Tents, sleeping luggage, hammocks: Why Michigan ‘gear libraries’ lend out tenting provides


The way out is free, but the camping equipment is not.

Although camping can be an affordable vacation, expensive equipment makes it unaffordable for some Michiganders. To lower this barrier to the great outdoors, two Michigan “equipment libraries” loan equipment to their communities for free.

“We’re basically telling people, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go out and spend thousands of dollars,’ especially if that’s not an option for you,” said Sam Truby, head of gear library for Thrive Outside Grand Rapids.

At Thrive Outside Grand Rapids, city dwellers can rent quality supplies like tents, sleeping bags, cook sets and hammocks. The organization also teaches people how to use the equipment at a camping crash course.

Aaron Cole, who lives in Grand Rapids, recently used the gear library instead of buying camping supplies from friends. He borrowed a sleeping bag, lantern, water jugs and cooking supplies for a July 4th weekend trip to northern Michigan.

“It’s exciting to know that I don’t necessarily have to buy everything,” he said. “I just don’t camp enough that I ever thought I’d have to buy the stuff.”

Related: Gas prices continue to rise. What does this mean for summer road trips in Michigan?

Grand Rapids is one of a dozen communities across the United States that have received a grant for a Thrive Outside gear library from the Outdoor Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving access to the great outdoors. A number of large corporations, including Wolverine Worldwide and Michigan-based Carhartt, support the program.

“We look forward to continuing to support Thrive regions in historically underserved communities across the country that are using a collective impact model to help make the outdoors accessible to all,” said Stephanie Maez, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, in an April statement.

On the other side of the state, Detroit recently received a grant from the Outdoor Foundation.

It will support existing efforts by Detroit Outdoors, a partnership between Detroit Parks and Recreation, Metro Detroit’s YMCA and the Sierra Club, to make the outdoors easier for children.

Detroit Outdoors lends equipment to community and school groups that take local kids camping. It also runs a leadership training program to teach people how to lead a camping trip.

“This model of using equipment and leadership training to connect children to nature and the outdoors is rooted in a decades-old approach to supporting people in the lives of children who have a trusting relationship with them,” said Garrett Dempsey , the Sierra directs club personnel.

Also see: Michigan Travel Trends 2022: Where to go, what to expect when planning your trip

Camping typically requires tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, cooking utensils, water jugs, and flashlights—all of which can cost hundreds of dollars. In addition to supplies, campers must also pay for groceries, rental fees, and gas to travel to the campsites.

“It can get pretty daunting and expensive to buy all this stuff,” Dempsey said.

In Michigan, state forest campgrounds are only $20 a night, but fees vary.

Camping prices in state parks have increased by between $2 and $8 a night this year to keep up with the cost of living and inflation. But Jason Fleming of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the state is carefully considering raising interest rates to preserve parks as “an important part of our culture.”

“You have to look at it from an affordability standpoint because we’re trying to serve as many people as possible,” he said. “Our market is not a specific area or household income, we cover the whole state.”

Despite the other costs, gear libraries still deal with the high price of the gear.

“We can’t tackle every part of the formula, but we’re starting to see what we can do to eliminate it,” Truby said.

Also see: 7 Types of Campers You’ll Find at Michigan Campgrounds

Gear libraries could also bring relief to those feeling the pain of inflation.

With gas prices at $5 a gallon, airfares up 25% and hotel rates reportedly up a third, nearly half of Americans are not planning a summer trip this year because they can’t afford it, according to a recent Bankrate poll revealed.

Meanwhile, interest in camping has surged in recent years – both during the pandemic and now during a hot spell of inflation.

According to a 2022 Kampgrounds of America report, camping accounted for 40% of trips in North America last year. Almost 57 million households took a camping trip in 2021, compared to 48 million in 2020 and 42 million in 2019.

In Michigan, state park campgrounds reached 94% occupancy through July, with nearly half of the sites being more than 97% occupied.

Gear libraries also focus on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in camping.

The KOA report found that more than half of the 9.1 million first-time campers last year were people of color. Although North American campers were 88% white a decade ago, those numbers are beginning to shift.

“We believe that an important way to break down these barriers around race and class outdoors is to help people… experience this time in nature, in a safe environment with a leader they trust,” Dempsey said .

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