Bad Gear Reviews: No Such Thing?

There is no such thing as a Bad Gear Review, because there is no such thing as bad gear…only specialized gear.

Let me explain:

Last week I published a post about bad gear reviews and asked “when it was appropriate to publish a bad review?” Part of of the discussion revolved around the idea of contacting companies before publishing a bad review…to see if they would listen.

Most of the responses we received were from the viewpoint of the end-users. different bloggers who are used to using gear…but have probably never designed gear for retail sale. This week, however, I received a response from Rand Lindsly who is the co-founder of Trail Designs and co-creator of the Caldera Cone Alcohol Stove. As a cottage manufacture Rand’s products have received a wide range of reviews, allowing him to comment from the viewpoint of the vendor.

Trail Designs Team. photo by George “Tin Man” Andrews

What if “bad” gear doesn’t really exist. Only specialized gear that falls into the hands of reviewers that don’t have the needs designed to be met by the gear they are reviewing. Thus they give the gear a bad review.

Here is part of what Rand had to say:

“I suppose there might be some “bad” products out there that need to be slammed…..but not likely….and if so, not many.   More likely, there are just products out there that are designed for certain purposes and needs, and they find their way into the hands of reviewers that either don’t understand their purposes, don’t need their strengths, or have a completely different conceptual paradigm they are comfortable with and can’t get their head around the product.

This is really the danger……getting a “review” that comes from a biased viewpoint that isn’t reviewing the gear, but trying to fit a square peg/solution into a hole they have defined as round.”

This intrigues me. If you think about it, companies spend a good deal of money on designing, testing, and refining gear. All in order to meet specific needs of their end users. Different people have different needs. If you have gear that doesn’t meet your needs…you will not have a high opinion of that gear.

A simple example: Suppose you are sent a bivy to review, but have previously always hiked with a (relatively larger) tent. You might review the bivy as “cramped, with no room to change clothes.” Or suppose you need a sleeping bag that can be easily washed. You are sent a down bag to review and throw it in the washer only to find the down gets terribly heavy when wet, ripping through the bags baffling. You might review the bag as “poorly constructed” Or “poor choice of materials” Neither of these reviews would be accurate. The gear isn’t bad gear…it simply wasn’t designed to meet those needs.

Even “cheap” gear made from lesser quality materials is designed to meet a specific need, that of the budget minded end-user. If you are in need of better quality…you have to pay for it. If you review a $20 tent from Wal-mart and say “It didn’t hold up on my through hike of the AT.” Its because it wasn’t designed to.

What it all boils down to is the bias of the reviewer. We need to realize we are all human and have a hard time opening our minds to products that fall outside our preferences. But a good reviewer will look past his bias. As Rand says “the pressure is on the reviewer to be completely open minded about what the vendor is trying to do, and look at the product from the viewpoint of the audience they are trying to reach.” This is something I think print media has managed to do, and something bloggers could learn from.

So the question isn’t “when is it appropriate to write a bad review” but rather “Is this gear designed to meet my needs? And if it isn’t, don’t we have a responsibility to not review the gear in question?

I would really like to know what you think. Is there such a thing as “bad” gear? Are reviewers being unfair when they review gear that doesn’t meet their needs? What happens when gear is designed to meet your needs but fails to? Is it bad gear, or false advertising? I would really like to know what you think.

Please add your comments below.

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21 thoughts on “Bad Gear Reviews: No Such Thing?”

  1. I agree and disagree with this. I do believe there is bad gear out there (either poorly designed or poorly constructed). But I agree with the assessment that if we are going to review a piece of gear from our perspective, it should be gear tailored to our pursuits. An UL backpacker should not be reviewing cast-iron dutch ovens…it doesn't fit his/her paradigm.

    That's what makes reviews valuable. The trick is finding a review written by someone who shares your specific activity and can offer a review from a similar set of values that you would use to judge the product yourself.

  2. To me, a well written review provides context. It doesn't matter if it's a positive review or a negative review. Context includes the reviewer's typical style, experience, physical traits (if relevant to the gear, such as a pack or pair of boots), conditions the gear is used in, etc. If a review doesn't provide any context I don't find it useful. You can tell me that pack is great or it is terrible – without that other information it doesn't matter to me.

    If someone writes that a piece of gear sucks (or is great), I want to weigh that context against my own. If I read that something performs terrible in the rainy conditions the reviewer is always hiking in, I might discard that review since I hike in dry conditions. If it's someone who knows their stuff, uses the gear appropriately, and/or plays in the same type of terrain and conditions as me, I'm likely to take the review more seriously.

    And manufacturers should pay attention, even if someone has used the gear in a completely inappropriate way. It doesn't necessarily mean that the gear is actually 'bad', but they need to consider that other consumers might try using it the same way. It could be a message that packaging/advertising needs to be clearer, or maybe there is an opportunity for another product or design change.

    I reviewed something several years ago (I can't even remember what it was) where I used the gear (in addition to its normal use) in a way unimagined by the manufacturer. They were delighted by the creative use and I later saw it pop up on their shelf packaging materials.

    I guess the important message to manufacturers is to listen, regardless of the review. The message to readers is to understand the context. And the message to reviewers is to provide that context.

  3. I too agree and disagree. There are many items that get bad reviews because people expect them to perform in ways that they are not designed to do, but at the same time, there is some items out there that are just poorly designed, or even constructed well. As well, I agree that you typically get what you pay for.

    But I absolutely hate it when I read a review that dogs a product because the said product did not do something it was never intended to do. It seems like I come across more of these types of reviews in the review sections at places like REI and Backcountry, etc… but also places like Amazon. I guess the problem is that people are buying stuff with little to no actual knowledge of the item and only their planned intention.

    However, I think that for people that are reading reviews and actually understand the item that they are looking for, then they can easily discern the inappropriate reviews from the legitimate reviews. For example, when I was looking for a wind jacket, I knew better than to even read reviews that gave poor rankings and then talked about how the jacket did not keep them dry in a rainstorm.

    Anyway, great post.

  4. There is plenty of bad gear out there. The problem is every (ok, almost every) gear review published, especially by bloggers, is 100% no ifs, ands, or buts subjective. Subjective data is, for the most part, useless when comparing items.

  5. There IS a lot of bad gear around, badly designed, badly made and worst of all, sold under a false premise. And wouldn't it be nice if companies would talk to you seriously!

    I couldn't disagree with you more.

    One thing though. If I tell people that I have a popular outdoor blog (which I have done a few times in complete exasperation) suddenly I get treated with more politeness and seriousness. This drives me mad. For some companies, ordinary punters are alued just for their credit cards …

  6. David, I think UL backpackers should totally be allowed to review cast-iron Dutch Ovens! As long as they mention the weight, and explain how it is going to be multi-use, and if they stay under the UL weight limit, all is cool 😉

    (Your final paragraph nails it very well =)

  7. I don't see the word "bias" anywhere in my comment. I did, however, say almost every gear review out there is subjective (this pack felt comfortable with 30 lbs in it) as opposed to objective (this pack showed significant torso collapse with loads greater than 30 pounds). I stand by that statement.

  8. Sample size has nothing to do, IMO, with a measurement being objective. If you give me a procedure to measure something as well as results for even a single pack, I can repeat the procedure on any pack I have and accurately compare them. I can't compare your comfort level with mine though.

  9. Correct. Torso collapse at a specific load with a specific pack will be the same regardless of who is doing the test (within a reasonable amount of human error of course). Comfort most definitely won't be. I can tell you that the effective torso length of a pack collapses by one inch with a load of 25 pounds, and that may be perfectly comfortable for a 6 foot 200 pound man with strong shoulders. However, it's unlikely that same pack with that same load would also be comfortable for a 5 foot 4 inch 120 pound female. Hopefully that makes sense.

  10. Generally I do not post on articles, but I would like to say that this blog really forced me to do so. Your post is rocking and knowledgeable. I really appreciate the way you write. I would like to read more from you. Certainly such a really nice blog.

    Camper Trailers

  11. I completely agree that context is everything here. For me, gear reviews are like movie reviews. You find someone who has similar tastes to you and who's reviews you agree with for movies you have seen.
    I mentally rate reviews higher if they are in the same climate and conditions as me. If I've bought the same gear and agree with their reviews, and finally, if I like their reviewing style… 🙂

  12. I think you said it best when you said: "We want to both provide our readers with an honest review of a product and provide direct feedback to the gear makers." That seems to be a lofty goal. I wonder, though, what happens when you have a relationship with a cottage company that you want to maintain, but receive gear from them that just doesn't work for you in your niche. Do you stay loyal to your readers with an honest review? Or do you respect the company, provide them feedback, and then do them a favor by not posting a negative review? This goes along with the original question in this post: http://www.mylifeoutdoors.com/2011/12/when-is-it-appropriate-to-post-negative.html

  13. I would be interested in reading some of your blog. Can you provide a link? I'm sorry you disagree with me. I'm not completely sure I agree with me. Most of the thoughts above are from Rand at Trail Designs. While I think they are great thoughts that we should all listen to. The are just one side of the discussion. I have yet to decide how I feel about it all.

    I would say I disagree with you also. I have noticed some, smaller companies, that respect the voice of my blog, but larger companies who are confident in a successful product see little need to treat me differently because of my blog. I think you are crediting to much power to a medium that bearly scratches the surface of influencing the outdoor industry.

  14. I agree. And that is the main point of the post. That too many "bed reviews" are from people expecting something from a product intended to do something completely diffrent. I also think most people who review on sites like the ones you mention are mad b/c they didn't research before they bought it and want to slam the product. It seems sites like those have the opposite problem in their review sections…too many people unwilling to cite the positives.

  15. Something else I look for in reviews is just more information. It seems companies have gotten really good at being vague in their product descriptions. I look for a review for additional photos and insight into what features a product actually has.

  16. Hi,

    IMO yes, it's obvious that there's bad gear out there. Some products simply don't do the job they're sold as doing, and/or they're faulty, and/or they're not reasonably robust. From time to time a purchaser might misunderstand the nature of a product, buy the wrong thing and complain unfairly, but that's a completely different issue. I'm a little surprised if it's seriously being suggested that misunderstandings about purpose lie at the root of most complaints about poor quality, as that's clearly not the case.

  17. I think the line sometimes gets blurred. There are those who are just your average hiker who has a blog that shares their thoughts about whatever they most recently bought and tried out. Than there are those who solicit gear from manufacturers and (hopefully) tests them and posts their thoughts about it. There are also those who buy gear that they really have done research on and than write a review on it. Then there are those who are hikers and also T&E that work directly with the manufacturers to try to find ways to change their gear to make it better meet the needs of certain groups of hikers.

    Some have questions if there is "bad gear". Of course there is. Some products in the outdoor industry should never have seen the light of day. Why would we not all agree on that. Some things are just so stupid or are such total failures at attempting to perform what they were designed to do, that it does not matter if their targeted users are experienced hikers or weekend hikers. They are just pieces of junk, no other way about it.

    The issue that seems to be going around the outdoor hikers blogosphere right now is more an issue of whether or not bloggers are being fair in their reviews. As more and more 'gear reviewers' are becoming known on the internet the more proliferation we are having of gear being reviewed. I have had my fair share of people thinking I am bias or one-sided or just have no idea what I am talking about. I except that this is going to happen. I am a hiker with a group of followers (which is growing larger every day) who are interested in the type of gear that I happen to use, test, and write reviews on. Sometimes they are high praises and sometimes they are not – but I always try to make it clear that if something sucks, it gets said.

    Over the last few years that I have been doing outdoor hiking gear reviews I have had the honor and pleasure of working directly with around a half-dozen cottage companies to test their gear, and have direct contact with them to help improve their products. Nearly every single company have taken suggestions I have provided and integrated those changes into their gear. That is (should be?) the ultimate goal for those of us who are serious about reviewing gear. I am not saying ever gear reviewer should have that goal, but a lot of the guys I have come to respect over the last few years feel the same way. We want to both provide our readers with an honest review of a product and provide direct feedback to the gear makers. Hopefully this can continue to be the case – it will all depend on whether we who are gear reviewers can remain civil and respectful and not loose the good grace of the outdoor manufacturers in such a way that they no longer care about what we say. That would be bad for everybody.

    Thanks for the article.

    John B. Abela
    HikeLighter.Com
    RedwoodOutdoors.Com

  18. I don't pay much attention to gear reviews because I am still using stuff I bought in 1971 for my first trip. I don't have Spot – I got here by myself, I'll get out by myself. I use paper maps, so I've been lost a time or two. I floated the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grand in 2004 with a guidebook; the descriptions of near certain death in three named rapids scared the crap out of me and I lined through them. In retrospect, I should have just scouted them first; I would have been fine. The best advice I got in climbing Gannett Peak in Wyoming came from some climbers I met the day before the summit, not from the guidebook. I talk to everyone I meet on the trail or on the river, and sometimes hear exactly what I need to know. Gear, schmear. Get out there. Its part of the adventure.

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