Aarn Natural Balance Backpack Review
The Aarn range is an innovative line of packs designed to drastically increase your backpacking comfort. There is no denying that trudging uphill with a painfully heavy load on your back can be sore and draining. The growing movement towards lightweight and ultralight backpacking is providing some relief from this, through the use of lightweight materials, thoughtful designs, and minimalist philosophies.
But one factor that seems to have been overlooked in the world of backpacks is a complete overhaul of their load carrying systems. Why "back"-pack? Why not "front"-pack? Or even better an entire "body"-pack? Enter Aarn.
The Aarn packs consist of a backpack and two detachable front packs (known as "balance pockets"). The system is designed to transfer the overall weight of the pack directly through your hips and legs, so that you do not need to counterbalance your backpack using your own body weight. This helps to keep your balance centred, thereby improving mobility and reducing stress on your shoulders and lower back.
You can read about the history of Aarn backpacks here, including the journey of their creator Aarn Tate. Quoting Aarn...
"I had been unable to get an outside company to licence my Bodypack designs in their completeness. This is because the designs were so fundamentally different that they made the current pack offerings of any company obsolete. No company could take the risk of such a big step forward and embrace a load carrying system which looked fundamentally different, even if it was far superior." - Aarn Tate
There is no denying that Aarn packs are different in design from most packs on the market. However, what makes these packs more noteworthy than other designs incorporating a front pack is how thoughtfully they have been designed (more details on the specific features are described below).
In this review we focus on the largest volume pack in the Aarn 'Ultralite' series, the Natural Balance. Although our review focuses on the Natural Balance, much of the information below also applies to other packs in the Aarn range.
50 oz / 1.41 kg (without front packs)
60 oz / 1.70 kg (with front packs)
63 litres (without front packs)
78 litres (with front packs)
MAX. RECOMMENDED LOAD: Not specified
BALANCE POCKETS (FRONT PACKS)
The Aarn design is based around the use of two front packs (known as "balance pockets") that help counterbalance the weight of the main backpack. Each front pack has its own single, arched, aluminium stay. The stay helps to keep the front pack away from the front of your body while you walk, whilst also ensuring they provide sufficient counterbalance for the rear backpack. There is also space between the two front packs so that you have a clear view of the trail below your feet!
The base of the aluminium stay on each balance pocket slots into a loop on the hip belt of the main backpack. The top of each balance pocket then attaches about half way up the shoulder strap. The strap securing the top of the balance pockets can be loosened - to provide more space between the front packs and the body - and thereby increase the counterbalancing force. Alternatively, the straps can be tightened - to pull the front packs in closer to the body - for example on tricky terrain or when scrambling.
Finally, the balance pockets can be pivoted out to the side of the body, for instance, if you need to press right into the cliff face during a rock scramble (see Aarn demonstrating this feature in the picture here).
By default, the Natural Balance comes with the Expedition Balance Pockets. These are the largest of the available balance pockets with at least 15 litres of volume. Our preference is to switch these out (most retailers will be happy to let you do so) for the Sport Balance Pockets. The Sport Pockets have slightly less volume (10 litres), but they don't have bulky compression straps and we believe they sit a little nicer. In any case, we suggest you review the balance pockets product page to decide exactly which model is best for you.
To take full advantage of the potential counterbalancing force, we suggest loading heavy items such as water and food in the front packs. This also makes these items convenient to access on the trail, without having to remove the pack. It is also handy that both the Sport and Expedition Balance Pockets can be converted to a day pack if necessary (useful for if you are travelling).
The volume of the Natural Balance is pretty massive. Excluding the front packs, the small and large framed versions of the Natural Balance provide 63 and 70 litres of volume, respectively. The front packs provide an additional 10 to 15 litres of volume, depending on which front packs you choose (see our suggestions on this below).
Suggesting such a large backpack may seem counter-intuitive, given that we try to follow a lightweight backpacking philosophy here at Ultimate Gear Lists. But, we see this pack as only really being used for trips where we have a heavier load that must be carried in from the trailhead, for example, long trips without resupply (requiring several days of food to be carried) or hikes with dry desert sections (requiring large amounts of water to be carried).
For shorter trips, for example weekend trips with 2-3 days of food being carried, we should be able to reduce the total weight of our load to under 33 lbs (15 kg) so that we would instead be reaching for one of the ultralight backpacks in our list of the best lightweight backpacks — for example the Zpacks Arc Haul Zip or the HMG 3400 Southwest.
On the other hand, if you like the Aarn design but don't require such a massive volume, then consider the Featherlite Freedom. Excluding the balance pockets, it is 50 litres (small frame) or 55 litres (large frame). It has a similar design to the Natural Balance with a single main chamber with a roll-top closure, however, it also has a mesh outer pocket that is not found on the Natural Balance.
Aarn refer to the Natural Balance as part of their "Ultralite" series. We feel that this pack falls slightly beyond the ultralight category, however, it most definitely is still a lightweight backpack. Without the front packs (i.e. balance pockets) attached, the small-frame Natural Balance weighs only 1.41 kg (slightly heavier if you choose to use the included dry sack liners), which is pretty light. Especially considering that it provides 63 litres of volume.
On top of that, you get a great harness and frame capable of supporting heavier loads, whereas the harnesses on most ultralight backpacks would start to get somewhat uncomfortable with loads above 35 lbs or 16 kg.
FRAME AND BACK PANEL
The Natural Balance has a frame capable of supporting heavier loads, for example a load in the range of 50 lbs (23 kg) should be no problem. There are then two arched aluminium stays that keep the main pack away from the back panel, thereby providing airflow. The back panel itself is a very comfortable a spongy mesh.
The hip belt primarily consists of memory foam, providing a comfortable and cushy ride around your waist and hips. There is also a vacuum spacing (i.e. no memory foam, nor heavy duty materials) over the front of your hipbone, so that there isn't the usual rubbing suffered as a consequence of the hip belt on most backpacks. The belt has a V-style buckle so that the top and bottom can be tensioned separately.
The hip belts come in three sizes, so you can choose the one that best suits you. The hip belt comes in two parts that are separately attached to the back panel via a large velcro plate. This means that within a given size of hip belt, it can still be shortened, lengthened, or the angle changed, by removing the hip belt from the velcro plate on the back panel, adjusting it's positioning, and then reattaching. In this way you should be able to dial in the perfect fit.
Every feature on these packs is placed there with a purpose. For example, the bottom ends of the shoulder straps are linked under the bottom of the pack, via a low friction strap that slides freely - the resulting effect is when one shoulder moves down (under the natural motion of your body) the other shoulder is free to move up, without restriction. This means your shoulder movements are much less constrained by your pack.
If you want to learn more about the way Aarn backpacks aim to mimic your body mechanics then check out the articles here (posture) and here (movement). The shoulder straps aren't heavily padded, but this isn't necessary since the design of the pack means that very little, if any, weight is carried on your shoulders.
The Natural Balance, like all Aarn packs, comes with a highly water resistant dry sack liner. A dry sack liner is also included within each of the balance pockets. The liners are attached inside the pack using a velcro strip along their base, as well as a velcro strip along the top edge (i.e. along the outer edge of the roll-top closure). This design helps to keep the liner in position inside the pack even when you are removing gear.
The liner for the backpack weighs about 3.2 oz (90 grams), whilst the liners for the balance pockets weigh about 1.0 to 1.7 oz (30 to 50 grams) each, with the exact weight depending on which size and model of balance pockets you choose. Note that we haven't included the weight of the liners in the pack weights quoted earlier in this review. If you wish to minimise your pack weight, or you already use waterproof dry sacks for your gear, then the liners can be easily removed and left at home.
Their inclusion is a great feature that means you have a highly water-resistant setup ready to go straight out-of-the-box. Nonetheless, we would always suggest using fully waterproof dry sacks for the pieces of gear it is vital to keep dry, such as your sleeping bag and clothing.
If you are going to be carrying big and/or heavy loads on the trail, or have back problems, then this pack's innovative design could dramatically improve your overall comfort.