Settling on a piece of gear is an untrivial decision. Dozens of manufacturers of shoes, tents, clothing, sleeping bags, backpacks, etc. sell a mind-numbing array of stuff. In the grand scheme of things it’s pretty cool to know that the human hunger for nature keeps so many companies in business, and that they can sell stuff around the world because of a demand that transcends borders, languages and customs. In your little life, though, it’s a pain making sense of what’s out there, because there’s so damn much of it.

There area few sites that can help boil it down. Among my favorites:

  • Consumer Search: This site "reviews the reviewers" by combing multiple product-review sites and summarizing the the best according to a consensus amateur and professional reviewers. Only downside is the buyer’s remorse when you realize you could’ve bought something better. My hunch is a lot of good stuff slips through their filter, though.
  • E-pinions: The pioneering site for people posting reviews of their favorite stuff. E-pinions lists just about every consumer product available, but only a fraction are reviewed, so it can be hit-or-miss, but the reviewers tend to be smart and informative.
  • Backpack Gear Test: Hardcore gear-heads review stuff in almost excruciating detail, but it’s the only place online to find in-depth reports of how gear works out months or years after the reviewer buys it.
  • Summit Post Gear Reviews: Where the peakbaggers and rock-climbers hang out. Reviews are submitted by users who get a lot of hard use out of their gear. Allows sorting by price, manufacturer, user rating, and number of reviews.
  • The Seems to have the largest variety of products, so something not reviewed at the other sites might show up here. Many items have only one or two reviews so grains of salt may be required.
  • Mainly a gear store, but includes reviews submitted by customers, and sortable by price and rating. Looks like it reviews only the products it sells, which can be a limiting factor (no REI-label gear, which often gets high ratings at other sites, or instance).
  • Gorp gear reviews: Professional reviews, which are presumably more credible. "Ask the Gear Guy" is a nice feature.
  • Gear Review: Another expert-review site, with a large quantity of reviews online. Lots of the stuff I own is reviewed there.
  • Outside Online: More gear tests from the online version of the glossy magazine.
  • rec.backcountry: The Usenet group has feisty discussions about gear; it’s a searchable via Google but you end up getting a lot of posts that are several years old.
  • Gearfinder: A handy sorting tool offered by Backpacker magazine. If you know the critical stats of gear, you can sort them here to find gear that may be what you’re looking for. No links to reviews in the search results, though, so you have to track those down separately.

If you can’t find it in these sites, you probably don’t need it.

Review sites have their limits — I hardly consider them final sources. For instance: There are few reviews for the backpacking tent I bought, but when I sat in it at the REI store I knew it was the one I wanted. And there were no reviews at all for the Marmot sleeping bag I ended up getting. It had the features I wanted but is too new to have been reviewed (normally you wouldn’t want the first things off the assembly line, but Marmot stuff is so well-regarded that I figured an exception could be granted.)

Mostly the reviews end up telling you little details you might miss otherwise, like the fact that tent seams need to be sealed by the owner if they haven’t been sealed in the factory.