First, I get outside in every kind of weather Mother Nature can manufacture. Second, I pass it around to athlete friends who will put the items through the ringer and give me objective feedback. Third, I take a look at where and how the product was made. But perhaps my most unorthodox gear-testing tactic is to take a spin through Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.
So, what does a grocery store have to do with good gear? Excellent technology, functionality, and environmental responsibility are essential in gear, but if it doesn't look good it's not going to go very far. In Santa Fe, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are the most likely spots in town where I'll run into a critical mass of fashion-forward gear junkies. It never fails that if I'm wearing something new and interesting, a fellow shopper will stop me somewhere between the produce section and the checkout counter for the lowdown on where and how to get it.
A few weeks ago, I stopped at Whole Foods after a chilly full-moon hike bundled up in Outdoor Research's Aria Down Hoody ($190; outdoorresearch.com). I'm a down fanatic, and this 650-fill ultralight down jacket is one of my favorites. It has a hood, fits well on a lady, and the chocolate exterior contrasts beautifully with the scarlet interior. (It comes in many colors.) Sure enough, as I was standing in line, the guy behind me asked where he could buy one for his daughter--a good omen for the Aria.