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If the camping world could claim a power couple, look to former Minnesotans Sarah Smith and Kevin Long.

The two are leveraging an outdoors aesthetic seeded in their youth here to produce their online platform the Dyrt that, like a good headlamp or reliable fire starter, is a camping essential.

Smith was born in St. Cloud, grew up in Bemidji, and fondly recounted a childhood of family camping trips in the Northwoods and beyond. Long is from Roseville, where his involvement in scouting helped source his love of the outdoors and nights spent in a sleeping bag.

Today, from their home in Portland, Ore. (and sometimes from the road), they've watched the Dyrt become the most-used camping review and booking app. Numbers back it up: There were 27 million visitors last year to the Dyrt's website and app. What's more: It took the app six years to crowdsource 2 million pictures, videos and reviews of campgrounds from users. In the past year, the Dyrt doubled that content, Long said.

Smith is getting the response she never could have envisioned when she rolled out a beta version of the Dyrt website in 2014. The first app was introduced in 2017, and today there is a premium version, the Dyrt PRO, with an annual membership price of $36 and next-level features such as trip-planning tools and downloadable maps for offline use from a vast database.

"It's really fun to see people with the same passion solving the same pain point [of finding a campground online]," said Long, the Dyrt's chief executive.

In the near term, they've taken advantage of their massive audience by asking members about their experiences and what they want. Those responses, along with findings from two separate national surveys commissioned by the Dyrt, have been pooled in a camping report whose highlights speak to the activity's meteoric rise during the pandemic. Some notable finds:

  • The Dyrt reports that about 8.3 million people camped for the first time nationally in 2021; 40% of those newcomers were from Black, Indigenous or people of color communities. "Once people do it for the first time, it is just a lot more accessible," Long said.
  • Going remote isn't going away: 23% of campers worked from a campsite in 2021, up from 16% pre-pandemic.
  • With demand comes supply issues — as in campsite vacancies. Booking has become three times harder since 2019.

In a recent interview, Smith and Long talked in-depth about their growing "community," the data behind camping's trends and bigger dreams for the Dyrt. Their answers are edited for length and clarity.

On their Minnesota roots and their influence

Sarah: My dad was a professor, so we always had the summers free. Professors always don't make a lot of money, so [camping] is what we would do for vacation. I remember countless summers driving with my parents and grandparents around Lake Superior, to camp and catch fish. I am so grateful for connecting as a young person to the outdoors. It was so impactful.

Kevin: I was an Eagle Scout. It was just ingrained in me early on from camping around Minnesota through the Boy Scouts.

On more campers from BIPOC communities

Kevin: The outdoor industry as a whole has been pretty elitist, and it is really great to see [more diversity]. We are building a camping-for-all community where we have the most campgrounds and most campground reviews and the top-ranked camping app. So we have a tool that can really help people get over that first-time camping hurdle. Part of that is how do we leverage the Dyrt as a tool for access for a variety of different communities to enjoy the outdoors, so that everybody gets to experience what Sarah and I grew up doing. The Dyrt is all about community; that's why it works.

On the growth trends

Kevin: It didn't show a certain area — it's really all over the U.S. Camping is a very economical vacation, and you get even more relaxation and your bank account doesn't take a huge hit. That is a different way to think about a vacation than people are used to. I have heard multiple times from first-time campers that that was an interesting takeaway. I never thought about camping like that.

Sarah: The pandemic played a huge role in this. All of the sudden, people couldn't get on airplanes, they couldn't go to hotels. Camping just skyrocketed. In 2020, we had just launched Dyrt Pro. That went through the roof. Everyone was like, is this a blip? Is it going to come down in 2021? [Memberships] just kept increasing in 2021. A lot of first-timers got out there in 2020, and that barrier was broken.

Sarah Smith and Kevin Long grew up in Minnesota, where they learned to love camping.
Sarah Smith and Kevin Long grew up in Minnesota, where they learned to love camping.

The Dyrt

On the increase in dispersed camping

Sarah: Dispersed camping has doubled in just the past year. I think it is the type of camping that people don't understand, but once you do it, it opens up this whole world of public lands where you don't need reservations and can access camping easily. When people understand how to disperse camp, that can help alleviate some of the stress off the campgrounds.

Kevin: The hardest thing is knowing where you can go. The public land maps on the Dyrt Pro are really valuable.

On increased RV use

Kevin: Our report showed that 57% of campers who tried new forms of camping in 2021 opted for RVs and camper vans. When we are seeing people try new forms of camping, that is the jump we are seeing.

Sarah: Twenty-three percent of campers worked from a campground. And that is what we did for six months (beginning in the summer of 2021). When you have that many people who are starting to see camping not as a recreational thing you do on the weekends but almost as a lifestyle, then that is where hookups, having WiFi, etc. become more important.

On their growing user base

Kevin: This thing is a community. It's not a tech product, and it wouldn't work without the community. We could go scrape the internet and get you the addresses of campgrounds. Just like Airbnb, you want pictures, videos and reviews from other users. Camping is no different. And if anything, it is more important. There is such a diverse type of camper who wants specific needs, and everyone wants something different.

On the Dyrt's future

Kevin: In the next five years, if you camp anywhere in the world, you will be using the Dyrt. That is the trajectory. We have raised over $22 million. We have 60 staff spread out all over. We will be the next Expedia or Tripadvisor or Yelp. We will be that brand in the next five years when you chart out the growth of our community data. All of that information is going into the platform. Then the quality assurance is also coming from the community. We have members who flag content, edit content and correct content. And what is interesting is seeing that loop over time take off.

Sarah: The reason we have this community that is so engaged and so excited to help with this platform is because they feel the same pain point that we felt when we originally started. And that pain point is that it is really hard to find a campground online. You can't see pictures. What did Joe think of this campground? That is the community and content that was missing from the camping industry. That is why the community cares — they understand the problem.