Justin & I wear many different hats, and one large one is Gear Testers for Backpacker Magazine (and a prototype tester for a few brands).
We get a lot of questions surrounding this. How did you become gear testers? What the heck does that mean? Is that really a job? Do you get paid?
I thought I’d write a post all about it, probably dispelling some myths about it and prompting more questions (please comment if I haven’t answered something you’ve been wondering!!).
Gear testing may look easy, but …
For us, it all started in 2013.
The simple answer about how we broke through the Backpacker door is we met the right people. The details live in this blog post here, but basically, we were hired to run a mobile marketing tour for Backpacker in the summer of 2013 (because of meeting the right people), which in turn introduced us to a bunch of writers, editors and category managers at Backpacker. We also met the holy grail of gear testing: Kristin Hostetter, who spent 20+ years as Backpacker’s gear editor.
In any case, doors wide open, we capitalized on these relationships.
We take our gear testing seriously and like to stand by our word. In the beginning, we really wanted to establish ourselves as trusted gear reviewers among Backpacker’s team of category managers. So we started small; I think we tested about 7 items in 2013. By 2015, we were testing about 20 products a year (Justin truly doesn’t know how to say no to agreeing to test a product).
On a side note, I fully admit we are NOT gear minimalists. I’m not going to divulge how many tents, sleeping bags & gear in other categories we own. Some people need a specific pair of earrings for every occasion. Thanks to my husband, I’m (apparently) the kind of gal who needs a specific piece of gear for every trip. We have an entire 10×4 foot storage unit filled to the brim with just outdoor gear.
Anyway, back to the testing life.
Obviously, the main goal is to get each piece out there and beat it up. Get miles on it, experience weather, use every feature. It’s fun, of course, but more work than it sounds!
Because we like to be dramatic, we often take it to the limit. We hope for unnatural amounts of monsoon-like rain when we are testing shells. We hope for gale-force winds when testing tents. We leave tents set up in our yard for weeks, just to see what will happen.
We tested a tent during a hurricane on an island off the coast of Massachusetts (it thrived!). Justin cowboy camped (no tent) in the pouring rain to see if a sleeping bag was truly waterproof (it was!). He also cowboy camped in a snowstorm in below-freezing temps to see if a sleeping bag was correctly rated at 0 degrees (it was!). We slept in a 4-season tent during summer temps in the 70s to see if 4 seasons included summer (it did not! There was no mesh on this tent and we each lost 2 lbs in sweat …).
We like to keep things lightweight (not ultralight), but often are carrying more weight than we want because of testing gear. Justin carried a 1-lb water filter (in addition to a second one) for about 700 miles on one thru hike. Justin carried a 10-lb tent for several backpacking trips.
After months of testing in the field, the more tedious work comes when the category managers ask for feedback. They have specific questions, very specific questions. We learned to take more copious notes throughout our gear testing months. We also learned–and are certainly still learning–how to be entertaining and interesting in our beta. It makes a huge difference when we have something unique happens, like the time we were forced to filter water from a puddle surrounded by cow poop. Needless to say, filling out the forms is time-consuming, and usually comes back with follow-up questions to get even more specific. It wasn’t until we became gear category managers ourselves (more on that later) that we realized how crucial the finer points were.
Justin & I work great as a team, because he truly has an eye for looking at gear in a critical way. Then I have a way of putting those words on paper!
Everyone wants to know, is being a gear tester a lucrative business?
No, you don’t get paid in $$ to be a gear tester. At least not for Backpacker. The HUGE perk is you often get to keep the gear you are testing. Now, sometimes this doesn’t work out for you, like the time we were testing a tent and broke a pole. And the time we were testing a sleeping pad on a gnarly sleeping surface and it popped. You are NOT meant to be delicate with the gear. And, sometimes the companies, or Backpacker, might need the gear back. It’s best not to get too attached. If the magazine goes to print, it’s pretty safe to say the gear is yours to keep.
Gear category managers, however, do get a small stipend. But being a gear category manager is a whole new beast!
Justin & I were lucky enough to be “promoted” to gear category managers this year–he to knives, I to trekking poles. Justin has wanted to be a gear category manager since Day 1. He must have asked the editors a billion times, but those are coveted positions and hard to come by. His day finally came, as did mine.
Being a category manager means knowing your category well, tracking down brands/reps, sending millions of e-mails, vetting good testers who will give quality feedback on time, mailing/tracking down samples around the country, collecting the feedback from testers, testing the products yourself, sending another million e-mails asking testers for more specific beta, narrowing down from the dozens of products to pick 4-5 to feature and writing genius content in less than 100 words per product. No matter that your copy will be returned with red edits 7 times over. Do not get attached to words, sound advice for any writer, actually.
Truth is, being a category manager turned out to be WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY more work than I ever anticipated. If you counted the hours we put into being a category manager and matched them to the stipend, it works out to be about 1 penny per hour … And there are some who manage more than just one category. I don’t know how they do it. Justin wants another category and I tell him that could lead to a divorce.
Backpacker‘s Spring Gear Guide just hit the newsstands, and it definitely was sweet reward to see our bylines and blood, sweat and tears poured across the pages. Hence we will be back for more, more, more (but just one category each, so far).
Go buy yourself a copy!! Such great gear recommendations in there!!
And if you read this, and think you may be a good gear tester, let us know. Because you never know!
Stay tuned … next blog post will dive into the life of a gear model!!