By T.J. Fraser.
Let’s say you’re thinking about taking in a movie, you don’t know what to see and don’t want to waste your money on a “maybe.” You’ll probably do one of two things. Either ask a friend whose opinion you trust or check out some reviews. If it’s the latter, you’ll more than likely seek out an “Ebert,” a reviewer who has earned a solid reputation, instead of a writer from the “Small Town News.” You also probably won’t fall for a studio’s slick advertising campaign.
Now let’s say you’re thinking about buying some new hiking or backpacking gear. And because you don’t want to waste your money here either, you’ll probably do the same before deciding what to buy; either ask a friend you trust for a recommendation or check out some reviews.
And if you’re like the vast majority of other outdoor enthusiasts in the country there’s one review that matters more than all the others; and that’s a review that comes from BACKPACKER Magazine.
With more than 350,000 subscribers, and countless more visiting their great website, BACKPACKER Magazine is the undisputed leader in bringing the outdoors inside. Every outdoor retailer covets a positive BACKPACKER review and looks forward to displaying the publication’s iconic Editors’ Choice Award boot logo next to their products as a sign of quality. And gearheads know that if a “thumbs up” is good enough for BACKPACKER it’s good enough for them.
Today we’re chatting with the “Ebert” of the outdoor gear world.
Kristin Hostetter has the kind of gig most of us dream about. As the longtime Gear Editor for BACKPACKER Magazine, her work day is spent putting the latest innovations in outdoor products through the ringer in an office unencumbered by walls. But with so much riding on a good and honest review, her job entails much more than just hitting the trail with a new backpack. We asked Kristin to share a little bit about what goes in to being the most respected gear reviewer in the country.
T.J. Fraser: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with Mountain Hiking Kristin. As a subscriber to BACKPACKER it’s a thrill having you take part.
Kristin Hostetter: Very glad to do it and thanks for asking.
T.J.: Anyone who’s interested in outdoor gear knows that a good review from you and Backpacker carries a lot of weight. Can you give us a little insight to what goes in to one of your reviews?
KH: One of the things that we’re really proud of is the intensity of our testing, which allows us to cull out also-ran products and cut to the chase with recommendations of really solid ones. We have an amazing network of about 100 regular testers scattered around the country, so at any given time, we can find the right—and the most challenging– conditions to test anything. It’s safe to say that 365 days a year, there is a BACKPACKER tester out in the field-testing gear. Even on Christmas!
Each test has a coordinator, who plays traffic cop with the gear, making sure that it gets shuffled around among multiple testers and multiple locations, because it’s very important that our analysis of gear does not come from just one person. Tests last from five to eight months, and incorporate anywhere from six to twenty testers, so we get a cross-section of opinions and experiences. Testers fill out detailed evaluation forms with numerical ratings on each product. The tough part is always assimilating all this data. And this really is just the tip of the iceberg. We also do experiments along the way that lets us observe head-to-head performance. It might entail a side-by side boil test on stoves, or a pressure hose test and timed line drying on a group of water-resistant down sleeping bags. We also shoot tons of in-the-field video for use on our website and iPad editions.
T.J.: I have to imagine that you’re inundated with gear from companies looking to be reviewed. How do you go about deciding what to choose for field testing and does a brand need to be well-known for you to consider putting it through its paces?
KH: A brand does not need to be well known. In fact it’s really cool when we “discover” a little brand that’s making really good products and can help introduce them to our readers. But we do have to be careful about reviewing products from small companies who are not really off the ground yet, and can’t handle the potential onslaught of business a positive review could generate. If we rave about a product, and a reader ultimately can’t get their hands on it, that makes us—and the company—look bad. When deciding what to review, the bottom line in each issue is: we want there to be something in each issue for everyone. We look for a good mix of bargains, splurge items, core backpacking/hiking gear, and seasonal gear.
T.J.: What have been some of the big leaps forward in outdoor gear since you’ve been with Backpacker?
KH: I’ve been here almost 20 years, so I’ve seen a ton of leaps! Stoves have come a long, long way. Today’s camp stoves are way simpler, lighter, and more foolproof than they used to be, with the advancements made in canister fuels. Clothing used to be really frumpy—especially for women—but now we have so many amazing choices in apparel—stuff that looks as good as it performs. And everything has gotten so much lighter. I used to routinely carry 60-pound packs; now my average pack weight even for a 5-day trip is around 30 to 35 pounds.
T.J.: I imagine you made it to the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Utah this past January. Did anything in particular jump out at you?
KH: I love OR, and always find tons of great new products. We bring an 8-person team of editors to each show, so there’s not much that we miss. As for what jumped out? You’ll have to keep reading Backpacker to find out!
T.J.: Having gear break down on the trail can be frustrating on one end of the spectrum and dangerous on the other. As the author of Backpacker Magazine’s Complete Guide to Outdoor Gear Maintenance and Repair, it’s safe to say you’ve fixed a lot of gear. What are a couple of the most useful items to carry in a pack when a quick fix is in order?
KH: Most key, I think are a good multi-tool, Seam Grip, and a good patching material like Gear Aid Tenacious Tape. It doesn’t leave a sticky residue on fabrics like duct tape does and is much better for permanent repairs. I have an article on the website that first ran in our Gear Guide 2012 edition that offers a glimpse in to my backcountry repair kit.
T.J.: Could you tell us a little bit about Backpacker’s Get Out More Tour?
KH: The Get Out More Tour is a grass roots program designed to bring the content found in BACKPACKER to our readers’ doorsteps, literally. This year’s Tour is celebrating BACKPACKER’s 40th anniversary and the “Year of the Reader” by bringing the Tour to more readers than ever before.
With 75 total stops nationwide, Randy and Sheri Propster will bring the pages of BACKPACKER to life by providing audiences with the information and inspiration that they need to get out on the trail whether they are preparing for their first night out, or they’re refining their system and honing their skills on the way to their millionth mile (or in preparation of BACKPACKER’s million mile month).
Along the way the Tour will be honoring local outdoor “heroes” who have had an impact on their communities, and since we’re celebrating a 40th birthday, we’re bringing presents in the form of a Get Out More gear giveaway at each event. Check out the 2013 Tour Schedule.
T.J.: You’ve been on a lot of TV shows and spoken to many groups about gear. For those who are new to hiking and backpacking, all the technical talk (and cost) might be a bit overwhelming. How do you bridge the gap between appealing to the hardcore gearhead as well as to the novice?
KH: It’s all about the mix. Each issue includes tons of basic, beginner skills and tips that will help novices make smart decisions—both on the trail and when buying gear. From a gear perspective, budget is always in the front of my mind. In each review, there’s always at least one budget option for people who may just be getting started and are not ready to invest big bucks. Keep in mind that price is all relative. I often get letters from readers who are horrified that we’ve reviewed a $400 shell. But for really hardcore users who live and breathe in their gear all year long, the extra performance or durability is a worthwhile investment.
T.J.: How were you introduced to spending time on the trail?
KH: I kind of navigated my way there on my own, right after college. I grew up skiing a ton with my family, but my parents were not hikers or campers. After college, I moved to Chicago and started grad school. I scored a part-time job at Erehwon, an awesome outdoor shop. It quickly became evident that I was a gearhead—I couldn’t get enough! I started venturing north to Wisconsin every chance I got—hiking, climbing, mountain biking, sea kayaking. Then I set my sights on Backpacker and literally hounded them until they hired me. Persistence pays off!
T.J.: Any upcoming trips you’re particularly looking forward to?
KH: I’m psyched for our annual spring gear test coming up in April in the Montana backcountry. We’ll schlep a ton of skis, boots, tents, bags, kitchen gear, and apparel into a secluded hut and test the crap out of it for 6 days.
T.J.: What’s on your “wish list” of spots to visit?
KH: I’ve been lucky enough to tick many of them off my list in the last decade—the Swiss Alps, Norway, Iceland, Chile, Alaska. But I’d love to trek in the Himalaya, the Italian Alps, and I’ve always wanted to attempt Kilimanjaro.
When most of us first started hiking there’s a good chance we slapped on a pair sneakers, grabbed an old school backpack, threw on a t-shirt and jeans and headed out the door. And when we discovered the importance of proper gear on the trail, probably via blisters or a surprise rain storm, there’s a good chance we were overwhelmed at the options for gearing up. I know I was. But I also knew that the best way to learn was to go to the source and get the opinions of the experts. That’s why I’ve been a loyal subscriber to BACKPACKER for many years.
The trail advice, trip reports and awesome photographs are enough by themselves. But when you toss in the work of Kristin and her expert team, the result is a magazine that is as helpful as it is entertaining.
A big Mountain Hiking thanks to Kristin Hostetter for doing the hard work so we can all enjoy a safer, better prepared and more enjoyable hiking and backpacking experience.