Thursday, October 20, 2016

Gear Closet: First Look at Upcoming Gear From REI

 A few weeks back I was lucky enough to be invited on a trip to Bryce Canyon where I would be treated to an early look at some new outdoor gear coming our way courtesy of REI. Typically, Bryce is a dry, warm place that is perfect for hiking and backpacking, but on our trip it turned out to be pretty much the exact opposite. The weather mixed in a little of everything, including sun, rain, sleet, hail, heavy rain, high winds, mud, snow, and yet more rain. And just to make things more interesting, there were even tornadoes and flash floods in the area too. In other words, it was the perfect conditions to test out new gear, even if the team wasn't especially comfortable, warm, and dry at all times. 

Over the course of a couple of days, I was able to test out some great new products and learn about them from the team that is designing them. There is a bit of a revolution going on right now inside REI, which has always made its own brand of packs, tents, sleeping bags, and apparel. But in the past, those products were generally seen as more affordable options when the bigger outdoor brands are out of your price range. Now how, those same items are all going through a dramatic redesign that will turn them into premium products that you'll want to carry with you on your outdoor adventures. They are being built to compete on the same level as The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and the other brands we've come to know and trust. This is a big step for REI, which will still offer these items at a very attractive price, but the performance of all of the gear is being fine tuned to be much better than in the past.

Most of these new items are scheduled for release in the spring of 2017, so if you're in the market for any of these pieces of gear, you'll have to be a bit patient. But, I can tell you that they are all worth the wait, and you won't be disappointed. They should all arrive in REI stores in time for next year's camping, hiking, and backpacking season. Best of all, company reps tell me they're also working on travel gear too, which means we should see some amazing things in the category in the future too.

Here's a sampling of what I saw:

Flash 45 Backpack
Built for traveling light – but not ultralight – this 45-liter pack is super comfortable, offers plenty of capacity, and is capable of carrying heavy loads over longer distance. I should know, as I tested this bag in Bryce Canyon under challenging conditions for two days carrying quite a bit of gear along with me. The pack includes REI's proprietary UpLift system, which allows you to dial in a great fit for the load you're carrying and your body type. It also has a nicely padded 3D contoured hipbelt, and a number of strategically placed pockets for stashing small items you want to keep close at hand. Best of all however, are the two water bottle pockets that can be easily accessed without ever having to take the pack off.

Quarter Dome Tents
REI's Quarter Dome tents get a revamp for spring 2017 as well, and they are looking great. Available in solo, 2-person, and 3-person models, these shelters are lightweight, tough, and incredibly easy to assemble. They feature color-coded poles that make it a breeze to set-up, even in bad weather. The included rainfly helps to keep moisture at bay, as does an optional footprint, and the tents are roomy, offer plenty of ventilation, and are strong enough to withstand high winds. They also have wider doors for easier entry and exit, more vestibule space, a wider foot box, and reflective guy lines to prevent you from tripping over them in the dark. The new models will all be slightly heavier than the previous generation, but the overall improvements make them much nicer to use in the backcountry.

Magma 10 Sleeping Bag
If you're going to test out a new sleeping bag, you should probably do it in cold, damp conditions. That's exactly what the new Magma 10 bag faced in Bryce Canyon, and it easily passed with flying colors. This mummy-style bag is very comfortable and warm, with an easy to use zipper and options for ventilating the lower section of the bag while staying cosy up top. The Magma features 850-fill hydrophobic down, which means it can repel quite a bit of moisture and still continue to hold its loft and perform at a high level. REI's team told me this sleeping bag is officially rated for 10ºF, which ought to be enough to keep you cosy on most of your camping adventures.

Flash Insulated Air Sleeping Pad
One of my favorite new pieces of gear in the REI line-up is the Flash Insulated Air sleeping pad. Not only does it inflate and deflate incredibly quickly, it also compresses down to an incredibly small size.  This makes it an instant replacement for my older – and much bulkier – sleeping pad that I typically use on backpacking trips. The fact that it also provides a surprisingly high level of comfort, while being so light and thin, is just icing on the cake. I think you're going to like this one a lot too.

Magma 850 Down Jacket
Like the Magma sleeping bag, this jacket also uses 850-fill hydrophobic down. It features a nice athletic cut that hugs the body nicely, helping it to perform well in cold weather. I appreciated the fact that his is a puffy that isn't especially bulky, make it highly packable for travel. The Magma jacket happens to look great too, making it a nice option for the trail or for use around town.

Flash Carbon Trekking Poles
I'm a big proponent of using trekking poles on long distance hikes. I think they save a lot of wear and tear on your hips and joints, and help to keep your legs fresh for the long haul. REI's latest models are super lightweight, easy to pack, and durable enough to survive the difficult conditions we tested them in Bryce Canyon, where the mud was thick and we walked 9+ miles (14 km) each day, with more than 1800 feet (548 meters) of vertical gain. Through it all, the poles performed admirably, and were much appreciated by all. When they hit stores next spring, they will be a very affordable alternative to some of the competing brands we've used in the past.

Performance Apparel
In addition to all of the gear listed above, we also tested out lots of new clothing coming from REI as well. Those items included performance shirts, hiking pants and shorts, jackets, base layers, and more. All of the items looked great, fit comfortable, and performed extremely well, even in the poor weather conditions. If this sampling of clothing accurately represents what REI has in the pipeline, you can expect to not only hike, camp, and backpack more comfortably, but travel well too. There were several pieces – including the Screeline Half-Zip Top and Screeline Pants – that I came away thoroughly impressed by, and will be happy to have them in my wardrobe for future adventures.

This is just a small taste of what REI has in the works. Next spring, you'll definitely want to drop by their retail outlets to check these items out in person. I'm already a big fan of the Flash 45 backpack and Flash Air sleeping pad, but the other items are wonderful as well. If this trend continues, the REI Private Brands collection will be competing quite nicely with some of the other big outdoor brands, and we consumers will benefit greatly.


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