Well I was going to email it straight to the BPM editor, but chances are (as in all dogmatic and emotion-containing discussions) she won't find it insightful anyway. Maybe someone here can get more value from my ramblings.
PJ, thank you and I'll respond to you tomorrow.
I'm writing to give you some feedback on the Award you recently gave to Big Sky products for their tents, and about your publication in general. Please not that I realize that you have been "away" for 4 years, so when I say "your magazine" I mean it in the grand sense, as in "the magazine of which you are now the Gear Editor."
As you have probably gathered by reading in forums around the internet, your magazine's credibility comes into question by some when equipment is reviewed with an eye to functionality and purchase-worthiness, full stop. Your review style seems to start and end with what works and what doesn't, rather than looking at a product from a whole-experience perspective such as customer service and most importantly (I feel) whether the style or type of item is worth packing at all.
My primary example is the current Big Sky Tents debacle. I tell you honestly that your magazine came across like they might be shareholders or family relations of the founder of Big Sky when you actually granted them a prominent award in their highest-circulation issue of the year! This was despite the fact that Big Sky seem to be the Worldcom of cottage manufacturing. (Remember, even Enron delivered *some* electricity!) After reading nightmare stories about Big Sky for more than a year, I was surprised that Backpacker is so far removed from the Backpacking community that they would give the company an award and stimulate hundreds or thousands of orders placed based solely on that recommendation! Many of the people who were -and will be- stiffed by Big Sky are your readers, after all.
On the subject of gear selection, many are surprised by your frequent reprinting of popular and long-discredited myths to recommend gear that is coincidentally-or-not made by advertisers. On the subject of canister fuel versus white gas, for instance, you stated as late as 2002 that white gas is "efficient" and "good for long trips" in comparison to canister fuel.
By 2002, Backpacker had still not weighed its' fuel tanks before and after cooking to find out that it takes roughly twice as much liquid as canister fuel to cook the same meal? Many find it hard to believe. Learning how much fuel it takes to cook a meal is Backpacking 101, and canister fuel had been on the market for decades by the time you published that "review." In fact, the efficiency of canister fuel has been common knowledge in the climbing community since climbers finally retired the Optimus SVEA 123 in the 80's as their standard stove. Yet you guys are still pushing white gas and Expedition stoves to unsuspecting beginning backpackers?
I submit to you that the only user who benefits from a jet-engine-noisy, very heavy, very expensive 16.5oz Primus Omnifuel does not learn out about it in the pages of Backpacker Magazine. He or she is climbing Everest or trekking to the Poles, and already knows which available stoves will burn Diesel and Jet Fuel. Hocking $150 1-lb AvGas burning Expedition stoves to neophytes under the guise of the advantageous "efficient" white gas option is not what some would call good journalism.
It also seems telling that the "centres" on your website ("waterproofing centre", "sleeping bag centre") actually use the logos and marketing material of your sponsors as their logos, headers, and infographics. If your purpose is to review products and technique and provide the resulting information to readers, does it not come across as a mild conflict of interest when your reviews are actually branded by a manufacturer? It would be akin to a dentist who wears an "Aquafresh" labcoat and drives a "Listerine" Mercedes: which oral health regime do you think he's going to recommend? The whole thing smacks a bit of 1950's health announcements, with well-known doctors informing the public about the advantages of smoking Chesterfields.
Such an approach has arguably influenced many competing (but less well-sponsored) publications. One such publication is BackpackingLight.com, whose primary focus is to aggressively *cut through* manufacturer hype and rhetoric rather than actually reprinting it. In an age of citizen journalism, this kind of approach is gaining favor -- albeit not from many sponsors.
On the last page of this year's Backpacker Gear Guide, (also recognized widely under various forms of "Adpacker / Cannonball Guide",) you suggest ways to reduce pack weight. And what is the only justification given for doing this? To make space in ones' pack for more gear sold by Backpacker sponsors or potential sponsors! I tell you Kristin, many backpackers shook their heads at what appears to be the trivializing and apparent nose-thumbing at one of the more dynamics of the sport of backpacking; weight. Lightening up just so you can carry more gear: to some it's like quitting cigarettes so you can take up cigars!
Your magazine purports to discuss the whole sport of backpacking, and great and detailed pontification is given to almost every aspect, metric, and dynamic in the field. Except for the one metric that advocates the purchasing of less gear from your sponsors, that is.
To wit: My friend learned backpacking independently while away at school; she is a happy proponent of the "gear for gear's sake" attitude so often found on the pages of consumption-oriented magazines and guides. I'm always astounded at the 40 lbs that she hoists onto her 125-lb frame for a weekend trip; it's given me a lot of insight into the content of the many Backpacker-published books that line her shelf. She has spent a fortune on a mountain of gear that is simultaneously overdesigned and underperforming for the weight, and owns a very expensive 6lb pack and pair of 6lb boots to drag it all around with. Yet despite her being a very informed, prudent, and conservative backpacker by Backpacker standards, this gigantic load of your advertisers' products almost cost her her life when she hiked the West Coast Trail in 2005. She would have died with pounds and pounds of "safety items" and "camp luxuries" strapped to her back, supposedly protecting her from emergency and discomfort but actually pulling her to her death. And, without an ounce of exaggeration, that was not the first time that her huge "safety" load almost killed her.
I guess what I want to impress on you is that if you truly were not averse to offending sponsors with your analyses, I feel you would be willing to suggest that readers only lug along massive piles of sponsors' gear in the name of "comfort" and "safety" if they are willing to accept the absolutely 100% inevitable consequences of carrying a heavier load an equal distance. In short, I would suggest that an unbiased publication would advise its' readers to think as critically about weight as they do about any other metric in the sport.
The consequences of greater weight are well-known, but oddly never discussed critically in the context of a Backpacker gear review. Dangerous and potentially dangerous situations increase dramatically in likelihood when a heavier load is carried: falling, injury from falling, heatstroke and heat injury, hypothermia and cold injury, dehydration, dangerously poor decision making, external stress or friction injury (bruises or blisters,) internal injury (hernia, strain, sprain, break, infection,) despondency leading to dangerous group dynamics, being trapped by dangerous weather due to party inagility, danger to a compromised party member due to inability to walk them out quickly, etc. etc. These all occur in greater frequency with increased load! (Also not having fun, but that's an aside.)
And the inexperienced walker, fatigued with his or her unnecessarily heavy load, can of course compound these problems very quickly. Fatigue leads to chill leads to loss of dexterity leads to laceration = serious wilderness emergency in 5 minutes flat. Petite 130lb woman has her body weight increase by 30%, unfamiliar weight and balance and footwear cause her to slip often and eventually end up soaking wet with a sprained ankle, unable to move to warm up and lacking the dexterity to change clothes and make camp. Fatigue leads to dehydration leads to immobility of the party which leads to weather emergency, trapped on a ridge in an August whiteout with a sick girl. (You know more of these stories than I do; I am certain of it!)
All of the above situations have happened in the past to so-called "traditional" backpackers I've hiked with. And when they happened, no Backpacker-Magazine-praised "Lightweight Oven" or "Lightweight Camp Chair" or "Titanium Latté Milk Frother" was of comfort to the victims. And yet I (an admittedly casual reader) do not find your reviews or articles to advocate the selection (or deselection!) of gear in order to always carry a prudently light load.
In the name of safety, you seem very willing to advocate a costlier sleeping bag, an extra set of clothing, a technical jacket, a more capable tent, extra medical equipment, more fuel, more food, extra gloves, a second set of footwear, etc. All items which can be purchased at extra cost from your sponsors, but which are guaranteed to keep you safer with proper application. Yet there is never mention of the fact that hauling all that extra stuff will put you in more danger in the first place.
The treatment of weight that your reviews and articles seem to give is as a secondary concern; i.e. make sure you can haul your load all the way to the campsite and don't carry more than 1/3 of your own bodyweight. (Your advice I believe.) Even your survival issue didn't remind readers that chances of needing survival skills and equipment are increased when pack weight increases.
I suggest, admonish, and challenge you to devote less attention to gear for gears' sake, and more to selecting a truly *appropriate*, *effective*, and *prudent* backpacking kit. Even if it means buying less gear.
Your readers will reward you, I promise!
Thanks for your time.
PS It may sound from this letter that I do not believe that the walker is responsible for all aspects of his or her own safety. Nothing could be farther from the truth: safety starts and ends with the individual, full stop. That said, your publication is influential. Not only the equipment you recommend, but the technique, style, and attitude found on your pages is adopted and passed on to others by your readership and the community at large. Are you responsible when someone reads your magazine and then has a bad trip? NO! Does your influence over the backpacking community come with a certain level of responsibility? Yes, I feel it does.