Backpacking Light is kicking off a new series of profiles with outdoor industry professionals, long distance hikers, adventure trekkers, land managers, conservationists, and others who will be of interest to lightweight backpackers. We’ll talk with them about their vocations, their passions, and their outlook on topics of interest to the lightweight backpacking community. In this installment, we talk with Dana Parnello, Manager of Product Research and Testing at REI. Dana shares his thoughts on lightweight trends, gear testing, breakthrough products and assorted other topics.
Dana Parnello on a backpacking trip near Redfish Lake, Idaho.
BPL: Tell us about your role at REI.
Dana: That’s a big and broad opening question. Really, I wear (at least) two hats; one for the REI the Co-op, and another for REI Gear & Apparel and Novara branded products. My team includes Testing (Lab and Field) and Engineering. While we focus a lot of our energy on our REI Gear & Apparel and Novara brands, we also conduct testing for our buyers, marketing, product information and product compliance groups’ use. Also, we spend quite a lot of time working industry standards groups like the ASTM, AATCC, and UIAA.
BPL: What are the goals of the testing lab or the principles behind your testing?
Dana: I am fond of saying that the Magnusson* Laboratory helps Co-op members/customers make informed decisions. This is done in partnership with our vendors and suppliers and typically helps us all learn how to better serve our members/customers.
As BPL is well aware, many products (e.g., stoves and lights, which we always test in-house) are tested using a manufacturer’s in-house methods. These are all generally sound methods. Of course, since they don’t measure things the same way, the results can’t really be compared to each other. So, we attempt to minimize variables where possible and provide meaningful comparisons. For example, our stove test station always starts with water at the same temperature, maintains constant fuel pressure, always uses the same pot (yes, stove/pot systems are starting to complicate that aspect) and uses the same surface (to minimize variability in convection) for every test. We also use proprietary methods for stove and pot stability ratings.
We do similar testing on a wide variety of products you can find at REI. This information is used by our buyers and by our product information teams to populate of lot of the fields you’ll find in our Product Information Guides (PIGs) and at www.rei.com.
For REI Gear & Apparel and Novara, the Magnusson Lab is used in a variety of capacities, and is a strong ally with our Design and Engineering and Development teams. We conduct development testing on everything from textiles and sleeping bag temp ratings to trekking pole three-point bend, twist-testing (torque), and metal hardness. This testing is done on individual materials, sub-assemblies, and/or whole products, depending upon what we want to learn.
Dana in full traditional mountaineering garb at the German Alpine Club, Munich Germany.
BPL: Doing controlled testing of outdoor gear is a challenge. Does the lab use both standardized and proprietary tests?
Dana: When we are confident that standardized tests produce accurate and comparable results, we will authorize third party labs to test on our behalf. We have developed really helpful relationships with test facilities in Europe, Asia and the U.S. Also, as we develop proprietary test methods, we have been known to train third party labs, or our suppliers, to do this testing further upstream in the development cycle.
For instance, I recently returned from a trip where I set up two mills in Japan to conduct our proprietary textile breathability method and spent time in China with a supplier and third party test lab conducting testing on a new line of camp furniture that is hitting our stores now.
That said, some test equipment is just too costly to bring in-house. For example, we have tested our tents in a number of different wind tunnels. With respect to in-house testing, the Magnusson Lab* has a climate controlled room and quite a variety of test equipment (tensile tester, hardness, button impact, tear strength, crocking, pilling, burst, multiple freezers, light testing stations, etc). More importantly, in the absence of standardized methods, our lab and engineering staff develop test methods that help us learn what we need.
Also noteworthy, with all the testing our lab conducts, we have a healthy data set from which to develop product standards. Where we feel we have something worth sharing, we feel a responsibility to participate in standards development. Steve Nagode (REI R&D Engineer) was the ASTM F08 Camping Soft goods (packs, bags, etc) sub-committee chair for several years. He and I have been actively participating in the UIAA Climbing and Mountaineering standards meetings and we are active corporate members of the AATCC. None of these roles could be filled without the great work our lab has done over many years.
BPL: How about field testing? That’s a focus at BPL; do you do a lot of field testing?
Dana: Perhaps the most important thing our lab does is qualify products for field testing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will ensure product performance and end-user satisfaction like getting the product in the intended use by a group of folks who closely approximate the intended end-user; be they experts or novices.
To that end, our lab staff is complimented by equally talented field test analysts. They are tasked with the development of test plans, recruitment of testers, distribution of samples, collection and analysis of formal tester reports and, of course, the publication of the information.
BPL: Can you tell us about any recent tests of lightweight gear that our readers might enjoy?
Dana: Sure. I’ll have to be a little cryptic though; some of these items are still in development.
We had some interesting field tester comments on a proposed ultralight (UL) pack. Testers indicated the frame design could use some tweaking. I can’t share the specifics, but I will tell you that our designer has come up with some really creative alterations in stay placement and panel cut out patterns. Stay tuned…
For another (admittedly vague) example, our lab helped us measure the strength of some proposed UL gear manufacturing techniques. Our designer is incorporating what he learned in testing to evolve the design to take advantage of the new techniques, while maintaining overall performance and durability.
Finally, field testing recently validated some upcoming sleeping pad design modifications. Lighter and thinner is great. The challenge is to achieve this while maintaining the cushion and insulation expected; and those are tough things to lab test.
BPL: Hmm, mysterious. So, can you tell us if these new pads will be both lighter and thinner?
Dana: Yes (insert grin here).
BPL: What new products or materials do you see breaking new ground in lightweight gear?
Dana: The most amazing and rapid evolution I have seen in many years has to be what is happening in the lighting arena. Lights (largely driven by LED technology and battery improvements) are getting smaller, more durable (impact resistant), and showing extraordinary run-time and brightness gains.
Some of the testing team from REI’s Magnusson Laboratory. Left to right: Scott Smith, Tifani Andre, Dana Parnello, Adam Hockey, Steve Nagode, and Jim Hollenbeck.
BPL: REI seems to have an increased focus on producing lightweight products. Does REI see the market for lightweight products growing?
Dana: My personal opinion is that lightweight doesn’t just satisfy the niche market of "light and fast." I like lighter gear, as it enables my wife and I to take my seven- and ten-year-old daughters further into the backcountry. In that regard, I hope it grows. The challenge is to do so without making things that are disposable.
BPL: Yes, lighter gear has opened up new possibilities for many people, kids and otherwise. REI is a large retailer with many customers who might not be used to treating lightweight gear very carefully. How do you strike a balance between durability and light weight?
Dana: In addition to valuing other performance aspects, REI’s customers expect durability. The reality is, we offer a lifetime satisfaction guarantee. When we fear that durability will not meet their expectations, then we make changes (to materials or design, etc.) to ensure we can keep them happy in the outdoor playground as long as they want.
BPL: Another notable trend in the industry is an increased focus on "green" products. Is REI taking steps to produce products that have reduced environmental impact?
(Here, Kevin Myette joined the conversation; Kevin is the Director of Product Integrity at REI.)
Kevin: Truthfully, we don’t exactly call them "green," but we understand your meaning. We address product stewardship on many fronts-from environmental to social. From an environmental perspective, we continue to work to reduce the impact of our products. We realize one of the most significant ways we can do this is to choose better materials-rapidly renewable, recycled, and/or grown with organic farming processes.
Truth is, however, since performance remains high on our list of considerations, the material choice is often dictated by the activity. So-choosing wisely from appropriate materials keeps our Materials R&D team very busy. We also have a restricted substance list and process to ensure that chemicals which we’d rather not see are kept out of our products.
This is what we do for our own brands (REI and Novara), but since the bulk of what we sell is not our own brand, that is where we realize our best tactic is to engage the rest of the industry in developing common criteria for measuring, reporting and improving the environmental footprint of products. It is our belief that with common methods the whole industry will benefit. To this end we have been instrumental in the establishment and promotion of the growing effort (forty brands or so currently involved). We have been a leader in working with the rest of the industry in a collaborative effort known as the OIA-Eco Working Group.
BPL: Dana, what type of trips/outdoor sports do you personally enjoy?
Dana: My wife, two young daughters, and I enjoy backpacking, XC skiing (classic and skate), cycling, running, swimming (yes, even tri’s) some summer canoeing, playing with the dog and anything that happens on an island or beach. Personally, I am a rabid cyclist; enjoying road, mountain, ‘cross, night-riding, touring. Turn me loose with my family and/or friends with loaded bikes on an island tour, and I am in my happy place. I’ve done a little climbing, but really only enough to appreciate the importance of sound testing and standards.
BPL: Thanks Dana, it’s been a pleasure.
*The REI Magnusson Laboratory is named after Cal Magnusson. Cal, a former Boeing SST project engineer, is fondly remembered as the founding father of formalized Product Testing at REI.