With millions of reviews, recommendations, and “best of” lists a click away, how does anyone ever choose a single product? And when everyone has something to say and innumerable ways to say it, what makes an individual review and its reviewer stand out amid the noise?
With these questions in mind, I’ve been routinely asking our community members and outdoor industry pros what makes a product review valuable to and trustworthy for them.
The first thing I learned: while consumers and brands may seem to have differing end goals, what they want and value in a review is not all that different. Here are their lessons for trustworthy gear reviews:
Photo: Leah Harman
1. Honesty really is the best policy.
Honest, authentic, genuine—I hear these words repeatedly, from community members, top reviewers, and industry pros alike. It’s no surprise that to be trustworthy and credible, you must be honest. (It’s tops in our Community Rules too.)
As Trailspace member Jake Weston said, “My trust in a review really comes down to one thing—honesty.” Being honest and authentic means the reviewer writes what they know, is transparent, tells the truth, and doesn't hold back relevant info.
Authenticity is essential for outdoor brands as well. “Your reviewer needs to have used the product in a variety of scenarios and be able to speak about the experiences honestly or people will see through it,” said Scott Kaier, co-founder of Formidable Media.
An open and honest review is informative for the reader, invaluable for readers and brands, and essential for a reviewer's credibility. As Cory Lowe, senior account manager at Backbone Media, said, “The more real and authentic the review, the better.”
2. We want details, and we want them now.
Everyone—readers, reviewers, PR and brand reps—everyone wants reviews that provide details, data, and specifics about a product. Whether actively researching a new tent, curious about an individual's experience with the latest hard shell, or fantasizing about more ways to fill up the gear closet, we want to know how a product performed and how well it met a brand's claims and the user's expectations.
“What I really value in a review is detailed information on a product not available elsewhere and also real-world examples sharing how the product actually performs in use,” said Trailspace member Mike Mineart.
Brand reps, who already know a product's details, want that too. “Give the full picture of a product, including pros and cons, as opposed to glossing over a features list you could find on the website," said Suzanne Hermann, senior account manager at Darby Communications. "And explain how the product was tested, over what period of time, in what conditions.”
“I look for reviews that connect the product being reviewed with the personal needs and activity of the writer," said Corey Simpson, Patagonia's Communication Manager for Product & Sport Community. "Oftentimes, valuable product details come from this."
Brands and readers alike look to reviews for specifics, thoroughness, and accuracy. “A good review illustrates the details of a product that could be overlooked, showing what makes a product stand out for better or worse,” said James Graven, co-founder of Treehouse Communications.
How thorough is thorough? One person's "succinct" may be another's "long-winded," so review length is a personal preference. Plus, different readers search reviews for different info. “Detailed but not belabored” is how one member described his ideal review. Regardless of length, reviews that are organized for easy scanning are always appreciated.
Photo: Paul Spitalny
3. Some experience is required.
No, a reviewer does not need to be an outdoor expert or professional guide. We're talking about experience with the product they're reviewing. As Trailspace member Kelly McCann said: "There's nothing worse than a review written by someone who has just pulled an item out of the box and hasn't even worn it outside! Arg!!"
“A thorough and detailed review with specific likes and dislikes tells me that the reviewer has spent time with the product in the outdoors," said Sarah Courtney, MSR's Winter and Water Category Manager. "It’s clear when a reviewer has actually handled the product and used it in the field."
Potential reviewers take note: If you haven't used that soft shell or sleeping bag yet, please stop writing your review and go outside and use it first. (Have fun!) Then continue using it until you have a history and familiarity with it in its intended settings and in a range of scenarios. (Go have more fun!)
"I don't trust short or hurried reviews that boil down to either 'I just bought this, haven't used it much (or at all), but I love it!' or 'I bought this, it broke, and therefore I hate it,'" said Trailspace member Rick Strimbeck. "Either may be improved by evidence of actual use and, in the case of the latter, how and when it broke, warranty attempts, details, etc."
Readers look for usage details to determine if they can trust a review. "Is the review thorough, well thought out, and does it display a significant familiarity with the item being reviewed?" asks Trailspace member Jayson Merryfield. Fellow member Vladimir Gorbunov says he "takes note of actual time spent with the reviewed product and usage scope."
Brands also value reviews that demonstrate familiarity with their gear. "A review is valuable when I can tell the reviewer is objective and that they actually used the product, preferably for a substantial period of time," said J.J. Huggins of Patagonia's PR and Communications team
"A review is more trustworthy when you know the reviewer’s experience, with the outdoors and the gear," said Becca Katz, account executive at Verde Brand Communications.
This point is so repeatedly important to everyone—community members and industry pros—that we added an Experience field at the end of reviews to specifically draw out that info, asking reviewers: how long have you used this product, what's your familiarity level with this type of product, and in what conditions do you use it?
Photo: Christine Kelly
4. Share your story and POV.
Assuming an individual reviewer used their gear and has extensive history with it, readers and brands are now eager to hear about their real-world experiences. “Detail and a unique perspective are what I appreciate in a review,” said Amy May, Director of Outdoor PR at JAM Collective.
That means telling one's own story with the gear through original words, experiences, images, and (short) videos of the product in use outdoors.
There is no one way to do this. Some readers want to get right to the meat and potatoes of the review, while others appreciate a little scene setting and ambiance. Either way, a unique outlook and personable point of view can help a review and reviewer stand out.
“I like a review that provides an anecdote or humorous observation or two, something I try to do in my own reviews,” said Strimbeck.
"I like being taken to the après-ski hut when I'm chatting over an open fire and a hot mug," said fellow Trailspace member Vince Contreras.
Whatever the review style, readers and brands want a reviewer's voice of personal experience to come through.
Photo: Rick Strimbeck
5. Seeing is (part of) believing.
Some details and experiences are best illustrated with photos. Readers and brands (and this Trailspace editor!) want to see photos of the gear in use, outdoors, and highlighting specific features.
"I value photos to support details covered in the review and to show what the item really looks like and how it functions," said Trailspace member Kelly McCann. "Photos advertised online aren't always realistic."
Photos also help answer readers' questions. "Pictures that demonstrate features clearly, especially any that are hard to describe in text, bring value to a review," said Trailspace member LoneStranger.
"Product descriptions sometimes leave you wondering about certain features," said Trailspace member Charles Polidano. "For example, where is the security pocket on a shirt? Photos of such details are invaluable."
Photos not only elevate reviews, they build credibility by showing how and where a reviewer used the backpack or tent. Hopefully outdoors, not just in one's living room.
"Have they actually used the product and accomplished something with it or are they a desk jockey that recirculates what’s been written about a product?" asks Lowe. "Good photography helps reviews be trustworthy."
The most valuable and trustworthy reviews skip stock pictures, and include a range of original, high-quality images in different orientations: full product shots so readers can see that pack or shelter from different angles, closeups of specific features, wider shots of the product being used outdoors.
Photos won't replace words—"Photographs are good for illustration and a little flavor, but I like a heavy ratio of words to my pictures," said Trailspace member Joseph Renow—but they will illuminate key points.
6. Avoid buzzwords and marketing-speak.
No one, not even copywriters, wants to read regurgitated marketing jargon and PR-speak in a review. Readers come to reviews looking for independent evaluations and brands want a review "that it is truly a third-party endorsement, rather than a straight reiteration of the website or brochure," as PR professional Ingrid Niehaus said.
This was a standard point for many PR folks. “Rehashing the brand’s marketing copy or press release is not helpful," said Lowe. "How does it actually perform in the field?”
“A good reviewer won't repeat marketing jargon, but describes the true benefits or faults of a product," said Graven. "Not just listing a feature set, but explaining how the product is used and how the features benefit the end user."
“Consistent, honest reviews that are not copied and pasted from a press release, but rather borne from actual field testing over a period of time is what makes them trustworthy,” said Kaier.
No highfalutin mumbo jumbo gear talk is needed, though proper spelling and grammar still matter.
Photo: Rick Strimbeck
7. Whatever you think, back it up.
“I ignore reviews that make claims but don't back them up,” said Ian, a Trailspace member. He’s not alone. While readers want to hear about firsthand experiences, they need evidence to trust them.
“Trust for me comes from well supported positions," said LoneStranger. "Telling me something is ‘heavy’ is an opinion, but back that up with numerical data showing that the item is heavier than other comparable items demonstrates a fact-based opinion.”
Reviews don't need bibliographies and footnotes, but should include some facts and figures. “Hard data and an explanation of how those numbers were achieved are valuable," said Scott Youmans, MSR's Stove and Cookware Category Manager. "I’m thinking about boil times, efficiency, etc. Ideally all of this is mixed in with product perceptions."
Sometimes that evidence is quantifiable, like boil time for a stove or the weight of a pair of trail runners. Other times it's qualitative, such as pictures of a leaky seam or a broken zipper or a description of the thunderstorm the tent withstood while other shelters floated away.
“Reviews should be supported by facts and details whenever possible," said McCann. "Opinions don't mean a lot to me when they're not backed up.”
Photo: Sean Van Cleve
8. Be balanced, or be ignored.
At times we may feel passionately about our gear. In the backcountry, it can make or break a trip. However, extreme views, especially without backup evidence, are often seen as unreliable. Rants (“worst boots ever!”) or grand effusions (“bombproof jacket!”) can lead readers to dismiss a review and its reviewer outright.
“Does the review offer a balanced view?" asks member Ian. "Nothing is either perfect or totally worthless. I expect to see a bit of both, not all good or all bad. Without balance I would ignore the review.”
Tyler, another Trailspace member, agrees. "No bombastic statements like 'Everyone needs this knife' or 'This is the worst headlamp of all time.' Immediate turnoff."
Being balanced builds credibility in the review and reviewer. “A trustworthy review is something that has balance in it, both critique and praise," said Patagonia's Simpson. "Also, I always like to know if a writer/reviewer would buy that product with their own money or not.”
“The best reviewers are those who can take both their positive and negative feedback, and present that feedback in a constructive way,” said Elana Rabin, account manager at Hayter Communications. “The more the reviewer can share about the experience with and performance of a product, and the why behind their comments, the easier it is to trust the content and want to come back for future reviews.”
Reviewers absolutely should share their feelings and opinions, but not fixate on one amazing or annoying feature. “A valuable review answers questions honestly, without scathing criticism or undue praise,” said Graven. Step back and see the forest, not just the tree.
Photo: Mike Mineart
9. Even brands know no gear is perfect.
Everyone, including the brands that design and sell our outdoor gear, expects some constructive criticism. Really.
“I look for at least one or more critical comments. No product is perfect,” said Terry Breaux, MSR's Tent and Shelter Category Manager.
Ryan Bertrand, Sales and Marketing Coordinator at Sierra Designs, said the same: “Highlight the positives, but also show some negatives. There’s always something to improve.”
A thoughtful appraisal makes a reviewer more credible. "I like to read critique on products, designs, trims, etc.," said Patagonia's Simpson. "The critique lets me know that a writer has taken the time to think about the product, the users who may use the product, and most importantly the lifespan of the product."
A critique can even benefit a brand. "If you can provide interesting feedback for the brand, that’s very valuable," said Amy May. "So, a detailed review is key."
When reviewers balance the good and bad with an open-minded tone they keep the reader's and the brand's attention. It's not so helpful to listen to the fan boy or girl or to the cranky curmudgeon. The best reviews are realistic, fair, and balanced.
Photo: Jake Weston
10. The outdoor world needs your voice.
Indoors and out, individuals have diverse experiences and backgrounds, personal preferences, and unique quirks. And that's a good thing because readers of reviews and potential gear users do too. Worried your local trips won't sound epic enough? Or that you're not a "real" hiker, climber, trail runner, paddler, whatever? Don't be. Brands make gear for all outdoor enthusiasts. And if they don't, here's your chance to speak up and tell them so.
"I appreciate customer reviews, especially when reviewed by the target customer for that product, who the product was designed for," said MSR's Breaux.
"Reviews that I find valuable are those that reflect real life use of the products by 'regular' users, not professional, sponsored, or paid athletes," said Trailspace member Sheila Bergin Goss. "I may read such reviews, but that will not truly affect a buying decision. Users that closely mirror my activity level, experience, and intensity level are preferred."
"I want to hear from ordinary guys and gals who can support their opinion on a piece of gear with an example or fact," said Trailspace member Matt Williams.
There's no one type of "regular" outdoor folk either. "A one-time AT thru-hiker is experienced but in a different way than someone who has taken a bunch of shorter trips over a longer period of time in more variety of areas," said Trailspace member Phil May. "Both have good input."
Most of us—readers, reviewers, brand reps, whomever— are not spending our free time establishing new routes and traveling the world bagging peaks (though we might fantasize about doing so). Nor do we all look like the professional outdoor athletes and models promoting gear. While outdoor representation is expanding, adding more voices and more diverse experiences to the mix helps broaden the discussion, provides more backgrounds for readers and brands to draw from, tells brands who they're missing, and helps make the outdoors a more welcoming, safe, and enjoyable place for all.
Photo: Sheila Bergin Goss
At their best, outdoor gear reviews help individuals get outside safely and enjoyably. To do so they need to be honest, detailed, and credible. As Mineart said: "Hopefully someone takes the time to peel back the onion several layers and provide useful information that will help you decide if it is the right product for you. So for me, the more data, pictures, and sharing of experiences the better." And the better for all of us.
What do you look for and appreciate in a gear review or product information? And where do you place your trust? Please tell us below.