11 Ways to Get the Most From Outdoor Gear Reviews
Understanding how to navigate outdoor gear reviews is an important skill for those of us who spend a lot of time and money on gear. In the 20 years I have formally participated in Outdoor Recreation, I have experienced my share of buyer’s remorse. I recently waded into the canvas tent industry, exhaustively researched, and still ended up with a purchase that I regretted (a ***** **** tent). It happens to the best of us, but the tips I have included below have helped me ensure my money goes to products that function at the level I expect.
1. Personality. If I look at reviews from a specific source – whether that be an individual, professional, or company – I try to discern personality traits. I am not looking for my next best friend, but I am curious about how they speak (hyperbole, enthusiasm, deadpan) and what they are interested in (things like weight, savings, durability, etc.).
This gives me a greater ability to discern whether something is an absolute deal-breaker or a minor annoyance. It also gives me some insight into the criteria they might have used to evaluate (if not otherwise stated). Assessing someone’s personality from a single review write-up or YouTube post can be difficult. Still, it is worth making a concerted effort to try.
2. Transparency regarding an acquisition. Any time I read an outdoor gear review, I am curious about how the reviewer acquired the item. Many people assume YouTube/Instagram/Field Professionals purchase all their products at full price. It is simply not true. Just because someone received something for free does not mean they are biased, but it is relevant. This is especially true if they are cagey about sharing this information.
Some YouTube personalities try to get around this conflict of interest by saying, “I bought this with my own money.” While true, it does not mean they did not receive a significant, opinion-altering discount. Therefore, some channels now say, “I bought this at full price with my own money.” Suppose a source is vague about their acquisition. In that case, it could be because they have not considered why the information is relevant to you, demonstrating a lack of reflection about their sphere of influence. Or, the reviewer may not want to share because it might alter your perception about the validity of their review.
3. How Long They Have Used the Item. One of the things I detest about social media, especially in the outdoor field, is the need for consistent, reliable content generation. This results in generic, poorly field-tested gear reviews but well-made social content. Appealing but largely useless. It is also one of the reasons that content creators are frequently flip-flopping in their recommendations. They have not tested a given item (or its competitor) enough before reviewing, recommending, and telling you to consider buying it.
I saw content creators that received a ***** **** tent at the same time as me singing its praises (with their convenient ambassador link prominently displayed) within one week. Unless a video/review is marketed as “First Impressions,” there is little chance that any professional can have a well-rounded opinion within a week.
4. Review Criteria. Assessing products is difficult, as is evaluating someone’s assessment of them. If a reviewer/professional does not explain the criteria they used for assessment (durability, price, how they used the item), it isn’t easy to discern whether their opinion is important for you. One of the big things I look for in outdoor gear reviews is what the item is marketed for vs. how the reviewer used it. There are a ton of complaints about gear out there that are irrelevant. While it is true that there are times when something is marketed for X and becomes fantastic for Y, this should not be how a product is assessed.
5. Nothing Negative/Positive to Say. When a reviewer or professional has only one perspective (negative or positive) about a piece of gear, I place little weight on the accuracy of their review. I have yet to find a perfect piece of gear, even things I have designed for myself or had customized for my specific interests. If a reviewer’s opinion is wholly positive or wholly negative, they probably have not spent enough time with the item or have an arrangement with the company. Most of us experience a honeymoon phase with gear (after all, it is new, shiny, and we just dropped money on it), it’s only after sustained use that we begin to see an item in totality.
6. Takeaway. The reviewers that I find most helpful typically offer a ‘takeaway’ rather than a proclamation to buy. If someone is telling you that you need to buy something, they are likely preying on your fear of missing out and other powerful psychological motivators.
7. Flip-Flopping. The YouTube era has made it much easier to longitudinally assess a reviewer’s style because you can browse through their entire review catalog in one sitting. Suppose a recent video tells you to buy a Katadyn BeFree water filter, and a video from 6 months ago tells you to purchase its competitor, Sawyer Squeeze. In that case, it might be worth looking for additional sources. There is absolutely nothing wrong with evolving tastes and interests and subsequent changes in a recommendation. However, suppose undulating excitement about specific items is a content trend. In that case, it probably means the reviewer does not have a lot of experience with things that directly compete with one another or rides the newest wave of industry excitement.
I see this a lot in the backpacking community (especially ultralight) wherein YouTube personality says X about a new product, and everyone asks the other content creators to chime in. Ultimately, YouTube ends up with a bunch of videos about the same product, all saying, more or less, the same thing. Nobody wants to be excluded. The algorithm then feeds you more videos from large channels, and you end up with little variance in opinion.
8. Sources. I am consistently amazed at how little explanation is given for what product specifications mean and why they are significant. Most reviewers that I experience simply read what a company’s website says as if that is supposed to mean something to people that are not in the industry. I was recently looking at reviews for the Winnerwell stove series that Stout Tent sells, and every single review mentioned “304 Stainless Steel.” Not one of them explained why that matters or what it means (beyond what is available from Winnerwell’s product description).
If someone is reviewing a rain jacket with a hydrostatic head rating of 20,000, they ought to explain what that means. If not, you might purchase the jacket and find that it wets out in sustained torrential downpours. Why? Because a hydrostatic head rating of 20,000 is not designed for sustained use in torrential rain. If a “review” only lists company specifications, with little explanation/sourcing from elsewhere, they do not review a product. They are functioning as an advertisement.
9. Trends in Variance of Item Functionality. If you know for what you are looking, you will likely be surprised by just how much variation there can be in modern manufacturing. Nearly every product I purchase has some oddity – some more significant than others. When doing a “deep dive” exploration of gear, it is worth spending time noting variations in item functionality. If an item has a favorable review, but you consistently see negative reviews mention the same thing (leaking in shoulders, Velcro stitching coming undone), you likely have discovered a manufacturing weakness or a product oversight.
I wore Eddie Bauer guide pants for multiple years. They were fantastic, but they had one massive issue. The pants were made from an incredibly soft, durable, stretch material, which was great because they did not restrict movement, but the thread they stitched with did not have the same “stretch” feature. So, the seams constantly blew out because the material would stretch, and the seams would “pop.” Lots of the negative reviews were complaining about this issue. Noting these differences ahead of time can save you a lot of headaches down the road.
10. Only 4/5 or 5/5 Reviews. I dislike star/number ratings for a host of reasons. My biggest issue is that few of us use the same outdoor gear review criteria, so drawing “data” from a hodgepodge set of numbers with little to no assessment consistency is entirely worthless. This is bad data; it tells us next to nothing. Fortunately, this lack of cross-cultural metrics also means that reviews should be sporadic in representation. If an item, especially one that has a lot of reviews, only has 4/5 or 5/5 reviews, you should immediately be skeptical.
Many company websites allow the company to approve or reject a review and many companies reject negative reviews. I am somewhat sympathetic to review plights, but this is entirely unethical. It is not possible for a product to only have 4/5 and 5/5 reviews. There is bound to be one person taking their anger over their inability to read a product description out on a company.
11. Trust Your Instincts. It sounds simple, and maybe it is for you, but I seem to struggle with this simple piece of advice. Nearly every time I have experienced buyer’s remorse, I have felt weird about things ahead of time. For example, when I decided to purchase the ***** **** tent, I did so somewhat begrudgingly. I thought it was weird that there was no information about the owners/founders on the website and that when I called the number, I got a “voicemail box full” message. Since these initial feelings, I have consistently had issues with the company. If I had listened to my instincts, I likely could have avoided many of these problems.
Thank you for checking out these 11 Ways to Get the Most From Outdoor Gear Reviews. I hope it helps you avoid buyer’s remorse on future purchases. I am always looking for additional tools to help with gear review assessment, and if I have missed something that you have found effective, do not hesitate to share.