Rating: 5 / 5
In May 2008, I received my Aarn bodypack “Natural Balance” (new 2008 version). The following are some observations regarding the pack’s performance.
Tested: June 2008, northern Australia, solo walk over 23 days (full pack, no re-supply possible)
Environment: tropical; dry season; slow country = deep gorges, loose rocks, exposed ledges, spinifex/sandstone ridges, screw-pine cluttered valleys, open woodland, vine thickets, speargrass hells
Exposure/time (from Easiest to Hardest): strolling over horizontal, open, flat ground (1%), walking in woodland, feet mostly visible (25%), rock-hopping along creeks, feet visible (35%), river crossings (1%), high-stepping through over-head-high vegetation, feet not visible (25%), pushing/scraping through distorted spinifex/sandstone labyrinths, feet often not visible (7%), gorge climbing (6%)
body: 64 kg (141 lbs)
skin-out at start: 24 kg (53 lbs) (of which 2 kg clothes/shoes/hat)
complete pack at start: 22 kg (46.3 lbs), of which Aarn pack’s
(a) front “Balance Pockets” = 5 kg (11 lbs)
(b) rear backpack = 17 kg (37.5 lbs)
Above weights consisting of:
food: 15 kg (33 lbs; consumed 650 g/day; (+some fishing with a handline helped)
gear: 7 kg (15.4 lbs) (incl. pack weight of 1.9 kg (=4 lbs)
[A] Other pack used on previous walks:
On earlier walks (over 14/20/21 days) in various parts of the Australian Kimberley, I used a very light (710 g = 25 oz) frameless pack, the “Starlite” (Six Moon Designs, 2004 model, recommended for 16 kg/35 lbs loads max; I carried 16-19 kg), which at that time came with the option of a wonderful mesh “vest” (4 mesh front pockets). During those 3 walks, obsessed with the idea that “light is always better than heavy”, I pushed myself through difficult country (with stays added to the pack on the 3rd trip). I took it for granted that my daily exhaustion, especially during the first 2 walks, merely reflected the hard terrain. After all, I was physically in above-average condition, no?
Trip #4 (2008) changed my mind: I now had an Aarn.
[B] Regarding Aarn’s concept:
The concept of the “Natural Balance” and other Aarn packs is described in fair detail on the manufacturer’s website http://www.aarnpacks.com/features/multifunction.html#fh.
The 2 main features:
a) No weight on shoulders/back (all weight on hips)
b) “Balance Pockets” added for front/back balance.
Re (a): Weight is NOT carried on the shoulders (=almost zero) but on the hips. Using stays and clever sliding connections, the weights of both front and back rest on the hip belt. Claimed advantages: low center of gravity (safety), no shoulder/back strain. Neither the back nor the front packs touch the body.
Re (b): Weight on the back is balanced by weight in front (via “Balance Pockets” which also rest on the hip belt). The walker’s posture is always upright.
(3) Various sliding parts prevent that the pack swings during hip and shoulder movements. The pack remains centered while hips and shoulders are free to move.
(4) *Every*thing is adjustable. (For example, not only length but also angle of hip belt, for any hip shape.)
(5) The Balance Pockets (each also having 2 outer stretch pockets), removed and linked together, make a nice daypack.
[C] My experience:
At first, I felt like a bicycle rider in the seat of a Ferrari (“Focus, old man! Now, what happens if I pull this thing here?”). The designer’s instructions on the website, though detailed, were not quite detailed enough to give me a good grasp of the pack’s versatility and usage and needed updating to match the 2008 model more exactly (strap colours etc).
Starting out with the “Natural Balance” crammed and heavy (=1/3 of my body weight), I spent the first 2+ days fiddling with adjustments; numerous possibilities meant that I had to *learn*.
I carried most of the dense, heavy stuff in the front Balance Pockets (satphone, camera, GPS, lots of lithium batteries, muesli bars etc). These pockets hold max. 10 L/pair (=22 lbs/pair).
The rear pack:
It is divided into top and bottom loading sections. The top section contains a removable dryliner with a vertical divider making 2 cylinders; these parallel cylinders keep the cargo close to the body, i.e. prevent weight from bulging out and away from the back (the stressful lever action I knew well from my previous packs). Excellent solution! -- with one disadvantage: loading requires *thinking*. For the upper half of the top section, the 2 cylinders open into one single tube (like a pair of trousers).
For example, my closed-cell foam mat, cut up, taped and zig-zag-folded into a parcel 30 cm (=12”) wide, was light (200 g/7 oz) but of course bulky. Placing it in one “cylinder” in such a position/angle that the much heavier food stuff etc could be distributed for optimal left-right balance proved to be a challenge. In the first week, I sometimes didn’t achieve correct left/right balance and had to repack.
The front Balance Pockets:
Each contains a bendable alu stay which is seated in the front hip belt. Meaning, the “Balance Pockets”, too, do not weigh on the shoulders at all but only on the hip. Since there are 2 front packs and they are angled in “V” -- i.e. the tops are wider apart, the bottoms sit closer together -- the center chest gap lets me see my feet while walking. Also, I can use my arms freely.
Although the Balance Pockets were packed full, and are designed to lean away from the chest (bendable stays = no sweaty contact with body), I had no problem seeing my feet while on the move. Only when standing still could I not see my feet comfortably. This rarely posed a problem, though.
Day 1-2 (v high grass, deep gorge packed with boulders, river crossing): I am amazed, amazed: I am comfortable, despite the heat and the weight. Still, this highly customizable pack demands more than just 1 or 2 hours of initial learning. The most important of all adjustments to be figured out is the *precise* fitting of the hip belt (since the whole pack rests on this).
Day 3 (steep slopes of loose rocks): Problem? The top capping (a tiny rubber/cloth triangle) of one of the frame’s aluminium stays looks superficially frayed. Superficially, I believe, since only the rubber cover has rubbed through but not the fabric underneath; thus the stay stays safe. (And even by the end of the trip, this abrasion has not become worse.) Apart from this, I am much impressed by the quality of workmanship and materials: the pack feels and looks tough.
Days 4-5 (ravines, spinifex thickets): After eating 2 kg of food, I have now achieved a comfortable ratio of body vs. carried weight. The pack’s tough materials seem not to suffer even when I scrape through thorny vines and scramble across huge boulders. And the numerous brushes against bushfire-burnt trees leave hardly a mark.
Packing has become somewhat easier: Tent, sleeping bag etc. in the bottom section, accessible from below; food and mat are in the top section which still rises high enough to bump a little against the rim of my hat.
Day 6 (open woodland): Hot, hot. I keep a full 500cc water bottle in the front outer stretch pocket of one “Balance Pocket”. I am grateful for the 3D “Matrix Mesh” between my back and the pack: it does let the air ventilate nicely, keeping my shirt almost dry.
Day 7 (gorge): Climbing down along a string of waterfalls, I am doubly cautious: loose rocks, partially hidden; few handholds. A few intense stretches, edging along ledges. By now, I have come to love my pack: it seems to move as part of my torso, rather than swinging or jerking away from me; and I feel no fatigue at all.
And yet, on exposed ledges, the bulky front “Balance Pockets” make it impossible to keep kiss-close to the rock face. This awkwardness is mostly compensated by the astonishing overall balance of the pack – the back part never seems to pull me backwards away from the rock. Still, when I find my chest forced away from the rock face by the bulging front Balance Pockets, I sometimes have to retreat and to look for a safer route. (Yes, I could unclip the front Pockets in such a way that they swing – somewhat – towards the sides but even this does not get my chest close enough to the rock face.) On the other hand: a *conventional* back-only pack might let me press my chest flat against a rock face but would pull me more, by lever action, away from the wall. No, sir. Give me my Aarn.
Days 8-12 (screw-pines in flooded deep-grass valleys; then waterless rock labyrinths higher up): On some previous trips, this was when fatigue began to overcome me. But now I feel none at all, despite this being the hardest country I have yet walked. My back, hitherto prone to lumbar pain: no pain. Shoulders and neck muscles: loose. I am no spring chicken but I feel like a spring chicken.
Days 7-23: Houston, we have a problem. On one of the front Balance Pockets, the alu stay’s top keeps working its way out on the side of the upper sleeve top. Sticking out, the naked stay threatens to poke me in the eyes whenever I jump or lift my knees high. Upon examination, the stay does not seem to be twisted along its vertical axis, yet even after I have pushed it back into its sleeve and closed the velcro tab of the sleeve top, it slips out again after a few minutes. Further effect: since the slipped stay does not fully support its Balance Pocket’s weight and motions anymore, the Slic Clip‘s strap above the sleeve is jerked upon by the somewhat sideways stress. This has begun to jerk sideways on the strap’s stitching, which now has become partially undone. This, in turn, has changed the stress angle on the Slic Clip from the horizontal to a slant, *opening* the Slic Clip. This shouldn’t have happened. It is my first and only serious complaint about my Aarn pack. Trying to keep the damage to a minimum, I decide to forego the use of the Slic Clip and its iffy strap altogether: using a light carabiner, I connect the Balance Pocket’s side plastic ring to the connector strap on the pack’s shoulder strap. And to keep the naked stay away from my eyes, I bend its top outward, away from my body. – All in all, this weird disfunction hardly lessens my delight in the Aarn. Yet I keep wondering why the stay twisted out of its sleeve in the first place. And also wonder how I, if I were the designer, would fix this problem… Maybe design a stronger cap pocket for the stay’s top? (When later I called Mr. Aarn, he suggested sewing the stay sleeve’s top opening partially shut. I shall do so.)
Day 23: Conclusion: last week, I slipped and fell once – on flat ground. This is an enormous improvement over previous walks under a conventional backpack, where I took bad falls half a dozen times during the first pack-heavy days. I am balanced now. I am not tired. I am walking free.
No, the “Natural Balance” is not cheap: at NZ$460 or more (US$320+?), you’ve got to need it badly. But as an old chap with a bad back who loves long walks in difficult terrain, under a fair load, I couldn’t sing its praise more gladly.
P.S. Lest anyone accuse me of bashing Six Moon Designs “Starlite” pack: where balance is not a matter of life and death, and where carried weight is lower than the recommended max, it can be a fine pack. (I loved its backpanel pocket where I could stuff my mat). It weighs nothing.
And mind you: as far as *tents* are concerned, I continue to enjoy Six Moon’s very light “Lunar Solo”.