written by Sheila G. Miller
Instagram posts with the hashtag #vanlife have become all the rage in recent years. I can’t possibly be the only Oregonian who looks wistfully at the wild vistas and the perfectly kitted vans and thinks, “Why not me?”
Here’s why not: a new or gently used camper van can set you back between $20,000 and $100,000 and aren’t necessarily realistic for daily driving. Most of us will never own one. But that doesn’t mean the dream is dead—that’s where GoCamp comes in. Deborah Kane started GoCamp partly out of a desire to get others out into the wilderness and partly to prevent her camper van from sitting in her driveway all the time. Kane, who rents out her basement apartment in Southeast Portland using Airbnb, had her a-ha moment in 2017.
“Through my experience, I learned that people love the Northwest and they’re coming here on vacation all the time,” she said. “I also learned that the sharing economy is alive and very real, and while I was welcoming guests into my Airbnb basement apartment, there was my camper van sitting there in my driveway. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why there wasn’t an Airbnb of camper vans.” So she started one. GoCamp has a limited number of vans and other vehicles, owned by people in Oregon and California. GoCamp users can reserve the vans for rates averaging about $150 a night—more for a new Mercedes Sprinter, less for a Honda Element topped with a vehicle tent, for example. Pick your dates, pay through the website, and voila—you’re on your way to your camping dream come true.
Kane loves to camp, and launching the company allowed her to make camping her full-time focus after years in the agricultural and food industries. Now she helps people get outside and get off their mobile devices. “We have found in the last two seasons that a lot of customers are families, and I just love thinking about mom and dad actually getting to talk to their kids because they can’t play video games because they don’t have cell service.” Right now, renters can grab a GoCamp vehicle in Bend, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Going into GoCamp’s third camping season, Kane plans to include Boise in her list of rental locations. Long term, the sky is the limit. “I expect that we’ll be in ten markets at the end of five years.” Kane takes a percentage of each rental for finding the customer and facilitating the business. The van owner gets the bulk of the money. Kane said peer-to-peer sharing sites have made her business more palatable to new users. “They’re normalizing the practice,” she said.
Currently, GoCamp rents about thirty-five vans and other camping vehicles like SUVs equipped with Cascadia Vehicle Tents on top. Kane expects there will be at least fifty vehicles ready for the 2019 camping season. “In the RV world there are what’s called driveables versus towables, and the common denominator for us is we don’t do the towables,” Kane said. “By and large we’re also renting things you can park in a parking space. We’re not renting motorhomes.” There’s a real upside for van owners as well as those renting the vehicles. Kane said there are van owners on the site renting out their vans between May and September and making between $15,000 and $18,000 each summer. But GoCamp doesn’t let just anyone post their vehicle on the site. “You cannot be a van owner in Portland and at 2 a.m. decide to put it up on the website,” Kane said. “You have to go through me.”
Kane has a personal conversation with owners interested in posting their vans to the site—why they want to share, what the standards are, that sort of thing. The company has a list of camping items and other products that must be in the van. It also has a raft of safety requirements. There’s an initial mechanical inspection and then each van must be re-inspected every ninety days. All the tools necessary to change a flat tire or to deal with small emergencies must be on hand. “It’s all those little things to make sure that, in the event something goes wrong, the renter has everything they need to make it right for themselves,” she said. “Then we also send them off with twenty-four-hour roadside assistance, as well as pretty comprehensive insurance that covers liability and comp and collision.”
The goal is for all the vehicles to be what Kane calls “road trip ready”: sleeping bags, camp chairs, bug spray, headlamps, the kinds of things people who are flying in from out of town don’t want to drag along in a checked bag. All you need to do is throw in your bags and stop for groceries on your way out of town. Many van owners go above and beyond the requirements. Kane recently checked out a van and found a gift bag filled with Portland-made chocolates and Oregon wine. “Even I, as the owner of GoCamp, was really impressed,” she said. “The hosts really love sharing the dream. That’s what one of my van owners always says, ‘We’re dream deliverers.’”