Missoula's Trail Head sporting goods store has opened a spin-off business called Trail Head River Sports, nicknamed the “Boathouse.”

The new shop is located in the old Sears warehouse at 2505 Garfield St., near Southgate Mall.

“The boating business has been pretty good for us,” said Trail Head owner Todd Frank. “With more people moving to and visiting western Montana, river recreation is growing, and we’re hoping to be the place people come to meet their needs.”

River Sports sells everything non-motorized boaters might want and need – personal flotation devices, dry bags, kitchen and cooking gear, helmets, clothing and other accessories. The store also rents and repairs boats, and carries replacement parts for new and older boats. But the most impressive part is the huge, open showroom of rafts, canoes, kayaks, inflatables, paddleboards and river surfboards. 

“I’ve been told by dealers that we have the largest showroom of nonmotorized boats in the Northwest, maybe the country,” Frank said. “We want people to walk in and experience a bit of shock and awe, and think, ‘Wow! Look at all these boats!’”

Frank conceived the idea a few years ago as parking became more challenging near his downtown store, the Trail Head, at 221 East Front Street.  For years, Frank has sold boats from the downstairs portion of the Trail Head, which also includes a fly-fishing shop. From there, a backdoor leads right out to the Holiday Inn parking lot -- convenient for customers needing to load newly-purchased or rented boats on their vehicles.

However, when the new ROAM student housing facility opened on East Front Street, just east of the Trail Head, followed by the opening of the new Marriott Residence Inn on nearby Pattee Street, parking became more scarce. The Holiday Inn responded by gating their parking lot to keep the spots open fr their guests. That made it tough for customers to load boats from the Trail Head. 

“We’re sort of collateral damage from the growth of downtown,” Frank said. “For the boating component of my business, access is very important – how easy is it to get a boat out the door and put it on your car. I had to take control of my parking, and that sort of set the foundation for exploring our need to do something different.”

In addition, boats are something customers want to be able to see and touch before they buy, to get a better idea of things like size and weight. “It’s tough to visualize those things with just a photo,” Frank said. “It’s not the sort of thing people order online, as they do other items.” 

Frank also referred to boats are a “low margin, high freight” item – with a low margin of profit for retailers and high shipping costs. “Not a lot of people are going to want to order a boat online and pay several hundred dollars or more to have it delivered,” he said.

At the new River Sports store, there’s even a raft already loaded on a trailer and sold as a package. Buyers could conceivably back through the large garage doors, into the warehouse, hook it up to a trailer hitch and be on their way to the river.  

“Part of my job as a retailer is to remove the friction points for customers,” Frank said. “So I created a place with lots of parking and access, with enough space to display a wide-variety of boats, and with a small, knowledgeable, experienced, tight-knit staff with a lot of background and expertise to assist customers. We’re super excited and passionate about what we’re doing.”   

As for downstairs at the downtown Trail Head: The fly-fishing shop remains. Frank has a few ideas for where the boats used to be. “I don’t want to say anything yet, but we look forward to having some exciting new things there by spring.”