Top Ten Gear Lists are among the most shared and viral content for backpacking and outdoor pursuits in general.
People love ’em because it is about gear. Content creators love ’em because people buy crap from their website. And these listicles seemingly make the whole outdoor community go around.
Publish enough of them, have them get shared a lot, and the content creator becomes an expert of sorts because they share popular articles in an easy-to-digest form.
The Top Ten Lists are the “sickly sweet fruit punch that washed down the cheap birthday cake from the grocery store” of the outdoor world.
Sure, these food items seems good at first on the palate. But then you realize you just consumed empty calories. And you eventually understand that this food is OK for a guilty pleasure once in a while but not something you want too much of in the long run. And calories that if you consume too much of doesn’t really help you at all.
So, yes, Top Ten Gear Listicles are popular. But they mostly suck. Just like that cheap birthday cake and fruit punch.
Here’s my utterly opinionated take on why I think so… Naturally, there are ten reasons. Of course.
- What the heck is the best gear of any type? I’ve discussed this concept before. Feel free to read it again. Go ahead. The TL;DR version is that there are too many variables to give The Best GearTM . What is the best for a group of gear testers at a magazine, or a person’s blog, may not be the best for you. I’m on the short side, look like Gimli’s distant Mediterranean cousin, and tend to pack minimally. What I think is The Best GearTM may not be the best for you. I can tell you why a piece of gear works for me and my reasons behind it, but I’d hesitate to say it is The Best GearTM
- The Top Ten Best Widgets lists assume that there is one item suitable for all situations. A sub-1 lb pack that is 35 liters and comfortably carries three days of food is perfect for high mileage days on the Appalachian Trail with its frequent road crossings, resupply, and well-maintained trail. Is it best for the Sierra High Route, or the Hayduke? One tool is not going to do it all in every situation.
- Good reviews take a season or more of thorough use. Sure, an experienced person can give initial impressions. But a good review means the author put the piece of gear through the paces over many months. I am going to trust a review more from a person who tests out two or three packs over a year than a person who puts out a top ten list a few months into a year.
- On a similar theme, no one person can adequately test gear for that amount in a short period. How can a person give you the Top Ten Best Widgets of 2018 when it is only March or June? Even the most ardent outdoor person does not have time to test ten widgets in six months thoroughly. Never mind three months.
- What makes the site an authority? Posting lots of gear reviews does not make a person an experienced outdoor person. It typically means they buy or have given to them, a lot of gear. Look at their experience level. Are they out every chance they can? Or are their “reviews” backyard setups?
- Tests done by a team to get the top ten best widgets are a little better but they are still just a limited experience. See above about What exactly is the best????
- Top Ten Widget Listicles are often a reflection of advertisers or sponsors. Some people, magazines, or gear websites can give honest and thorough reviews despite who gives them the gear or pays them. But be wary of Top Ten Widget listings that happen to reflect sponsors or advertisers.
- Polls that aggregate results are somewhat better but are more reflective of marketing. In other words, just because a lot of people use the XYZ Pack on the Appalachian Trail, that does not mean it is the best pack. It just means it happens to be the most popular pack available at the most popular outdoor retailer for backpackers: REI. Does the most popular pack at REI mean it is the best pack for you?
- The Top Ten Widget Listicles are almost always click bait with no substantial content. It is written strictly to drive traffic and generate revenue. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make money off a person’s talent, knowledge, or abilities. It is what makes the world go around afterall. Heck, I generate a modest amount of money from this website, too. But when the content is blatantly designed to be the equivalent of online junk food, what use is the article, really?
Compare this Youtube video
To this one:
Both YouTube channels advertise, have sponsors, and make money off their passions. But Screenprism does an in-depth analysis of movies and television. Which videos are more valuable to someone who wants to dive into film? (A plug for Screenprism. Excellent YouTube video channel if you enjoy movies or television). The Top Ten List can be a launching pad, but not the final destination. That applies to movies…or backpacking gear.
- The Top Ten Widget Listicles often have the feel of Moses handing down the law from on high. An expert tells you these top ten widgets are good! They must be the best! Go buy ’em! Nonsense. If the Top Ten Widget lists have any value, it is a launching point as mentioned above. Possibly. Maybe. But do more research. See what may work for you based on your criteria. Andrew Skurka put together a comprehensive list of bloggers and sites he regularly peruses, and reputable people he trusts for their well-written, honest, thorough, and thoughtful reviews. You can’t go wrong with the lists. Andrew himself is a trustworthy person needless to say. Another reputable person is Cam Honan of The Hiking Life. Cam also put together similar lists of gear from people who have “walked the walk” from different backgrounds, genders, ages, and experience. (Disclosure: Both websites list me as a resource. They must dig my review of the P38 can opener!)
So here is my completely biased and opinionated take on Why Top 10 Gear Lists (Mainly) Suck. Sure. These lists can be entertaining at times and make a quick read. And I’ll grudgingly accept that perhaps they can help narrow down some choices. But do you want to purchase a $300 tent based on the equivalent of eating only cheap birthday cake? Have a balanced meal instead. Research, read reputable sources, think about what you are using this item for when you are outdoors, and then buy the item. You, and your finances, will be thankful.