REI Backpack: Designed to Fail

This is a post about customer service and warranties at REI, the outdoor gear company. Before presenting what I originally wrote, I want to sketch out the situation, and say how it turned out.

I wrote the post because, as described below, REI essentially told me to get lost. I knew that I could add photos and a full description in a blog post, whereas REI offered no such means of communication. When they didn’t allow me to tell them the full story directly, my alternative was to tell the full story to the public, and then tell REI where I had posted that full story. I chose to post the story in my computer blog. That blog gets a fair amount of traffic; I felt it would be more likely to get some attention from REI.

Once I did that, and sent REI an email pointing them to the blog post, they woke up and gave me a refund rather promptly. I don’t take that as a sign that REI is therefore basically an OK company. I take it as a sign, rather, that REI will continue to tell customers to get lost, and will make exceptions for those who can make trouble. I’m glad they gave me a refund, but that was only part of my purpose in going to the trouble of a full writeup. I also wanted to explain, to them and to other users and sellers, what went wrong with this backpack, and I would have appreciated some explanation of why this supposedly outdoor-oriented company’s product testers, with their presumed experience in what can go wrong in backpacks, failed to detect this design flaw.

REI demanded no change in my writeup, in exchange for their refund. I am not sure it would have been unfair to leave the writeup in the computer blog. On the other hand, I don’t think it would have been right to simply delete the writeup. REI handled my case poorly; and while I was able to exert some pressure and get a better outcome for myself, it seems others may not fare so well, and should be warned. The backpack is not on topic for my computer blog; my solution is to move the post here, where backpacking is relevant. Hopefully people searching for information on this backpack, and on REI return/exchange policies, will be able to find it here via a search for the phrases tagged below.

Here is the original writeup:

* * * * *

I bought a backpack from REI, the outdoor gear store. That was in November 2017. Sure enough, here we are, two months past the expiration of the backpack’s one-year warranty, and something has broken, and REI has told me to go screw myself. This is my way of doing that.

The backpack is a Traverse 85. Like most backpacks, it has two shoulder straps; and to keep those straps from sliding off one’s shoulders, it has a chest strap. The chest strap, when connected, pulls the two shoulder straps toward each other. Here is a picture of a homemade chest strap on some other kind of backpack:

The chest strap on this REI backpack is not like that. This one is designed to fail. To explain what I mean, here’s another photo:

That’s the chest strap on my backpack. Notice that, unlike the first photo, this chest strap does not loop securely around the shoulder straps. Instead, it clamps onto a thin plastic bead, visible here as a vertical strip, going up the shoulder strap from where my fingers are.

The little plastic clip I’m holding onto is designed to slide up and down that plastic bead on each side. This allows the user to position the strap anywhere from low (where it is now) to high (where it could strangle the user).

Maybe that adjustment is a good thing. But it comes at a price. In exchange for that frill, REI’s designer jeopardized the basic function of the chest strap. Consider this photo:

In this image, I am again holding the plastic clip at the right end of the chest strap, and we see the plastic bead (covered with fabric) extending off to the right. The focus here is not on the clip’s big hook, where my index finger is. I don’t know what that hook is for.

The focus here is on the plastic clip’s little C-shaped opening, by my thumb. As you can see, that little C-shaped opening is positioned, here, to slide onto the plastic bead. It was on the plastic bead originally, but now it has pulled loose.

Notice the design problem. This is my right-side shoulder strap. The chest strap is running leftwards through my hand. It will connect to the left shoulder strap at a point somewhere past the left edge of this photo.

In other words, when you tighten the chest strap, it will be trying to pull the plastic clip off the plastic bead. The little C-shaped opening in the plastic clip is not shaped like a hook, securely wrapping around the plastic bead (or, as in the first photo, around the shoulder strap itself). Instead, the C-shaped opening is shaped like your fingers, clinging desperately to the last rock at the edge of the cliff.

The only question was when the plastic clip would become fatigued enough to slip off the plastic bead. We now have an answer to that. It became fatigued enough just two months after expiration of the one-year warranty.

I took the backpack to the REI store. The lady heated up the plastic clip and tried to slide it back onto the plastic bead, in their back room, but eventually she came out and said she couldn’t do it. Of course, if the plastic was flexible enough to pop off once, it would do it again. Her fix was going to be temporary — and then, possibly somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, with a full pack, that clip would fail, and my backpack would not have a chest strap. So far, I have not been able to rig up an effective alternative.

I came home and contacted REI’s customer service through their chat feature. They told me that I would have to speak to a product specialist at their 800 number (800-426-4840). I called that number. The woman I spoke with said my only solution was to ship the backpack to a separate company and pay for its repair.

My view was that this was a design defect, and I should not have to pay what could be a considerable amount, so that some third party could fix the error committed by REI’s designer. She was not persuaded. I asked to speak with her supervisor. She put me on hold for ten minutes and then came back and said she had discovered that the supervisors were all in a meeting, but one would call me back shortly. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

The situation is very simple. If you’re going to sell backpacks with the assurance that they have a working chest strap, then the chest strap has to work. I understand a lack of sympathy for people who abuse their equipment. I also understand a one-year warranty. But that is not the whole story. Few people would buy these backpacks if REI just came out and said, “We have designed this poorly. Something on it will probably fail not long after your warranty expires.”

REI presents itself as a reputable seller of quality outdoor goods. I was quite dismayed at the customer service response. I was definitely not dealing with L.L. Bean, here. I would have been happy to send these photos and this writeup to REI, but their email contact page did not allow photos, and I did not feel like spending more hours re-explaining the problem and getting the same lack of support. My alternative was to write it up for other potential buyers.

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1 Response to REI Backpack: Designed to Fail

  1. Richard J anastasi says:

    The same thing happened to mine and for some reason it isn’t on my account so I can’t return it.. Really sucks total design flaw.

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