Gear: Review

In continuation from yesterday..

I’ve always been interested in outdoor gear. I studied gear catalogues from a very early age, years before the internet made fetishization so convenient. We’re talking about an eight year old in Ohio, who took enthusiastic but not nearly frequent enough backpacking and camping trips with his family. I continued to study catalogues and websites as I grew older. It’s what I do, my interest in a subject is either forceful or wholly absent, and when I am interested in something I want to know it well. This applies to most everything. There was still an element of fetishization (ie I want to be like them!) in all this, even post-college when I escaped west for good. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve realized, to be immodest (with which I’m not at all comfortable), that I am those people in the catalogues. In the areas of outdoor endeavor I care about these days I am on the cutting edge, hardcore, epic, an expert, etc. This perspective has let me transcend, mostly but not entirely, the fetishization of gear upon which the outdoor industry is built and be more of a critical consumer.

No denying it; we humans like stuff, and use it to mark the significant passing of our lives.

A good gear review should be easy to spot, and easy to quantify.  As has been said recently, obvious evidence of use in the review plus the established track record on the reviewer create credibility and authority.  In the realm of personal bloggers, trip reports are the foundation of this.  If you can’t be bothered to write about the foundational practice of your passion, I don’t want to read what you have to say about gear.  If you don’t get out much and try to hide it, then you likely have little of worth to say in the first place.  In summary, if you take Gear Junkie, Feed the Habit, Section Hiker and the like seriously as a source for in-depth gear beta you might want to re-evaluate your standards.

Forrest and Luc, Moose Creek, ID.

If we pursue this paradigm of online community vetting our gear reviewers, I would hope that the matter of getting gear for free should become a non-issue.  I’m much more concerned with writers/bloggers who have a financial stake in the practice.  Gear reviews drive blog traffic, for better and worse, and if your business is tied up in keeping and increasing traffic along with keeping and increasing gear review referrals from companies, I think the concern that this will erode integrity and dilute the mission is real.  There’s no one solution to this, and plenty of folks manage the balance just fine.

There’s also the more complex matter of how much use is appropriate for a review to be based upon.  I have high standards here, mainly because it takes me so long to get used to a items quirks, and because I regard durability as a big deal.  Last year I took Roger Caffin to task during a BPL pack review, as he freely admitted that he had not taken many of the packs on actual trips, just test loops and training hikes.  I still think this is scandalously inadequate, relying as it does on what is essentially an armchair assessment for all but the basic carry traits of the packs.  On the other hand, I have a much softer opinion now, after having gotten involved in professional gear reviewing through BPL.

This spring I signed on to review (among other things) alternative rainwear and sub 8-oz rain jackets.  The later is still in the works, with my first wildly optimistic deadline pushed back indefinitely (until it’s done!, we did get new coats from the Summer OR).  The former is in editorial processing stasis.  Both made me realize the value of having one reviewer for big projects, the unity of perspective allows for a comparative view of the whole genre which is the most valuable piece of a state of the market review.  The downside is obvious, one person can only put so much use into so many pieces of gear in a given amount of time, and that is subject to the weather.  Seriously, no significant rain storms in all of August and September here put testing back a lot!  The relevance of a review does not last forever, especially in a mutable world like that of outdoor apparel.

So in the end you have to compromise.  In both projects I’m not getting as much data and experience as I would like.  I compromised more with the poncho-tarps and so forth, as there are fewer variables and those which exist are less particular.  Yes I slept under all of them and hiked in the rain with all of them, but in some cases only once.  I’m still uneasy with that.

Rain jackets, and especially the durability of lightweight WPB coatings, is a more nuanced subjects.  I did what I could, but in the end farming out the gear by selling it to friends at deep discounts or giving it away was a good opportunity to clear the house of a many rain coats and get more data points for the eventual article.  And it’s already paid off, and might prove to be the ideal compromise.

All of which is to say that this is a worthwhile topic for debate, and not just cause we’re gear nerds.  This has to do with how we win and share knowledge in general, and that in turn has to do with why and how we live in the first place.

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7 thoughts on “Gear: Review

  1. Disagree. Some folks (me anyway), are pretty fine tuned to gear. We can tell almost instantly whether it is something worthy or not. Reviews based on short outings can not comment on durability, but can easily comment on gear functionality.

    Honestly, I can tell usually if something is going to be good for my uses within the first 15 minutes of using it (bike related anyway). Many times, the differences between the product usually used, and the new product are most glaringly obvious on first use.

    Don’t discount the folks who don’t go big, just put their reviews in their proper perspective.

    1. Given the breadth of your experience with mountain bikes, and rigor of the terrain you ride on, I think you’re one of the more qualified evaluators of a lot of mountain bike gear.

      If you’re testing a saddle (or shoes), I still think an 8+ hour ride had no substitute.

  2. Agreed. If you are doing long distance stuff, you need reviewers who do the same. Mostly, I guess the most important thing is to consider the source. I am convinced many reviewers either outright lie, or are so deluded by the gear, or are so inexperienced, their reviews are simply worthless.

    How to establish credibility as a reviewer is an interesting topic. Like you said above, trip reports should probably outnumber gear reviews:)

  3. This guy comes to mind, regarding reviewer “qualification”, stumbled upon this a few weeks back:

    http://www.redwoodoutdoors.com/2011/08/cottage-industry-how-important-is-gear.html

    Unfortunately, so many blogosphere reviews/reviewers come off like an outdoor industry equivalent to a fantasy football league. Fake.

    I enjoy diving into thorough trip reports and browsing through attached gear lists, these are like gold. Analytical gear reviews from months of “in the field testing”? Nope, not usually. What I do find valuable are anecdotal accounts from individuals like yourself who are getting out frequently, running kit through the paces, and condensing the functionality of gear into a shorter span of time. Ultimately, gear should be somewhere in the background as a footnote to adventure, a means to an end, and treated as such.

    1. I have a two graph rule: I’ll pay attention to the first two graphs/tables/charts, and unless the topic is very compelling skim the rest. I’m brainstorming various ways to get feedback when my more intensive BPL reviews start coming out.

      That Redwood post is an interesting one. I’d take his analysis and remove the weight categories entirely, and substitute gradations and experience and how demanding the trips are. That you could conflate base weight with the rest seems to me to show how uninteresting “just backpacking” too often is.

  4. “That you could conflate base weight with the rest seems to me to show how uninteresting “just backpacking” too often is.”

    Agreed, the focus of that discussion, when it centers solely around gear and the reiterations therein, runs its’ course pretty quickly. There is still much to be discussed in terms of the quality of experience in regard to “just backpacking” and wilderness experience. What is “just backpacking” anyhow?

    I often find, when shared from the perspective of creative and invested individuals, that wilderness encounters of the simplest variety can be incredibly inspiring and occasionally motivating.

    With that said, I’m still looking forward to your upcoming editorial contributions, you always provide a fresh perspective, one that BPL has been lacking over the last few years IMO.

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