Outdoor Content Creator Series: How to Become a Gear Reviewer
Wishing you could turn your enthusiasm for the outdoors into a full-time job or even a side gig? Want to share your outdoor content with a larger audience or help newbie backpackers learn the ways of backcountry travel? Many outdoor adventurers are eager to find ways to leverage social media and outdoor websites to align their passions with their work. That’s why we started our outdoor content creator series!
In this series, we ask different types of outdoor content creators:
- How they got started in outdoor content creation
- What they enjoy about being outdoor content creators
- How they balance content creation with simply enjoying the outdoors
- Tips they have for others looking to get into the field
In part one, we chatted with our very own brand ambassador, Michelle Zhang about what it’s like being a brand ambassador and her advice for getting started as one. In part two, we’re diving into all things gear with Liz Thomas, editor-in-chief at Treeline Review!
Interview With Liz Thomas on Becoming a Gear Reviewer
Liz “Snorkel” Thomas is an award-winning writer and the editor-in-chief of the gear review site, Treeline Review. She’s also a contributing editor at Backpacker Magazine, where she writes the column, “Ask a Thru-Hiker,” and serves as the instructor of their online class, “Thru-Hiking 101.” Her first book, Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike, was the recipient of the National Outdoor Book Award for Best Instructional Book.
We caught up with Liz to learn more about what it’s like being a gear reviewer and how others can get started too!
Gossamer Gear: Can you start by telling us a little about how you got started reviewing gear in the outdoor industry?
Liz: As someone who didn't grow up outdoorsy, when I got into hiking and backpacking as a young adult, I realized having the right gear could help make up for lost time. After my first thru-hike of the Tahoe Rim Trail, I knew I had to lighten up if I wanted my feet to survive a thru-hike of my first long trail, the Appalachian Trail.
As I researched gear, I realized that many of the big gear review outlets weren't using tents, backpacking backpacks, or hiking shoes to the extreme amount of miles and conditions I wanted to take them. I started writing my own reviews as I went on to tackle the Triple Crown trails and a dozen other thru-hikes of varying lengths. It was fun to write and I liked helping other hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts understand how gear holds up on the long haul, in desert heat and blizzard conditions, and for month after month of unrelenting use.
After years of blogging about my personal experiences with gear, I was "discovered" by an editor at Wirecutter, the New York Times product review site, who knew about me because of my fastest known time (FKT) on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. I was hired on as a staff writer to test and review gear. Several years later, when they closed the outdoor gear section, a dedicated team of fellow outdoor writers wanted to keep the same spirit of objective, obsessively researched outdoor gear reviews alive. So, we formed Treeline Review, where I have been editor-in-chief for the past four years.
Why do you think gear reviews are important content and what differentiates Treeline Review’s research from other outlets?
I recently read a study that the majority of people will choose what gear to buy based on reading reviews. To me, it's really important that hikers make informed decisions before buying gear. For one thing, ultralight hikers tend to like being minimalists, so having extra stuff around isn't in our nature. Second, if we as hikers buy right the first time, that means ultimately less stuff is made—less fabric dyed, less shipping involved. Ultimately, the best thing for our water, air, and soil is for us to find a piece of gear we love that won't end up in a landfill.
To help outdoors people choose their one-and-only gear, we rigorously test a bunch of similar looking models. Many other outlets will test a backpack on a day hike. We'll take it on an 800-mile thru-hike. Many outlets will write a review of a single product. We rank gear items side-by-side to see how they stack up against each other.
We also obsessively research what models even make our cut to test. Unlike most media outlets, we don't focus on the newest model that a marketing agency may want to build hype about. We stick with tried and true gear—the sort that you'd recommend to a friend who asked for your opinion—and the sort that will give you years of outdoor adventures without constant repairs or failures. To choose what models to test, we sort hundreds and sometimes thousands of customer reviews from many retailers and cross-check those reviews with professional outdoor reviewers, checking for red flags and common issues.
Lastly, when I started getting into the outdoors, I remember how alone I felt not seeing gear reviewers who looked like me. As a woman and person of color, there are still very few high-profile gear reviewers who look like me. When I started at Treeline Review, I knew I wanted to include folks from underrepresented backgrounds—and that I wanted gear reviews to not just use us as models but to let our lived experiences and outdoor expertise and skills be the center of the review.
What platforms do you primarily use for sharing your gear reviews?
Our reviews are live on the website at treelinereview.com. We also are active on Instagram and Facebook, as well as a YouTube channel for some of our more interesting gear findings, how to do repairs and maintenance, and fun things like how to build a home climbing wall.
How do you stay connected to the outdoors without getting too wrapped up in the latest gear trend or in capturing photos or other content needs?
I co-founded Treeline Review with my friend and hiking partner Naomi "The Punisher" Hudetz. We've hiked a ton together—the Great Divide Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Low to High Route, Timberland Trail, and San Diego Trans County Trail, as well as the Denver Brew Thru-Hike.
Hiking and getting outdoors are at the very core of what Naomi and I do. That's why we set up our media outlet from the very beginning with the goal of giving co-founders, writers, editors, and even our web and quality control team time to get outside in whatever way brings them joy—whether that's SUPing in the morning before the wind picks up or offering a place to crash on a cross-country bike tour. As thru-hikers, Naomi and I will take weeks and even months off to backpack long trails. Most other media outlets would say that gets in the way of business—but to us, it's worth it because of how nature restores us.
In fact, I recently thru-hiked the Superior Hiking Trail. As I was sending work messages to colleagues from a mountaintop where I got reception, Naomi reminded me of our commitment to staying present in the outdoors and cut me off from doing work! I am so grateful that she did so I could focus on the restorative power of nature instead of content needs or gear news. Ultimately, I think our readers and followers value that when Treeline Review's team gets outdoors, we are doing it first and foremost because we love being in nature.
Do you have any advice for others who may be interested in becoming gear reviewers?
First, don't let anyone tell you or make you think you can't be a gear reviewer. If you're getting out and thinking critically about what you are using, then you have the right mindset to review gear.
Early in my career, a prominent gear editor told me that he didn't think women could review gear. I've made it my goal to prove him wrong.
My other advice is to try as many different types of gear as you can. Seemingly similar models from different brands often have small differences. The more gear you not just see, but use, the more you can get a taste for how subtle design choices impact your day-to-day experiences.
Testing gear is about learning how gear works in the field. The best gear will not just serve you in the best of times, but in the worst of times. A quick release cord may be nifty on a sunny day, but it could make a huge difference when your hands are too frozen to fully operate. A buckle may not make a difference on summer days, but can prevent snow or leaves in the fall from accumulating in your pocket. The more experience you have outdoors in different seasons and different locations, the more you can appreciate how small technical features on gear can make your trip feel easier, more efficient, and more enjoyable.
Use Your Gear With Curiosity to Fuel Helpful Reviews for Others
Our main takeaway from chatting with Liz is that successful gear reviewers begin with a real passion for the outdoors. Your adventures should drive how you talk about your gear. By testing different types of gear in all sorts of conditions—and taking good notes—you’ll have the experience needed to back up your recommendations.
Looking for some gear advice? Want to read examples of what makes a good gear review? Make sure to check out the Treeline Review site for articles about all types of gear. You can also follow them on Instagram at @TreelineReview, as well as on Facebook and YouTube.Have a review of your favorite piece of Gossamer Gear? We’d love to see it! Share it with us by tagging us on social media (@gossamergear) and using the hashtag #takelessdomore.