About seven years ago, I bought a backpack that was lighter than any pack I had previously owned, had a clean aesthetic, and used Dyneema Composite Fabric hybrids, which were new and revolutionary at the time. Its vibe was minimalist, with no load lifters or external pockets. It was durable, futuristic, and ultralight all at the same time. I just had to have it. I was positive that it was the best thing out there and nothing was going to convince me otherwise—not even subpar performance, design flaws, or poor fit.
When the pack showed up, I loaded it up with 45 pounds of packrafting gear and hauled it along the Dirty Devil River in southern Utah for five days. From the jump, it performed poorly. On that first trip, the thin, stiff, narrowly-spaced shoulder straps dug into my neck, leaving me unable to turn my head to the side by the end. I pretended not to notice. It was an ultralight pack after all, unlike my brightly colored, feature-heavy internal frame pack with cushy shoulder straps, so it didn’t seem out-of-character for it to be a little uncomfortable. After the trip, when I scrolled through photos of myself walking through desert canyons wearing it, all my memories of shoulder pain vanished. I looked great. And that’s one reason I stuck with it, distrusting my own instincts.
I didn’t know it at the time, but by paying attention to positive—and not negative—information I was running into the perils of confirmation bias. In my case, it was a very specific type of confirmation bias called choice-supportive bias or post-purchase rationalization: a tendency to give positive attributes to a purchase one has made and/or to demote the options one did not choose. I refused to acknowledge the pack’s downsides, considering only the evidence supporting my belief that I had chosen the correct pack. I had bought the pack—which shall remain unnamed—sight unseen because it was not yet available in stores; so realistically, I had no idea whether it would even be comfortable. The pack looked cool to me, and according to my impressionable ego, coolness translated to performance. Later, when I encountered evidence that the pack was badly-designed and didn’t fit, I couldn’t bring myself to face up to the truth.
As I continued to use the pack over the next three years, I experienced pain on almost every trip. A perfectly rational person would have realized the obvious—this backpack was awful at doing everything backpacks are supposed to do. Instead, I focused on information that conformed to my prior belief that it was the best pack on the market: An adventurer I admired was using the same pack; it received outstanding reviews from several publications and quickly became one of the most popular thru-hiking packs; at least five of my friends had also purchased this pack and they all liked it. Because I wanted to believe it was the best backpack out there, I just kept believing it, pain be damned. But somewhere along the way, I started to feel uneasy in a way I couldn’t pin down.
This uneasiness was a product of cognitive dissonance: My belief in the awesomeness of the pack conflicted with the reality of the pack’s discomfort. I could have squared the two by changing my opinion and admitting that the pack sucked. But that is often hard to do when beliefs become entrenched, and the longer you ignore them, the harder it gets.
My belief in the excellence of the pack did eventually change, but for equally superficial reasons: The pack became so popular that wearing it no longer made me feel unique. Once that was out of the way, the pain I was in came into stark relief. I was finally able to see that the pack had a fatal design flaw: The shoulder straps were too stiff, thin, and close together to be comfortable with heavy loads. Of course, I knew this all along, but I didn’t want to believe it. In my opinion, there are still thousands of people out there who don’t want to believe it either.
I’m just as susceptible as anyone else to marketing ploys, gimmicks, peer pressure, and the desire for uniqueness, so I’m left wondering if it is even possible to ignore it all and purchase only the backpacking gear that works best for me. Regardless, there are a few rules of thumb you can follow to increase the chances of choosing the right piece of gear for you without falling into the confirmation bias trap.
It’s alright to trust the experts—to make informed decisions based on reviews found in Backpacker or other trusted sources—but don’t rely on these exclusively. Remember, the pack that tortured my shoulders received excellent reviews but was uncomfortable for me. It’s also important to remember that people’s body shapes and personal needs are hugely variable. You may be too tall for the tent that everyone is raving about, or your arms could be too long for the hardshell jacket worn by your favorite Instagram influencer. Sometimes products advertised as unisex are only tested by men and therefore don’t fit female bodies very well. It would be a mistake to force ourselves to use these products just because we want them to work. And we shouldn’t keep tolerating deficient gear just because it’s supposed to be good, it looks cool, or we found it on sale.
If you do find yourself feeling uneasy about a piece of gear—your beliefs in its excellence conflict with the reality of using it but you aren’t sure why—ask yourself these questions: Did a persuasive friend recommend the product? Does an influencer or famous athlete own the product? Did you see a convincing advertisement for it? Try to be honest: We all like to think we’re too smart to fall for ads, but the reality is that companies pay for them because they work. This practice might reveal the real reasons for choosing or tolerating a product. At a minimum, acknowledging the fallibility of humans’ decision-making skills, and the many forces that align to complicate this process, could help you to remain focused on what you really want to get out of your next gear purchase.