For years, REI has been one of the top retailers for outdoor enthusiast and adventure travelers. Both its brick and mortar stores and website remain one of the best places to go shopping before heading out on your next camping trip, backpacking excursion, or journey to the far side of the planet. The company has always stocked some of the top brands in the outdoor industry – including The North Face, Osprey packs, and Asolo boots – while also selling its own REI-branded gear as well. And while those products were always reliable, well-made, and affordable, they didn't always stack up directly with the competition.
Now however, that is changing, as the company shifts towards a higher-quality, more premium experience for its customers.
REI actually began this new initiative in the spring of 2016 when it released updated versions of its Traverse and Flash line of backpacks, alongside new rain shells and other performance apparel. But moving forward, the plan is to introduce an entire line of new gear that includes tents, sleeping bags, trekking poles, camping chairs, and a range of apparel including hiking pants and shorts, technical shirts, down jackets, and much more. All told, the entire line of new REI gear will span 34 products, with much of it scheduled to arrive in stores early in 2017.
Recently, I had a chance to travel to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah to test out some of this gear before its release next year. Accompanying me on that journey were several other outdoor writers, as well as a cadre of designers and PR folks from REI itself. The goal was to put these new products to the test in a real-world environment, while learning first hand how they were made. Little did we know, we'd have a prime opportunity to do just that.
There is an old adage amongst outdoor adventurers that says "there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear." That proved to be quite accurate on this trip, during which we encountered about every type of weather imaginable, including heavy rain, high winds, hail, flash floods, tornadoes, and snow. Oh yeah, the sun even showed its face on a rare occasion as well, but those moments were definitely few and far between. It may have not been the best conditions for backpacking and camping, but it certainly was perfect for testing gear.
Of course, when you're out in the wilderness with poor weather, a good tent is key to staying dry and warm. In this case, we were all testing out new versions of REI's Quarter Dome line, which will ship in single, two-person, and three-person versions next spring. The tents are designed to be lightweight, durable, and easy to assemble, even in the pouring rain. These new tents come equipped with rainflies and custom built footprints to help keep moisture at bay, and while it was raining cats and dogs outside, the interior of my tent stayed dry and comfortable.
After a long, cold, and wet day on the trail it's also nice to curl up inside a warm sleeping bag when it comes time to get some sleep. The new Magma 15 bag served that purpose, and turned out to actually be a bit overly warm for the environment. Thankfully, it can be vented easily with the tug of a zipper, making it versatile option for use in cooler weather as well. And when combined with REI's new lightweight sleeping pad, I ended up getting much better rest than I expected for such stormy night.
All of our gear was carried in the newly designed Flash 45 backpack, which is comfortable to wear, capable of hauling plenty of gear, and includes plenty of features to help customize its fit specifically for your needs. This pack is going to be very popular with the backpackers and adventure travelers alike, as it is just the right size to allow for a few extra amenities, but not so large as to become cumbersome and awkward, or allow you to overpack.
In addition to these new gear items, we also had the opportunity to try out a range of new performance apparel as well. Everything from shell pants to long-sleeve technical shirts to down jackets were available to test, and with the conditions we encountered it was a good thing we had so many options to choose from. Thankfully, everything performed admirably, keeping us as warm and dry as possible considering the conditions.
As an experienced outdoor and adventure travel writer, getting the chance to test new gear isn't really anything new. In fact, I do it all the time. But, this was the rare opportunity to chat directly with the people who designed that gear too, and it was incredibly interesting and insightful to say the least. The team from REI is obviously committed to creating a new premium line of outdoor products that aren't meant to be just a bargain alternative to the other name brands that they sell. These new pieces of gear are meant to compete directly with those other brands, and offer a viable choice for customers who demand a high level of performance.
Everything from the type of zippers used, to the quality of the fabrics, to design of the product has been rethought to improve performance and efficiency. For instance, the new Flash 45 backpack features water bottle pockets along each side as do most other packs on the market. But what sets these apart from most of the others is that you can actually reach the bottle and pull it out of the pocket without having to take your bag off. Similarly, the new Quarter Dome tents have a simplified set-up procedure thanks to color-coordinated poles and tabs, which come in handy when you need to get your shelter up quickly during a rainstorm.
It is this attention to details – both big and small – that is setting REI's new line of products apart from their previous efforts, and putting them in a position to compete more directly with other well known names in the industry.
After chatting with folks like Nasahn Sheppard, REI's VP of product design, and Ian Eburah, the company’s creative director of gear and apparel, it is hard not to be impressed with the direction that the gear retailer is headed. The new line of products, some of which is already in stores, shows a thoughtfulness to the design that isn't always found in our outdoor products. Much of that inspiration comes from the millions of members of the REI co-op, as well as a special team of employees from the company's retail stores that are lovingly dubbed "bad asses" based on their experience and knowledge of the outdoors.
In other words, the design team is listening to its customers and its employees to help build better products. That definitely shows through in this new gear.
The bad news is that while some of the new product line will be trickling out to REI stores in the weeks ahead, we'll have to wait until spring of 2017 to get our hands on some of the more alluring items, including the Quarter Dome tents, Magma sleeping bag, and the impressive new Flash carbon trekking poles. The good news is, those products are worth the wait, and will be arriving just in time for spring and summer outings next year.
As if that wasn't enough, I'm told that the team of designers at REI is also hard at work on a host of new travel products as well. That new gear is also slated to appear in stores next year, and will address the specific needs of frequent adventure travelers as well. Considering how impressed I was with the gear I've already gotten a glimpse of, I can't wait to see what they have in mind for us world travelers too.