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At College Outside, we know better than anyone that gear can be the greatest barrier to getting outside. Clubs and programs that offer gear rentals allow students to adventure without breaking the bank on new gear. While gear rental is one of the most useful services a club can offer, it is often the greatest source of frustration for club leaders. Gear is hard to keep track of and maintain, handling rental fees can be complicated, and building a rental fleet from the ground up is overwhelming.
Whether you are looking to acquire gear to build a rental fleet for the first time or to improve upon an existing system, this article will cover the essentials of inventory, rental policies and systems, gear maintenance and more.
Inventory, Rental Systems, and Documentation
An organized system to account for gear is crucial to keep track of inventory, manage rentals and returns, and keep your rental shop running smoothly. Your inventory should list every item of gear that your club owns, and each item should be assigned a unique number or code with which it can be tracked. A functional inventory system contains information about the condition and location of all gear items at all times. Two common inventory systems are outlined below:
Google or Excel Spreadsheets
- Free to create
- Easy to customize and share
- Easily updated as gear is added to the rental fleet
- Require hands-on attention to update and may easily become outdated
- Susceptibility to human error may leave items unaccounted for
Automated inventory database
- Automated system requires user to enter less information with each check-out and return, streamlining and eliminating some human error
- Customizable rental softwares can be purchased for a one-time cost (such as Trackeasy, which is used by staff at the Colorado College Ahlberg Gear House), or designed for cheap or free by a student with computer science experience
- Such databases can be programmed to automatically complete tasks, such as notifying renters when gear is late
- Automated software setup may be pricy or more complicated to create than simple spreadsheets
- Updating the software requires specific-knowledge from a tech-savvy person, and systems may become outdated over time
Whatever system you use to track rentals and returns, it is crucial to inventory your club’s gear as often as possible. At least once a semester, conduct a count to determine where all of your gear is and what condition it is in. With the many changes of hand that rental gear is subject to, frequent inventorying will ensure that your documentation remains updated and items are not lost over the course of the school year.
In addition to frequent inventorying, maintaining documentation helps keep track of the circulation of gear. Renters should fill out a rental form with information on the items they are renting as well as contact information, due date, and fees. Rental forms can be analog or digital, and easily accompany either of the systems above.
Money and Rental Fees
If your club charges fees for rental, you’ll have to handle money. How you do this may depend on your university’s policies for student clubs. Check with your advisor or administrator, and discuss the following options to determine what works best for you.
- Usually complies with university policies
- Easily accessible to renters
- Transactions remain simple and don’t require external charging systems
- Many students do not carry cash and prefer credit cards and electronic transactions
- Requires a safe or lockbox; cash stored in club office may be susceptible to theft
- Accounting for cash requires attention to detail and trust in all staff
- Systems like Square and Venmo are convenient if your club has its own bank account
- Your school may have a system for conducting transactions with credit cards or even utilizing funds associated with student ID cards
- Many universities enforce restrictions that don’t allow student organizations to use electronic transfer systems
- Charging credit cards requires specialized systems that may be complicated to set up
Deposits and collateral
In addition to charging rental fees, it is a good idea to require a deposit be paid with every rental. When gear is returned, a deposit can be returned to the renter. It ensures that your club does not lose money if valuable gear is damaged or not returned and holds the renter accountable for gear in their possession. Checks written out for an amount equivalent to the rented gear’s value are a good deposit option. In lieu of a check, you can also require renters to fill out deposit forms with their credit card info; ensure the renter that you will only charge their credit card in the event of damaged or missing gear.Not sure how much to charge? For pricing structure suggestions, check out the Brown Outing Club Gear Rental Policies, Ahlberg Gear House Page, and Iowa State University Equipment Rental Page.
Renting out gear to participants who do not know how to properly use it is unsafe and can create trouble for your club. Many clubs choose not to rent out certain items, like technical climbing gear, that require specific knowledge to be safely used. Encourage renters to only borrow gear that they feel confident using safely. It is a good idea to require renters to demonstrate that they know how to properly use a piece of gear, such as a stove, that could be dangerous if used incorrectly.
Consider including a clause on your rental form warning renters of the inherent dangers of outdoor recreation, and stating that renters are responsible for the safe use of an item in their possession. Remember, any legal clauses should not be drafted by students, and leaders should consult with an advisor or administrator on all legal and liability issues. Read How to Run an Outdoors Club: Liability for more information.See Colorado College Ahlberg Gear House’s Rental Agreement and Waiver. Renters must fill out this form prior to rental, and an abridged version hangs on the Gear House wall as a reminder. Remember, any waivers or legal documents should not be drafted by students. Consult with your school’s legal office when creating such a document.
Rental gear takes a beating every time it leaves the shop. The fact is, people are unlikely to treat a rented item with the same care they would treat personal gear. The following tips will give your rental gear a long life and keep your budget happy.
- Buy the right products. You wouldn’t lend your high-end ultralight down sleeping bag to a first-time car camper. Stock your rental fleet with gear that is durable, suitable for beginners, and affordable. Check out College Outside’s Recommended for Rental Fleets Collection and The Best Group Gear from Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2018 for our suggestions.
- Know your gear. Your club should designate a gear expert to read up on stove maintenance, fabric patching, ice tool sharpening, and other skills pertinent to the particular gear you stock. Even though your renters might not, treat your rental gear as you would your own.
- Keep it dry. The only thing worse than finding a moldy tent fly on the bottom shelf during spring cleaning is pulling out a moldy tent fly you’ve rented as the sun sets on day one of your spring break backpacking trip. Set up a clothesline in or outside your rental office to air out gear upon return.
- Invest in sleeping bag liners. Sleeping bags are popular rental items, but no one wants to sleep in a stranger’s post-hike stank. To preserve the life and freshness of your rental bags, pair each one with a compact liner bag that can be easily washed between uses. This is easier than washing sleeping bags after every use, which can be expensive and shorten the life of the bag.
- Rejuvenate, refresh, reuse. Stock Nikwax products like Tech Wash and waterproofing spray, patching tape, and stove service kits to attend to normal wear and tear and extend the life of your rental gear. Regular gear checks (at least once semesterly) should be a part of your club’s routine. Enlist a team of leaders to systematically inspect every piece of gear and spray, patch, clean and repair.
Not only will proper storage of your gear allow you to easily find what you need and streamline the rental process, but it is also crucial to keeping your rental gear in good condition. The following tips will help you maximize space and take good care of your gear.
- Label everything. As noted above, each gear item should be numbered or otherwise identified in order to keep an updated inventory. For example, clearly labelling how many people a tent can sleep on the outside of the tent bag will streamline the rental process. Labelling storage boxes and shelves in your rental space will also help you stay organized.
- Hang gear when possible. Hanging instead of stuffing sleeping bags and jackets will allow them to air out between uses, preserve insulation, and optimize storage space. Homemade racks are inexpensive and easy to make–here is one design from Hiker101.com that is used in the Brown Outing Club gear room.
- Store food in sealable containers. Many outing club gear shops are located in dusty basements or run-down offices where pests can be a problem. Storing leftover food to be used on future trips can be useful, but make sure you are not leaving food out where it might attract mice.
- Spare parts for repairs and other small items can be stored in compartmentalized tackle boxes so that it is easy to find what you need when the time comes to make a repair.
Despite your best maintenance efforts, pieces of gear will eventually become unsuitable for rental. Before you chuck old gear in the dumpster, consider whether the gear is still usable. Consider selling usable retired gear to club members in a yard sale to raise money for your club, donate to a local nonprofit, or see if the brand will take the gear back and donate it.
Some essential safety gear, like climbing ropes and harnesses, must be retired on a schedule mandated by the manufacturer. You can read up on product lifespan on the manufacturer’s website or in gear manuals, but it is also useful to recognize when to retire gear just by looking at it. This list is not comprehensive; take the time to educate yourself about the specific gear your club has.
- Climbing harnesses: As a general rule of thumb, harnesses should always be retired after ten years of use or storage. If your rental harnesses are used frequently, they may be ready for replacement before ten years. Harnesses with broken buckles, frayed or fuzzy belay loops, or cuts to the webbing should be replaced immediately.
- Climbing ropes: Ropes used to build anchors or protect falls should be retired when soft spots in the core begin to develop or excessive wear to the sheath is notable. Inspect ropes regularly, and replace when in doubt. Cut retired ropes up into sections too short for someone to climb with, and use for other other purposes like weaving a rad mat for your gear shed, or using sections for knot tying practice.
- PFDs: Exposure to sunlight, salt water, and mildew can compromise the buoyancy of a life vest. If a PFD shows excessive signs of fading, fraying, or tears, it may no longer be safe to keep an overboard paddler afloat. Broken zippers or buckles are cause for immediate retirement.
- Helmets: Ski and bike helmets have a shelf life, much like those cans of baked beans leftover from the 2005 canoe overnight. Most manufacturers and professionals suggest replacing a helmet every 2-5 years, or after a serious impact. Climbing helmets often last a little longer–up to ten years.
If you don’t know when a piece of gear was purchased, you may not know when to retire it. Keep records of all gear purchases, or note an item’s age in your inventory to manage this.
Student and administration leaders reveal wisdom they’ve acquired from years of managing their own clubs
“Programs and clubs that offer gear rentals for their school are able to equip their community with items needed to get out and explore the outdoors; that is a pretty neat thing in itself. To take this resource and service to the next level, I encourage managers and student staff working in these spaces to think critically about your goals and what you overall mission is. Help your entire staff to get excited and create a plan on how you aim to accomplish these goals. It is always an ongoing process, and goals may change overtime, but keep it fun and engaging and your rental program will continue to thrive!” –Rachael Abler, Outdoor Education Specialist, Colorado College
Zoe Gates has served as President and Vice President of Brown Outing Club, redrafting a constitution, aiding in a club structure overhaul, renting out gear and leading trips. As an intern at College Outside, she’s discussed the nitty-gritty of running an outdoors club with hundreds of student leaders and advisors from across the country.
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