The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 3: Backpack Gear Test

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Thousands of volunteers put backpack gear to the test. Listen next, as I introduce our future gear reviewers, on the WildeBeat.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number three.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE SERGEANT: Let's say, you needed a new tent for your next wilderness adventure. If you're like a lot of people, you'd visit your nearby outfitter, and let them tell you what you need.

But wouldn't you rather find someone else who'd actually used the tent you're considering? It would be helpful if you could get them to tell you what they liked and didn't like about it.

As a regular feature on the Wildebeat, guest reviewers will tell us about backpacking gear they've tested. These reviewers will come from a volunteer group called Backpack Gear Test.

I'm talking with Jerry Goller, the founder of Backpack Gear Test dot ORG.

Jerry, welcome to the Wildebeat.

JERRY: Well, I'm very glad to be here.

STEVE: What is Backpack Gear Test dot ORG, and how does it work?

JERRY: It's a way for end-users to give back to the community by sharing their gear experiences.

We started off as a Yahoo Group, and it was quite successful, and it didn't take us very long to outgrow the Yahoo group, and we eventually went to our own web site at WWW dot Backpack Gear Test dot ORG.

STEVE: And you said that it works primarily through volunteers?

JERRY: Yes sir, it's all volunteers. No one is paid in backpack gear test. We do not charge, we do not pay. There's no money involved in Backpack Gear test at all. We all do it because we love it.

STEVE: And how did it grow into the major resource it is today?

JERRY: People seemed to be interested in what we had to say. Manufacturers seemed to be intrigued by the idea of a completely disinterested end-user group. It couldn't work without the Internet.

And I do want to stress that Backpack Gear test is successful because of the tremendous effort of all of the people involved.

We've actually had corporations tell us that they are amazed that we are an all volunteer group. We work on about $600 a year, and I pay that out of my pocket. And they point out that our group tends to work better than their paid corporation does.

STEVE: Do you see a future when that's financed some other way?

JERRY: No. I wanted Backpack Gear Test to be independent. I've not seen any other way to make it work.

STEVE: What's different about the way you do reviews, versus the way the major print magazines might do them?

JERRY: Everyone of our reviews give the stats of our reviewers. You know, their height, their weight, their age, their gender, and their general backpacking experience.

This allows you to put the review in context. If a tester tells you they had trouble fitting in a tent, it's good to know if they're five feet tall, or six four. It's also good to know what their style of backpacking is.

Our reviewers are also real-world people, and they're using the gear just like we do.

I had a manufacturer one time tell me, he says, "well, so what's so special about your group? Our gear has been taken to K2 and tested there."

Well, as soon as he said that, I immediately knew three things: One, it was wildly over-engineered for what I wanted to use it for. It was going to be too heavy for what I wanted to use it for. And it was going to cost more than I wanted to spend, because I wasn't going to K2.

By giving manufacturers our input, it allows us to improve the gear that we end up using. We're the ones who have to pay for this stuff. Manufacturers seem to be very responsive to this.

Our reviews also have no bias one way or the other since there is no money involved anywhere. Probably the most important things we bring to the table is ignorance and indifference.

I don't necessarily believe that there's good gear and bad gear, there's just gear that I like, and gear you like. The only thing we report on is our own personal experiences, and we let you decide if it's an item you want to use.

Something else we do, we'll take three of an item, and we'll have testers from all over the world. What we're looking for is a well-rounded view of what this item actually does. If you were to read all of the reviews, then you'll come away with a pretty good picture of what it actually does. We don't believe we're here to tell you what to buy.

STEVE: How many testers do you have contributing now?

JERRY: Currently we have about four to five hundred active testers. We have four thousand testers listed.

We have some people who may review one item a year. We have other people that will be reviewing five or six items at a time.

So we have some people who are quite prolific in their reports. But we have very high expectations, and this isn't easy. Backpack Gear Test is definitely not a gear lotto. You're going to work for the gear you get. And we're very sensitive to our reputation.

STEVE: Who are some well-known manufacturers providing gear for you to test?

JERRY: There are so many, I mean, literally it's almost everyone you can think of. It's probably easier to list the ones who don't test with us, but we won't do that.

We have about a hundred tests running at any given moment.

We have reviews from about three hundred eighty manufacturers.

STEVE: How long is that testing process for any particular piece?

JERRY: Currently we're in a six month cycle. We want to be able to use the gear enough to give a good solid review on what it does, by the same token, we want to be able to get the review posted and online, in a usable time frame for people to buy this season's gear -- currently produced gear.

We're not going to shorten it to the point where we're not giving the reviews to our standards. But we are going to shorten our test cycle to four months.

During that four month period they will post three reviews: Our first review, the initial review, is due within one week of getting the item. And that's your first impression review. You're describing that item for someone who can't go down to their local outfitter and look at it.

The second report is due at sixty days, and that's a field first impression. The last review is going to be at four months, and that will have another three or four days of use.

STEVE: So does that mean sometimes getting your hands on prototypes, and gear that never sees the light of the sales floor?

JERRY: As far as pre-production stuff, that is a completely separate thing that we do. We do a lot of pre-production work with a number of companies. Pre-production work obviously is confidential.

STEVE: So do you still test the gear yourself?

JERRY: I've got stuff that won't see the market for two or three years. All I test now is pre-production. It was always my passion. And, I work directly with a number of designers. Like when I'm going on the Pacific Crest Trail. I... Lets see, my shoes and my pants I think are going to be the only non-pre-production things I'm taking.

STEVE: That's a pretty long and arduous hike by the standards of a lot of our listeners. Do you have just as many people who are doing more approachable sort of activities with this gear?

JERRY: Virtually all of our reviewers are actually much more average backpackers. Now they may occasionally go on long distance hikes, but generally speaking they're taking the weekend trips, with the occasional week and two-week trips.

STEVE: Thank you very much Jerry, for coming on the Wildebeat today. I look forward to talking to you and your testers in the future with reviews of specific pieces of gear.

JERRY: We'll always enjoy talking to you.

STEVE: Jerry Goller is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Backpack Gear Test dot ORG — one of our partners, on the Wildebeat.

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Next time — what does it mean to leave no trace?

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Future editions of The Wildebeat depend on your contributions, both for funding and for content. Please see our website for details.

This has been The Wildebeat, program number three. Thank you for listening.

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