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My new Simple Gear Test columns were born from frustration with backpacking industry standards, testing, and marketing. So I decided to start measuring gear myself. These tests might not be accurate to the nearest degree, gram, or millimeter, but they are good enough to decide if Product A meets my needs better than Product B before heading into the backcountry.

“We Don’t Trust Manufacturers’ Product Specs. You Shouldn’t Either.” – appropriate title from a Wirecutter story.

I want these tests to cover important product features, and be low-cost, easy to run, easy to understand, fast enough, and gentle enough to return gear that doesn’t measure up. I decided to begin with USB rechargeable devices.

To start off, I’ll describe general “Tips Before Testing,” then explain how I measured USB recharging for a smartphone, headlamp, satellite messenger, and battery bank.

Tips Before Testing

Here are some tips that help me choose good enough gear before testing.

  • Decide which product features are important, including cost. Then mark them High, Medium, and Low priority. Focus on the High items first to narrow choices.
  • Don’t fall into the trap that lightest is best. Lightest is walking naked into the wilderness. Same for most expensive is best. Even Jeff Bezos knows better.
  • Good reviews should describe the reviewer’s backpacking experience with similar products. And they should cover relevant testing conditions, often including weather, location, elevation, miles (km) hiked, and feet (m) climbed.
  • Be skeptical of specifications and test results coming from the company that made the product. Trust but verify.
  • Even simple specs might get exaggerated, like the dimensions of a tent.
  • Beware spec numbers that conveniently end in 0 or 5 – actual measurements rarely produce values that charming.
  • Don’t buy expensive gear based solely on a skimpy web page with just a couple of specs plus glamor photos.
  • Don’t give much credibility to customer ratings found on large retail websites. Paid postings and inexperienced users can distort those opinions.
  • Purchase from companies with long-enough return windows and good-enough return policies.

USB Recharging

A larger smartphone battery might hold 3,000 mAh (milliamp-hours), while many USB battery banks claim 10,000 mAh. Unfortunately, that’s like knowing a stove canister holds 3.9 ounces (110 g) of fuel – it doesn’t tell me how long my stove will burn or how many meals I can cook.

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