Tent camping should be one of the cheapest forms of travel, subject to nominal campsite and park admission fees. But, short of borrowing gear, bringing your own bedroll and shelter can be costly. If your destination requires a hike, add a backpack to the growing tally.
According to the latest statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association, 41.8 million Americans went camping at least once in 2017, and adults spent an average of $546 on camping gear in 2016.
Aiming to solve the investment quandary of campers, several outdoor stores across the country rent gear, including Denver-based Outdoors Geek (which also ships gear) and REI. Relatively new to the gear-rental scene is the online service Arrive, which expanded nationally this spring, streamlining rentals and shipments of outdoor gear, from trekking poles, headlamps and bear-safe food canisters to tents, hammocks and backpacks. The founders, Rachelle Snyder and Ross Richmond, both outdoor enthusiasts, created the business after moving to a 600-square-foot bungalow in Los Angeles in 2016.
“We had no place to store gear and no interest in owning all the gear and spending thousands to acquire it,” Ms. Snyder said.
Based on a sustainable model of reducing purchases and reusing equipment, Arrive partners with major outdoor brands like Marmot and Deuter. It recently became the gear-rental supplier to customers of Reserve America, the online camping reservation service.
Mr. Richmond describes the majority of Arrive’s customers as “dabblers” rather than “the extremists you see on posters, rock-climbing on a cliff’s edge.”
Arrive promises late-model gear in top condition starting at 15 percent of the retail price for a one-to-three-day period (the service rents gear up to 21 days). This seemed like a deal so good I had to test it.
Planning an early August backpacking trip in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I went online in July to order gear (Arrive accepts orders between one year and one week before use). For my three-day trip, I chose the backpacking set for two, which cost $243 for a two-person tent, two backpacks, two sleeping bags, two sleeping pads, a stove, cooking pans and two headlamps. These items are also available a la carte. With $19.99 in shipping, the total came to $262.99.
Arrive put the retail value at $1,618.
Rates rise the longer the rental term, so rather than having the gear shipped to my home in Chicago and traveling with it, I had Arrive send the gear closer to my destination in Michigan where I picked it up at a FedEx counter in a Walgreen’s drugstore. The company will ship to any FedEx center that allows delivery, which makes the service convenient for wilderness-bound travelers heading to places like national parks (Arrive ships to every state except Alaska and Hawaii).
Throughout the planning process, Arrive kept in touch. When I picked a FedEx center that didn’t hold shipments, it found a convenient substitute. The Tuesday before my Friday pickup, I received an email confirming that my shipment had arrived, providing peace of mind.
Getting the gear
Opening the 30-by-24-by-12-inch box was a Christmas-morning thrill. Nestled neatly in brown paper was all the gear I had ordered, in great condition, seemingly new and so much more modern than the older, heavier camping gear I own.
For this trial, I enlisted my husband, a frequent camper and backcountry MacGyver, should I need his improvisational skills, though he was instructed to back off and let the average consumer, the not-so-technically-inclined me, figure out how to use unfamiliar equipment.
Had he helped me order, we would have known that the MSR PocketRocket Deluxe Backpacking Stove — basically a burner and ignition device weighing just 2.9 ounces and meant to hold our cooking pots — came without fuel, a detail I did not notice. After loading the gear and provisions into the Deuter 60 + 10 L backpacks, Walmart was our first stop to pick up fuel on the way to the trailhead.
An inner panel on Deuter backpacks offers pictographs of emergency arm signals, so that I could flag down a passing plane if necessary. But I found no such instructions for adjusting the height of my pack, which was top-heavy from the first step. If I weren’t the type to hang around REI, I wouldn’t have known how to adjust a Velcro strap that brought the entire pack down to my size. Arrive says it has a customer service line to help with users’ questions. I think it pays to visit an outdoor store and preview the gear.
We hiked nine miles — packs comfortable, legs less so — before reaching our backcountry camping site behind the sandstone ledges that line the Caribbean-blue Lake Superior. We chose a site beside the Mosquito River, which, despite its dispiriting name, flowed like nature’s gentle white-noise machine throughout our stay.
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Unlike the backpacks, the MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent with a rainfly included an assembly diagram on the storage sack. But this time, I didn’t need it, as the collapsible tent poles nearly sprang together when released from their nylon bag and the entire assembly, which took about 10 minutes, seemed intuitive.
The stove had a universal connection, easily screwing onto the Coleman butane/propane fuel we bought ($6). It was hard to keep the couscous and beans we cooked for dinner from sticking to the rental MSR Alpine 2 Pot Set, given the concentration of the heat and the thinness of the pans, but it was nothing a little scrubbing couldn’t remove.
After the sun sank in a blazing orange ball into the lake, a finale that drew all five sets of backcountry campers to shore, we used our super-bright Black Diamond Spot Headlamps to find our way back to the tent (the newest and most compact in the neighborhood). We crawled into lime green Marmot Trestles Eco Elite 30 Degree Sleeping Bags that felt like silk compared to my lumpy bag. The Therm-a-Rest ProLite Apex Backpacking Sleeping Pad, a raft-like cushion that inflated to two sturdy inches between ground and bag, felt like an indulgence, but only weighed just over a pound in the pack.
Returning to civilization
Striking camp and restuffing the pads and sleeping bags back into pouches that could be minimized with a tug on the adjustable outer straps was quick. Leaving the park, we easily repacked the box the shipment had come in and used the provided FedEx label to return it (the cost was included in the shipping fee). I worried that my pack smelled like coffee after the grounds had leaked from the garbage bag I carried, but Arrive didn’t mention it (there are fees for late or significantly damaged items).
In the end, there are things Arrive doesn’t do for you — like remind you to take playing cards, extra-strong garbage bags or a rain cover for your pack in case of inclement weather. For that, common sense and a packing list goes a long way (REI has a camping checklist and one for backpacking).
The service isn’t for gear geeks or frequent campers who might be better off investing in their own equipment. But for occasional or even first-time campers, Arrive offers an affordable way to go, made more enjoyable by lightweight, modern gear.
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