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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Gear Pro: Why Review Expensive Gear?

Readers often ask why we review such pricey equipment. Here's the answer.

by: Kristin Hostetter

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image: TaxCredits.com / Flickr
image: TaxCredits.com / Flickr

Dear Backpacker,
Get a clue! Why do you constantly promote and review gear that is way too expensive for the average person? I mean, come on! $600 tents? $500 rain jackets? $300 boots? What planet do you guys live on? I know you get it for free, and probably only promote gear from companies that advertise with you, but you are missing the boat and not serving your customers. Come back to earth!


The above is not technically a real letter, but it may as well be. We constantly get berated from our readers who challenge us on the gear we choose to review and our editorial integrity, so I thought I would write an “open letter” explaining how we select the gear we do.

First, we primarily look for new gear and new technologies and innovations. Why? Well, because that’s what our readers are interested in...the stuff they’ll soon be seeing on the racks at their local shops or the stuff that pops up in their website searches. We totally agree that good gear can be crazy expensive, and we wish it weren’t so. But, here’s the fact: People are buying it. And people want to know if it’s worth the money.

(Note: Though the bulk of our coverage is on new-for-the-current-season gear, we never forget about our old favorites, and we regularly recap the ones that are still in circulation and at the top of their game.)

Yes, new technology, whether it’s new computers or new cars or the latest jeans at Nordstroms, there’s often a degree of sticker shock associated with things that are new, innovative, and high-performance. And while we always publish MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail price), the good news is that those prices do come down, and you can almost always find better prices online than those we quote in print, especially if you wait a month or two or buy at the end of the season.

The way I see it, it’s our job to sniff out the new stuff, to test it in the conditions that it is intended for, and report on how it performs. Do we take price into consideration? Of course we do! And we decline to review loads of products that don’t live up to their price tags. But remember: A $500, fully-featured, waterproof/breathable hardshell is not intended for occasional use on a weekend backpacking trip, and if that’s your style, you should save your money and buy something less expensive. Although top end gear works typically just fine in those scenarios, it’s aimed at the people who either 1) push the limits of their gear and themselves, 2) are daily, aggressive users who live the outdoor lifestyle and will wear it everyday straight for the entire season, or 3) yes, people with disposable income.

So when we’re testing a piece of gear, we keep the intended user in mind, and weigh price against those requirements. If the performance equals the price, we include it. If it doesn’t, we don’t. All that said, we are ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS on the lookout for a bargain. When we find a piece of gear with a good price tag that still meets our performance requirements, you can be damn sure we’ll review that, too. But before we do, we’ll test it just as hard as the pricey stuff (well, maybe a little less hard) and make sure it’s legit and durable, and won’t have you running back to replace it a few months down the road.

Just because something is cheap, that doesn’t mean it’s a good deal, and when you live and breathe in the outdoors like we do (and many of you do, too), the “cheap” stuff quickly reveals itself.  In each season's Gear Guide, we always try to balance the pricey stuff with the mid-range stuff and the bargains. It’s not always easy. Each year, the proliferation of expensive gear far outweighs the bargain stuff.

And lastly, regarding the “pay to play” comments that we hear all the time, the only thing I can say to that is this: It’s wrong. Whether or not a company advertises bears zero weight on whether they get a review. Choose to take my word for it or not, but BACKPACKER has never operated that way. There may be other publications that do, but we do not. Our honest intent is to bring our readers the best gear every month. Gear that we love. Gear that we want to own. Gear that would buy for ourselves (if we weren’t gear testers who are required to keep on testing more new stuff).

Oh, and by the way, if you have an affordable piece of gear that you love—and think your fellow readers will also love--by all means, let me know. Send me no more than 5 sentences on how it has performed for you (tell me about conditions and locations, too) and include a great in-the-field shot of you using it if you have one, I’ll include them all in an upcoming story.

—Kristin

Click through to the slideshow to see our 5 favorite values.


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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
JPHiker
Apr 05, 2014

Its give that there is a limit on the number of items you can review, but in fact, I have not seen reviews of some top-of-the-line, and better than most, gear that are available. For some examples: Wiggys sleeping bags and other gear, some of which are very reasonably priced, and Crossfire DG-6 and DG3 packs. Additionally, there are some economical top-of-the-line gear that I have not seen reviewed, for example the Military ALICE rucks (yeah I know ALICE is external frame, etc, etc.), UK Army Bergens, poncho liners, and the like. You can get a brand new ALICE LC-1 or LC-2 ruck, frame with waist belt, and shoulder straps for around $100.00. Have done a LOT of humping and hiking with the ALICE gear and it is top-of-the-line for ruggedness and adaptability. When properly loaded and adjusted to the user the ALICE ruck is quite comfortable. One can probably get a MOLLE ruck nowadays for a reasonable price. Expensive, best quality packs like the Crossfire DG6, an external frame ruck, can hold more stuff, with better organization, and is very comfortable under heavy load, but it certainly is not essential for say an Appalachian trail through hiker. With the DG6 for example, you get a lot of versatility as it comes with an auxiliary patrol/day pack, a magazine carrier, more rigging points and a means to rig it for parachute jump is available.

Star Star Star
Paul Keller
Apr 03, 2014

Yeah, you guys are certainly fond of pricey gear. Nice thing about the internet though is you can read a review on a $300 pack on backpacker.com and then shoot right over to ebay and pick up the Chinese trade-infringement version for like $80... 300D is 300D right? (never-mind the stitching -wink-)

A budget-packer (dibs on the name) tab on your homepage is a no-brainer, honestly it's silly not to have one already! How about a DIY section too?

Star Star Star
13013
Apr 01, 2014

Kristen
I think many readers are unable to buy it "all at once" so a $100 item replaced 4 times over the years is better than a $400 item that can last a decade. It would be nice to have a truly frugal section on a near monthly installment for the beginners, young adults starting the worklife, etc.

Star
CoreyR
Apr 01, 2014

Sorry but I am just not buying your line. I am not trying to sound mean but this is why I did away with my subscription to this magazine years ago.
The outdoors is not just a playground for the filthy rich and that is what you shamelessly promote.
I routinely venture outside and I do not spend gobs of money to do so. Hiking, fishing, canoe or kayak, I do it all and all within a budget.
I purchase cheapeer equipment which I sheck over carefully and alter, as needed. I maintain my equipment and tend to use it for years. I do not run out and buy the "latest greatest" thing to hit the market. I look for cheaper alternatives and take care of them. Your magazine never touches on this sort of thing. Hey, if you are a magazine for spoiled rich kids, ok. I will peruse your articles from time to time as will, I am sure other regular folks, but don't try to tell us that you simply must deal only with the most overpriced stuff there is and act like it is just not possible for someone to exist without it. Just act like the snobby rich people you cater to and be honest about it.

Star
John
Apr 01, 2014

EXACTLY why I cancelled my subscription years ago....not much here for the common man. The idea is great, but the delivery is mostly for the rich kids.

Star Star Star Star Star
Matt
Apr 01, 2014

Kristen,

Thank you for a cogent and well written 'open letter'. I will say however that price remains a bugaboo that keeps many folks away. And while as you say top gear is not for the occasional 'weekend warrior' or folks that don't meet the 3 criteria you listed... what about those folks? Are there not a sleeping bags, boots, shells , tents out there from one of the 'marts' that would suffice for an over-nite or couple of days? How about a 'weekend warrior" section covering reviews of lower cost gear..dare I say.. ever from..gasp... discount mass merchandisers? For some folks $100 for a shell is to much, let alone $500, and 4 days backpacking is too much.. let alone 3 months. Should these folks forget about backpacking? If not..what products should they buyy..a few reviews for them would be nice.


Star
No-see-Eeh
Mar 27, 2014

This post smeels like bullcrap, in particular this "Whether or not a company advertises bears zero weight on whether they get a review"
Kiss my lovely a...

Star Star Star Star Star
Kevin
Mar 26, 2014

Thank you for including some ideas on gear that can be purchased for $100 or less per item. I could not begin to afford the type of clothing and gear that I often see in stores or online. While I wouldn't want to sacrifice safety for cost, disposable income is just not that available to me. I don't buy gear or go to the wilderness with the idea of being outfitted with top of the line items, or I wouldn't be able to go at all. I go out there to enjoy the experience and to get back home safely. Due to training (not the expensive schools) and experience I can do that without spending a lot of money.

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