March 08, 2001 11:00 pm

Weve all done it paid too much for shoddy service or merchandise and been too polite or too reticent to speak up when our expectations havent been met.

Car buyers have Consumer Reports magazine and Buying Guide to steer them away from iffy models. Now, thanks to Medical Springs author and researcher Maurizio Valerio, outdoor enthusiasts have an impressive 11-volume set of books devoted to helping them get the most out of their outdoor experiences.

Valerio, who with his wife, Allison, maintains a Baker City office, is an avid outdoorsman with academic credentials to boot. He holds advanced degrees in animal behavior and zoology from the University of Parma in his native Italy and from the University of California at Berkeley.

Spend an hour with him and youll come away with at least two impressions hes a people person who is happy to share details hes learned from a lifetime of research, and he likes and respects guides and outfitters who deliver the service they say they will.

We had to step outside of the good old boy network, he said, noting that articles that appear in some national magazines may not be completely objective because they are often written as the result of junkets paid for by the adventure companies themselves. Why shouldnt these people live up to our expectations?

Valerio began his Top Rated Surveys series in 1995 with Top Outfitters of Big Game Hunting of North America. In each succeeding publication, which include paddling, fishing, hunting and winter sports, Valerio included evaluations of only the adventure companies, lodges, outfitters and guides who received top marks from the people who know them best their customers.

A tireless researcher, Valerio employed family members to mail out questionnaires to upwards of 300 customers of companies and guides who agreed to an evaluation. Only the best receive the Top Rated Surveys seal. In his 1999 Freshwater Fishing Guide, for example, Valerios responders selected 104 top-rated guides, outfitters, captains and lodges in 28 states and Canada.

To compile such a list, however, Valerio first had to contact the 11,000 or so North Americans who provide such a service.

Groups become top rated in a variety of ways. Some advertise a wilderness-only experience, and then deliver the goods. Others cater to customers less inclined to rough it who may wish to spend the night in a comfortable bed. To achieve their top-rated evaluation, the high-end facilities, too, had to do what they said they would.

When I walk into a hamburger restaurant or a place that charges $150 per plate, I have different expectations, Valerio said. You cant portray yourself as a first-class lodge if youre a single-wide motorhome. Still, there are lots of guys who are looking for that wilderness experience.

The Top-Rated guides are useful on other levels as well. Allison Mickens, Valerios wife, said their research turned up remote hunting camps in which the cooks sneaked off to hunt after breakfast, and thus encroached on the paying customers turf. The practice was unknown to the tour operators, who corrected the problem in time for the guides next edition.Its like your newspaper business, Valerio said. The day you go to press, youre old news. If you fired the cook who kept your lodge going, you can go downhill in a hurry.

Even with an impressive string of titles to his name, the task of doing the necessary research doesnt get any easier, he said.

Were here to support our customers, but it sure is a heck of a lot of work, Valerio said.