Wednesday April 23rd, 2014

Mike Brown and James Rogers were about two-thirds of the way through a snowshoe marathon in Vermont last winter (while a group of their friends stayed behind because they didn’t own snowshoes and couldn’t find anyone to borrow them from) when the two college buddies had an epiphany.

“It’s kind of a shame that they had to miss out on getting outside, just because they didn’t have access to the right gear,” Brown says. “We were about 20 miles into this race and just kind of had this aha! moment when we said, ‘Wait, why can’t people share outdoor gear online the same way people share apartments and cars and power tools and dresses?”

GearCommons, an online platform for peer-to-peer outdoor gear renting, was born. Launched last August with the help of a third partner, Joel Weber, the service is filling an important gap in the $646 billion outdoor recreation economy. A 2004 Outdoor Industry Association survey reported that the top challenge for adults seeking to participate in outdoor activities (not counting “being too busy”) was the cost associated with gear and equipment. “That’s the problem that GearCommons is solving,” Brown says. “We’re improving access to outdoor equipment as a way to get people outside.”

GearCommons' website offers people the chance to share gear they own with others looking to rent things like tents, backpacking equipment, kayaks and more.

The GearCommons marketplace is a win for both gear owners and fun seekers. Owners get to make some money off their dormant equipment and borrowers get to enjoy the outdoors with none of the investment commitment (or storage hassles) of owning specialized gear. “In New England, for example, there are lakes everywhere and people have houses and I guarantee you almost everyone at those houses has a canoe or kayak that spends most of the time just sitting around,” Brown says. Much like other sharing-economy services such as AirBnB, GearCommons acts as a matchmaker between renters and owners who hammer out the availability details, optional deposits to cover potential damages and the handoff and return of the goods on their own, while the site takes a percentage of the transaction fee.

So far the service is concentrated largely in the Boston area, where its founders are based, but people all over the country have signed up and GearCommons currently boasts over $50,000 worth of outdoor gear available for rent.

“Right now the popular item that people are requesting and renting are tents,” Brown says. “You can spend $500 for a tent, but how many times a year are you really using it? And so as a result, it just ends up sitting around. So why buy it when you can just use it when you need it, and can have on-demand access to outdoor equipment?”

Other typical big-ticket items such as bikes, kayaks, sleeping bags, surfboards, ski gear and—yes—snowshoes, are listed, but plenty of more unexpected items have also turned up on the site. While you may not find an Archwood Flextrek 37,000,000,000,000 Whipsnake edition backpack, you will find roller skates, slacklines, rubber sailing boots and…unicycles, one of the site’s biggest surprise-hit items.

“When we first started the site, unicycles were actually the most commonly rented thing on GearCommons,” Brown says. “(One user) rented her unicycle to a guy teaching his friend how to unicycle as his birthday present. He had one of his own but he didn’t have a second one to use for the lesson. It’s just an example of a piece of equipment that people get psyched about, but how many people are really invested in owning a unicycle?”

The startup plans to expand to other markets in the coming year and in the meantime, has begun organizing meet-ups in the Boston area, including climbing, hiking and cycling outings. The night before this year’s Boston Marathon, GearCommons led a group in the annual Boston Midnight Marathon Bike Ride along the empty race course and — in an industry where $4 is spent on trips for every $1 spent on outdoor gear—Brown says the company aims to one day sponsor and lead trips of its own. For now though, helping would-be adventurers get off their couches and out the door thanks to GearCommons is the ultimate goal.

“At the end of the day we want to try and get people outside,” Brown says.

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