I mentioned in previous blog posts that I went on a gear testing trip for Outdoor Life from April 24-28. Justin and I have been gear testers since 2013, and had always been salivating to go on a “gear testing” trip. When this one came up, we sort of had to rock-paper-scissors as to which one of us would go … lucky me (and lucky him because it ended up being 5 women).
So now that I finally experienced the trendy gear-testing trip, I want to set the record straight. It is an immense amount of work!!! I’m trying not to sound ungrateful to have the illustrious opportunity to go on a paid backpacking trip with colleagues and get to play with shiny, brand-new gear—because let’s be clear, I’ll do it again in a heartbeat. But I do want to tell the truth of the reality of the work that goes into gear testing behind the scenes!
Outdoor Life staff writer Laura Lancaster (pictured above)—with the help of OL assistant editor Ashley—set everything up, and chose a section of the Oregon Coast Trail as the destination. This made it easy to shuttle cars and gear so we could swap things out. She wanted rain, which the soggy reputation of the Pacific Northwest in spring is ripe. Miraculously, we backpacked the one week there wasn’t any rain. Thankfully for her, the dew made up for the lack of falling precipitation.
We backpacked 27.5 miles over 3 days on the Oregon Coast Trail from Fort Stevens State Park to Les Shirley Park. The hiking was probably the easiest part of the trip, as it was mostly beach walking, a little road walking and a full day gaining about 1,400 feet of elevation climbing over blowdowns and through mud under the thick forest canopy.
Picture by Ashley Thess
Picture by Diana Helmuth
Picture by Jac Mitchell
We were testing several categories of gear, including tents, backpacks, sleeping quilts, socks, base layers, trekking poles, dehydrated meals and more. Therein lies the difficult part. I am a creature of habit who has a system that I stick to. Also, I backpack with a partner, which means I split the gear load. I was definitely out of my comfort zone! And just an aside, I quickly remembered how much I disdained beach walking when I developed a blister on day 1 (while testing new socks) and got sandblasted for 10 straight miles walking into the wind.
Every day on this trip, there was a gear shakeup when we were handed a new backpack to carry with a new tent, a new quilt, etc. I spent an exorbitant amount of time stuffing my gear kit into each of the ultralight packs. I am not an ultralight hiker, so my setup includes luxury weight like camp shoes and a pillow. Every time I hoisted up the 30 pounds sitting in the lifeless backpack, I felt my torso reshape—and not in a chiropractic good way.
Picture by Laura Lancaster
Picture by Laura Lancaster
Don’t get me started on setting up tents. We set up 13 tents at the Fort Stevens State Park campground on night 1 to become familiar with them before heading into the field. It took hours of head-scratching! My history is with intuitive freestanding tents that need no instruction, but there were only 3 of those. This trip convinced me I don’t care what the weight savings of a non-standing tent (which typically means you are using your trekking poles) might be, I’m sticking with freestanders. I can’t be doing mathematical equations and yoga to set up my tent at the end of the day, and most of them felt no more than an emergency bivouac to me. With that being said, I fully admit my weakness in terms of gear intricacies. Justin fits the mold of that technical gear nerd who can look at something for 10 seconds and tell you how it sets up, as well as the pros and cons. Meanwhile, I nearly cried after the 6th time the Tarp Tent collapsed during setup on night 3 because my wingspan just couldn’t hold the pole while staking it out. This is why it looks so saggy and I just prayed it wouldn’t collapse on me in the middle of the night (it didn’t!).
As far as quilts go, I will happily say I am a partial convert. Justin has always sworn by quilts, mainly because sleeping bags make him feel like he’s in a cocoon. I eschewed even trying quilts because I thought I wouldn’t be warm or snuggly enough. As the saying goes, don’t knock it until you try it!
Leader Laura’s trail name is Chop Chop for a good reason; I’m not going as far as calling her a drill sergeant, but she certainly kept us in line to deliver our end of the work. Every morning, we filled out feedback forms while our impressions of the various pieces of gear were fresh in our minds. And post-hike when we rolled into the Airbnb with a beautiful coastal view, Laura handed us more forms to fill out, and group discussions to whittle down the list of gear to “best of” buckets ensued into the night … all of which continued the next morning.
In summary, I cherished my first gear testing trip with 4 other badass babes in the woods (and on the beach). I am admittedly an introvert, so the dynamics of group hiking and keeping up with whippersnappers generally gives me that middle-school level of anxiety. But these ladies were my people (oddly enough, all of our birthdays were in August & September!).
I encourage you to check out Outdoor Life in the next few weeks as they roll out the stories about our tests. Laura’s story on tents is out. Ashley’s story on dehydrated meals is already out and I was LOL-ing the whole time. Justin & I are lazy backpackers who swear by dehydrated meals, but this trip reminded me why they should be reserved as sacred meals when you are actually hiking big miles daily and burning more calories than you can take in.