What is it like to be a gear reviewer?

I love seemingly simple questions that have complicated answers. The short answer is that there are as many answers as there are individuals reviewing gear. What? Too simple? Well, you can’t say I didn’t try. So here goes the long answer…

I am not going to try to assume I know the minds of other gear reviewers. I don’t even think I know my own, so how could I possibly know someone else’s. In the following article I will try to describe what it is like to review outdoor gear, and some of the reasons I am involved in it. Note I did not say why “I love it”, it can be kind of a love/hate thing…but for me at least, at the end of the day, the pro’s outweigh the con’s. Moreover, as Leesa says, “this is supposed to be fun”, so as long as it is fun, I will continue.

Picture a lone backpacker, crouched next to a small camp stove. The stove is sitting in a depression in the snow adjacent to the snow cave where its operator is planning to spend the night. The trip to this location, while relatively short, involved climbing directly up a series of black diamond ski runs (steep and icy) because in addition to the stove, he is testing a pair of snowshoes made for climbing (there was actually a much easier route). After the trek up the side of the mountain, then a short but tense search for a suitable place to dig a snow cave (nothing worse than digging for 10min only to smack your fragile $70 aluminum shovel on a pile of rocks and realizing that for the 3rd time you have to start all over), eventually resulting in a less than ideal but passable shelter, now it is time to get some warm food in his stomach.

Burning Stove

I don't think this is the way it is supposed to work...

He looks at the stove, thinking fondly of the stove he has used reliably for years but is now at home with the other gear he did not bring. After a bit of awkward effort getting the unfamiliar stove set up, it is time to light it…only it won’t light, or to be more accurate it is technically lit in that it is on fire, but far from burning the way it should. After about 10min of messing around with it, he tries to put on a pot full of snow to see if despite the flair ups and sputtering maybe he can get some water boiling. About 10min more and he realizes the water and snow mixture in the pot is now contaminated with un-burnt fuel and undrinkable. So the choice is disassemble the entire stove, risking losing some of the small parts in the snow and/or possibly not be able to get it back together or going without dinner. Not being one to pass up a meal, he lets out a heavy sigh and starts to dissemble the stove, wondering if “free” gear is really worth spending the night cold, hungry and alone on top of a mountain.

Picture this same backpacker, only this time instead of crouched over a stove he is staring incredulously at a computer screen thinking “I am such an IDIOT!” It is 11PM. The workday (at his paying job) was long and less than fulfilling, then it was home to make dinner for the kids and get a few chores done; now it is time to get those reviews written so they are not late. But guess what? None of the pictures he took of the gear are usable…@$%^&!

How many stoves are in this picture?

How many stoves are in this picture?

Don’t get me wrong, reviewing outdoor gear can be cool and lots of fun! But it does not come without costs. Getting the chance to get your hands on some of the newest gear available from some of the best manufacturers on the planet is simply too cool for words…flaunting your latest acquisition in front of your buddies can be even better. Nevertheless, it comes with its share of responsibility. The manufacturers are providing you with expensive gear with the expectation that you will provide a comprehensive and fair review of the product. The readers are expecting you to identify all of the best and worst the product has to offer and explain every detail in a clear and concise manner so they can be entertained and make an informed choice before investing their hard earned $$. Last but not least, Leesa is counting on you to publish a review that will keep readers coming back to the site and manufacturers lining up to provide more gear. In addition, there is no pay, so as compensation the reviewer gets to keep the gear as long as they fulfill their testing and reporting obligations.

There is a saying “Feedback is love”, kind of a silly statement but true none the less. I think it is important to get feedback in order to continue to grow and improve. I feel this is especially important for companies, if you are not listening to your stakeholders you will eventually fail to meet their needs and as a result become obsolete. In addition to this, I have a strong dislike/distrust for advertizing. Self-promotion while necessary is inherently flawed and thereby untrustworthy. So I feel informed independent reviews are the best and in many cases only reliable source of information. As such, I like to respond to companies with information on what they are doing, good or bad, in the hopes that they can use the information to better serve their customers and thereby their employees and other stake holders. Reviewing gear gives me a chance to provide unbiased information to manufacturers as well as prospective customers.

9 of my backpacks

9 of my backpacks

Besides being an opinionated jerk (yea, I may be opinionated, but I hold off on creating my opinions about gear until I have experience to support them), I love the outdoors, but work and family commitments can make it hard to get out as often as I would like. So it is gear reviewing to the rescue! “Wife whom I love and adore, I really want to spend the weekend doing yard work and helping you clean the house, but I have 3 reviews due by the end of this month and I really need to get a few more nights in the field with the gear to complete my review…” And off I go into the Cascade Mountains for a long relaxing weekend of “work”.

  • $200 backpack for testing – free
  • $70 stove for testing – free
  • Food and gas for the weekend – $30
  • Not feeling guilty for using up a vacation day and spending a 3-days alone in the mountains or at an alpine lake – Priceless!

As I mentioned above the reviewing is not all fun and games. You receive a piece of gear to review and are expected to use it. Sometimes the gear is not something you would normally use and so you have to modify your style in order to use the gear as it is intended so you can provide a fair review. Sometimes this results in finding a new and better style, and sometimes it TOTALLY SUCKS! And that is when the gear works. Sometimes the gear is not what you were expecting (sometimes it is your expectations that are wrong) and sometimes the gear just does not work or breaks prematurely. But that is kind of the point of reviewing the gear in the first place.  I have gone on more than a few trips where I left a favorite piece of gear at home in order to test something that was not all it should be. In addition, there is a saying that “the best way to ruin a hobby is to make it a job”. This can be true for reviewing gear. Before getting involved with gear testing, I went hiking and backpacking for the sheer fun of it. I climbed mountains and ridges to test my abilities, to see the view from the top, or just to see what was on the other side. Since I started reviewing gear I have not gone on a single outing just for the fun of it, on every trip I had some piece of gear I was testing or some article I was writing and needing additional material for. It can really take the fun and spontaneity out of things…but then again it can be REALLY fun!

So that is gear reviewing for me. It can be a real pain (literally) or be very rewarding (sometimes both at the same time), but even shivering in the mud while huddled under a wet tarp at 2AM (that is a trip I have not written about yet) I am still having FUN! But hey, that is just who I am.

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I am sure other reviewers have their own take on this topic and I will be encouraging our other reviewers to add their own views to this article.

See you on the trail,

Dave (the turtle) Wilkes

3 Responses to What is it like to be a gear reviewer?

  1. Pingback: What is it like to be a gear reviewer? « Outdoor Article « 4alloutdoors.org

  2. Great article Dave! I had the joy and opportunity to review 2 products and really enjoyed the challenge. Living in southern California we have warmer climate with the option of driving an hour or two to get into the snow at the higher elevations to test foul weather gear. As you posted about having a regular job, some are more demanding than others. At one point it was midnight before I could test some gear and get an intelligent review useful to the future users of that produce. My hat is off to you Dave for all the gear review articles you have posted.

  3. Dave, I had to chuckle at some of what you wrote. Especially gear reviewing becoming the excuse/reason for getting outside.

    My journey was different in a few ways. I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors, gardening, hiking, etc. When my kids were young, we began camping and doing short hikes. It was cheap, and everyone enjoyed it. We have a good friend who is into wild edible plants, and she taught us a lot and got us interested in plant identification. That became a challenge and a way to keep the kids focused (and not arguing).
    I started looking at reviews before I bought anything. I wanted to find the most durable gear for my limited budget.
    I started writing reviews and found that I enjoyed it, and it definitely taught me to be much more analytical.
    One of the reasons I started this site was to be able to provide information that encouraged people to get outdoors.
    I seem to have accumulated quite a bit of cooking gear – I love cooking, indoors and out, so I guess that makes sense. I have every type of stove made I think. Not sure I have a favorite though. Depends on what and where I am cooking.
    I will say, some times the writing is tough and I struggle with how to word something. Other times, it just flows. A good hike usually helps…

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