Note: This winter GearJunkie.com will launch a section with reader-generated gear reviews. As a primer for all the aspiring gear junkies out there, this article offers eight quick tips on how to best organize and write a respectable opinion column that touts — or trashes — a piece of outdoors gear.
First, a little history: It was the spring of 2002, misty and gray in my hometown of Minneapolis, when I penned my first column on outdoors gear. The blurb — a 200-word ditty on a camp stove — ran buried on a back page in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Sports section. I called the column “The Gear Junkie,” and it was roundly forgotten and highly ignored.
But, lo, I kept at it. Now, six years later The Gear Junkie is going strong, with this web site, a column on Outsidemag.com and Active.com, and a network of syndicate newspapers running my work each week. Indeed, I’ve written hundreds of columns, nearly one a week for the past half-decade, and have reviewed all manner of equipment, apparel, gadgets and gear made for the outdoors.
Along the way I’ve formed a few rules on how to best write about knives and kayaks and climbing ropes and tents. There’s no science to it. But with the right approach anyone can find voice to type an informative, enjoyable — and ethical — review on a piece of gear. Here are eight tips I offer on how to do it right.
1. Test to Death
In preparation to making a written opinion on a piece of gear, I try and test the product to its limit. For a review of Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes last fall, as one example, I ran more than 100 miles over the course of a month. This is the extreme, but a good gear review article demands, well, a good and thorough physical review of said gear.
2. It’s not an Ad
Before writing a gear review, picture Consumer Reports magazine. Write your gear reviews as objectively as a news item. Start with the facts. Then add your comments and opinion, positive or not. Make sure the product you’re looking at has been abused enough to have lost its luster.
3. Frame your Gear Story
You’re high on a mountain face, fingers pawing for grip. Or, the trail you’re running just won’t end — despite the 50-cent-piece-size blisters on each heel. Jump into the action when you tell a story — even the story of a new piece of gear. Frame your gear review under the guise of outdoor adventure. Most people don’t want to read a geeked-out technical article. They want to hear where your product was tested and how it performed. They want to read about your experience in the outdoors and how your gear made the situation better (or worse, maybe).
Scan of a column from one of my newspapers
4. Plain Spoken
Shy away from the technical jargon, slick adjectives and marketing-ese that tend to populate press releases. Look out for superlatives. Simplify your speech on the page, eliminating esoteric terminology and insider-speak.
5. The Basics
Every gear review article should include the following: basic product specs; company contact information; pricing (MSRP as well as “street” pricing is best); product availability (is it in stores now?); and, sometimes, where-to-buy information for stores in your area.
6. Pretty Pictures
Include big and bright photos of the gear. Show the readers the product. When available, I add at least two photos to every Gear Junkie column.
7. Don’t do Junk
Skip the bargain brands. Unless there’s something new and intriguing, ignore mediocre gear. Don’t write about products you wouldn’t yourself trust during a crunch time in the deep woods.
8. Be Harsh if Needed
Have a strong opinion on poor-performing products. Be cruel if need be. But be constructive. This isn’t about angst, but if your raincoat failed on an Alaskan trek — and you were damp and miserable for four days as a result — let your readers know.
(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)