Our story with Aarn starts on Te Araroa in New Zealand. When we first started encountering these packs we frowned at them with great skepticism, wondering how awkward it must be walking with those pockets on the front of your body. We didn’t really understand the point of it, and we decided we did not like the looks of it. For a long time, we remained skeptical, until we started realizing that every hiker we ever met who used those packs was outrunning us all the time. We noticed how our friends with Aarn packs walked for hours and hours on end without any complaining, how they were not sore in their backs and shoulders at the end of the day. So when we took off to Australia we decided that we would exchange our previous packs for Aarn Models. After walking 1000km on the Bibbulmun Track using the Peak Aspiration, we never wanted to buy a normal backpack again.
The Peak Aspiration is a wonderful pack that we have enjoyed using throughout the years. However, now that our scope of outdoor activities has expanded to include also multi-day-winter and packrafting trips, we simply needed a pack that offered more volume. As we still didn’t want to buy a normal backpack, we compared several models and finally decided in cooperation with Sqoop.no that we would test out the Guiding Light model. We used this pack to walk the length of Nepal on the Great Himalaya Trail, four months of tough hiking and mountaineering on the spine of the earth in winter.
Please note that Aarn Bodypacks are very technical backpacks, and we will not be going into detail here on the different systems making up the load carrying system (U, Free, Multi and X flow) or how to adjust the pack to your body. For this, both Aarn and Sqoop have uploaded a series of instructions (both in writing and with very convenient short clips that show what to do), please visit aarnpacks.com or sqoop.no for more information.
Volume (approx.) S 57 L L 65 L
Weight max/min: S 1.87/ 1.75 kg L 2/ 1.92 kg
Dimensions S (cm) Height: 70 Width: 40 Depth (front-back): 25
Dimensions L (cm) Height: 80 Width: 40 Depth (front-back): 25
Key Fabrics 500D codura nylon; 210D, 40D ripstop nylon
Options * All Balance Pockets, Gear Racks & Bags * Pelvic Form Hipbelt (S) (L) * X Flow chest straps
Just as with the Peak Aspiration, the first thing we noticed about the pack was how many adjustments you are able to make; everything from the backlenght to the width and angle of the hipbelts, it was incredible how much you can fiddle with it in order to create a perfect fit. We needed to consult Aarn’s website again as we couldn’t get the packs entirely right from memory. It took a few trips up in the mountains until we got it set. Once we figured it out it felt like this pack too had been custom made for our bodies, and this is for sure one of our favourite features about Aarn bodypacks.
The shoulder straps on the pack are thin and not as well padded as any normal backpack. This is of course based on the fact that the straps on an Aarn pack should only gently rest on the shoulders, as the weight is balanced between backpack and front pockets and diverted to the hips. Thanks to the special Mono Mesh fabric they auto-mold to the exact slope of the shoulder, making them extra comfortable to wear. One point to note is that while this all works fantastically while using the front pockets, but carrying a fully loaded Aarn pack without the front pockets can make the shoulder straps uncomfortable as they dig themselves into the shoulders.
With the front pockets it is possible to carry the pack for very long periods of time without feeling the normal back and shoulder strain backpacks can incur. In Nepal we walked for 12-13 hours straight at times on very strenuous terrain. Even on rough days like those we did not finish the day with sore shoulders or painful backs, but only had burning legs from the many times we needed to scramble several hundred meters up and down difficult slopes. The pack can feel heavy when you first lift it off the ground, but once the system is in place it divides the weight so well it almost disappears.
FEATURES AND WATERPROOFNESS
According to Aarn, Guiding Light is “optimised for climbing, skiing, and hiking with trekking poles. Guiding Light allows dynamic movement and superb access to backcountry tools. Developed with NZ climbers, the U Flow systems allow superb agility with load stability and extend your reach to maximise your performance in a way not possible with other packs.” The Guiding Light model was designed in cooperation with the National Climbing Association of New Zealand, resulting in some very clever solutions for placing gear, such as crampons and ice axes.
One feature particularly directed towards climbers is the rope door, situated directly behind your head. This zippered flap gives direct access to the pack’s main compartment, meaning you can keep your rope inside of your pack while feeding out rope from behind your head. If you are not carrying a rope, this compartment also functions perfectly well as a hydration port and it provides access to the main compartment in case you are not using the pack liners.
We’ve used this backpack for spring trips where we still needed to carry ice axes, crampons, snow shoes, and heavier winter equipment. We found it to be a very convenient backpack for this purpose and we would certainly take it on climbing trips as well. On the technical sections of the Great Himalaya Trail we needed to have quick access to our axes and crampons, and were really pleased with how they can be setup on the Guiding Light
While the canvas of the pack is water-repellant, both the backpack and the front pockets become waterproof thanks to the integrated (but removable) liners on the inside of the pack/front pockets. Underneath the top lid the pack can be closed with a roll-up system, similar to a drybag, to keep any moisture out. We still carry sensitive material such as electronics, down jackets, down sleeping bags in an extra dry bag, just in case. But it’s nice to skip the hassle of putting rain covers on an off, especially on days where the weather is highly changeable. If it starts to rain and we already have our rain jackets on, we can just keep walking, without having to worry about our backpacks and what’s inside.
For 19 days straight we had heavy showers or several hours of consistent rain when we started our trip in Nepal. Even then, when the pack was constantly wet and damp, we did not experience that water penetrated through the liner and affected our gear. It’s important to mention that during that time we rarely had an opportunity for the packs to really dry out. Another and maybe the best example of how much water these packs can take is the night our tent flooded. A late monsoon shower of extreme intensity flooded the entire mountain slope we were camped on within minutes, and our tent with it. We soon decided we had to use the packs to put up a dam to prevent the tent from collapsing or washing away, and to try at least to keep some of the water out. By the time we fished them out of the vestibules 2 cm of running water had already gathered underneath. Then they spent the night holding off the water running down the mountain side. In the morning PJ realised that he’d left his down jacket out of its dry bag inside the backpack, and anticipated it must be soaked. When we pulled it out it was completely dry, as was everything else that was left inside. The full story of that night can be found here.
The heavy duty 500D Codura nylon, 210D and 40D ripstop nylon can take a proper beating. Our first Aarn Stronglite pack has survived for almost 1500km now, going on rough hikes in Australia, Norway and Sweden. The Guiding Light model is constructed from the same fabric. We pushed it through the most dense jungle we’ve ever seen and dragged it over sharp rocks for vertical kilometers at a time and even still the pack is not showing any sign of falling apart. These bags have truly taken a lot of beating during four months in the Himalaya but came home with us in one piece.
Both of our Guiding Lights had one issue, and that was with the backpanel that sits on the lower back. Normally this is an even surface that doesn’t press against the back in an uncomfortable way. By the end of the trip we experienced that this panel was starting to bulge out, became uneven and press sharply against our backs. We fixed this problem by emptying the bags entirely, put them down with the backpanel towards the sky so we could sit on the bag to push the panel down while pulling the bottom of the bag up hard. In part the bulging and bending might have been from throwing the packs around on the passes, and from changing to new hipbelts which did not have the straps that connect them to the backpanel. In this way, the entire lower part of the bag is much looser and can have started to deform.
SOME ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
No pack is perfect, and though we’ve loved using Guiding Light we have encountered a few issues while testing it, most of which can be remedied with a little patience.
Aarn is making some adjustments and finetuning their backpacks resulting in an older generation of packs still being sold that does not fit with the newer generations of front pockets, hip belts, clips etc. The front pockets we received with the Guiding Light did not fit the belt and neither did the smaller hipbelts we requested. This created frustrations as the pack couldn’t always fully live up to its potential during our test period. It was confusing for us who already knew the system from before, so for someone who is just switching over to the Aarn Bodypack this could create a lot of frustration. This in part is due to a lack of knowledge within Norway on the bodypack system and the different models that exist. However, with the help of Tommy from Sqoop.no we found (mostly very easy) solutions for most of the problems so that all parts of the pack become compatible with one another.
One final thing that made us doubt taking the Guiding Light to Nepal is its weight. At 1.87kg it is not the lightest pack for its volume, which is mostly due to its construction in the heavy 500D Codura nylon fabric. Thus, its main competitor was the Natural Balance model. We made our call not to make weight a main priority in this case based upon two reasons:
- due to the versatility of this pack, offering a great range of options to attach gear on the outside. This is practical for climbing, winter and packrafting trips. This will also serve us well in Nepal for those stretches where we will need crampons and ice axes.
- the harsh character of Himalayan trails and weather made us think that a sturdy canvas fabric would better withstand the elements than its lighter weight alternative, which we are now convinced was a sound choice.
Finally, because the pack is so comfortable to carry these added 200-300 grams do not make a huge difference in terms of carrying comfort.
Though not the lightest backpack on the market, Aarn’s Guiding Light is a very functional and durable pack that offers enough volume for extended trips in all seasons and enough carrying comfort not to bulk under the gear. We used this pack for our four month expedition to cross Nepal and were really pleased with it. This versatile pack is perfect for climbing trips due to its climbing-specific make-up, though we see many good options for attaching packrafting gear as well. As Aarn continues to grow and redevelop their products we are looking forward to the further evolution of this pack.