3 Steps for Researching New Backpacking Gear
Research, research, research. That is all I have been doing lately. If I have even a moment of time free in my day, you can bet that I am doing some sort of research on new backpacking gear. Currently I am researching backpacks, but a few weeks ago it was hammocks and in a few more weeks I will probably move back to hammocks or maybe top quilts... or under quilts. Who knows where the wind will blow me. All I know is that I LOVE to research new products. I am a type C personality and do not like to make impulse buys. I was raised to be frugal and if I am going to spend money, I want to know it was spent well.
So, how do I research products I want to buy? More specifically, how do I research backpacking gear that I want to buy? I have a clear method to my madness and I thought I would share it with you just in case you are lost in the vast sea of products out there and need help organizing it all in your head... or if you are me, on a spreadsheet miles long with tons of information that you cross reference, color coat and attach links to. More on that later though. We are getting way ahead of ourselves. Lets start at step one.
STEP 1: KNOW YOURSELF
The first thing you want to do before you start any research on a product is to first do research on yourself. Who are you and what are your goals? This may seem like a very broad question, but seriously, we are all different and what works for one person might not work for you, so you have to know who you are, what you like and what you do not like. Here are a few questions to get you started thinking and a little background on why these questions are important when doing your research. I also have a free printable that you can use to answer these questions as well as a link to my answers so you can see an example of what your answers might look like. Remember, the more detailed you get with your answers the more you will know yourself and the type of backpacker you are or would like to be. You can even bring this questionnaire with you shopping so that the specialists will have a better idea of what gear to recommend.
These are just the basics. Know your body. What works for someone who is 6' tall, 260 lbs and muscular, might not work for someone who is 5' tall, 105 lbs and thin.
What is your gender? Not always a good indicator for products, but it is still good to think about your special needs and body proportions. Some products are marketed as gender specific.
How much do you weigh? Some products are weight specific. I would error on the side of caution with this one.
How tall are you? Some products are affected by your height.
Torso length? Measure from the base of your neck (C7 vertebrae) to the middle of your waist (Iliac crest). You will need this to find a good backpack. I like this video from Backpacker Magazine on How To Measure Your Torso Length. It not only shows how to do it, but also why it is so important and how much it can vary.
Hip measurement? Measure around your entire waist at the top of your hip bones (Iliac crest). You will also need this information to find a good backpack.
Shoe size? Duh! You need to know this so you can buy shoes of course... or socks I suppose. You will want shoes slightly larger than your street shoes to accommodate swelling and uneven terrain.
Physical quirks? Is there anything out of the ordinary that you should take into consideration? Do you have a bad back, bad knees or sensitive skin?
In this section you want to think about what type of backpacker you really are or would like to be if you are just getting started. You might not be the same type of backpacker all the time, but what type of backpacker are you most of the time? This is what you will be thinking about when selecting your gear. You can always get specialized equipment for rare situations, but most of your equipment should be geared towards your typical backpacking style. Really dive into this one and get detailed about who you are.
Where do you plan to go backpacking geographically? Will you be in the dessert, beach, mountains, or rainforest? This will affect the temperature, the surface under your feet, the amenities available and so much more. Will there be bugs? Will there be water? Will there be trees? Will the land be flat, rocky, hilly or marshy?
What time of the year do you plan on backpacking? Summer backpacking is a lot different than winter backpacking and sometimes requires different equipment. If you plan to hike all year then versatility in your equipment might be best. Conversely, if you only hike in a certain season, you can really dial in your equipment to suit that season best.
How long will your backpacking trips be? Do you backpack for 1 night, the whole weekend, a week, or months on end? Will you be in one location for several nights or are you constantly moving? How long are the time spans before you can replenish your supplies? This information might take you a few different ways. Maybe you are going on a long trek so you need a lot of supplies. Or maybe you are going on a long trek so you do not want to carry a lot. On the other side maybe you are going on a short trek so you do not need a lot of supplies, or maybe you do since you will not have to suffer carrying for several days. It really is all how you personally look at it.
Do you backpack fast or do you take your time? If you are constantly on the move then you will probably be aiming to keep your gear weight low. If you are trekking less miles each day then you can probably afford to carry a bit more weight if needed.
Are you minimalistic or do you like to bring everything so that you are prepared for anything? Only you know you. Do you have to have coffee in the morning? Do you need a chair or is a small mat ok to sit on? Do you need an axe, trekking poles, an umbrella, a pillow... Or are you fine with just the basics to survive?
Will you be hiking alone or with others? If you are hiking alone you will need to account for all supplies needed. If you are hiking with one or more other people, you can divvy up who carries what on the trail such as a multi-person tent, your cooking equipment, water filtration, etc.
LETS GET PERSONAL
These are totally personal questions. This is just about you as a person. What is your personality? What makes you tick? What frustrates you? Knowing this will help you make good decisions for YOU!
Do you get hot or cold easily? This can affect so much from the type of shelter and sleeping system that you use, to the type of clothing or even the type of backpack that you wear.
How much food do you typically eat in a day? This number might be different when you are on the trail vs when you are at home on a normal day. This also will vary depending on how many miles you are putting in and how many calories you are burning off. This one might take some trial and error, but on average you have a good idea of your eating habits and what you need to feel comfortable.
How much money are you willing to spend? Any activity can be as expensive or economical as you want it to be. Hiking is definitely not the exception. You can get lost in products and spend thousands of dollars, or you can find great buys, DIY projects or omit items that are just not necessary. Ideally you will want to put your money into quality products when it comes to your backpack, shelter, sleep system and shoes, but even that is so subjective. In the end you will want to put your money in the items that are most important to you.
Describe a perfect backpacking trip. This exercise will help you know what is most important to you and what makes you happy.
Describe your worst backpacking trip. This exercise will help you know what things really frustrate you and are deal breakers when it comes to the perfect backpacking trip.
STEP 2: DO YOUR RESEARCH
Now that you have thoroughly explored yourself and your goals when it comes to backpacking, you are now ready to explore the products that you want to use and the many options that are out there. The task can seem overwhelming at first. What reviews are genuine and what reviews are basically paid for or are advertisements? Which reviews are by experts that have tried several products and which reviews are by single users? Which reviewers have a similar profile as your own (see questionnaire above)? These are all questions that might go through your head. I do not really have the answers to all of these questions, but I do have one word of advice that helps to solve a lot of the problems that might occur with these concerns. "Always do your research through multiple sources." Basically, you do not want to take the word of one single person or source. It is fine to take note of the gear your friend uses, or your favorite blogger or even the specialist in your local outdoor gear shop, but do not make that your only source. Take the advice of many, so that you can hear not only the good, but also the bad and even the ugly.
Check out my video below for full details on how I set up all of my research data!
BEGIN WITH YOUR SPREADSHEET
So where do you start? You can start anywhere really, but I know how my brain works, so that is the method I am going to share with you. I am a visual person. I like graphs and charts and lists. Nerdy I know, but hey, it works for me and if I am speaking the truth, I would go as far as to say that this type of organization excites me! If you think that is exciting, you should see what my Saturday night is like. LOL! Seriously though, I love organization, so the first stop I make is with my charting gurus at GearLab. I love GearLab because I can tell they think the same way that I do, organize the same way that I do and not only that, but it is a non biased website that does not accept free gear for reviews. The first time I ever started researching backpacking products I had already started a chart to organize my thoughts and cross reference all of the products that I was considering. Then I came across GearLab's website and I realized that they already had a whole spreadsheet that did basically the same thing for me. Boom! What a great way to save myself some time! So my first step is to go to GearLab and copy their chart for whatever type of gear I am researching onto my own Google Spreadsheet and then alter it from there. I love that they research products each year so you can also find out what the latest and greatest products are as well as how the current models stack up. If GearLab does not have a chart for the product I am researching then I will first try and find another gear testing site to see if they have a chart I can use and if I have no luck there then well... I just create my own chart. No worries! I love charting!
If you were able to find a spreadsheet to work off of then half the work is already done. You have already started your research and have lots of reviews available for you. In order to make access easier for reviews, I like to provide a link to each review on my spreadsheet. Read each review carefully and add more rows below each product column on your spreadsheet to write your own personal notes on how you felt about each product. You can also create tabs for features that you want to cross reference across all products that the original spreadsheet might not have had. For example... maybe having hip storage pockets is really important to you when selecting a backpack, but the original spreadsheet does not have that as a cross reference item. Just add it! This is where you can track all of those important features that are important to you. Not only write about what you like about each product, but also write about the downfalls (pros and cons). Once you have finished reading about each of the products on the original review spreadsheet then start reading reviews from other top gear spreadsheets and other reviews on the backpacks listed on your chart. Keep adding notes if you already have the product on your list, or add new product columns if they interest you and are not already on your list. You can also add a separate row for each review source so that you can write what each reviewer thought about that product as well as provide a link to that review for reference in the future. A product might be a favorite for one reviewer and horrible for another. You can also do this for products that your friends or outdoor specialists recommend to you that might not already be on your list. Just add their own column and fill in all of the data that you can in order to cross reference with all of the products on the original list. It is all about cross referencing and comparing apples to apples with each product on your spreadsheet. It is up to you regarding how much information you want to research, how many products and how many reviews you read.
RATE YOUR PRODUCT OPTIONS
Once you have all of your product options listed on your spreadsheet and you have finished researching each product, it is time to prioritize and rate them. I like to go with the Yes, Maybe and No method. At this point you will want to go through all of your product options on your spreadsheet one more time. This might mean just reading over your notes, or it might mean watching a few reviews again if you did not take really detailed notes. At this point you will probably have a really good idea of what you have to have, what you would like to have and what you do not want. You will be placing each product option into one of three categories (yes, maybe or no). The way I do this is by color coating the top row that lists the product names. Green means that the product is a front runner and I am very interested in their product. Red means that the product does not meet all of my needs and I know that I do not want to purchase that product. Orange means that I am on the fence. It is not a front runner, but I do not hate it either. I might want to research these ones more and decide later if I should move them to green or red.
STEP 3: TEST YOUR TOP PICKS
Now that you have finished all of your research and you have rated all of the product gear on your spreadsheet, you will ideally want to test out each of your top rated selections that have been marked in green. This step is not always possible though. Some gear you can test in stores. Some gear you can see in person if you are in a hiking group. Some gear you can borrow from acquaintances or friends to test out. Some gear you can purchase to touch and feel and return if it does not make the cut. However you do it, it is always better to see something in person before you fully commit if it is possible. Now, this does not apply to every piece of gear that you are going to purchase. Some things will not even go through this process at all, but those that are really important such as your shelter, sleeping system, backpack and shoes... I would definitely try get to this step in the evaluation process before deciding on which product you want to go with. During this step you will want to do the touch and feel test. It is here that you can really get to know the product. Pictures, videos and words can only go so far, but to really evaluate something you need to see, touch and try something on for yourself. You might not be able to do a full hike with the gear, but just being able to see something in person really helps so much when making your final decision. How does it feel? Is the quality there? Is it easy to use? Are there any features that the reviews did not really talk about that might make or break the deal? Keep trying, keep deleting and keep rating the top selections ... until you find THE ONE! Now I say that lightly. Nothing is perfect. Nothing is all positive without any drawbacks. That being said, one will come out on top and if you happen to have two or three out on top then just close your eyes and pick one. Or buy them all. Haha! I will not say that I have not been tempted at times to do that. Choices are so hard sometimes when you are presented with a plethora of great options. In the end I just hold my breadth and hope I made the right choice. I would rather pick only one right now and that will leave money for later if I want something more specialized for a different type of backpacking trip.
STEP 4: BUY and ENJOY!
Now is the fun part! Sit back and enjoy... or rather get out there an hike with your new gear! You can rest assured that you did the best that you could to find the best gear for YOU. There is nothing more that you can do other than that. Knowing that you really thought every feature through will greatly increase your chances of being happy with your new piece of gear. But then again... if you are not happy with it then there is always the fun part of researching a new product. And so it start again!