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Review of Aarn Featherlite Freedom backpack
After 150 miles of real trail usage
Back in April, I wrote about my early impressions of the Aarn Featherlite Freedom backpack. It is a good idea to check it for a primer why this is not a backpack, but a body pack and why it is different.
I have since upgraded to the Pro version of this backpack (dyneema), an updated review which builds on this post can be found here.
I have used this backpack on a overnight trail to Sunol, multiple day hikes as practice, another overnight to Ten Lakes and now on a 13 day, 130 mile section hike on the John Muir Trail. I can talk about this backpack with some certainty, its pros and cons and if it works or not.
Let us start with the obvious con.
You will attract attention
That is me, getting my trail name, “Last Leg”, from Bridges of Big Island, Hawaii. I talked to about 50-60 people on the JMT about this backpack. This backpack attracts attention. The reaction to the body pack is varied.
It must be quite a sight to see a grown man with two massive pockets in his front. It must be absolutely hilarious. Some rolled their eyes, some will clandestinely check you out and quickly walk away and some have a hearty laugh. Only one person (hi there H) had the temerity to move in and squeeze the bags. Haha, very funny.
You have to be absolutely shameless to wear this body pack.
That is like two gallons of water you are carrying.
Are you carrying everybody’s crap?
How much stuff do you need?
The first comment indicates people are used to others carrying water in the front. HMG, Gossamer et al now sell water pouches to carry the bottles in front. They somehow assumed that I am carrying 4 gallons of water in the front balance pockets. I mean, you have to be monumentally stupid to be carrying anything over two liters of water on the JMT (or even a liter). OK, I get that.
The others, particularly those who believe in the church of ultra-light backpacking and look down upon those who carry anything more than a densely packed tiny backpack dismiss you, judge you and think you are a moron for carrying so much stuff.
If I am patient, I explain to them that I am carrying the same amount of stuff that they are carrying, but I have split it into two halves, I have 12-15 lbs in the front and I have 12-15 lbs in the back and both balance out each other.
Many of the PCT hikers and some JMT hikers, particularly those who were elderly or those who were already jerry rigging a pouch of some kind in front to carry water or their cameras get it instantly. Their eyes lit up.
“Where did you get the fanny packs” - a gentleman asked. I would stop and explain what Aarn is, where it is manufactured, show them that the front balance pockets are not attached to the shoulder straps but float in the “O ring” and show them how the weight is transferred over to the hip belt via the frame in the front pockets.
The result is genuine awe. “Are you telling me that the whole thing is counter balanced?”.
“Yes”, I would say, my shoulder strap is merely floating over my shoulder, the entire weight is distributed between the front and back of my hips.
Those who get it, are ecstatic. It is the discovery that there is actually a backpack that solves some of their issues. Bridges, above, for instance said, “Are you telling me that the entire weight of your pack is now on the Iliac Crest?”.
“Yes, yes, and yes”. That is the exact point of the body pack, and it ensures your center of gravity is not pulling you back so you can hike like a homo sapien and not a frickin monkey.
“Are you a Kiwi?” - asked the young lady coming up Bishop Pass. “No”, I said, but I know exactly why asked that question. She had hiked a lot in New Zealand and had seen a lot of hikers hiking with Aarn body packs.
Great, now I have a second reason to be envious of the Kiwis, after the black caps. Damn you Kane. How can I dislike you guys now?
Your back is straight
Now that is off my chest (pun intended), let us talk about the obvious strength of the backpack. Your back is straight. The body pack behaves better if you evenly distribute the weight between the front and the back.
In the balance pockets, I typically had:
My two battery packs, one on each side (7 oz each)
4-6 days food (6 - 9 lbs), this reduces daily and as it happens I start moving other dense things to the front, if possible. When I have 1 - 2 day food, things like my air mattress come to the front
Food includes all my snacks
Fuel if I have space in front (as days go along)
Camera and lens
Beanie and gloves
Whistle, mirror, knife, lip balm and everything I need in the top two small pouches
Two liters of water in Platypus soft water bottles, in the front sleeves
That’s roughly 15 lbs in the front balance pockets. In the back, I have:
Sleeping bag, often not compressed because I have enough space, so why do I care? Also Aarn suggests we fill the back with less dense objects all the way to the top as possible.
Bearikade weekender bear canister. Inside the bear canister I have:
My air mattress
Trash bag as days grow
Pretty much everything in the back is loosely packed. No compression, nothing, it simply takes as much volume as possible.
When the front of the pack is nearly as heavy as the back of the pack, the body pack behaves fantastically well. The counter balancing of the packs work as theoretically speculated.
The Aarn packs have a LOT of adjustments. Before I headed out on the JMT, I had the big adjustments dialed in.
However, on day 1, I felt that the bag was pulling me too much forward and not enough to the center (the opposite problem of what is typically with the backpacks designed for monkeys).
I wish I had saved this image on my phone. From https://www.aarnpacks.com/pages/aarn-pack-fitting.
Going by memory, I adjusted (9), the hipbelt U Flow cord and moved some of the weight to the back and that balanced the pack even more.
In addition to the typical big adjustments you have in normal backpacks, the Aarns have 4-5 minor tweaks that you can do to send the weight to the front of the hip or to the back of the hip. It took me a day or two on the trail to find the settings and fix it.
Lastly, the hip belt has two soft areas where the Iliac Crest sits comfortably. I had adjusted the hip belt’s length and angle just right so that they are sitting just right in the soft zone. This became my pivotal adjustment point. So long as my Iliac crest is sitting there, I can start tweaking the others.
If I over tightened my hip belt, I felt instant tightening on the IT bands on both legs. On the first day I found that my legs were cramped up to move, when I realized I had over tightened, I loosened the pack and I started to move freely.
The Aarn Featherlite Freedom has 13 adjustments to fix it for your body and pack weight. It took me about 50 miles to dial it all correctly. You need time with the pack to fit it for you. It is not going to happen overnight.
Thankfully I kept the water proof liners for the backpack and the balance pockets. They came in handy every day it rained (and it rained on many days), I kept hiking happily in the rain and the bag protected the contents well. None of the ugly oversized rain covers. I can actually remove all my water proof dry sacks in my backpack now and throw them all away, yay, that saves a few ounces.
The primary reason for me to look at this pack was to avoid shoulder pain and easier access to my camera. The Peak Design Capture Clip is ok for light cameras on day hikes, but as my friend figured out during the JMT, carrying the Z6 and 24-200 on it, even on the HMG pack will give you shoulder blisters (he shipped his camera back). Using the Z50 and 16-50 from the front balance pockets was a breeze. The zippers were easy to use single handed, grab the camera quickly and shoot. Loved it.
When I used the Gossamer Mariposa on my HSC loop hike, I was taking the pack off every mile. I was unable to transfer the pack weight to the hip without over-tightening it and I was carrying bulk of the weight on my shoulder. It was miserable. I struggled with the pack.
With the Aarn, dialed in correctly, the bag was floating over my shoulder. I was able to move the weight to the front of my hip or to the back of my hip at will, adjust it on the fly. I slept without pain each day, every day. The Aarn body pack was essential in my successful completion of the hike, so I am doubling down. I got into the wait list for the pro dyneema versions of the packs which are 1 - 1.2 lbs lighter from their New Zealand website. I will be importing them when they are back in stock.