THE TRUTH ABOUT MAGAZINE/WEB PRODUCT REVIEWS.
Snake River, Yukon, Canada
Kopka River, Ontario
Point Lake, Nunavut, Canada
I am often asked this question:
"We’re planning a wilderness canoe trip and want to be prepared with the best equipment. I hear there’s a great new trail stove (tent, rain parka, canoe pack etc.) on the market that is absolutely terrific. It was top rated in the last issue of “Fun Camping Magazine”. What do you think of this hot new stove? Should I buy one?"
Don’t take magazine product reviews too seriously. Writers work on deadline and are usually paid by the length of copy they produce not the time they spend researching and field-testing. Time is money, so research and product testing are kept to a minimum. Bad reviews irritate advertisers, which are a magazine’s life blood. For this reason, writers are encouraged to tone down criticism.
For example, many tents and garments have small zippers that won’t take serious abuse. But you’d better not write it that way. Ever notice how often the word “may”—as in “may fail”—appears in equipment reviews?
In the 1980’s, as a contributing editor for “Backpacker Magazine” I evaluated many products—compasses, tents, trail pads and more. In those days, we called them “evaluations”, not reviews, because that is exactly what they were. Products were seriously tested—we lived with them for months and the evaluations often consumed a dozen or more pages in the magazine. But too often, an honest evaluation was a bad evaluation and threats of pulling out advertising—or lawsuits—were common. So we changed the format from “evaluating” new products “reviewing” them—that is, we gave specifications (length, weight, packed size, color etc.) and little more. This pleased advertisers. And most readers didn’t pick up on the essential editorial change.
Frankly, the term “expedition-proven” doesn’t mean much any more because modern canoe “expeditions” seldom last long enough to prove anything. For example, I once made a 17 day canoe trip in Canada where the only rain was a short drizzle. Needless to say, my rain gear worked perfectly!
The best advice is to carefully examine everything before you buy. If a zipper looks weak or too small (most of them are!), it probably is. If there’s a plastic knob that can burn off or break, it likely will. How will the product perform in high winds or when it’s caked with mud or soaked with rain? Will it break if you drop it? Can you repair it in the field without special tools?
Be aware that some of the most highly touted products which work flawlessly over the short haul, fail miserably when the weeks turn to years, or when the environment wreaks havoc. So be wary of advertising claims and the testimonials of individuals whose experience is limited. Instead, seek the advice of those who travel wild places year after year. These are the real experts even though their opinions are seldom seen in print. The human body is a tough machine and can take a lot of abuse. Some people are very impervious to pain; they view being wet, cold and miserable as “just part of the tripping game”. Naturally, I disagree.
All this can be summarized in a word—trust! Why change your current tent, trail stove, sleeping bag or whatever, if it has never let you down? Conversely, if an item is dangerously worn, or you think something better has come along, try the new replacement for a time—a long time, before you commit to it for a long trip. Trust doesn’t develop in two weeks!
My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a treatise on equipment.
My new teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL!. combines a riveting fictional survival story with non-fiction outdoor skills--a first for books of this type.