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Gift Guide: Camping and backpacking gear that the outdoors lover in your life really wants

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Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.

Like plenty of others, I dug much deeper into the great outdoors and camping this summer amid social distancing restrictions. It’s pretty easy to stay COVID-safe when you’re several days’ wander into the wilderness. Whether it’s a fun day hike, a car camping excursion or a multi-day backcountry backpacking trip, there’s plenty of great camping and hiking gear that can make life easier for the outdoors person (without going overboard).

I bought a ton of camping gear online this year. I had the fortune of timing a 40-mile backpacking excursion through the Los Padres national forest with one of REI’s annual sales, a time when the majority of online camping retailers also tend to offer steep discounts on their stuff. Most of my gear was optimized for backpacking and I ended up replacing most of my decade-old gear with some lighter, better-quality stuff. Backpacking leaves room for fewer luxuries, but add a few car camping trips and you’ll see the fun in bringing in the nice-to-haves to your outdoors gear repertoire.

With camping gear, you can almost always find a good sale on any individual item during the year so stay patient and keep an eye out. Plenty of sites offer one-off discounts for first time buyers or have pretty reliably timed, wide-ranging seasonal sales so if you’re smart about your purchase you can get it at a discount.

One note to hammer home: when buying gear, one of the main things to consider is whether you anticipate getting bit by the backpacking bug. It’s not always easy to tell ahead of time, but if you do think you’ll end up using your gear on backpacking trips, you’ll want to account pretty heavily for the weight of any new gear. You can certainly upgrade later too, but it’s always good to future-proof when you can. If you’re just planning to hop into the car and hit up a nice drive-in campsite, you have a lot less to worry about in terms of size and weight restrictions which makes things much simpler.

These are all things I bought with my own money or am planning to buy at some point, so no sponsored suggestions here. That said, this article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

Mpowerd Luci Solar String Lights

Image: MPOWERD

When it comes to camping, light can really expand your options for what you can do at night. I’ve been one to rely on campfire light during the evenings but with campfire bans hitting plenty of campsites in California this season, I upped my lighting game this year.

These string lights come in a nicely designed package and are perfect for adding some ambiance and solidly bright light to your campsite. They’re a bit of a luxury but they provide a good bit of light on multiple brightness settings. The company now also makes a version with colored lights if you want to get festive.

They lights do suck up a decent amount of power so they may only last you a night or two on a single charge depending on your usage, but the handy built-in solar charger can help there. Truthfully I’ve always had mixed success with relying on solar charging, so I might save this one for the car-camping trips where you have easy access to somewhere to charge the light with its integrated USB cable.

Price: $28 from Amazon

Sea to Summit dry sacks

Image: Sea to Summit

Though mobile gear is increasingly gaining waterproof IP ratings, especially when it comes to higher-end camera gear, not everything is friendly with moisture. One purchase I made this year that felt like a no-brainer was a set of small dry-bags. They are certainly a more expensive option than the humble zip-locks which I’ve been using for years, but while a wet roll of toilet paper or map can be a bummer, a wet mirrorless camera is a disaster.

Dry bags keep the wetness out. They’re also just a nice and functional organizational tool to keep all of your tech gear together and protected from the elements. Earlier this summer I bought this small 3-pack which is sized perfectly for the tech gear I tend to bring along. Later I bought a much larger 35L sack to house gear like my sleeping bag and clothes that I really need to keep dry while hiking through river beds or while it’s raining.

I opted for a set of Sea to Summit bags which seem to be the gold standard, but if you search for dry bags on the web, you’ll come across plenty of sets with some good ratings. Just be sure to peruse the reviews to get a sense of their durability which is the only thing that matters.

Price: $43 from REI

Garmin inReach Explorer+

Image: Garmin

I have two big items on my next wish list for backpacking gear upgrades to make before next season. One is a bear can to stuff my food and toiletries into when backpacking through Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness as I soon hope to. The other is the inReach Explorer+. I’ve relied on friends with handheld GPS units in the past but Garmin’s option, which seems to be quite popular, bundles a GPS unit with a phone that operates on a satellite network.

You need a plan for the device to use the satellite network, which you can activate on a monthly basis whenever you need it. That network is good for a couple things: sending off text messages with GPS points to friends and relatives so they can see your progress and know you’re safe, while also being able to reach the outside world if you find yourself in an emergency and might need to be rescued. While these evacuations are assuredly going to be a pricey affair, it’s never worth gambling with your life or opting for a backup plan that you might not make it back from.

Garmin also sells a mini version of the inReach that eschews GPS navigation and a decent screen size for a much smaller footprint, more of a “don’t use it unless you absolutely need to” version. I will also quickly note that satellite phones are actually illegal to have on you in some countries so be sure to check out whether that’s the case before you pack one in your bag.

Price: $450 from Garmin

Helinox Chair Zero

Image: Helinox

These chairs are probably some of the best things I’ve ever purchased. Oddly, I actually haven’t used them that much while backpacking, which seems to be the intent of the product given how light they are at just over 1 pound, but they’ve been amazing for tossing in a tote bag for a day at the park.

I’ve gotten so much use of them partially because I live in a city and don’t own a car. If I had a car, I might just opt for a larger and cheaper folding chair that I could keep in the trunk. That said, what’s great about these is that they are light enough to bring backpacking — though they are definitely still a luxury item to bring along. My one complaint is that these chairs don’t play so nicely with the sand or mud so you want to find a fairly hard surface to set them up on if you want to feel fully secure placing your full weight on these tiny chairs.

I got these for about half-off when I bought them, but there are definitely cheaper options than those from Helinox if you can’t find a deal and don’t mind an extra pound of weight or so. I have friends who are particularly big fans of the REI versions.

Side note: this year I also found a deal on a lightweight Helinox hard-top table which has been great for playing board games on or setting up a cook station.

Price: $150 from Amazon

A giant duffel bag

Image: REI

One of the big issues with amassing a collection of camping gear is storing it all during those non-camping months. The best solution for this is a big ‘ole duffel bag. They’re great to store your gear in, and it’s so easy to just toss a duffel in your car when you’re ready to go camping and not have to deal with a dozen little trips to the car and back.

I ended up buying a 90-liter REI bag during a sale, but I’ve seen great things on the bags from North Face and Patagonia as well. This size fits a ton and has the added advantage of being just about the maximum size for a standard checked bag on a flight, anything larger will require an oversized baggage fee. These bags all go on sale in pretty often so I wouldn’t rush into buying especially if you don’t need one ASAP.

Price: Varies; the one above is $140 right now from REI

Travel chess set

Image: Kidami

Cards are great, but sometimes you want to spice up your options for games. For those of you who have just binged through Queen’s Gambit, I’ll recommend searching for a good travel chess board.

I ended up going for this very random travel chess set on Amazon because the magnetic board made me feel confident I wouldn’t lose all of the pieces immediately. It’s not the most high quality-feeling but the price was right and it strikes a good balance. There are definitely plenty of options that are more robust or more lightweight.

Price: $18 from Amazon

Nalgene Mini Bottles

Image: REI

One thing every camper should have in their gear collection is a bunch of different sized mini Nalgene bottles. These things are great and can hold your soap, shampoo, oil, sauces, booze and other liquids securely and (as long as you’re religious about tightening the screw-top bottles) can ensure that you won’t have any accidental spills.

I use these aggressively for meal planning and measure out the various quantities of a liquid or sauce I’ll need for a given meal and toss them inside a bigger plastic bag with all of the ingredients. As such, I have a few sizes ranging from an ounce to 4 ounces. That’s not a use case everyone needs when you’re car-camping and don’t have the luxury of measuring everything ahead of time, but they’re also awesome for toiletry kits and I use the 2 ounce bottle for shampoo and soap when I’m flying and want to bring my own stuff.

One complaint is that these will hold onto the smell of some more pungent liquids even after you wash them so keep that in mind and maybe be careful to separate the ones you’re storing your toiletries in from the ones holding sauces.

Price: $2 from REI

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

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Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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The far right’s favorite registrar is building ‘censorship-resistant’ servers

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“The digital divide is now a matter of life and death for people who are unable to access essential healthcare information,” said UN Secretary General António Guterres in June 2020. Almost half the global population currently has no internet access, and many who do cannot freely access all information sources. 

Freedom House, which tracks internet restrictions worldwide, says the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global internet freedom. It found that governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts in 2020 to suppress unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations and other COVID-19-related content.

Now, U.S. company Toki is building “school-in-a-box” devices to connect up to 1 billion people across Africa and Asia, using technologies that it claims could filter content to avoid some information sources and bypass local censorship. The devices will be Wi-Fi-ready servers that run on electric power or batteries and can handle dozens of concurrent users. If no networks are available, the servers will also come pre-installed with digital libraries curated to provide “locally relevant content.” 

One of Toki’s country managers describes on LinkedIn that the devices would also run a decentralized search engine, designed to be anonymous, private and censorship-resistant. They will be donated to communities in the developing world by a U.S. nonprofit* called eRise, which was founded in 2019 to, according to its website, “focus on digital empowerment initiatives that are capital-efficient, and which improve access to content, community and commerce.”

Both Toki and eRise were founded by entrepreneur and free speech advocate Rob Monster. Monster owns domain registration company Epik, which allowed controversial social network Parler to come briefly back online last week after the site was booted from Amazon’s cloud service. Parler is just one of several platforms enabled by Epik, and Monster’s other domain and web hosting companies, that have been home to far-right content. Parler is accused of hosting users that helped to coordinate the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. 

The “school-in-a-box” would contain a memory card with educational content, games, books, maps and modules related to prayers, the story of religions and “the art of being grateful.” It says the device is intended for “parents who want their kids to be smarter and curious; schools who can’t afford a computer; [and] religious places who wish to spread awareness about education and empower the society.” 

But one researcher says this effort recalls Facebook’s heavily criticized project offering free connectivity in India, which spawned accusations of bias and self-censorship. 

“We’ve seen a similar tactic by Facebook, to provide digital access points that can also serve the purpose of delivering favorable content and ensuring that these groups become dependent on your benevolence,” said Dr. Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center. “It becomes that much harder later on to change the power dynamics when the ideology is in the infrastructure.”

Monster has used free speech arguments to defend Epik’s working with platforms that either welcome or tolerate extreme content. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has been reported as saying that Monster “offers services to the most disreputable horrific people on the Internet.” 

Epik spokesperson Rob Davis told TechCrunch that Epik actively works with its clients to help them moderate content, and claimed that the company has deplatformed Nazi groups and deleted those promoting genocide.

“Lawful, responsible freedom of speech is an amazing right,” said Davis. “Every [domain registrar] has groups like this but Epik is often held to a higher standard.”

In a series of posts in 2019 on a forum dedicated to domain-name trading, Monster provided more details about the Toki technology. The servers would be powered by cheap Raspberry Pi processors and run a proprietary version of Linux that would enable file sharing, peer-to-peer commerce, a digital wallet and a personalized search engine, with the option of “ignoring certain data sources.” 

“Decentralization not only means decentralization of the narrative and talking points of big tech groups like Google, Twitter and Facebook,” said Epik’s Davis. “It also means anti-censorship by empowering people with things that they didn’t know.” The spokesperson gave the example of naturopathic remedies for minor health complaints. Naturopathic remedies have not been proven to be effective against COVID-19.

Eventually, each device might come pre-loaded with a “snapshot” of the internet, said Davis, although he did not describe how the internet might be reduced to fit on a single, small physical device. The eRise website notes that content would be curated by local digital librarians that it would recruit. Davis told TechCrunch that Toki has working models of its server, is already conducting field trials and hopes to start deploying the devices to 6,000 villages in Africa in 2022 or 2023, perhaps in collaboration with an unnamed Asian telecoms company. 

The Toki devices’ selectivity, if practical, could raise its own content and censorship concerns; for example, if eRise allowed extreme content similar to that seen on Epik’s clients like Gab and Parler, or ignored scientific advice on COVID-19 or other health issues. 

Donovan said she is wary of any one-box solution. “We have to focus on decoupling information companies from service providers,” she said. “That much control can be used for political gain. Technology is politics by other means.”

*Although eRise also claims on its website to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which would exempt it from some taxes and allow tax-free donations, TechCrunch could not locate it on the IRS’s database of nonprofits. Monster later admitted eRise was not a registered 501(c)(3)).

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End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

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At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

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