What is couchsurfing? It’s like booking a hotel—only it doesn’t cost you a dime and your host might become your best friend. Websites like couchsurfing.com and warmshowers.org (for cyclists) connect travellers with like-minded hosts who usually serve up more than just a free place to crash. They’ll offer insider tips and intel, share home-cooked local fare, and sometimes offer guided tours, multi-day adventures or lifelong friendship. Heck, it’s even providing weary travellers a home-away-from-home, a place to recharge physically and emotionally after epic tripping misadventures. Now, as increasing droves of adventure-seekers, young and old, are traipsing into the territory guided by their sharing-economy apps, it’s shaking up the tourism establishment, one sofa at a time.
Here are eight reasons why you should sign up:
1. It’s free. A no brainer—you’ll save cash. But do you get what you pay for? A poor sleep on a lumpy, smelly couch? Truth is, most hosts actually provide comfy spare-room beds or serviceable pullouts. If you’re lucky, you’ll stay with people like John Streicker, a Yukon MLA, and his wife Susan Walton, a nurse, at their pink home on the shores of Marsh Lake. They’re one of the three original Yukon couchsurfing hosts—10 years later there are now 460 in Whitehorse alone. They will give you a choice between the furnished wall-tent, the sauna that doubles as a cozy bunkhouse, or a comfy pullout in their artful living room.
Emma Burgeson, a 26-year-old adventurer is staying in the sauna for a few days before paddling the Yukon River to the Bering Sea. “The sauna is so, so, so nice,” she says, ogling the cedar boards and rustic decorations. “It is just so cozy.”
2. The Yukon has always been a couchsurfing destination. Weary travellers have been roaming the Yukon long before the invention of the modern sofa. Gold rush stampeders might have collapsed on a stranger’s shack floor for a night en route to the Klondike. Yukon First Nations uphold an age-old tradition of hosting travellers without expecting anything in return. “Like most Yukoners, when I say I am available to host, I am really available,” says Rob Horne, a long-time couchsurfing.com and warmshowers.org member from Whitehorse who has acted as both host and guest for more than 10 years. “I’m an ambassador, I love my home and I want to share it with you. We’ll do adventures together, we’ll have dinner together or I’ll give you maps and directions to cool spots.”
3. Make lifelong friendships. “I love my couchsurfers so much,” says Ruth Ferguson, a petite but big-hearted teacher for visually impaired people in Whitehorse, who has hosted up to five couchsurfers at once. “I tried Airbnb once, but the minute you bring money into it something strange happens. The couchsurfers are so appreciative and it’s almost like family.” Ferguson’s first ever couchsurfer was Clarissa Huffman, now a planner up in Dawson City. She’s become a close friend of Ferguson’s. “When she first moved to the Yukon, she couchsurfed with me instead of a hotel. We stayed up all night and talked and drank wine,” says Ferguson. “She is just adorable. Now she is like family. Every time She’s in town, she just comes over.” Ferguson is currently arranging to have a lawnmower sent to Huffman in Dawson City with a pair of road-tripping couchsurfers.
When Horne’s family couchsurfed with a host family near Mont Blanc in the French Alps last winter, he didn’t expect to make best friends. Two nights turned into four. The families hit it off so well, they met up three weeks later to travel in Scotland together for a week.
Back home in Whitehorse, Horne corresponds with the father, Didier, “every other day.” Didier’s 14-year-old daughter is even coming to live with Horne’s family for a year. And they’re planning a Nahanni river trip next summer. “We’re pretty tight.”
4. A helping hand. Whitehorse cycling duo Richard Legner and Tammy Reinhart usually only host cycle-tourists from warmshowers.org for one or two nights. But when a world-touring Italian couple hobbled up their front steps after cycling the ice road from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik and on down the Dempster in the middle of winter, they needed more than a place to crash. “They were pooped and beat up and they smelled really, really bad,” says Legner. The Italians were not prepared for winter camping, struggling to keep warm and dry. “So, we hosted them for 10 days so they could rest and recoup,” says Legner. “And we were really happy to have them.”
Streicker and Walton once hosted a winter cycle-tourist too: a young woman from the UK who, when she pedalled her heavily laden mountain bike up to their house, was “caked in ice.” Although she only stayed there a couple of nights, their home was a critical refuelling station. “She ate so much food,” says Streicker. “I asked ‘Can I get you something to eat?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Would you like some more?’ ‘Yeah.’ And it just kept going. She couldn’t get enough calories.”
5. It’s good for your kids. Anyone who’s ever travelled with young children knows it’s exhausting. “You have to be friend and parent and everything,” says Horne, who’s couchsurfed around the globe with his wife and son. He applies filters to his search to view only hosts with children, then picks the profile that seems to match his family’s values and interests. “Imagine arriving at the front door and the host’s kid says to your kid ‘You like Lego?’ and away they go,” says Horne. “He’s going to get way more experience playing with a kid from the country than visiting a museum.”
6. It’s fun. All couchsurfing.com and warmshowers.org members seem to have one thing in common: they get a kick out of meeting new people and sharing experiences. No one more so than Ferguson. “I had these four Latvians write to me, ‘We hike mountains and paddle rivers. Can we stay?’ Yes, of course, they seem wonderful. But I’m not a climber or a paddler so I thought I would gather people together and host a party for when they arrive. I got together about 20 people, a wide array of climbers and paddlers,” she recalls. “We had a great dinner party.”
On a work trip up to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, Ferguson couchsurfed with a woman on her stopover in Yellowknife. “I walked into her house and she had tea, nuts and dates and fruit on a tray. She was a health nut just like me. We went walking together, went to yoga together, talking into the wee hours. Basically I just loved her,” she recalls. “Seriously though. Couchsurfing has been an amazing experience for me. It’s been non-stop fun. I’m not kidding you.”
7. It broadens your worldview. In the 10 years Streicker and Walton have been hosting couchsurfers, they’ve had nearly 40 guests from countries like Japan, Germany, Iran, Israel, Argentina, Colombia, Poland and more. “It feels like you’re armchair travelling.” Their latest couchsurfer brought them some fine cheese from Wisconsin. Horne takes it one step further. “It’s the way to world peace,” he says. “It’s bringing strangers together and sharing culture, which is really about uniting the world.”
8. It makes you love the Yukon even more. Whether you’re travelling or hosting, sofa-sharing in the free-homestay economy simply bolsters your affection for the territory. “You get a strong sense of pride about where you live and how much you love it,” says Walton. She’s sitting in a circle with her husband and three couchsurfers around a crackling campfire on a sandy Marsh Lake beach surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the sparkling green lake. “This place is brilliant. It’s beautiful, man,” interjects Takuya Nii, a Japanese sea kayaker on his first ever couchsurfing experience. He asks why Streicker and Walton host: “To know the people? Or because you want them to love the Yukon?”
Streicker pokes the fire with a stick and responds for them both, “After the fifth time, we talked to each other. ‘I love doing this, don’t you?’ ‘Yeah.’ And we both do. So somehow for us it helps us to remember that we love our place.”