At Outside, we take a lot of things seriously, including adventure storytelling, our dogs, perfecting the campground margarita, and reviewing gear. Gear, in particular, sits high on that list. The right running shoes, skis, backpack, or camp stove can be the difference between enjoying your time outside and merely enduring it. We consider gear so important that we publish two standalone magazines every year dedicated to it. We’ve been running our Summer Buyer’s Guide since 1996 and our Winter Buyer’s Guide since 2007. Each issue is about the newest, techiest, all-around best outdoor clothing and equipment on the market for the upcoming season.
If you judged these books by their covers, you’d never know how much dirt, sweat, and mileage go into deciding what products to feature. (This is thanks to the work of our talented photo and design teams. They turn each volume—and the corresponding online pages, which you’ve probably seen titled “The Best [Fill in the Blank] of 2020” and so forth—into polished works of art.)
As Buyer’s Guide editor, my job is to work with our team of editors, fact-checkers, designers, photographers, and writers to put the whole thing together. So, I thought I’d give you a peek behind the scenes. Our testing process starts six to eight months before each print Buyer’s Guide reaches your hands. We rely on a roster of 40 category directors, many of whom work with their own network of testers to gather feedback from the widest possible range of users. By far the biggest of these operations is our road- and trail-running shoe category. Co-directors Cory Smith and Lisa Jhung enlist the help of 36 runners who help them evaluate each season’s new models. For summer 2020, they tested 40 shoes from 19 brands.
Each year, I come away newly shocked by the lengths to which our reviewers go to figure out which pieces rise above the rest. In 2020, Amy Juries tested bikepacking gear over the course of several trips that took her 2,000 miles through eight countries. Impressively, everything except her bike survived getting run over by a truck in Jordan in the process. Jen Ripple took advantage of a 2,612-mile, 14-day fishing road trip to test gear for the women’s fly-fishing page. Scott Yorko put men’s travel gear through the wringer during a stint of globe-trotting that lasted 52 days and involved 19,824 miles of flying. Berne Broudy hiked 300 miles in 11 states and spent a month’s worth of nights under the stars to figure out which hiking boots were the best.
Between 300 and 400 products make it into the finished pages, but that’s only a fraction of what we test, which totals well over 1,000 individual pieces of gear from dozens of brands, big and small. Items rise above the cut for any number of reasons, including fit, function, and new advances in materials and technology. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to one basic qualification: whether the item makes our lives outside better. Because, really, choosing the right gear should always be that simple.