Carryology, December 12, 2014, by Rick Lee
Hopefully you’ve had a chance to check out our recent interview with Aarn Tate, the talented inventor and designer of Aarn packs. His bags are filled with clever engineering tricks – keep reading, they’re awesome – but his main battle cry is for better ways to carry trekking bags. Enter the word bodypack. It’s not a fancy word but it’s a radically rational idea that could revolutionise the way we carry large packs in the backcountry.
Bodypacks are designed to distribute the weight you’re carrying in the front as well as in the back; simple, right? This balanced approach allows you to stand up straight and fully rest the load onto your hips – bye-bye bruised shoulders. Having some of your kit on the front also gives you very welcomed access to more gear than you’re used to having access to on the trail: camera, water bottle, whiskey flask…whatever you desire.
Aarn is a New Zealand brand with a surprisingly large range. They’ve got everything from expedition packs you’d imagine wearing on your way to Everest Base Camp to marathon-running bags for the cool ultra-marathon runners who are looking to shed weight but not features. We’d love to test the whole range but today we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the Guiding Light with Expedition front balance pockets.
“Bodypacks are designed to distribute the weight you’re carrying in the front as well as in the back.”
The pack and balance pockets accompanied me on a backpacking trip through Nepal for two weeks. It was my main bag and provided more than enough storage space and a few interested looks from the locals. They were either shocked to see someone walking so upright with a bag on their back or they thought I looked strange with the balance pockets carried on the front at the same time. Either way I was happy to be so comfortable carrying a pack.
Who It Suits
This specific bag and balance pocket combo is best suited to someone who is doing technical backcountry trips or often hikes with poles. It’s designed with the NZ backcountry guide in mind who may need to cross glaciers, climb mountains, and ski back down all in a single trip. This pack is for you if you’ve ever thought, “I wish I had a handy spot to store my ice axe so I can free up my hands!”
Who It Doesn’t Suit
If you have an aversion to green you’ll have to get over it or go somewhere else. For now the mossy green colour is the trademark colour of Aarn packs. It also doesn’t suit the person who wants a pack that they can pick up and use the same day with little thought. Aarn packs are cleverly designed – so clever in fact, that you’ll need to watch some YouTube videos to help you figure it all out. Getting the bag fitted is not trivial and I’d highly recommend spending the time in store with a trained rep to get the bag fitted correctly. The time spent there will pay dividends later.
The Guiding Light is not your average trekking bag. It’s designed for climbing, skiing, and any trip where you’ll be bringing some tools (read ice axe, not screwdriver). It has tool quivers on the sides, a rope door behind your head, and a thin profile to better keep weight close to your body. You ask, “Wait, did you say rope door?” Yup, there’s a special zippered flap that gives access to the main compartment where you can keep your climbing rope (it also doubles as a hydration port for those of us who don’t have a need for a rope door). The Guiding Light comes in a “small” 57 litre and a large 65 litre size. With optional balance pockets for your front carry you’ll be able to add up to 20 litres of extra storage. That brings the overall volume to 85 litres, which is plenty large for a multi-day overnight pack.
The detachable balance pockets convert into a very basic backpack, which came in handy a few times when all I needed was a day bag in Nepal. The comfort of the Guiding Light is like no other I’ve tried. Usually when carrying a backpack I assume a “lean forward” stance to balance out the weight on my back, causing the shoulder straps to put pressure on my collarbones. To counter this most shoulder straps are heavily padded; however, the Aarn shoulder straps were surprisingly thin and light because the balanced approach rests most of the bag’s weight on your hips.
“The detachable balance pockets convert into a very basic backpack, which came in handy a few times when all I needed was a day bag in Nepal.”
The hip belt is quite clever with dual compression straps, one high and one low. This allowed me to tighten the belt up so that it really hugged the crests of my hips. Aarn even put an extra-spongy material exactly where the front of your hip bone usually gets abused by your hip belt. After carrying it on the trail for 5 days I couldn’t find a single bruise, not even a sore spot; that’s impressive.
Aarn’s engineering genius was most apparent in the shoulder straps and the way they connect to the bag. It’s a patented system called Flow, designed to allow shoulder and hip belt movement independent of the main pack. The shoulder straps on the Guiding Light have what Aarn calls Free-Flow and U-Flow. With Free-Flow the stabiliser straps that come off the top of the shoulder straps are attached freely to vertical stays instead of directly to the pack. This allows them to slide up and down, automatically adjusting how much tension is needed. U-Flow handles the way the lower end of the shoulder straps are attached to the bag, or in this case attached to each other. Instead of attaching to the bag they are actually linked together through a slot in the bottom of the bag.
In practice this means if you lean left your right shoulder strap will get longer and your left shoulder strap shorter so that the shoulder suspension system essentially pivots. This keeps the bag in a more stable upright position as you waddle your way down the trail. It’s hard to explain and even takes a few minutes to grok in real life, but trust me when I say my mind was blown…in a good way. But that’s just one aspect of Aarn’s entire Flow System, see it explained in its entirety here.
The Not So Good
This bag may outsmart you. The engineering of Aarn packs is so clever that it can be confusing at times. While I was in Nepal I had to google how to convert the balance pockets into a backpack because I couldn’t remember how to do it.
The other drawback, if you’re a style-conscious person, is that you likely won’t be invited to model your bag on the runway. Be prepared to get teased a bit for wearing part of your bag on your front, it does look weird. If your goal is to look fashionable on the trail you’ll want to look elsewhere, but if you want to impress people with a cleverly designed bag then look no further.
Getting the bag on and off is more involved than what I’m used to. On the trail the number of times you need to do this is mitigated by having the easily accessible balance pockets on your front. While travelling though it’s a nuisance. I would generally try to keep the balance pockets empty and inside the main pack while travelling for convenience.
“This bag may outsmart you. The engineering of Aarn packs is so clever that it can be confusing at times.“
I would have liked to have some colour options when choosing the bag but it certainly wasn’t a deal breaker.
Other Bags to Consider
The world of trekking packs is plentiful, but none of them are like Aarn.
Perhaps the best alternative is to buy just the balance bags from Aarn, and attach them to your existing pack.
Other brands sell gear pockets that can also clip to your front, but these don’t stand the weight up from your hips the way Aarn does.
If you are a serious backpacker who plans on doing some lengthy hikes you should definitely consider the Guiding Light or one of Aarn’s other large-load bags. The comfort afforded by better distributing your carry weight is phenomenal. Another reason to check them out is that if you find yourself regularly accessing your backpack on the trail to get items out of your bag, you will find having balance pockets on your front a welcome addition to your backcountry carry setup. There are many different balance pockets to choose from including ones specifically designed for cameras.
“The comfort afforded by better distributing your carry weight is phenomenal.“
Aarn packs are very well engineered and are light. I’d highly recommend checking them out in store if you are lucky enough to be near a retailer; if not then it’s probably worth ordering one for yourself to see what all the fuss is about.
"The climbing community has not yet fully embraced your designs - climbers always comment on my pack and ask me how I find it. I just came off a guide's course and all the other guides were most intrigued, saying I was the first person they had met who used one. There is a misconception that you can't walk on rough ground (the thought being that you can't see your feet) and people don't understand that the front packs are removable, leaving a compressible lightweight pack for steep climbing.
I've found the pack great! I've had trouble with my back for years and the difference in pain and muscle tension on long trips with heavy loads was very noticeable straight away. I walk much more upright under a load and find traditional packs horribly uncomfortable now. I've taken the pack on transalpine crossings, to Antarctica and up plenty of peaks and technical faces (recently up the South Face of Mt Cook). I was also happy to find a kiwi-designed pack that is made of lightweight materials and not canvas. The pack's suffered some wear and tear but that is the trade-off with lightweight fabrics I guess. I also really like the tool quivers - they are very useful for quickly stashing a snow stake.
Penny Goddard, Christchurch, NZ (one of NZ's top female climbers)
"Hi, Just wanted to say a HUGE thankyou! I recently bought a Guiding Light with Expedition Balance Pockets and took it on 5 days of tramping in NZ. I can honestly say that it is the most comfortable pack I have ever worn and the weight is truly on the hips as advertised. I walked faster, I was definitely more upright and did not suffer shoulder/ back pain- it was a delight! I am very satisfied customer who is already raving to everyone I meet about Aarn packs!!"
Liz Rode-Bramanis, Shell Cove, NSW, Australia
"Carrying the Guiding Light with week’s worth of food and a comprehensive climbing rack (30 kgs) up the Hooker Glacier recently, I was more nimble and better balanced than my climbing companions. While the walk in was hard work, I had no sore shoulders or hips. When the crevasses required us to do two-tool climbs, the Flow Motion system allowed me to swing my tools above my head without restraint. The Balance Pockets were quite manageable in this terrain and I found them comfortable and very convenient. Camera, muesli bars and water bottle were all within easy reach. Once at the climbing base the Balance Pockets were easy to remove for the climb, reducing the carried weight.
I used the slots on the hipbelt to attach Ice Clippers. With the firm location of the clips on the hipbelt, retrieving gear was quick, easy & reliable. On the long sections of glacier travel, the bulk and weight of ice screws and other rock protection was more comfortable on the hips than on my shoulders from a gear sling.
Using the built-in tool quivers on the sides of the pack, I was able to single-handedly stow and retrieve ice tools and snow stakes. This is extremely useful where it is too precarious to take the pack off. I was recently working my way up a mixed rock and ice 55° gully with tools stowed. Whilst bridging the gully with my crampons on rock, I was able to use one hand to maintain balance, and the other to retrieve my snow stake and ice hammer from the pack, install the desired anchor, re-stow ice hammer and continue".
Vaughn Snowdon, Christchurch, New Zealand
Great new review on Guiding Light on carryology.com. It includes an excellent video showing how the Flow Systems allow the body to move while the pack remains stable on your back.