The Best Bad Trips

For 25 years, we’ve been test­ing gear—and our­selves.

Backpacker - - EDITOR'S NOTE -

THE TRAIL LED through a wa­ter­fall. Gusts of wind pushed the cas­cade around, so it felt like the wa­ter was fol­low­ing me as I dashed through, get­ting it full in the face on the way in and out. I was hik­ing around New Zealand’s Mt. Taranaki last Novem­ber, on our fi­nal round of test­ing for this year’s Ed­i­tors’ Choice Awards, and it was rain­ing so hard that sheets of wa­ter poured off the trail­side cliffs, creat­ing falls where none usu­ally ex­isted. The rest of the BACK­PACKER crew walked through the shower, grin­ning.

When the staff of this mag­a­zine heads out on an Ed­i­tors’ Choice trip, we may be the only hik­ers in the world who wish for bad weather. How else are we go­ing to find the gear that re­ally works?

This year marks the 25th an­niver­sary of our Ed­i­tors’ Choice Awards, and over the decades we’ve found scores of cat­e­gory-lead­ing prod­ucts on trips like this one (see page 13). But as I hiked through the del­uge in New Zealand, I re­al­ized we’ve es­tab­lished more than a cred­i­ble gear-test­ing pro­gram. We’ve cre­ated a bond that con­nects gen­er­a­tions of ed­i­tors. Was this weather worse than on Cal­i­for­nia’s Lost Coast, when we lucked into a storm spawned by a Pa­cific typhoon? Were either as bad as get­ting blown off Mt. Hood by a bl­iz­zard or sleep­ing in a mud-and- dung­filled pas­ture in Wales?

When staffers launched the awards in 1993, the ground rules were clear: Hit the trail, thrash gear, and rec­og­nize only the best of the best. Don’t worry about what oth­ers think or say, just get out there and use stuff.

Not sur­pris­ingly, that’s also a recipe for a great back­pack­ing trip. I rec­og­nized it in­stantly on my first Ed­i­tors’ Choice trek, in the Grand Canyon, in 2000. I hiked down the New Hance Trail and joined the trip in progress. I was a tester at the time, and hadn’t yet met any­one on staff. I hit the bot­tom and en­coun­tered a half-dozen dirty hik­ers camped by the Colorado River. They could have been any group of life­long friends out for an ad­ven­ture—ex­cept for the heated de­bates about load trans­fer and wick­ing.

By the next year, I was plan­ning the trip (I get credit/ blame for the Lost Coast), and have been on many since. It’s be­come clear that these ad­ven­tures—grounded in our love for back­pack­ing and its ups and downs—have shaped the mag­a­zine we make, not just the gear we review. Turns out cor­po­rate team-build­ing doesn’t get any bet­ter than pitch­ing a tent in 40-mph wind and rain. Or jump­ing re­peat­edly into a glacierfed lake and flirt­ing with hy­pother­mia so the pho­tog­ra­pher can get “just one more shot.”

You’ve prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­enced your own self­in­flicted chal­lenges. Back­pack­ers love to goad each other on­ward, to go a lit­tle far­ther, a lit­tle higher. Heck, it’s why we care about good gear in the first place.

Twenty-five years from now, the prod­ucts will be dif­fer­ent. The peo­ple, too. But I’m con­fi­dent the Ed­i­tors’ Choice trip will be, at heart, much the same. Just like all good back­pack­ing trips.

Hik­ing as team build­ing: Eg­mont Na­tional Park, New Zealand

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