irwin’s five-day backcountry camp in Crested Butte. From $775.
A luxury outfitter focused on alpine adventures in Switzerland, the company is run by a former Rossignol-sponsored freeskier and a Teton Gravity Research movie producer. As the pedigree might suggest, Epic Europe offers outings more adventurous than the staid competition, like untracked powder-day face shots and Matterhorn summits.
Book This: Ride Switzerland’s Rhone Valley with born-and-raised local Nancy Pellissier. The former pro skier is no slouch on a mountain bike and will show you the best singletrack in Zermatt and Verbier, with detours for wine and to villages otherwise accessible only by cable car. From $5,000.
5. You Can Vacation with a Stranger's Car
There was a time when it may have felt strange to crash in a stranger’s apartment on a trip. But with the help of a slick, easy-to-use website, Airbnb made staying in a random person’s house a normal way to travel. Now RelayRides is doing the same thing with car rentals.
The affordable options at most traditional rental companies are exceptionally boring. A beige Chevrolet Cruze is fine if you’re attending an insurance-adjusters conference in Des Moines, but what if you’re hauling camping gear to the end of a dirt road, say, or surfboards to the beach?
For more adventurous travel, the appeal of RelayRides becomes obvious with a quick scan through the listings. Flying into Denver for a ski weekend? There’s a four-door Tacoma with snow tires, ski rack, and luggage pod available for $83 per day. Go native in L.A. with a Porsche convertible ($50), or play like a billionaire coding genius in the Bay Area, where there’s a whole fleet of Teslas for rent (starting at $179).
What’s the motivation for owners to loan out their wheels? Some cars often sit unused; the company offers a way to put them to good use, and owners keep 75 percent of whatever they charge. Renters handle gas, and the company’s insurance covers the vehicle while it’s checked out.
The RelayRides website does everything it can to make the rental experience seamless, but the reality is that you’re making a deal with another person. Car owners might have ground rules; airport pickup could mean a detour to drop off the car’s owner. Those sorts of logistics could be deal breakers for travelers used to walking right up to a rental counter and hitting the road. But the company has seen revenue quadruple over the past year and has raised more than $53 million in investments from Google Ventures and other venture-capital firms. And a lack of concierges and continental breakfasts hasn’t stopped Airbnb.
6. Digital Tools Are Now So Good, You Won’t Miss Guidebooks
The social-fitness app now offers city guides featuring classic routes and the best stops.
This hyper-detailed site devoted to Colorado’s highest peaks makes for oddly compelling reading.
The definitive road-tripping app, with up-to-the-minute info about traffic and speed traps from fellow users.
7. Getting On and Off Airplanes Could Soon Go Much Faster
We break down three proposals for better boarding—and tell you who’s doing it best
Do the Math
A scientist named Jason Steffen calculated the fastest boarding method: From back to front, fill every other row’s window seat on one side of the plane, then the other. Repeat on the skipped rows. Board the middle seats and the aisles the same way. In tests, boarding went twice as fast.
Odds of Adoption: It could work! It doesn’t require new airport infrastructure or planes. It’s not practical with families and late arrivals in the mix, but Dutch carrier KLM is working on a similar scheme.
Build Fatter Planes
A German design firm devised an aircraft that’s wider in the middle, to accommodate double doors and an aisle broad enough for people to pass each other. The firm claims that boarding could be accomplished in ten minutes.
Odds of Adoption: When pigs fly. The big door weakens the structure, and the fat middle isn’t great for aerodynamics. Still, plane manufacturer Airbus purchased the patent.
Use Both Doors
Planes have an entrance at the back, too. Using it would help immensely.
Odds of Adoption: European carriers like EasyJet already do this, by positioning staircases on the tarmac. Most U.S. airports use jet bridges that go only to the front door. Alaska Airlines has experimented with front and back bridges in San Jose and Seattle; they typically save ten minutes. Adding them to every airport would be costly but not impossible.
The Carrier That Gets It Right
Boarding is more civil with fewer passengers stashing carry-ons in the overhead bins, and it’s noticeably quicker on airlines with free luggage check. While bag fees raked in $3.5 billion last year, it costs airlines $30 for every minute a plane sits at the gate, so better efficiency could boost both profits and customer happiness. Southwest doesn’t charge for bags, and its open seating by boarding group is the most efficient method currently in use. Meanwhile, the carrier is consistently profitable and ranks high on customer-satisfaction surveys.