Jun 29, 2016813 views

How do YOU find accurate reviews...

DON'T JUST POST A LINK, READ THIS POST FIRST. Let's all be honest for a moment... most of the reviews on retail sites like Amazon are from less-than-average users who probably don't have the common sense to review the products in the first place...
Then on sites like YouTube and Vimeo you come across self-proclaimed experts who don't seem to have experience backpacking or they get sent a product and just review it after looking at it for a day or less...
Obviously there are exceptions to the rules here but where is the proverbial 'pot of gold' hiding for ultralight gear reviews?
I'm not looking for a cheerleader from a brand or a BS'er that makes up what they don't know.
I'm curious about WordPress sites, blogs, channels, or other places that put the content of their reviews out there with little to no regard for profit.
One example I have in mind is Hikin' Jim from: http://adventuresinstoving.blogspot.com/
But his content is only one very small segment of the community and it isn't as current as many new products have come out since his last post.
I'm nearly at the point where I should make my own content based on buying darn near everything I can find and tinkering with it all the time. I just prefer to consume than create since my bar for acceptance is so high.
I'd appreciate any direction that is within these parameters.
Thanks,
Cuylar
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I understand this question... I have only been backpacking since late 2009 and I distinctly remember trying to figure out what gear to buy... it was a mess! One of the first things I did was join a couple of backpacking related internet forums and begin asking questions. At that time, it was the forums at Backpacker.com. While I still made some bad choices back then, I actually did get a good bit of good information that helped me not only make gear decisions, but to go father than this and think about the trip and what it would require rather than just the gear itself. I also joined the forums at WhiteBlaze since it was specific to the Appalachian Trail, and that is where I was interested in hiking.
Some time later with the help of one of the Backpacker.com forum members I joined the Backpackgeartest.org site. Yes, this allowed me to get some free gear, but it wasn't as simple as just sticking my hand out. Over the course of a couple of years, I received items I found I liked, and items I didn't like. However, what the editors there taught me was how to write an honest review. I learned not just to regurgitate what the (usually lacking) product page told me, but to actually use the product and find these things out for myself. This included providing actual measured specs (which is something that I find lacking in so many gear :reviews"... instead, it is a simple reprint of what the product page lists, which is usually not correct) as well as how the product performed... both on it's own, and more importantly as part of a system (which I find to be very important, and how I try to direct my reviews).
Most importantly though, Backpackgeartest.org taught me not to project. We were not allowed to use words such as "you" and we were not allowed to try and imply that just because something did or did not work for me, did not mean it would or would not work for someone else. This was hard at first, but it taught me to focus more on the product rather than trying to sell it to someone else, or for the company with my review. But this is also what made me start looking at something first on it's own, but how would it incorporate into my entire system... because when it comes to gear, I don't think any one thing is necessarily on it's own... it's part of a larger system.
My problem was that I live in NE Mississippi. Around here, we don't have gear stores that I can walk into and lay my hands on items, and there definitely aren't places that are remotely near me that I can get out and backpack... These things are a struggle for a working father with a family, but I make time when I can. However, because of the subpar reviews I generally found on gear, I did decide to create my own blog. At first, it was to share my experiences while backpacking, but I also began posting my own product reviews, and then it also became something of a personal journal that showed my progression of my gear choices, my trips, and some deep thoughts about both of those things... And I choose to share this with the public.
Since that time, like others, I have been contacted by way more companies that I cared for offering to send items for "review." About 80% of these were turned down simply because they weren't really related to actual backpacking, or because they didn't align with my goals. Before I ever decided if I would allow someone to send me something I first decided if it was something that I was interested enough in that I would spend my own money on. If not, I passed... I didn't want a bunch of junk cluttering up my home just because it was free, and I wasn't interested in trying to sell it after the review. At one point in time, I also became an ambassador for a well known cottage backpacking company, but it was short-lived and I never even received anything from them. Since then, I have no longer been affiliated with any backpacking company, and while there are some that I absolutely love (and is obvious from my site) I actually prefer not to be affiliated with them... I don't like feeling like I owe any company anything (unless I buy something from them...)
Since 2009 I have come a long way with backpacking and spent way more money than I ever thought I would to simply walk in the woods. Since then though I have found things that work for me, and things that don't. When I review items on my blog/YouTube I was always upfront about if I paid for the item, or if it was something I was provided with for a review. As well, when I review something, I like to get involved, and that usually takes some time. I go into detail about first off, why I choose an item, what I expected of it, and how it would play a part in the rest of my gear system. I also like to focus on where and how I plan to use an item, and what I expect of it for me. When folks comment or ask question, I prefer to discuss it with them, not necessarily to recommend it or not. I like to think that I am merely expanding the information found on product pages and talking with folks about that to help them have a better idea about something... This is what I was looking for when I started out, and is what I try to offer now.
Anyway, sorry for the long drawn out reply... like I said, I usually get somewhat involved with my reviews... I often get comments on my sites complaining that I won't get to the point or what not.. that's fine. I know in depth reviews/talk isn't for everyone, but there are a lot of folks out there that benefit from it too...
Anyway, to answer your question, mostly I go on BPL for info now... It seems like it isn't what it once was back in the day, but there is still some good information found on the site (just have to read through all the bickering). I still visit the Whiteblaze forums when I need specific right now info about the AT. And there are also a few blogs that I sometimes visit for specific things, such as Hiking Jim's page.
~Stick~
Outdoor Gear Lab isn't a bad place to start, but their supposedly comprehensive reviews are often far from it. For example, for a long time their sleeping mat reviews didn't include a single Exped mat. I see that's changed now but they've neglected to include the Synmat Winterlite in their latest round-up, which is surely Exped's most direct competitor to the Xtherm that they rank #1 (and their best all-round mat, IMO - there's a short review for you).
Obviously you can't review every product in the world but I find they (and pretty much every other review site/magazine) make weird comparison choices. Like why are they comparing a 30oz mat with R value 4.9 with a 12oz mat R value 0.7? That's a totally backwards way to do it. If you need an R5 mat you simply should not even be considering an R0.7 mat. Rating them side by side like that gives a false sense of equivalence when in fact they are two very different products in terms of their use cases (much more different, I would argue, than an MSR Guardian and a Sawyer Squeeze, or a $50 rain jacket and a $500 rain jacket). And their numerical rating system is dumb.
I think the problem is that people think too much about "products" and not enough about "systems". E.g. in the above example you could make a case for comparing a a 30oz winter mat with a 12oz uninsulated mat if you then go on to explain how you could use the lighter mat with a closed cell foam mat in winter, and how this combo (system) is bulkier and heavier but more versatile and maybe cheaper.
The next problem is that there are just so many products, and so many different use cases and individual preferences that reviewing any product "for" anyone else becomes really hard. What I have found most useful is reading forums like BPL and learning what different systems people have come up for for different trips. This takes a lot more time and effort but eventually gives you a much more in-depth understanding of how gear works together. Participating on forums also means you can pick people's brains about your very specific questions/ideas.
To be honest though it sounds like you (Cuylar) are now at the same stage as me. You've learnt enough about gear now that 90% of the time a review tells you very little that the specs don't and the only way to really figure out if the product will work for you is to buy it, test it, and sell it if it doesn't.
I try and look for several resources of the same product and see whether reviews differ wildly or whether they all seem to say the same thing. From there I judge credibility on whet else they've posted and whether it seems like the products are used for the intended purpose or just looked at in a 'lab' setting as it were. I do this same process for anything I buy.
before my thru hike last spring, I was so torn on what to buy and reviews just made it worse. The problem being that everyone is different and what really works for them might be incredibly irritating for you. remember ultralight is more of a state of mind then gear. after my hike I really appreciated what I read and learned on sectionhiker.com, he's very knowledgable and has experienced lots of different terrain and weather, he is also very happy to quickly reply to all your questions.
How do I find accurate and meaningful reviews? Well with respect to backpacking stoves, I found that I had to write them myself although some of the guys at GearTest do a pretty good job. There's also a couple of reviewers over at Trailspace that have written some good reviews.
The problem (at least for me) is that reviews take freaking WORK. Every time I sit down to write a review, it's 4 to 6 hours just for the written portion, not to include field testing. I hope they are worthwhile. I'm painfully aware that no matter how thorough I try to be be, there's always more I could have done. God willing, they give people enough information that they can make a reasonable determination as to whether or not a particular stove would be suitable for their needs. The very last thing I want to do is give anyone a bum steer. If I recommend a stove and people are caught out in a storm with said stove and it turns out to be unreliable/unworkable, then that's a complete failure on my part. This is one reason I don't like to review wood stoves. There is so much dependent on the skill of the user, the conditions, and the qualities of the wood. I could really love a wood stove that works well for me with what skill I have in dry Southern California that might be a miserable failure in, say, the Pacific Northwest.
HJ
I truly enjoy researching gear. I usually start at outdoor gear lab..then do various searches on a particular item and compare. I am not a tee totaler ultralight backpacker. I try to go lighter but am not gonna sacrifice safety or certain conveniences that I feel I need to enjoy my trip. I can honestly say that the items I have bought and used have met or exceeded my expectations based on Outdoor Gear Labs tests and reviews...that's just me.
For me, and this applies to any topic including lightweight gear, I like to look into a given reviewer's online traffic/presence before I do anything else. Once I know how well-trafficked their site is, I have a good idea of whether or not people are reading what they say. Then, checking comments on their posts. If they have overall credibility given high traffic + their credentials ("About Me" or similar) + positive comments, I'd feel assured that they're a good reviewer. I also like when they DO take a little bit of time between posts, because I feel like they've taken more time with the product they were given. Finally, if you pick a few review pages and frequent them, they'll sometimes post updates to the posts after additional testing, and I always look for those!
When looking for reviews, I look for people that are hikers/climbers/mountaineers first and reviewers second. I also prefer those who have used the gear in varied conditions, and share those experiences rather than focusing on general summaries. Two sites run by locals where I am active are http://sectionhiker.com/ and https://nealpinestart.com/ (the latter of which is more focused on climbing and only recently getting into reviews). The downside (?) is that both are very slow in outputting reviews, as they seem to only review gear they have personally used over extensive conditions.
Typically I'll start with and end with forums. You've got people putting in their real world usage most of the time. You do have some "Gearbators" who are brand loyalists and can't see outside of their shifted paradigm of the world, but that's pretty easy to read through. I'll read through reviews on many sites which takes you down different and typically competing products which then I research further. Making a list of possible alternatives. Research usage on the forums again, and eventually narrow it down.
One thing I've never understood, is so what if someone received a product for free in exchange for a review? Yes. Some people do write biased reviews, but I don't think that's the norm, unless they're an actual employee. I'm in the Amazon Vine program where I get products for free in exchange for writing a review. This is no way shapes my opinion of a product. If it sucks, it gets a poor review, if it's a great product, it gets a stellar review. Manufacturer's read reviews and reach out if you're having issues. They want to know if there are problems. Most of the time they'll make it better and send you a new product, patch it (software related), or offer a newly revised product.
I actually find out about lots of gear from Massdrop, I don't have time to read multiple sites daily and all the new gear feeds. The daily email is actually a starting point for me sometimes.
shaggymatt
Sorry to dredge this up a few months later, but what forums do you frequent?
I agree... It's been so frustrating just to find some good reviews on some of the stuff. This is one of the blogs which I follow. In trying to understand my needs, I think I don't need much other than things mentioned in Alan's website. So instead of searching for more stuff, reviews, etc., I've become content with fewer things. http://www.adventurealan.com/
Aside from lack of experience, many so called reviewers are in it for the free gear. Many companies especially smaller ones would offer anyone with an audience free stuff in exchange for coverage. Anyone can start a blog or website for only $9.99 a month and put up content. As the reader, you have to research the reviewer for his/her credentials. This applies to big media as well. For example, these two people have no business in reviewing the AKG N90 high-end headphones. Watch the video...
https://techcrunch.com/2015/07/23/fly-or-die-harman-kardon-akg-n90q/
A good indication that the reviewer is an amateur is writing mistakes. Professional reviewers have good copy editors to check the writing and that's costly. ~ Mike
HiFiInsider
Mike -
Definitely feel you on the "put up content" side of things. One of our struggles is to remain objective in our reviews, even if the gear was sent to us. On the flip side, many of the larger gear review sites (not naming names) charge the gear company to get a review posted. Honestly, I think that's worse.
I spend a lot of time editing our content to make sure there aren't grammatical and syntax errors. Some of our writers make it more difficult for me than others. And, some of our writers are better at finding the good aspects of the products they review than the flaws. So, in that respect, you're correct - things should be read with a grain of salt and the reviewer scrutinized.
On the other hand, you may be surprised to know that smaller companies, especially cottage folks who make expensive product, are rightfully stingy with their demos. And, most companies only loan out bigger items. Tents, bikes, electric gizmos - they generally head back to the manufacturer and out to another reviewer when we're done with them.
I definitely try to be as open as possible about our process. Obviously, everything on the site is just an opinion and what we think is a killer piece may have a fatal flaw to someone else. We do keep trying to be the best gear reviewers we can be and we're always open to suggestions on how to get better.
One thing we've taken to heart after some rather biting comments (not from anyone here) is to make sure we're not just regurgitating copy from the manufacturer's website. That doesn't help anyone - not the reader, not the manufacturer, and not us. So, we're happy to be called on our shenanigans!
Seems you may be interested in different gear than we are, but your thoughts resonate across all different industries. I appreciate your point of view.
@cuyler - you pose a really good question. Prior to 2010 or so, it used to be that backpackinglight.com (BPL) was THE source for objective, thorough and (generally) timely reviews. That is no longer the case. Trail Groove does some ok reviews, but I don't trust a word from Outside or Backpacker Magazines when it comes to gear. A lot of bloggers and youtubers get compensated for review, one way or another, so it is hard to know the integrity of their work.
Hikin' Jim's blog is one of the best around, though obviously his scope is narrow. Will Reitveld is one of the most respected reviewers, though I wish he write more these days: http://ultralightinsights.blogspot.com/search/label/Gear%20Reviews
Like Ken, I think the people who are out using the gear intensely, like thru-hiking, are pretty reliable. I like Walking with Wired and Adventure Alan. Stick used to do good reviews, but he is no longer active. John Abela at HikeLighter has a ton of experience. He has his biases, but not in a commercial way. It's more like he has a strong opinion about what he likes and works directly with some manufacturers to co-design gear, so he has some deeper involvement in the products he reviews. But again, I don't think it affects his thoughts on a products. It's actually the reverse, his opinion affects the products themselves. Section Hiker is fairly good - he is super active, always testing gear, gives fairly balances reviews, and is explicit about his relationship with the manufacturer. My guess is if a product is terrible he won't review it, but I think there is actually a need for honest reviews of bad products.
I am very interested to hear what other sources people use. @jerkyken?
Mid thru and post hike videos from people who come across as intelligent, articulate, with a similar backpacking style seem OK. An understanding of materials and their limitations. As well as a healthy dose of common sense and objectivity on your part can help set off the BS meter. Backpacking equipment is all basically simple. Fabric, insulation, poles, etc..., are easily understood. Everyone will have an opinion. I tend to buy, upgrade very little since quantum jumps in backpacking technology is rare. I also am not an early adopter. I buy what and has worked. Probably not the answer you were looking for. I think good YouTube reviews make up 2% of the talking hands out there.