The Best Bad Trips
For 25 years, we’ve been testing gear—and ourselves.
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