The Perfect Gear: Reviews, Opinion, & Bias
-photos and words by Donnie
Don’t let anyone fool you – there is no perfect piece of gear. Whether you’re talking bikes, tents, stoves, tires – you name it – there is no singular best for everyone under all circumstances. The most you can hope for out of any particular piece of gear at any particular point in time is for it to be the best option for the given situation.
Give up on absolutes
The biggest problem I see when folks seek advice from friends and “experts” on gear is you’ll invariably get a lot of very strong, definitive opinions that vary wildly. If there really is one “best” gravel tire, why are 50 people giving you 50 different answers to the same question?
The short answer is that when people recommend a piece of gear, what they’re really saying is “of all the pieces of gear I’ve personally used, this is the one that fits my particular use and budget the best.”
Keep in mind those qualifiers when taking advice from others – how many different options have they personally used, how specifically have they used it, and is it compatible with my budget?
Your use is what dictates the “best” piece of gear
Think about how you will use your gear and make buying decisions accordingly. A stove might get 5-star reviews and be recommended by all your friends and “experts”, but if it doesn’t fit how you intend to use it, it’s not the “best” piece of gear for you. Don’t give in to hype.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of things to consider when researching gear:
- How many consecutive days will I need it for?
- Where will I use it?
- How easy is it to use?
- How much does it weight?
- What can go wrong with it? If so, what’s the result?
- How does it pack?
- How does the weather impact use?
- How much does it cost?
Gaining experience in the outdoors with a variety of gear helps you refine and prioritize these questions in order to make better gear purchases. And the fewer duds you buy, the more money you’ll have to invest in more or higher quality gear. When in doubt, borrow or rent and see how it works in real life.
Purchases are dictated by majority use
When making decisions, figure out what you’ll primarily be using the gear for and buy for that scenario.
I used to make the same mistake over and over – I’d buy gear with an eye towards that once-in-a-lifetime trip. One dumb example was buying my first pair of ice climbing boots. I wanted boots for regular ice climbing, but I also knew I eventually wanted to climb Denali so I bought boots that theoretically could do both. It seemed logical, but the reality is that boots that are good for climbing Denali are horrible for regular ice climbing. So those boots sat in the closet and I had to buy another pair for regular ice climbing trips. It was an expensive lesson.
The reality is that we should buy gear for our primary use – if you’ll mainly be doing weekend overnight trips, buy a stove that is best suited for weekend overnight trips. Don’t buy an expedition-style stove that stinks for weekend overnight trips just because someday, maybe you’ll go on an expedition.
Bias and the art of the review
No offense, but I strongly believe it’s impossible to give a sponsor or free gear an unbiased review.
This makes it difficult for the inexperienced to make gear choices. The most knowledgeable folks are usually the pros, but the pros are typically sponsored and/or get a lot a free gear. So what’s one to do? The best you can do is get advice from folks who use the gear all the time but don’t have any vested interest in any particular brands. Specifically, I’d recommend scouring gear lists from folks who’ve finished difficult rides or events (here’s a good example). If their gear choices were bad or they didn’t know what they were doing, they likely wouldn’t finish. They might even talk about what gear worked or didn’t work and why. The “why” is the critical part here and goes back to the above point. If they use gear differently than you, it may not be relevant.
Bias is the primary reason you won’t see product reviews here. We want to be unbiased, we really really want to be, but ultimately we’re honest enough to admit that no one can do it. The one thing we will say is that we only sought out sponsorship from folks whose products we already used and already believed in. I think that says more than a transparent product review.
Water purification – as an example
A friend recently asked the social media world – what’s the “best” way to treat water in the backcountry? As expected, a half dozen people (myself included…) gave our definitive answers as if that was the final word on the subject. But the reality is that she needed to answer a couple critical questions in order to narrow down her options:
- What kind of water sources will I be using? Purification (i.e. tabs, Steripen) only works on clear water. To properly treat dirty or silty water you’ll need a true water filter.
- How many days will I be using it at a time? If it’s a day trip or an overnighter, options like tabs or Steripen can be better choices than a bulky water filter.
- Do I care how fast it works? Some folks hate tabs because of the 30 minute wait. I personally dislike the Sawyer because its slow compared to a Steripen.
- What does it cost? Not everyone can or wants to dish out $75 for a Steripen.
While not an exhaustive list, these are the kinds of things she needed to think about and prioritize in order to pick the best option for her.
I have the advantage of having been active in the outdoors for 20+ years so I’ve tried a lot of different options and own more than my fair share of gear. Whether it’s stoves, tents, bikes, water purification – I own several options and I tailor my gear choices to individual trips. But it took a lot of trial and error and dumb purchases to get where I am today (anyone want to buy a portable titanium wood stove?!?!).
If you’re a greenhorn, I recommend: 1) try out a lot of different gear to see what you like (borrow or rent when possible); 2) make a list of how you expect to use it; 3) find legitimate, trustworthy folks who use gear in similar ways for advice; and 4) make purchases based on how you’ll use the gear the most. And don’t expect whatever you buy to be perfect all the time. All you can hope is that you bought the best piece of gear for when you’ll use it the most.
p.s. I’m not saying all product reviews from folks with sponsors or who get free gear are worthless. Much like us, lots of folks seek out sponsors from companies that make stuff they already like. We just think those types of reviews should be taken with a grain of salt.