How to Write a Gear Review

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

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.

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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).

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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.)

Posted by Clyde Soles - 10/17/2008 10:04 AM

I’d add: Test in the appropriate season/conditions. Trying out a new GoreTex or eVent shell in November doesn’t tell you squat about how it works in July. A hundred runs with fat skis is still meaningless if you only have 2 inches of new snow. Finding the right conditions for testing is often one of the hardest parts of writing good reviews.

BTW sometimes tech jargon is needed to prevent dumbing down but you have to translate it carefully.

Posted by Carl Natale - 10/23/2008 08:19 AM

I love this post. It’s a great guide and worth studying – not just reading. But I have a minor quibble with point #7. I see why you want to avoid the bargain junk. I agree that good gear will save your life, enable you to do more and is worth the investment. Because that investment can be high, it is very important to know that the goods are worth the cash. And I would rather test the expensive, good stuff. But a lot of casual adventurers have sticker shock – especially now.

This is very true for those who want to start an activity. Gear reviews carry a lot of weight. But they’re going to wonder why they can’t get away with the Walmart stuff. They need to know why that specific gear will or will not work for them. And they will not believe you if you just say the more expensive models are safer. Or they will take the risk. I see it all the time.

People are going to want to save money more than ever. Hey, I’m a snob when it comes to gear. But without the proper information, people are going to go to Walmart.

Thank you so much for writing this. It’s extremely valuable.

Posted by Matt - 10/24/2008 12:52 PM

I would add:

Do your research. This means, read the directions that came with the product (if it includes them). Not only will this help you to understand the product and it’s associated features in a way that will make the review useful to others, it will help you to qualify problems when and if they happen.

Qualify your statements, separate your opinions from fact.
Being harsh in a product review is productive if you draw a complete picture that explains what happened to the reader. Was the product being used within or outside of it’s scope of intended use? If the product broke or otherwise failed, what were the circumstances? Honesty is professional, being mean is not.

Also, if appropriate, allow the manufacture/marketer the opportunity to respond as if this was a real life warrantee situation. This may shed more light on why the product failed or didn’t live up to expectation, as well as giving the consumer an idea of what they can expect from the company once the money has been spent. If you are purchasing a high ticket item (say an expensive light system for your bike), you are also buying into whatever level of customer service the company in question offers when you spend your money.

Posted by Yeti - 10/26/2008 08:26 PM

Thanks for the great write up. These tips will come in handy.

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