To quote the REI website,"What began as a group of twenty-three mountain climbing buddies is now the nation's largest consumer cooperative with more than three million active members." That means that REI is a rare successful not-for-profit company: the profits made during the year are returned to the Members at the end of the year as in-store credits. In addition, REI has this apparently mad policy of allowing a no-questions return of any gear bought from them - cases of gear being returned years after purchase (and use) have been cited. You would think this would be commercial suicide, but that has not happened yet. Apparently the commercial advantages of giving potential customers that assurance outweighs the small number of cases where it gets exploited.
REI is obviously not a cottage industry by any means. Gear sold under the REI brand is not 'flash,' but they are usually solid functional items. It may be a case like that of the modern Toyota Corolla and an old Rolls Royce: the Corolla is reputed to have a higher quality. Why so? When you sell hundreds of thousands of something you get very good at eliminating the bugs. However, like several other American manufacturers, they were not that good at estimating pack volumes - at least, not according to the ASTM Standard.
REI Flash 65 Pack
|Flash 65||Average||Low cost, but not large|
This pack was taken on a multi-day tour through some of the wilder parts of Wollemi National Park in Australia. It is a land of huge sandstone cliffs, dense basalt jungle, and some rather nasty (sharp and pointy) scrub. A pack needs to be fairly tough to survive in this country. In addition to carrying food for four days, I was carrying winter clothing, 4 L of water at times, and 40 m of light abseil rope (regardless, we didn't use the rope: 40 metres was too short for the cliffs).
REI Flash 65, 1.35 kg (2.98 lb), 50 L (3100 cuin)
I had no trouble fitting everything in the pack, provided I packed carefully. Only our flat foam sit-mats and the flat stove base went in the back pocket - it was convenient for that. A few bits went in the lid pocket. My camera was clipped to the shoulder strap. Otherwise everything else was inside. When I put the pack on at home, and also just out of the car at the start, I did notice that the padding down the back was very firm, almost hard. However, after about ten minutes walking up the hill, the padding and my back had become acquainted and got on well together for the rest of the trip, with no problems. It was noticeable that the pack did not carry 'heavy.' Sue found the lumbar pad on this pack to be 'male-oriented,' and it needed a bit more curvature for her, but this is normal.
As mentioned above, there is no way you could call REI a cottage industry company. This shows in several ways. First, there is some economy of features in the design, but I prefer to call that an absence of marketing frills (except for a stupid orange whistle buckle in the sternum strap). Since a mistake in the design could trigger a rather expensive recall, given the volume of sales at REI, there was obviously some incentive for the designers to get it right. I have to say they seem to have done that. Everything worked quite well.
Technically, the internal frame consists of a stiff plastic sheet and two aluminium stays. You can get the aluminium stays out to alter the bends if you want. The two rectangles of padding contain highly perforated foam covered by soft nylon mesh. The shoulder straps and hip belt are also mesh over foam. The straps are all long enough and the buckles worked very reliably. The waterproof zips on the lid and the back pocket are a bit stiff to open, but that applies to all WP zips. The fabric is light, but apart from getting a trifle dirty in the scrub, it survived the trip without any visible effects. And the base of the bag is fairly square, so the pack sits upright.
There is a small security pocket attached to the strap under the lid with a hook&loop closure. I was not entirely convinced about the idea, but it worked just fine. I could have used the much larger security pocket on the underside of the lid - it is also closed with hook&loop tape, but for what I wanted (credit card, drivers licence, keys) the latter seemed too big.
There are compression straps under the base of the pack. You could use them for carrying a rolled-up foam mat of course, or you could reduce the volume of the bottom half of the main bag. Both work. There are lots of other little attachment points on the bag, but I haven't needed any of them.
REI was not happy with the volumes we measured for either of the Flash packs. Their measurements gave quite different results, as the table shows. However, since so many other manufacturers' claims came out within a few percent of our measurements, we are confident of our methodology and that we comply reasonably well with the ASTM Standard. During the email discussion which ensued, we were told that REI had measured the capacity of the lid pocket to be 9 L: we had measured it as 4 L. REI had measured the back pocket as having a capacity of 6 L: we had found it was very difficult to get anything much into it without pushing back into the main bag. In fact, in the field all I was able to get into the back pocket was two small sit-mats, and that took a bit of pushing. The only way we could get the volumes quoted by REI into those two pockets would be to fill them up while the main bag was empty, but this is not how a walker uses a pack. We do not have an answer here.
REI Flash 50 Pack
|Flash 50||Average||Low cost, but not large|
You could call this the smaller brother to the Flash 65. I did manage to get all the test gear inside the bag, but I had to float the lid up a bit to get it to cover the tent. The strap under the lid, which I used to hold the tent in place, is combined with the strap which holds the back pocket. I was not really enthused about this design: I would prefer they added an extra buckle.
REI Flash 50, 1.18 kg (2.60 lb), 43 L (2600 cuin).
Once again, the harness or back padding was really solid. Sue found this fitted her OK and was quite comfortable with it. As might be expected, it too carried fairly 'light.' The upper part of the main bag is noticeably straight up rather than tilted towards the wearer's head. A bit of a tilt at the top could be created by bending the aluminium strips, but note that the bag design is straight. You could not put much bend in without distorting the bag.
This pack seemed a bit better shaped for a woman, with just a bit more curvature at the lumber region. Whether this would be found with every unit I do not know, but you can always adjust the curvature to suit anyhow. That's the great thing about the use of aluminium stays down the frame: they can be shaped to suit the wearer.
The shoulder straps had a lot of extra length to them. I have yet to understand why pack makers seem to have so much trouble getting shoulder straps and sternum straps the right length - a bit of extra length but not too much. However, that is a minor point.
A curious thing found on both Flash packs is what looks like double side pockets. As you can see from the photo, there seems to be a tall flat side pocket with a shorter bulging side pocket over it. Actually, the short bulging side pocket is real, but the tall flat 'pocket' is actually the mesh sides to the back pocket. Yes, you could use them as 'pockets', but I doubt you could get much in them. The same applies to the zipped pocket on the outside of the back pocket: it is a bit flat and of limited value. It is strange that REI have these two 'features' on the Flash when removing them could lower the cost. The back pocket itself does not have a lot of space either, but it was useful for carrying our flat sit-mats.
This is a mini-review in the 2010 Lightweight Internal Frame Pack State of the Market Report. The articles in this series are as follows (mini-reviews can be found in Part 2), and a subscription to our site is needed to read them.