The Business of Backpacking

LOOKING FOR GEAR

A friend of mine sent me an email asking me to look at a couple of reviews for a new backpacking product. Okay, I like to help my friends. Both reviews were on personal blogs. That’s okay, I like checking with people who actually use gear and provide honest feedback. Whenever looking at new gear and considering someone’s opinion, it is best to get a feel for that person’s experience and whether or not they have a vested interest in the product. Real everyday users can provide the best feedback.

The first site left me a little uncomfortable. It is a well known blogger who reviews a lot of gear. But I found little actual appropriate experience in the Trip Reports section of the blog. In fact, it looks like the person only does a couple short trips a year and many of them detail problems encountered on trips that an experienced hiker would not encounter. This does not mean a product review would not be accurate or useful, but it should tell the reader to exercise caution as to credibility.

The second site was okay. But when I looked at some of the other gear reviews I was not impressed. Specifically a couple stove reviews with stoves sitting on or near a bed of dried leaves. Especially a wood burning stove. An experienced hiker wouldn’t do that.

So I visited a few other blogs looking at gear reviews with an eye to objectivity. Some were excellent and some were awful. To be honest, the best blog gear reviews I find are in the UK, especially Scotland. These hikers get out a lot, and often in horrible weather. Their reviews seem to be honest and meant to help other hikers make good gear choices. Many of these individual reviews are brutally honest, presenting both the good and bad of the product and one can tell they know what the heck they are doing out in the wilderness. A couple highly praised the gear and it is a favorite piece of gear for them, but they recommended not purchasing because customer service was so bad.

GEAR REVIEWERS, AMBASSADORS, AND SPONSORED HIKERS

I am not a gear reviewer. I am just a hiker. I do not consider myself a gear expert. I do know what I like and what works for me. I cannot remember a single trip where a gear failure truly put me in jeopardy or caused me to end a trip. I choose my gear carefully.

Sometimes I review a piece of gear here to share my first impressions. These pieces of gear are items I have thoroughly researched and am fairly comfortable will work for me.

Other times I might review gear that has proven to work for me over the long haul.

Sometimes I buy gear that just doesn’t work out. I don’t post negative reviews about the gear; I normally give it away to someone who can use it. The true purpose of my website is not to review gear or impress people. It is more of a journal for my kids, so they know what I am up to.

Every piece of gear I own, I purchased retail.

The good news is that nowadays I buy very little in the way of new gear. Maybe one or two pieces a year to fill a specific need. But when I purchase gear, I do a lot of research and the Internet is the best place to start to get feedback on gear. However there are generally three types of gear reviews I distrust. I distrust reviews by people who get free gear from a company and then review it, folks who are “Ambassadors” for a gear company, and hikers who are sponsored by a gear company.

Keep in mind that there are Reviewers, Ambassadors, and Sponsored hikers with integrity who write unbiased gear reviews. It is up to you to determine who is who.

If a blog is popular, gear companies see the traffic on it as a good opportunity to showcase their gear. I am fine with that. Some blog owners even offer to test gear with information on how to contact them for a review. They even promise to let the company see the review for feedback and possible editing before it is published.

Over the past few months a couple companies offered to give me gear and one inquired about my interest in becoming an Ambassador for them. I politely declined. The gear was not something I needed; I was satisfied with what I had. So I thought I would share my views on this kind of marketing.

Now many of these folks who review gear have good intentions. And although they get free or discounted gear, and state they are under no obligation to review it, human nature dictates a sense of gratitude to the company that provided the gear. It is akin to companies that provide rewards to people who click their “Like and Follower” buttons.

GEAR REVIEWERS

These come in all sorts of flavors. Professional writers, wannabe professional writers, people looking for free stuff, and folks who truly want to help others make good gear choices. It works well for the companies. Give away a free piece of gear and the odds are high they will get some free marketing. Reviews can be found on personal blogs, backpacking forums, or sites like BackpackGearTest.org. And I notice that there are a group of people who review a LOT of gear. Makes me wonder where they find the time to hike, since they are prolific reviewers. Also they review a lot of gear in the same category, such as backpacks. Once you have a couple great backpacks, why would you want to spend the time reviewing another one. A skilled hiker knows when they have a great pack, thus little need to be trying out a new one.

Another problem I see on personal blogs and websites are affiliate programs where the owner of the site gets financial compensation if you click the link to the manufacturer or a retailer that sells the gear they just reviewed. I think the term is conflict of interest. Of course they always insert a disclaimer. My dad taught me to believe ½ of what I see, and nothing I read.

AMBASSADORS

This is very interesting. You get free gear (maybe just a single piece of free gear such as a backpack), discounted gear, or discounted gear for your friends and family. You are expected to use the company’s gear and promote the gear. I pretty much discount any gear review written by an Ambassador.

SPONSORSHIP

Hikers who are sponsored by a gear company may:

  • Receive discounts on gear or even get free gear.
  • They may receive money for participation in events along with the gear they receive, or even have transportation and entry fees covered. This is typically in competitions, such as an ultra-marathon race. This is a win-win for both. The individual, who is probably not a professional athlete gets some help, and the company gets free advertising from the logos on the gear or the popularity of the individual.
  • Some people get free gear and a salary to promote the gear. This is rare.

I really take little salt in most reviews written by a sponsored hiker. But of course there are a few exceptions.

I am not going to list those I think are good or those I think are questionable. It wouldn’t be fair because I don’t know their true intentions and I do not personally know any of them.

I do know which companies who make great gear that work for me, and which companies make not so good gear or lack basic customer service. For more about the best companies in my experience you can read this article.

STATE OF THE MARKET REVIEWS

This is when magazines or websites gather a bunch of gear and review all of them, then force rank them based on actual use in the field. But unfortunately I see big bias towards the gear manufactured by companies that advertise in the medium that is doing the review.

BackpackingLight.com (BPL) used to be the gold standard of unbiased reviews. But some doubt has crept into my perception of the objectivity of some of the reviewers there. Some are Ambassadors and others might be sponsored. Usually the best reviews, and the ones I trust most, are done by Roger Caffin.

CONCLUSION

I am not saying that all gear testers, ambassadors, or sponsored hikers are not 100% unbiased in their reviews, but Buyer Beware.

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