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What is your favorite way to learn about gear online?

In today's digital world, information is abundant and can sometimes be difficult to manage. When looking to upgrade equipment, what are your favorite ways to learn about new gear technologies and how do you determine which information is credible or nonbiased? The sources of information that I am aware of are user-generated reviews on a retailer's website, third party review sites such as Gear Junkies or Outdoorgearlab,  user video reviews on Youtube, gear guides from retailer websites or online magazine reviews...

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9 Replies

Those are all my go-to spots for learning about new gear. It pays to read as many reviews and overviews as possible from as many different sources as you can, however, because opinions can vary wildly...and some of the review sites (and user-submitted reviews) may have their own agendas. 

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Thank you for the input @Sweet-Tater ! It's so difficult to trust a third party source these days. My favorite way to determine what is right is to Demo the product after online research and interactions with professionals in person. But I find many of the demo opportunities to be limited. I am hoping that retailers change their brick and mortar models to more demo shops with online shipping capabilities. Does anyone at REI know if this is something that is already taking place? 

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@Culvercooper interesting question. At the moment, we aren't really seeing any major shifts toward demo shops over traditional brick and mortar stores; I guess it also depends a bit on the category of gear you're interested in. For example, often you can find a ski demo opportunity during the ski season at a local ski resort. Specifically at REI, we have dabbled a bit with a bike demo program in select stores around the country. In addition, although not exactly a demo shop, last summer we opened a few seasonal Activity Centers around the country (example in WA) where folks can rent different types of boats to have fun on the water and perhaps inform a future boat purchase. And finally, also again not exactly a demo model, we have a robust Rentals program where folks can test gear before committing to a purchase. 

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.
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Wow, I will have to check out that activity center and the rental program. Thank you for the information Jen!

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I generally will go to YouTube first to see what people who have actually bought the gear are saying about it. Especially those who have been reporting on gear for years and aren't sponsored by the site. I also like looking at Miranda in the wild videos which is how I found REI and decided to join. She's hilarious and gives good information.

In the past, it was person-to-person contact, often seeing a new item in use and actually demonstrating it.  Now, I like Outdoorgear Lab for  a starting point - I find their evaluation often coincides with my personal evaluation.  I look at online reviews with a grain of salt, generally discarding reviews at either extreme and those with "Just opened the box and it looks wonderful."

I must say that it prudent to purchase from a source with some sort of solid return policy.  REI stands out here and fortunately they are not unique.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
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"Non-biased" is the part that's hard to weed out when looking at a lot of the online stuff. I love YouTube and find myself heading down rabbit holes all the time and it was instrumental in helping me learn about different types of gear.

I did soon figure out that there are a few backpacker channels who give pretty honest reviews but so many of them are trying to gain followers and sponsorships that I just can't trust their reviews. There seem to be four types of YT'ers:

  • Those who are not sponsored and have neither the desire nor intention to be so
  • Those who are not sponsored but really want to be
  • Those who are (or who likely are) sponsored and are kinda cagey about it if they admit it at all (which they are supposed to)
  • Those who are sponsored and are completely transparent about it.

The order in which I trust those channels - from most trustworthy to least - are:

  • The non-sponsored and never will be
  • Those who are open about being sponsored
  • Those who likely are but aren't forthcoming about it
  • Those who desperately wish to be sponsored

Here's an example of why that is: a year ago, it seemed like every hiker with a channel was carrying the Sawyer Squeeze. Then a few months ago a couple of the larger channels made a lot of noise about switching to the Katadyn BeFree filter. And, very quickly after, all the YouTubers who were saying that you should absolutely be carrying the Sawyer were suddenly saying to switch to the BeFree.

I saw the same thing happen when the more famous hikers posted that they were switching from their Jet Boil to the MSR Pocket Rocket. Guess what stove suddenly every channel started recommending?

It's just that, in their quest to build followers, a lot of the backpacker channels are trying to game the algorithm (which is not a bad idea) by posting similar content to the channels with large follower bases. And the result is that their credibility takes a hit.

Back to the Sawyer Squeeze vs. Katadyn BeFree for a second to finish this thought. The big reason that people are saying to switch is because it's supposed to filter faster. But no one ever says how much faster. If my Squeeze can filter 2 liters of water in 60 seconds but the BeFree can do it in 50 seconds, then yes, it's faster but I am not getting rid of my Squeeze just to save 10 seconds. But if my Squeeze took 5 minutes to filter those same 2 liters but the BeFree could do it in 1 minute, well that makes sense. But none of these channels ever presented data - they only repeated the same claims. What it comes down to is the myopic devotion to parroting the larger channels and that, in my opinion, makes the review suspect.

All that said, however, those channels are fun to watch and I learn about new and different gear. I just can't trust the reviews from many of those channels. 

So here's where I go:

  • I still love YouTube and when one of those channels I just mentioned posts something I find interesting, I start scouring some of the channels I do trust to see if they've done a review (more often than not, they have).
  • I belong to a few hiking groups on various social platforms. These are where I can find people who have real life hiking experience and are usually eager and happy to talk about the gear they use. 
  • I am a big proponent of Meetup.com and the Chicago-based group I've joined has been holding a virtual monthly meeting during the pandemic and we've had some great gear conversations.
  • Last and most certainly not least, this forum - with some of the long-time hikers here and all the REI staff who are active on this board, you'll be hard pressed to find a piece of gear that at least one person hasn't tried.
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“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

I will use those gear sites at the end but always visit youtube hikers reviews after the hike.  In both you have to be careful as some gear companies sponsor hikers and if your not aware, could lead you to purchase something that isn't what it appears.  Also, what someone likes might not work for you.  Example:  Alot of people talk about ZPack tents but i'm to tall.  Thus I went for the solong 6 🙂 

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

I’ve learned a ton from REIs YouTube channel.