REI's 12,000-Person Test Team

The biggest name in outdoor retail turned its employees into testers to improve its house brand—and some of its best pieces are on sale this weekend.

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How do you make better gear? Test it. Use it in the backcountry. Get real people out on the trail. Take notes. Then go back to the drawing board and make changes.

Sounds pretty simple, but not every manufacturer does it. The process is slow. You have to get outdoors for weeks, not hours. You have to have early prototypes in order to incorporate feedback in time to use it. Tracking that feedback is an organizational challenge. And finally, you need testers, preferably a lot of them.

For its house-brand gear, REI  has tapped its 12,000-strong workforce to build one of the industry’s most unique test programs. The design team runs test trips all over the country, recruiting employees from across the company (occasionally select REI members are invited to join). They hit the trail, use products, and record feedback in an app. Designers get to see how people of varying experience levels use the gear. REI calls the process Cooperative Design.

We saw the program in action in Olympic National Park last year, as designers were working on this year’s models. Over three days of rainforest backpacking, the group used REI-designed tents, hammocks, packs, jackets, and more. The crew included a range of experience levels, from thru-hikers to relative novices, which allowed designers to see reactions from gram counters as well as others who prioritize comfort and convenience.

Nobody makes perfect gear, but this is a smart way to make stuff better. You can see the results in this year’s Quarter Dome 2 tent and Traverse 70 pack, two of the REI products on sale during this weekend’s Labor Day sale. Tip: Check out the 50 percent savings on the Rhyolite rain jacket. We said it was a bargain at full price when we first reviewed it, thanks to the highly breathable eVent fabric, and for $94 it’s a steal.