Unexplored Territory: Female Solopreneurship in the Outdoor Industry
I’ve always struggled with boredom. About every two years I get a driving urge to shake up my life: move, change jobs, more school, less school, make babies. After kid #2 and an agreement that there would be no kid #3, I felt a bit at loose ends. I loved my job and didn’t want to leave it, but I was restless. The deep feeling of “go, do more, something different” didn’t go away. My husband and I were prepping for an epic backpacking trip, and on our hikes, he and I would talk about where to channel my thirst for change. For a while, learning outdoor skills was enough.
I was new to the outdoors lifestyle and was a frequent flyer at our local backpacking shop as I tried to cram the accumulated knowledge of all the stuff into my brain. I tried on backpacks. I reluctantly conceded to my 5’2” reality when it came to pack size and weight. I snuggled many sleeping bags. I debated the merits of tents supported by trekking poles versus aluminum poles versus carbon fiber. I watched YouTube videos of people tying knots. I quickly fell in love with my backpack and hiking boots, and with the endless trails they opened to me.
I have always loved being outside. I devoured survival classics like Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain and retained every bit of knowledge about water sources, emergency shelter building, and trail marking I picked up at our sixth grade camp week. Reading in a hammock, foraging blackberries from hedgerows, and building endless tiny towns with robust trade partnerships with other tiny towns was the comfortable limit of my outdoors experience.
As I grew up, my friends became Eagle Scouts and I veered further into indoor-only pursuits. (Although I retained some weird bits of superstition – I never put anything other than water in my Nalgene for years in case it attracted bears. To my dorm, I guess?) When I began to hike, camp, and backpack in earnest as an adult, I had a lot of learning to do and I felt like I was already behind.
I also felt like my lifestyle was a mismatch with the outdoors learning resources I was finding. I wasn’t a twentysomething dude in peak shape thru-hiking the arctic circle with less than seven pounds of gear. I had spent the years where I could/should have been surfing and backpacking in graduate school and having kids – and now I wasn’t sure how to honor my love of the outdoors and my love of having a day job with health insurance at the same time.
I live in the Midwest, a place I deeply adore but that seemed completely overlooked in the outdoor industry in favor of the Rockies’ jagged peaks or the Green Tunnel of the Appalachian Trail. We have fantastic parks and forests here in the Midwest, and I noticed the volume of regular hikers/walkers as I explored, people whose Sunday mornings always started with a cup of coffee on an overlook bench.
At a picnic table with my husband the day after a long hike, I said “I wish there was someone who could rent me all of this, pre-vetted. Just someone who could tell me ‘use this, not that, to not die’. Maybe even plan a few hikes to help ease me into it.” We had spent an enormous amount of time and money researching and building our gear closet. I was reading about, and experiencing firsthand, the health benefits of being outside, and thinking about how those who would benefit most often have the least access. I thought about kids in dense population centers who couldn’t ride a bus or train to a park.
I kept thinking, and we kept training – I think I’ve walked everything that passes for a hill in Ohio at this point. We had our permits. We had gloves for the cables and bear canisters and broken-in boots. We felt completely unready.
We drove from Fresno into Yosemite and goggled as the ranches gave way to still-smoking stumps from the wildfires. I tripled checked the rental car for any leftover food that might attract bears. My hands felt strangely empty as we put on our backpacks and just…walked away.
Our first stop was the backpacker’s campground, where we were surrounded by friendly folks who reassured us that our plans were solid, and discovered too-late that our campsite was downwind of the toilets. Rookie mistake. The next day, we hiked up the Mist Trail. I woke up on Half Dome morning with sore legs and shoulders from hauling my very full backpack up all those stairs. Through some kind of trail magic, we hit the base of the cables at the perfect time – the sunrise crew had left and the day hikers hadn’t made it up yet. I looked at my husband, and my nerves and soreness just evaporated. This was it. We were here.
I left the cables at the top of Half Dome, came up over a little rise to see the entire Yosemite Valley laid out in front of me, and burst into tears. I’d done it. The kid from the flatland who once didn’t bring a coat to the Grand Canyon because the concept of “colder at altitude” didn’t register was now standing on one of the most iconic pieces of granite in the world. On the way back down the cables, I waited for the day hikers to ascend and thought “I am about three feet away from tumbling to my death, hanging onto a 2X4 and a piece of rebar. I feel completely safe and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier.”
When we got home, the idea of increasing access to the outdoors via pre-vetted rentals kept rolling around in the back of my mind. I started doing some research on our local backpacking shops and on rentals. I dug into the outdoor industry in general and trends in outdoor recreation. I listened to that quiet voice in my mind that told me, “You can do this, you can make a difference, you can help get people outside.” My husband and I joke that instead of a third baby we had CampRents.
Now, in addition to my day job, I rent camping and backpacking equipment and ship it right to my customers. They get a coupon for fuel that will take them into the closest backpacking store, giving them a point of connection with their local outdoor community.
Just rentals didn’t seem like enough, though. I also wanted to help kids discover an appreciation of the outdoors. I partner with local nonprofits (no need to reinvent the wheel) and together we lead hikes, build outdoor skills, and trial camping gear. Sometimes the kids discover that they like hiking. Sometimes they discover that they do not like hiking! But everyone has a good time together.
I’m an unusual outdoor entrepreneur. I’m not a professional outdoor athlete, I was older than most when I came to the outdoors, and there’s still a lot I haven’t done. I don’t feel quite ready to pull the cord and run CampRents full time – there’s a lot to learn and ramp up before then, and I’m really enjoying the challenge of building a business while working full time. I’m thinking of this like my training hikes; I’m climbing every hill I can before I stand at the base of the cables and think “I came this far…I’m not turning around now.”