Be critical of “Equipment Tests” or “Gear Reviews”

I recently read a “gear test” on camera packs by the New York Times. Personally, the tests could have been done better. Much better.

My bombing Aspen Mountain along Gents Ridge during a 2 foot powder day sporting my Lowe Pro Micro-Trekker. Photo © Daniel Bayer

Gear tests, especially camera bags, should be done in real world situations. Ask the editors of Backpacker Magazine how they do it. Their annual Gear Issue has dozens of reviews and each piece of equipment they tested was taken out for months. They review everything from shoes to backpacks.

If your going to review camera bags and how they hold up when backpacking, then take the thing on several backpacking trips and see how it holds up. Trips with pouring rain, unrelenting heat, bitter cold at night, and hikes through the steeps of the Elk Mountains of Colorado or the Cascades of Washington.

A skier charges down the Face of Bell atop Aspen Mountain. The only way to get to these ski runs is, well, to ski to them.

Those weren’t “gear tests,” they were simple reviews done in a few hours.

Here’s a real test and I will always buy Lowe Pro because of it. They have nice bags that protect very well.

As a staff photographer for the Aspen Times, one of my “essential” duties was to go on the mountain and shoot during powder days.

Oh it was a pain. Riding the lift, snowboarding through 3 or 4 foot deep champagne powder, enjoying the beauty, meeting friends for a few fun runs. Did I mentioned I was getting paid? Ugh.  😉

To carry my gear, I used the either the Lowe Pro Micro Trekker or its bigger brother the Mini Trekker. These are the backpack style camera bags that work really well.

They have customizable compartments to fit your gear and plenty of padding. The Mini has a waterproof cover and a way to attach your tripod. Really nice bags.

When I went on the mountain, I downsized a bit to make the pack lighter. But not so much I regretted not bringing something. I usually packed two bodies, my 80-200, 17-35, 50, 55 macro, 1.4x extender, flash, off-camera cord, extra camera and AA batteries, CF card case, plenty of lens wipes, plastic bags (in case it’s dumping and I don’t want my cameras to get wet) and sometimes my tripod if I’m shooting at night.

I believe it weighed over 15 pounds. And as I’m a snowboarder, riding with my gear on my back produced some special challenges. My balance would be off if the pack wasn’t secure on my back. Its shifting weight would sometimes throw me into a tumble. Lesson to be learned: make sure that puppy is tight up against you.

A snowboarder finds a powder stash in the trees of Keith Glen run on Aspen Mountain in Aspen.

Being as I wasn’t a wimp, I liked the challenge of the double blacks. This is where you also got your best powder shots. Skiers and boarders with snow hitting their faces, hip deep as they charge the hill. I’d ride next to the trees so when someone comes down, you capture a shot with clean, pristine snow.

Many times getting to those runs, unseen terrain changes buried by the night’s fluffy softness caused me to catch an edge and fall. And as I would normally charge the hill, I wouldn’t simply fall, but tumble. And hard.

I’d catch my back edge and “tuna slap,” or just tumble a few times. The packs were sturdy enough  And my gear would be safe- dry and undamaged.

One of the most memorable falls I’ve had was when I was covering a Local’s Ski Racing Clinic teaching proper racing technique. 2002 Olympic bronze medalist Chris Klug was the snowboard instructor and I was the only snowboarder.

It was a particularly bad day as it was cloudy and dumping with a high wind blowing snow everywhere. We went on a couple of training runs and then headed to the top of the race course. As we were going down, I was blinded by the blowing snow and couldn’t see 5 feet in front of me. Klug was ahead and then the snow slightly cleared and as it did, I saw him go over a roller.

The the snow came back and I felt the hill became steeper and I realized I needed to pull up on the front of my board. Too late.

Snowboarders and skiers hiked to the Highland Bowl to enjoy the annual barbecue put on by the Highlands Ski Patrol

The front of my board dug into the snow and I cart-wheeled 3 or 4 times. then I flipped end-over-end a few times. I finally stopped and as I lay on my back, my first thought was that I hope my gear was safe. After laying there for a few minutes catching my breath and laughing,  I sat up and that’s when I felt the pain in my left ankle.

A sharp popping pain shooting up my leg all the way to my neck. And then my boot began getting tighter and tighter around my foot. Ouch. Instead of screaming in pain, I gave out a whoop and a holler. What a ride!

Klug saw my losing battle with the hill and came running up. I tumbled to the top of the race course landing about 10 yards from it. As a result of landing where I did, many other skiers saw my demonstration of grace and beauty. Or a prime example of the perfect crash.

A ski patrolman also saw my epic wipe out. He came running over asking if I was OK.

Laughing, I said no and that my ankle was killing me. He took off my camera pack and as soon as he did, I opened it and inspected the contents.

My fear was the mount on my camera or 80-200 broke. I kept my long glass attached to the camera for quick shots.

It was fine. And the camera worked. All my gear was in good shape and dry.

As soon as I was relieved that my gear was O.K., the pain in my foot took over. Onto the sled and down the mountain to the hospital. After 6 weeks in an air cast, I was free to go on the mountain again. But I thought it better to wait until the next year.

And as for my gear, within a week I was using it again once the doctor cleared me for work. Nothing like limping around on crutches and trying to shoot. But that’s another blog entry.

So be critical of “gear reviews.” Was the gear actually tested under real world situations and that’s how the article was written, or is the article just glorified free advertising?

Me and my friend Tim Mutrie atop Highland Peak at 12,382 feet. What a rough job I had.

Thank you for reading

Paul Conrad

Pablo Conrad Photography


  1. Good post, Pablo. I have 3 packs that sit unused as i bought them because of the reviews that were written about them. Finally got smart and went Lowe. Everything from flying off the front seat of the prowler to typical crash-and-burns while hiking and all is still well!


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