Sam Degenhard and his business, Campfire Ranch, are envisioning a new camping model with high-quality campgrounds, ample outdoor amenities, and authentic nature experiences.
Sam Degenhard is the Founder and CEO of Campfire Ranch, a company that operates a campground in Taylor Park, rents out camping gear to clients, and offers its “adventure concierge” service to guests, booking outdoor experiences through local guides and outfitters for a small cut. “We also have the peace of mind that they’re going with a guide that is going to have the same mindset and etiquette that we do,” says Degenhard.
Degenhard grew up in Maryland but came to Western in 2009 looking for an authentic mountain experience. He was originally eyeing Western’s Ski Resort Management program, but the university disbanded that program, so Degenhard majored in Business and picked up a minor in Computer Science.
The Red Bull life
Degenhard picked up a gig with Red Bull while he was on campus, and after graduation went on to work for the company in Los Angeles doing event marketing and production. “Traveling a ton, three, four days a week, really fun…all over the U.S., Canada, wherever,” says Degenhard, who later transitioned into a sports marketing management role in Denver.
During his time at Red Bull in California, Degenhard began to ponder the possibility of Campfire Ranch. “We have such amazing camping here, that I got to California and was like ‘what the heck, I have to book campsites six month out: there’s no dispersed camping,” says Degenhard, who would book campsites in the winter, but found it hard to get his friends to commit months in advance. “I’d have to cancel [reservations], go by myself, try to drag some friends at the last minute, it was a pain in the butt.”
Degenhard notes that the assumptions many other campers make about the 20-somethings crowd are not positive. “Nothing felt like it was designed or built for me and my friends,” says Degenhard of the generational gap. He began organizing campouts for his coworkers and friends at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) site near Joshua Tree, recruiting as many as 50 people to come out, planning excursions, and hauling all the water, firewood, and cooking gear himself at a loss.
During that experience, Degenhard realized that there was money to be made in a similar venture, and when he came back to Colorado after years away, he realized that many of the new transplants to Colorado had little to no tangible outdoor experience. Nevertheless, many of the new Coloradans wanted to get outside and have meaningful experiences. “They [just] need a little guidance,” he adds.
All this in mind, Degenhard made the choice to return to Western and join the nascent Outdoor Industry Master’s of Business (OIMBA) in 2018 while still working for Red Bull, joining the program’s first cohort. “My goal was that I’m going to work on this business idea exclusively, every piece of classwork I’m going to [focus] it around my business idea, make it my capstone, and maybe by the time I’m done I will have a pretty good idea if this is doable or not,” he adds.
His original plan was to work an additional year or two after graduation, stacking up some money and then venturing out for himself with his camping idea. Flash forward a year into the OIMBA program, and Degenhard thought he could accelerate that timeline. Shortly after, Red Bull underwent a national restructuring of its marketing division, forcing every person in marketing to reapply for their jobs.
Launching Campfire Ranch
Receiving the company’s message, Degenhard moved out of his place in Golden and spent the next six months completing school while living out of his Tacoma and teardrop camper setup on public lands, with his dirt and mountain bikes along for the ride. “It was a great summer, just working on the business every day, both in-class but then full-time working on [it] here in the ICELab.”
Degenhard reached out to the City of Gunnison to inquire about the Gunnison Mountain Park space. At the time, the property was fairly run down; the bathrooms needed cleaning and RV users made extended stays in the park despite regulations against RV visits. “You would rather go to the Forest Service campground cause at least you know it’s tidy,” notes Degenhard.
The City of Gunnison decided to open up the space through a formal request for proposal (RFP) process, which Degenhard applied for and won an initial one-year contract right as Covid-19 was exploding in the spring of 2020. Campfire Ranch had to wait for the county to give the go-ahead to open based on health measures.
Before too long, Gunnison County gave the authorization for campgrounds to open up June 19. “I was like ‘okay, now we gotta go run around and get all the pieces together.’ We opened June 19, 2020,” says Degenhard, who put about over $15,000 in renovation costs into the site, rebuilding and repainting picnic tables, cutting out dead and down trees, bringing in mulch and gravel, outfitting a trailer office, and completely revamping the camp’s bathrooms.
Flash forward to this year and the campground, which has 10 walk-in tent sites, one ADA compliant site (also used for last-minute bookings), and one micro-cabin site, will open the weekend before Memorial Day and run through the first weekend in October.
In its first two years of operation, the campground has been largely full, particularly in July and August, despite only allowing bookings 14 days in advance. Camp is staffed 24 hours per day, mostly by Degenhard, and with some assistance from hired staff. The bathrooms are cleaned three to four times per day. “It’s the number one concern people have with camping: clean bathrooms,” he adds.
Understanding the camping market
“The way I see [camping], there’s three options, and then there’s glamping,” says Degenhard. The first option is RV parks, private campgrounds targeted largely at a family-oriented and older audience, focusing largely on RVs and other motorized traffic. The experience, Degenhard notes, is not designed for tent campers, particularly new ones. “67 percent of new campers camp in tents,” he adds.
The second option are public sites: local, state and federal (mostly BLM or Forest Service around here), which usually come with a series of amenities and often emphasize tent camping more, but still have downfalls with deferred maintenance and come with a host of different, and often complicated, scheduling systems. “But you’re [often] booking six months in advance, if you can book at all. If you’re playing the walk-up game you have to be there at crazy hours,” says Degenhard.
The final option he notes is dispersed or backcountry camping on public lands, whether it’s via a backpacking trip or from a vehicle. “I love it; I’ve been doing that my whole life. However, I’ve got the truck, I’ve got years of gear, I’ve been doing it my whole life– I don’t care if my phone doesn’t work, but I’m experienced. But if you’re a new camper in that environment it can be, one: a little daunting, and two: quite bad for the environment,” says Degenhard.
He hopes that Campfire Ranch can fill the void left by the three primary options in the camping market. “There’s some mix of these three things that Campfire Ranch can deliver, and I think we’re going to be meet quite a bit of consumer demand if we have an established campground with a lot of good amenities like an RV park, but isn’t as stuffy, and maybe there’s no RVs there, and maybe it’s a little more fun, and there’s less quiet hours, cool activities, and it’s a good vibe,” articulates Degenhard of his company’s vision.
He notes that “glamping” is really in its own category, where users have less control over their experience, at a much higher cost (often starting around $200), and a larger focus on National Parks. “It’s a different segment in my opinion, and a different user…I think our generation and future generations want more authenticity in outdoor experiences.”
Degenhard sees Campfire Ranch’s purpose as making camping easier for newbies and for experienced campers traveling through the area, as well as mixed groups which include both. One of the things that sets Campfire Ranch apart is the experiences provided by Degenhard.
When guests arrive for a typical weekend getaway on a Friday, they are treated to a group sunset hike, along with a welcome drink from companies like White Claw and New Belgium, and a goodie bag which includes offerings like coffee from First Ascent Coffee Roasters, a wine tasting voucher to Buckel Family Winery, Bobo’s granola bars, and large Kodiak Cake pancakes.
Degenhard says the collaboration with these brands, and others, is only natural when considering the audience overlap. Looping in the companies themselves for merchandise was not difficult. “Hey look, we’ve got a bunch of 20-somethings captive for 72 hours, do you want your product in front of them? The answer is usually yes,” notes Degenhard.
The campground model that he has created allows him to build genuine connections with his campers, and for the campers to bond amongst themselves. That relationship allows Degenhard to field questions from curious campers, dole out tips for outdoor etiquette, and help craft an appropriate outdoor experience for each group.
Knowing the Clientele
Degenhard is always seeking to know more about his customer base, both via reservation data and in-person inquiries: Do they have kids? Do they have pets? Where are they from? What’s their primary outdoor activity?
These are all questions Degenhard is asking to better his business model and the user experience. The data give Degenhard interesting tidbits, like that a stunning 42 percent of Campfire Ranch clientele drive hatchbacks, that 72 percent of his customers from Colorado hail from Boulder, Denver, or Colorado Springs, or that his guests came from 31 different states last year.
Campfire Ranch also books group outings, including weddings and corporate retreats, as well as more niche groups like a Wilderness Society retreat, a New Belgium influencer getaway, or North Face’s trail running team on a research and development weekend experimenting with a new pair of shoes. Degenhard, with his background in event planning, can cater as much or as little to these groups as needed.
Pricing the new model
Degenhard says that he prices the campsites in terms of “perceived value,” with Campfire Ranch sites priced at $60 per night (double the most expensive Forest Service site within Gunnison County, Degenhard himself notes). Visitors are able to split that amongst their friends, and Degenhard is often generous with his rental prices, like giving 50 percent off all rental gear to college students.
“Usually they show up and they have like one tent they’re all piling into, they don’t have any camp chairs, and they’re trying to cook over the fire with one stick. And I’m like ‘okay, crew, let’s get you guys a camp stove, and a camp kitchen, and four chairs, and it’s all 50 percent off,” he adds.
The Gunnison Mountain Park has proved to be an excellent trial for Degenhard’s upgraded camping model, and now he is on the lookout for other sites to develop, particularly during the downtime offered by the offseason. Degenhard works with a commercial architect who helps him examine prospective properties, researching the location, determining the site’s capacity, and estimating both land and development costs for private and public sites.
“Once we get that whole picture, then I have to go pitch it to investors and try to go find the money,” he says. Over the past two years, the company has gone through the process with several sites, but with the pandemic, skyrocketing land costs, and unexpected last-minute hiccups (like installing two required turn lanes quoted at half a million dollars), he admits it is disheartening at times. “It’s true startup life,” he adds, but reasons that if he can figure out how to clear all the developmental and financial hurdles, it’s solid insulation from competition.
“Our main goal is to grow the brand, [and] get more people exposed to this type of camping in a way that’s not only a better experience, but so these communities, like here in the Gunnison Valley, we can have a better outdoor experience because we have better educated campers [around us],” notes Degenhard. “We target areas where we know that’s a problem, and also where we know there’s a huge influx of people that want to camp that don’t know how.”
Looking to his primary local competition, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Degenhard is familiar with the extended timescales of the USFS’s ongoing plans to revamp and implement a fee system for camping in the valley. He knows that providing amenities similar to Campfire Ranch would take a decade or more for the government.
“I love public land, and I want to help protect it, but I also see that a private company like me can move faster, and I can potentially make less [environmental] impacts in a matter of months. I do like to think that our campers at Campfire Ranch are probably the most respectful and appropriate campers that are out in the Crested Butte, Gunnison, and Taylor Park area because they check with me first,” relays Degenhard, who views the USFS as his biggest competitor currently, but anticipates future competitors attempting to hop into the camping space.
“I’m excited for there to be competition because I think it’s going to deliver better camping across the board. I think we need that, especially in Colorado and in the west,” says Degenhard. “If the Forest Service were to provide all the same amenities as us and put us out of business, I’d be like ‘hell yeah,”’ he says, adding that a service model like Campfire Ranch would also likely do well in the east, where state parks and RV parks are the primary camping options.
Sustainability and inclusivity at camp
For Degenhard, achieving a higher degree of sustainability in Campfire Ranch’s operations begins with his interpersonal relations. “Build a rapport, build that relationship with our customers so that we can help mitigate those risks and educate them before they even go out,” he says. “Any chance we have to pick a partner brand that’s more sustainable than another, we do.”
Other low-hanging fruit include stocking recycled bamboo toilet paper in the bathrooms. “It’s conscious decision-making…you sit in a bathroom and you see that you’re using bamboo toilet paper and it grows faster than typical hardwoods and it’s way more sustainable, and then you come up to us to ask [about] a hike, and you’re already in [that sustainability] mindset,” he notes.
Degenhard also hits all his guests with the “Mountain Manners” messaging developed by Gunnison County. “It’s on our site prior to booking, it’s in their reservation confirmation, it’s in their reminder email that they check-in the next day, it’s in their check-out email, it’s on our front desk, [and] it’s in three places at camp.”
Campfire Ranch works with the Colorado State Forest Service to put beetle pheromones across the property, protecting both the property’s beauty, and, hopefully, other areas of the canyon from the threat of beetle kill. The campground also has boot washing stations on both ends of the site to serve as vanguards against the spread of aquatic invasive species
On the inclusivity side, Degenhard sees a natural space where Campfire Ranch can serve clients who may not have an extensive background outdoors. “Our business model is designed to address novices. The definition of a novice is one that is broader than we typically think of – we think of a novice as just a beginner. To me, a novice could be someone who has never been to Crested Butte but has been camping their entire life,” notes Degenhard, comparing that to the case of another, very different novice: someone flying in from Chicago for their first-ever camping experience.
“What we have tried to create at Campfire is [an environment] where anyone who’s a novice is more than welcome. It doesn’t matter whatever level or type of novice you are, this is a place where you’re gonna have a good time.”
That starts with the messaging and information on the company’s website, but also extends to the creation of educational content, available via platforms like Instagram and TikTok. “If you’re gonna find us, maybe you [will] find us through [our] ‘how to roll up a tent and stuff it in a tent bag’ ,” says Degenhard, adding “We’ve had all types of people come out to camp, which is awesome– we provide a very safe environment.”
Degenhard’s ultimate goal is to be a safe place for people to ask questions and learn more about outdoor experiences. Moving forward, he is contemplating how Campfire Ranch can expand its marketing and educational voice: “How can we help educate people even if they’re not staying at our campground?” he asks.
Along his journey with Campfire Ranch, Degenhard combatted some skepticism from the public, and from land managers, that he would provide a more sustainable camping experience than the U.S. government or other, more established private operators.
Certain high-end “glamping” operations, along with other camping-focused enterprises, have not aided his argument through their past actions. But with two seasons now under his belt, Degenhard thinks his track record speaks for itself, and will open doors down the line.
Degenhard’s favorite part of the experience thus far? “There’s nothing like a Friday check-in; it’s so fun. You sit there and they drive in and they’re smiling, and they’re pumped, they just got off a long drive, and they walk up – they’re excited, you hand ‘em a cold beer, show them to their campsite, [and] they’re jacked up… its watching people arrive at their vacation over and over and over [again], and it’s infectious,” says Degenhard.
“I love the people that come out, I love knowing that they’re here to have a great time and enjoy a place that I deeply love.”