The Complete Guide to Gear Reviews on Adventure-Inspired

Powerdrains from Columbia undergoing testing
as part of the #Omniten program.
I was invited as a guest on the In Ice Axe We Trust (IIAWT) podcast last week, and aside from it being an absolute blast, it really got me thinking. One of the first questions hosts @thepeakseeker and @last_adventurer asked me was about how I review gear. Specifically (paraphrased):

"Do you feel beholden to the companies that send you gear? If you get a piece of gear that doesn't perform the way it's supposed to or performs badly, would you write a scathing review, or would you feel like you need to temper the review?" 

It's a great question and one every gear reviewer should have an answer to. It got me thinking about the process I go through with each piece of gear I receive and how I put reviews together here on Adventure-Inspired. One of the greatest things about running your own blog is that you're in charge of every process, every decision, and every word you publish. But it can incredibly valuable to share as much of certain processes as possible with your audience. With that in mind, in this post, I've included as much as I could think of related to how I do gear reviews on Adventure-Inspired, and if you have questions, I'm glad to answer them in the comments section!

Deciding What Gets Reviewed
When I was starting out, I reviewed gear I bought that I thought folks might benefit from hearing more about. When I was researching mountaineering boots for my Rainier climb in 2010, for example, I didn't find too many review from newbie mountaineers that were helpful. So, when I bought the La Sportiva Nepal EVO GTX boots, I reviewed them to help others like me make educated purchasing decisions. 

I still review products I've purchased on occasion, but also review complimentary products or apparel I've received. I'm grateful to have the chance to try out new gear and clothing and it's an opportunity for me to give companies honest feedback. But I don't review every piece of gear I receive for testing on Adventure-Inspired; that decision's made on a case-by-case basis. The bottom line? If I think folks will truly benefit from hearing what I have to say about a product, good bad or indifferent, I'll review it here. (More on the "good, bad, indifferent" piece below.) Regardless of whether or not I ultimately post a review, it's always my goal to share feedback with companies that provide me with gear for testing.

I considered reviewing this absolutely phenomenal Backpacker's Pantry cheesecake, but decided to start compiling a list of my favorite Backpackers Pantry and Mountain House meals instead because I don't have 500 words to write about cheesecake!

How the Gear is Tested and What Happens After the Initial Review
There's no point in creating a review for a product that hasn't gone through thorough testing. If the aim of a gear review is to help readers understand how a product performs, if it lasts, and if it's worth investing in, the product needs to be put through the ringer. I'll always make sure to describe where and how I tested a piece of gear in the review, and so will guest reviewers. (Note: one of my favorite things about all blogs associated with the Trail Sherpa network is that gear reviewers provide the testing location, time and distance tested, and the testing environment. I love that level of detail!)

If it's a pair of hiking boots that are supposed to be waterproof, for example, you can bet I'll put them through the Bathtub Test, jump in a few puddles, play in the mud and more before the review goes up. If it's a skincare product like Climb On! Creme, I'll be sure to use it long enough to get a real feel for whether or not it works. After the initial review is written, I'll either keep the product for ongoing testing or pass it on to someone who can use it. And If I learn something new about a product after the review is posted, I'll go back and update the review with an editor's note at the bottom.

How Review Content is Determined
It's easy to go to a company's website and look up product specifications. The best gear reviews I've read minimize discussions of technical specs. That give the reviewer plenty of space to talk through how those specs and other features contributed to the performance of the product. As a review reader, I'm less interested in understanding how many pockets a backpack has and more interested in if they're in the right place, if they're the right size, and if the zippers are solid.

It's my goal to give Adventure-Inspired readers my take on the valuable features, things that miss the mark, and ways that the product can be improved. I try to keep all reviews between 500 and 750 words because I know how valuable every minute of every day is, unless I don't think I can get my points across thoroughly enough in that amount of space. Generally, if I don't have 500 words to say about a product, it's a review not worth reading and I won't publish it. I also don't do giveaways for products I haven't used.

Stuff That Doesn't Go Into Reviews
A detailed list of technical specs doesn't, that's for sure. I'm not opposed in the long run, but currently don't use a rating system because they generally seem arbitrary. If I used star ratings and gave a product 5/5 stars, what does it mean? Does that mean it's perfect, no flaws, performs exactly how it's supposed to for what it's supposed to and will work for everyone? I've considered putting one together using my own criteria, but don't plan to until I figure out what those criteria are. I also don't typically put prices in reviews because the price depends on what outlet you're purchasing from; MSRPs are great guidelines, but given how many stores and online shops we have to choose from, prices tend to vary.

The Importance of Full Disclosure and Honesty
Testing out the Leki Khumbu Aergon trekking poles, one of the
first pieces of gear to get a not-so-favorable review.
Getting complimentary products from companies like Columbia, SKORA, Hydrapak and more is an incredible perk of being a blogger. I'm grateful to have the connections I've made, but as I mention on the Adventure-Inspired disclosures page, it's absolutely vital to me that readers trust I'm being honest about the gear I test.

I will never give, nor have I ever given, a product a glowing review because I received it for free. Never ever. Ever. 

It doesn't do me any good as a blogger looking to build a rapport with my audience, it certainly doesn't do readers any good, and it doesn't do the company providing the gear any good because it's not honest feedback. But every time a blogger mentions a piece of gear, it's publicity, so that's great, right? Not necessarily.

Bloggers who are serious about their craft know that readers value authenticity and honesty. I know I choose the reviews I read carefully; there's so much information out there and the five minutes it takes me to read a review need to be worth it. I'd argue that from a company's perspective, it's significantly more valuable to have your product on a blog with a reputation for honest feedback than it is on one with a reputation for 100% positive reviews.

And most products, if not all, products can be improved. I'll always make a note of things I think a company could change to make a product better. I don't believe gear companies or readers benefit from entirely scathing reviews either, and even products I don't like may have positive attributes.

I'll also always mention if I've received a product for free in the review because I believe in full disclosure, and because the FTC likes it when you do.

Phew! I'm hoping I covered most about what folks would be curious about, but if you have any other questions about how my gear review process for Adventure-Inspired works, please leave me a comment and I'll answer as best I can!

Comments

Katie!

We are so proud to hear about your high standards for product reviews. We couldn't be happier to have been reviewed by someone with such incredible integrity for product reviews.

We look forward to seeing more bloggers set these high standards!

Warmly,
Will Reynolds Young
Chief Digital Officer
Climb On! Products, Inc
Meghan J. Ward said…
You don't have 500 words to say about cheesecake? :) Great post, Katie!
Katie said…
Will, it's been such a pleasure working with you and Climb On! Thanks for the kind words :)
Katie said…
well, I do, but decided writing "nom nom nom nom" 125 times wouldn't make a great gear review :) thanks, Meghan!
David Sandel said…
Oh my goodness. This is wonderful! Perhaps I should have a "disclosure" page on my site too. I am always brutally honest and that has led to not getting anymore product from a certain company. In fact, that same company sent me 2 pieces of gear to try and I was very unhappy with both. However, after the first bad review, I didn't think they deserved a 2nd. They're still a good company, just not those 2 things.

But I totally agree with you. Reviews need to be honest. Not only for the integrity of the writer and the website, but as you mention, to actually inform the people that are reading it. I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels that way. When I see bloggers that have nothing to say but good things about every product review, I tend to stop reading them. Not every piece of gear can be as special as puppies and kittens. A bit of realism goes a long way. Great post!
Thank you, you as well!
Whitney Orban said…
Great post Katie!! I agree with everything you mentioned, except to some extent I do think specs are important. I try not to get carried away with them, but I do mention them. I'm still figuring out "the perfect" layout for video-reviews and hope that we'll continue to improve our reviews on OGTV. I certainly hope to convey everything you said here in my reviews as well.
ErikBoles said…
That was a close one, Katie. Had you said "Cheesecake always has room to improve" I would have stopped following this blog immediately.
Katie said…
ha! well, I'm glad that's no what I wrote, then :) I was absolutely floored by how amazing freeze dried just-add-water cheesecake could be! not quite the same as the original, but man was it GOOD.
Katie said…
thanks for the note, David! it's not easy to give constructive criticism, but it's important to find ways to give all types of feedback in gear reviews for the companies and for our readers.
ErikBoles said…
damn it. Now I have to go try that. thanks a lot. ;)
Katie said…
Whitney, I LOVE what you do with OGTV! I agree, specs are important, and they should be included where it makes sense. I'll definitely include things like how many pockets a backpack has because that kind of information matters, but I have trouble with reviews that are JUST lists of specs without any information about how the gear was used and how it performed.


What I love about your video reviews is I really get a sense of how the gear looks in action and how it works. It's such an easy-to-understand format and the information you provide is always valuable. As far as the "perfect" layout goes, I think you're pretty darn close!
Heidi Henry said…
This is exactly how I feel (although I don't review that much) but you put it in much better wording =) Never thought of a disclosure page. Good idea!
Katie said…
I'm so glad we share the same sentiments, Heidi! I got the disclosures page idea from another blog I read regularly and respect (Section Hiker), so I definitely can't take credit for the idea.
Whitney said…
Thanks Katie! I really appreciate the kind words. Keep rockin' the gear reviews and Adventure Inspired. I love both!
Brian Green said…
I could spend hours on this subject... and you're right that gear reviews should never be base don the fact that you got some free stuff - ever. I struggle with this all the time and I'm at the point where I get sent gear without ever being told that it was coming, then receive an email asking me when the review will be published - umm what?


We can't become publishing monkeys and not all review should or will be positive, but does that also mean that you should write scathing or negative reviews if they will harm or impact a product that with a little help and feedback could be improved?


I get asked why I don't post many negative gear reviews and here's my answer: If a product is so bad that I would never use it myself then I simply don't review it. There's no point in being a jerk for the sake of it. If a product is okay but could use some improvements before being recommended, then I'll write an offline analysis of my thoughts and provide it as free feedback based on my experience - as a way to help. If a product is something that i think others will benefit from and that I would put my own name behind then I'll review it to the best of ability with full disclosure if it was provided free.


That process and framework results in very few negative reviews as you can imagine. I've also recently taken to suggesting that I return all samples after I am done with them and more and more manufacturers are taking me up on that. It's not just about free stuff.


Finally, anyone that thinks a gear review is easy and cool because you occasionally get some free pieces of gear probably has no idea what it really takes behind the scenes to go out, photograph, test, and write up a review. There are a lot of people doing it, but very few that do it consistently well. The people that I see doing it well are the types of bloggers that I reach out to as guest bloggers when I get overloaded with gear - don't laugh, it will happen to you too!


Great post, thanks for sharing. - Brian
Katie said…
Brian, thank you SO much for sharing your perspective and for your thoughtful comments.

I think your policy about what to review makes sense and I like that you still share feedback with the manufacturer offline if you find areas for improvement. I don't see completely negative reviews as productive either, but if I think folks could benefit from a review with a few points of improvement listed, I'll still do the review even if it's not a product I'm incredibly excited about. I think your approach works well too!

I've thought about returning samples as well, but like to keep testing beyond the initial review period to see if my thoughts and recommendations can be expanded. I don't think it's a bad idea, though, and you're absolutely right, it's totally NOT just about free stuff.

And I agree there are a lot of reviewers out there and you're one of those that does it well, for sure!
Trail Sherpa said…
I think you nailed it with this post Katie. I couldn't agree more with Brian. I don't like to hammer a product in a negative way. In a few cases, I've emailed the brand or PR rep to share why it fell short for me. I've never sent back the product but I think I will going forward.


I appreciate the shout out for our format on Trail Sherpa as well. We spent a lot of time thinking about what we would want to see. But we also have a 5 star system. I was on the fence about it. But I've worked out a way to rate gear that works for me. Yesterday I published a review of a Big Agnes bag that I gave 5 star but also pointed out two small shortcomings. Both were issues that I believe were specific to me. And I didn't feel that they diminished the value for other people.


If you can ask how others might see the product and you can make the assumption that it will perform in a similar way then it's safe to rate it. But if you ask the question and you feel that perhaps the issues may belong to just you or a small group then it's unfair to give it a bad review overall. That's how I approach it.


Great post Katie!
Katie said…
Thanks for the note, Tim! I appreciate your perspective on the rating system and like the way you approach it. You're able to give folks your overall impression of the product with the ratings, but mention caveats that are specific to you. Good stuff!
Shannon Wood said…
I love the way you review things Katie! Especially the bathtub test for waterproof garments. I also use the bathtub test myself when camo companies send me camo. My hunting boots test even goes through the bathtub test if they are made of neoprene or types of rubber. One thing I have noticed over the years not everything is coated well enough to be waterproof. So in cases like that I spray a sno-seal beeswax spray on the garment then test it again for a second opinion.
Vicki Kechekian said…
Got some Climb On products on the strength of Katie's review & am very pleased with them.
Hi Vicki,

Thanks for letting us know - We love to hear stories of how people find Climb On! It brings warm feelings to our heart knowing people love to share the product. That is truly how we got where we are today and we look forward to continuing in that excellence!

What was your favorite product you tried?

Warmly,
Will Reynolds Young
Chief Digital Officer
Climb On! Products, Inc