Backpacker: Tone, Info and Design Make Great ‘Best Of’ Issue

Posted: January 30, 2011 in Grade: A, Magazine: National, Magazine: Recreation, Reviews
Tags: , , , , ,

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Backpacker (

Issue reviewed: November 2010

  • Published in Boulder, Colo., by Active Interest Media
  • Circulation: 340,000
  • 104 pages, perfect bound


  • median HHI: $73,476
  • median age: 39.6
  • 66% male
  • hikers, campers, outdoorsy folks


The tone of Backpacker is snarky — and really fun to read! Interspersed with trail information, gear reviews and hiking how-tos are self-mocking quotes like this one: “From 2002 to 2003, we seemed to have sex on the brain. Some high (or low) lights: To promote ‘proper care of the family jewels,’ ‘Healthy Hiking for Men’ (5/02) delves into unsavory topics such as rashes, testicular torsion, and chafing. For the latter, it introduces the (drumroll, please) Bandanna Harness. … Our deepest regrets.”

If you want to read or see more of this magazine, you can look at every issue of Backpacker, from 1973 to 2009, at Google Books. How cool is that? I mean, you can look at every single page of every single issue. I love living in this time!


Backpacker is masterful at integrating its design and editorial — which is not such an easy task. The maps are illustrated with copy interspersed throughout and with each graphic really meaning something, with a related key that’s easy to follow. I’m especially happy to be reviewing this issue because it’s “The Best of Backpacker,” and it has the staff picks of the best photos and articles, a cool contents page, and tons of lists. It’s all-in-all a very well-planned and exciting issue.

What’s Best

  • Contents: What a fun idea for a different way to organize a contents page for a “best of” issue: Show the covers of the issues referenced throughout with the page numbers directing the reader! What’s especially neat about that is the opportunity to see all the different treatments of the nameplate, the photo and the cover blurbs over the last four decades.
  • Photography: This is too obvious. It’s the best photos in the history of a magazine that has cherishes nature photography, so there’s some really beautiful photos. I imagine most of Backpacker’s readers fantasize about the opportunity to capture one of these masterpieces while out on the trail (or to at least see one of them), and that’s what keeps many going back.
  • Where are they now?: This is a small chunk the editors used throughout this issue that is a great element. It gives readers an update on people Backpacker reported on years ago. Examples are an 8-year-old hiker who accomplished the goals he set in a 1997 issue; a teenager profiled in the first issue of the magazine who’s now retired an worked on a hiker association’s board; and a persona from 1999 who now has his own TV show.
  • Dissenting opinion: This nugget is at the end of some of the hikes in the article covering the 20 best trips ever. Instead of just listing each of the 20 as if they are truly 100% the best hikes, they show you why some people disagree. Here’s one: “The green tunnel is best for hippies and post-grads who want to be able to cell-phone in a pizzy delivery from a trailside hut.”

What’s Worst

  • Editor’s Note: I like reading editor’s picks as much as the next guy, but I wish the Editor’s Note in this special issue had not been reduced to a list of the editor’s favorite articles. Because the rest of the issue is so list-y, it would have been nice here to read why the editor, Jonathan Dorn,  liked ONE article so much or what accounts for Backpacker’s longevity or when the first time he read Backpacker was and what impression it made on him. Insight here would have been better than a Top 10 list.
  • The Master Chef: This section should be awesome, and the information in it is. But it’s not appetizing to look at. It has four great photos, and the rest is really gray copy. It feels like this page should be opened up more to show off how good the content is. (One of the recipes, if you’re interested, is Earthworm Patty Supreme. Nasty!) It’s not really designed differently than sections The Mileage Monster or The Intrepid Explorer (which look good), but it felt to me like The Master Chef needed more space.

Overall Opinion

I’m not an outdoorsy person, but I still really enjoyed going through Backpacker. For the most part, it’s a feast for the eyes and the articles and silly comments beg a smile. I can’t imagine a backpacker enthusiast who doesn’t read this magazine because it really is chock-full of interesting and informative pieces. For these reasons, I give Backpacker Magazine an A.

I invite your comments! Check out the magazine or its website (which is an incredible complement to the magazine) and tell me what you think of it.

–Tyler Reed

Editor, The Sidebar Review

  1. flyinggma says:

    I doubt that I would read this magazine because I am not much of an outdoors person. I love being outdoors but still like my amenities when I travel.

    I love the picture of the hiker that looks like they are carrying a twelve foot high backpack.

    Glad to have you back in circulation and exposing me to what’s out there besides my usual magazines.

  2. This is an interesting magazine. Down here we get loads of backpackers and they run the gamut from serious hikers to college students trying to be Jack Kerouac. My sense is that the magazine manages to appeal to a fairly broad audience but the advertising may be a big part of that.

    • I agree that Backpacker appeals to a broad audience. At least one reader in 1986 (see thought that it had gotten too broad, catering to bikers and four-wheeler-drivers rather than campers. But the editor heartily defended Backpacker’s decision to open up the readership, concerned that maintaining such a narrow focus would not be useful to many of its readers. I appreciate that the editorial staff attacked that issue head-on and, rather than drifting into a different audience, they intentionally MOVED in that direction.

  3. […] that it ran in three issues during 2010. Another magazine that was recently reviewed here, Backpacker, got passed over for awards in General Excellence and for Magazine of the […]

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