An Uber for Outdoor Guides

7 Sep

Pedro McCardell was on a solo motorcycle trip to Patagonia when he realized that he needed help. The mountains that dominated the horizon were inviting, but access was a puzzle. “I needed a local to show me around, but I had no good way to connect with them,” says the Italy-based former advertising executive. That experience led him to create Lyfx. (Silicon Valley slang for “life experience.”) The app launched in Utah, Colorado, and California in July, and aims to be the Uber or Airbnb of adventure, connecting travelers in need of beta with knowledgeable residents willing to show them around for a fee.

Lyfx isn’t the only app trying to disrupt the guiding industry. Climblife connects wandering dirtbags with would-be guides, Showaround lets international travelers book a variety of experiences led by locals, and Back40 links up venturesome vacationers with “hosts” throughout New England.

Of course, similar platforms have come and gone. In 2015, James Hamilton launched GuideHire but couldn’t keep it afloat. “It wasn’t an issue of getting people on the platform—we had plenty of guides and plenty of users,” he says. “But we couldn’t get people to book through us. They’d use us for research and then book directly with the guide.”

Hamilton thinks his timing was off and travelers weren’t willing to reserve adventures without a bit of personal interaction first. But given the ubiquity of Uber and the rise of Airbnb Experiences, the short-term-rental giant’s attempt to get into peer-to-peer activities, the market may finally be ready.

“I think people will use the service,” says Nikki Harth, co-owner of Surfhouse, a hotel and guiding outfit in Encinitas, California. Like Lyfx, Surfhouse seeks to plug guests into the local scene. “People are now spending more money on experiences than things,” he says. “When you’re surfing, having a local show you around makes the experience so much better.”

Alex Kosseff, executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association, is intrigued by the idea of guiding apps and believes they could be beneficial for guides because many don’t have the time or know-how to market themselves effectively. But he’s less sure about the legality. “Guiding on public land in this country is incredibly regulated,” Kosseff says. “Anyone taking money for that service needs to have a permit.”

To work around this, Lyfx launched with professionals that already have the necessary paperwork and requires its peer-to-peer experts to abide by any applicable laws and regulations. However, the app is leaving it up to its nonprofessional guides to obtain all permits and certifications. But a few situations, like showing someone your favorite point break, don’t require dealing with any red tape. And if Lyfx or its competitors can overcome all that, they’ll still face the hardest challenge of all: securing market share. “Until one of these apps gets traction and gains that critical mass of users,” Kosseff says, “I’m afraid they’ll continue to come and go.”

The Best Gifts for Thru-Hikers

1 Dec

So your nephew wants to drop out of law school and hike the whole Pacific Crest Trail next year. Awesome. Let his parents worry about responsible life choices—it’s your job to make sure he has the proper gear to get him through the long haul.

Not all backpacking gear is meant to handle the rigors of thru-hiking, so we asked Chris Walker, a recent Appalachian Trail north-bounder, to detail the items that proved most essential during his 2,190-mile journey. His advice for buying gear meant to last? Don’t skimp. “A lot of people I know went pretty cheap on some gear choices and ended up paying for replacements along the trail because the cheaper pieces weren’t performing well,” Walker says. “It’s best to invest up front.”


Zpacks Arc Haul Pack ($299)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Zpacks)

It’s ultralight, exceptionally adjustable, and customizable, with all sorts of add-on options: shoulder pouches, lumbar pads, water bottle holders, and so on. It carried very well even when pushing its suggested weight limit of 40 pounds.

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Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite Regular Sleeping Pad ($130)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Thermarest)

This is one of the lightest inflatable pads on the market—the regular version weighs just 12 ounces. It’s a little noisy at first but gets much quieter with frequent use. I found it very comfortable.

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Enlightened Equipment 20 Revelation Down Quilt ($285)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Enlightened Equipment)

This quilt is ultralight and can be used as a blanket or zipped up to serve as a sleeping bag.

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Zpacks Solplex Shelter ($555)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Zpacks)

Like everything Zpacks makes, this shelter is ultralight (made of Dyneema Composite Fabrics), but it has a decent amount of room for a single person (seven feet long, three feet wide, and four feet high at its center). It’s extremely compact and easy to set up in tight spaces.

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Zpacks Rain Kilt ($59)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Zpacks)

This ultralight rain gear keeps your lower half dry and makes you look extremely fashionable. I also used it sometimes as a tablecloth or a cover to sit on rocks and such, and I wrapped my backpack in it when it was raining at camp.

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Altra Lone Peak 3.0 NeoShell Low Shoes ($150)

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(Courtesy Altra)

I tried three different pairs of shoes that didn’t work for my feet before I discovered Altra. The Lone Peak was perfect for me. A legit hike saver. You can go mid if you want more ankle support.

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Sawyer Squeeze Filter ($40)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Sawyer)

There are plenty of water filters out there, but the Sawyer Squeeze is easy to use and clean in the field, and it’s compatible with various bottle types.

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Body Glide Balm ($10)

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(Courtesy REI)

This anti-chafe balm saved my hike during an incredibly hot stretch through Vermont.

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BRS 3000T Stove ($15)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy BRS)

This tiny butane stove is available for less than $20 and weighs less than an ounce. I used it before I got on the trail and for the entirety of the AT, and it’s still working flawlessly.

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Black UV Buff ($25)

thru-hiking
(Courtesy Buff)

As a man with no hair, I wanted to keep my head as protected as possible. I used my Buff every single day on the trail. It’s also useful for wiping down condensation from your tent in the morning.

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SOS in the Age of Smartwatches

23 Nov

John Zilles moved to California after college for the warm weather and the promise of outdoor adventure. He fell in love with kiteboarding, and even after he had a family, the 49-year-old cinematographer always made time to get out on the water. Earlier this month, Zilles was about a mile off the coast of Ventura, in a light wind, when he crashed making a turn and couldn’t get his kite back up.

Zilles struggled for 45 minutes to fill his kite with wind with no luck. At first, he was more frustrated than panicked. He’d been in this situation before and figured he had two hours of swimming to make it to the shore. Ditching his gear—a new hydrofoil board and kite—wasn’t an option, not just because it would have been an expensive loss, but because Zilles could use the kite and board as a makeshift raft if his situation got worse. He swam for 30 minutes, and when it didn’t seem like he’d made any progress, he thought about the sharks recently spotted in the area, and then about swimming for hours and getting nowhere.

Then Zilles remembered he was wearing his Apple Watch, which he had purchased because its cell connectivity let him stay in touch with his family even without his phone. “I can be out kiting and the kids can reach me if something goes wrong,” he says. He just didn’t expect that he’d be the one in trouble.

As companies like Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Apple have offered increasingly sport-friendly tech, watches are becoming something more: rescue devices. Some even feature a built-in SOS button that will call emergency services. Meanwhile, third-party apps have sprung up to enhance the watches’ rescue capabilities. Strava lets you share your location on runs with friends so they know where you are. Similarly, but geared toward backcountry explorers, Cairn shares your route with selected contacts, allowing them to see your location and alerting them if you’re overdue.

All this connectivity brings positives and negatives when it comes to search and rescue. One worry is that people might fall back on the technology, taking risks they shouldn’t, or even calling search and rescue in a situation where they could have self-rescued. Lost the trail? Push the button. Robert Koester, author of the search and rescue guidebook Lost Person Behavior, says there was a similar concern when satellite-linked personal GPS devices hit the market. Everyone thought it would be catastrophic for SAR because it would overload the system, Koester says. “And they sometimes do. But it also takes an incident where someone fell off a cliff and sets the search beacon—a rescue that might have required a four-day search—to a situation where rescuers just go and get the person,” he says. “So while there may be an increase in incidents, there will also be a decrease in personnel hours.”

And that’s pretty close to what happened with Zilles. A mile off the coast, he was able to dial the Ventura Harbor Patrol. He even guided rescuers directly to his location.

“Trying to find a small target, like a person in the water, on a rough day like that could’ve been tough,” says Eric Bear, one of the Ventura Harbor Patrol officers involved in the rescue. “He made a smart decision in deciding he couldn’t make it back into shore and calling for help. We always recommend kayakers and kiteboarders carry marine VHF radios so they can radio for help, but they rarely do. The fact that he was able to call from his watch was key.”

That might be the upside of technology invading every element of life these days. It’s always there when you wish it wasn’t and when your life may depend on it. “I’m always struggling to find ways to make this technology work for me without letting it rule my life,” Zilles says. “I’ve had these ‘kitemares’ before when shit goes wrong, and this was the first time I had this sort of tool to help me take care of myself.”