The secret is in the name. When Isabelle Portilla and her team of product designers and strategists began noodling on the idea of building REI Co-op’s first-ever footwear line, they went straight to the heart of the business: co-op members. “They told us they were ready for us to enter the footwear space,” says Portilla, […]
The secret is in the name. When Isabelle Portilla and her team of product designers and strategists began noodling on the idea of building REI Co-op’s first-ever footwear line, they went straight to the heart of the business: co-op members.
“They told us they were ready for us to enter the footwear space,” says Portilla, the divisional vice president of REI Co-op brand’s product strategy and design. “That was the best deciding factor. Can we validate this with customers? Do they care? Do they even want us here? The answer was yes, so that made it an easy decision.”
Though the choice to create new footwear—which hits shelves May 2021—may have been easy, it took a bit more sweat equity to create. Co-op members were vocal in what they wanted, and that boiled down to two main things: comfort and sustainability.
Traditional hiking shoes—mid-cut, ankle-high boots—serve up great support and protection when you’re on rougher trails. But the simple truth is that trail-running shoes tend to be lighter weight, more breathable and more comfortable out of the box, so many hikers and backpackers reach for their running shoes before heading out. And so, after compiling feedback from more than 6,000 co-op members and consumers across the country, REI designers conceived a supportive boot with the hallmarks of a trail-running shoe.
“We wanted to create hybrid versatility without compromised performance,” explains Bennett Grimes, the senior product manager for footwear at REI, who also led the charge on the design process for the new shoes.
The results were twofold. First, Grimes and his team crafted that Goldilocks hybrid—a running-shoe-like mid-cut boot. Called the Flash ($130; 2 lbs. 4 oz. for a men’s 9, 1 lb. 14 oz. for a women’s 7), the boot uses a cushy midsole with a rocker system, so the outsole curves like a smile. The design enhances your natural walking stride and creates a snappier toe spring when you’re moving quickly—not unlike a running shoe. “While it’s still a hike-first product, you can definitely run if your day takes you that way,” says Grimes, who joined the co-op to lead this build after a stint at Brooks.
But the Flash still gets its DNA from a traditional hiking boot (“it’s about 60 percent hike and 40 percent run,” Grimes says). The Flash is waterproof and has a nylon shank in the midsole that offers some protection against rocks, roots and other trail debris. Its woven knit upper is bolstered with a double layer of recycled thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) that acts as armor.
Second, co-op designers conceived a boot for folks who need supportive and durable footwear for long-haul adventures like backpacking trips. The Traverse ($150; 2 lbs. 8 oz. for a men’s 9, 2 lbs. 2 oz. for a women’s 7) is a waterproof mid-cut with a full-length nylon shank, which offers torsional rigidity to prevent folding over beneath heavy loads or on rough trails. It performs well under pack weights (or child-carrier packs) up to 60 pounds.
The Traverse sports a more tightly structured knit upper than the Flash and is wrapped with a triple layer of recycled TPU for protection. And don’t worry—it’s still comfy out of the box.
“These boots are really about performance first—making sure we’re delivering a highly functioning product for the consumer,” Grimes says. “But what happened throughout that journey is that we also created the solution: a go-to, get-out trail shoe with a lighter footprint.”
It’s no secret that REI believes climate change is the greatest threat to our future. The co-op’s Product Impact Standards, now in their second iteration, set expectations for how participating brands address carbon reduction and sustainability in their businesses. So when designing the new boots, the co-op followed its own marching orders.
“We looked at the line via three factors,” says Greg Gausewitz, product sustainability manager at REI. “First, you have to put a great product on the market that exceeds customer expectations. Once that product is in the customer’s hands, you want to keep that product in use for as long as possible because any product they don’t have to buy is one less product that creates more waste. Finally, you want to minimize the environmental impact of manufacturing within that framework.”
After polling thousands of co-op members, Grimes and the design team set a clear goal: to craft boots that are equally matched in durability and sustainability. It’s a mindset that’s evident through every component of the Flash and Traverse, beginning with their uppers. Since leather can have a negative impact on the environment due to the chemicals used at tanneries to preserve the cowhides, REI ditched it in the entire line. Instead the Flash and Traverse were built with a virtually wasteless knit compound (called FirmaKnit) constructed from 99 percent recycled plastic bottles.
Designers then decided to create their own waterproofing technology. Dubbed HydroWall, this proprietary waterproofing works the same way as other popular versions already on the market, but the difference is in the membrane: It’s 75 percent recycled poly.
Next up was the midsole. REI partnered with a brand called BLOOM that takes the green, slimy algae floating on stagnant ponds and lakes and turns it into a flexible foam. Both the Flash and Traverse use 10 percent BLOOM algae in their EVA midsoles (called TerraLoft). “The cool thing is that not only can we control the density, but algae allows us to use 10 percent less fossil fuels when creating our midsole system,” Grimes explains. The TerraLoft midsole is topped with a carefully designed insole (called TrailBed), which is constructed from a corn-based polymer called Susterra®.
Designers then considered the outsole—the component Grimes calls, “the toughest part to get right.” Most hiking footwear outsoles use synthetic rubber, a petroleum-based material that releases waste and toxic chemicals into the environment in production. To minimize this, REI plucked used rubber from the waste bin, ground it up and incorporated the recycled product into the TerraGrip outsoles of its Flash and Traverse boots. “All those little gray flecks are actually reground rubber,” Grimes says. “We’re using 20 percent recycled content in the outsole.”
Finally, designers wrapped the shoe in protective TPU overlays constructed with 30 percent recycled content, secured the midfoot with a 100 percent recycled webbing cradle system, and tied a bow with the 100 percent recycled shoelaces.
For those keeping score at home, we’ll do the math for you: The only feature not incorporating bio-based materials or recycled content are the nylon shank and four metal speed hooks near the ankle. That’s it.
Of course, the environmental implications of the new boots are just one piece of the puzzle. As Gausewitz says, the Flash and Traverse must perform well and last for a long time, too. We sent a few pairs of each out for early testing and asked our team to report back with their initial findings.
First up: fit. The new boots are snugger through the midfoot and heel with a more open toe box that allows for foot swelling and toe movement. “At first I was worried that they were too big,” says one Traverse tester after her inaugural voyage in Washington’s Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “But my heel never slipped and I had room to splay. The boots were really comfortable out of the box.” An Alaska tester agreed, noting that the “extra wiggle room” in the toe box allowed him to keep his toes moving and warm during a cold-weather hike in Chugach State Park.
Thus far, the waterproofing is holding up well, too. Our same Washington tester described her recent weather as, “Rain, rain, and more rain.” She was pleasantly surprised with dry feet by the time she reached an undisclosed waterfall, noting that her day hike was filled with boot-swallowing mud and puddles. Our Flash tester, based in Breckenridge, Colo., agrees. Snowy hikes and even hours-long shoveling sessions are no match for HydroWall, and our tester even pointed out that the Flash breathed well enough—despite the waterproof membrane—when he was working up a sweat.
Such wintry and wet conditions have also proven to be worthy testing grounds for the TerraGrip outsoles, which our Alaska tester reports handle mud, rocks, loose gravel and even a bit of snow with ease. He did concede, however, that the boots slipped a bit on ice. (Editor’s note: If you plan to wear the Traverse or Flash in winter conditions, pair them with slip-on traction devices.)
Our team has yet to experience durability issues, but we’ll report back in a few months after we’ve had them in the field for longer. (Keep an eye on our Tested: The Best Hiking Boots of 2021 gear guide for an update.) If Grimes’ personal experience is any indication, however, REI’s new line hits the sweet spot between performance, sustainability and durability. “I did some crazy hikes in the boots when we were testing, and they held up well.”