OK, googled ARS, not a lot came up, but then I found the Yaesu brand of stuff...what exactly is ARS?
Amateur Radio Service, the formal name for "ham radio". I know you currently don't want to end up there, but keep an open mind.
Are ARS systems self reliant? (i.e. will they work when the "system" goes down?).
Yes, any self-powered radio will continue to work as long as its batteries hold out, regardless of what type (we really should say "service") of radio it is. Additionally, you'll see the "infrastructure" come back up for 2m and 70cm faster than probably any other communication service because there are so many hams nationwide that have the gear and routinely practice setting up emergency communications after a major disaster that destroys the normal communications system.
They look pretty nice, and while I don't want to go the HAM route yet (don't have the funds)
You might be surprised how cheaply you can do it. A lot of hams are equipment junkies. Many of them have a stack of "old" radios 12 deep in their closets where "old" means 9 months ago. If you get involved with your local club and let it be known that you're just starting out, I'd be pretty surprised if someone didn't offer you a simple VHF radio "just to get you started" for a very affordable price.
I'm mainly looking for a relaible system for a real camping/bug-out scenario, where I may have to leave the base camp for several hours, either hunting, or scouting, and really just want a reliable system more than anything. I essentially want a reliable 2 (min) 5 (max) mile range solution, that isn't limited to avehicle/continuous power source.
No such thing exists.
The problem with any statement about "reliable range" is that it always comes down to what's between the two radios. If you're halfway between the moon and earth, even junky little FRS radios probably have a 100mi range. However, if the guy you're trying to talk to is on the other side of a ridge, even if he's only half a mile away, there's no man-portable radio that'll "burn through" the mountain to get to him. In between those extremes fall things like buildings, trees, etc. The CB and FRS stuff will be, in my practical experience, pretty much equal under real-world conditions. The ARS stuff has a decided advantage in situations like forests due to the higher legal power. Nothing but an NVIS setup with the accompanying solar flare really helps with the "other side of the ridge" problem unless there's a repeater somewhere that you can both access.
I do like the idea of the CB though, if only for the channel 9 Emergency function, where I can contact government entities if needed (from what i read, a lot of police/911 dispatchers still monitor channel 9????)
I think monitoring channel 9 is a MUCH less common thing that it used to be. I don't know of a single place that still does it and on the two occasions when I've tried to contact the state police that way, no one was listening. On the other hand, I have driven by a couple of "Emergency Dispatcher Monitors 146.520MHz" signs, which surprised the hell out of me. Regardless of wither it's CB or ARS, your most realistic scenario is that you can reach someone via the radio who can then use a phone to relay your emergency to a dispatcher.