I have a nickname for this pack – I call it my Magic Pack.
From the moment I first tried it on I’ve been amazed at how weight seems to magically disappear once I’m wearing it. Whether I need to carry ten days of food over a long section or seven kilos of water for a desert stretch, it turns a sizeable load into something very manageable. In fact, my pack has felt so suspiciously light at times that I’ve actually taken it off mid-walk to check I haven’t inadvertently left something behind at the last break.
I carried the Natural Balance for over 3000 kilometres hiking the Te Araroa Trail from one end of New Zealand to the other, and its absolute comfort gave me one less challenge to deal with. Gone were the aching shoulders and hot knots of pain in my back that I used to suffer with a traditional backpack.
So what’s the secret to this ‘magic’? It’s the way you carry your load that makes all the difference. Aarn Tate has spent 30 years perfecting and testing the Flow Bodypack system in the tough terrain of his homeland, New Zealand. The key to its design is a set of pockets on the front in which you carry all your compact, heavy gear and thereby counterbalancing the load on your back. The result is an energy-efficient system that maintains the natural curve of the spine and leaves you standing upright and perfectly balanced.
Why It Works
A backpack magnifies the forces acting on your body. Without going into the detailed physics of it, a 16 kilogram load plonked on your back with a traditional backpack could end up exerting a force on your body that feels more like 20-24 kilograms. The Bodypack system however removes all leverages on your back from your pack and brings your posture as close to upright as possible. In doing so most of the load is shifted off your shoulders and spine and transferred evenly around the pelvis.
It Looks Different
I get a lot of comments from hikers I pass on the trail, dubious of the design of this newfangled pack. Here are a few examples:
Yeah, but can you see your feet? – The Natural Balance has two separate front pockets so you can see your feet in the gap between them if you want to. Having said that, I discovered that I didn’t actually watch my feet hit the ground, I looked ahead at the ground where I intended to put my feet and then my feet simply followed.
What about tricky terrain? – The pack has a fantastic hip belt and shoulder harness that allows the load to shift as you move so you stay centred and balanced always. The front pockets do not hinder manoeuvrability when scrambling over rocks on all but the very tightest of ledges.
Isn’t it hot to wear? – No. The front pockets hang away from your body allowing air to flow, plus ventilation mesh is used in the back panel.
You’re carrying all THAT? – Having a large load is not a pre-requisite to wearing this pack – Aarn make smaller volume models that an ultra-light hiker probably wouldn’t even notice they’re wearing – but if you like to take enough gear to stay warm and safe, if you need to carry lots of water, or if like me you’re partial to a bit of fresh fruit and veg on your hike, then this pack will allow you to carry your load in comfort.
Another significant bonus is having camera, sunscreen, maps, snacks, PLB, etc. readily available in the front pockets. Pockets are interchangeable too so I swapped one standard pocket for photography specific one, padded for my equipment. The pack has a removable dry bag lining and the tough nylon exterior sheds water well so you won’t need a pack cover. And the whole pack is fully adjustable for a precise fit.
If I could change anything it would be the plastic clips and buckles. They are lightweight but not the strongest. I’ve broken two over 3500 kilometres of hiking and while spares are provided I’d like to see a tougher material used here. Also after 1000 kilometres the dry bag lining was, perhaps unsurprisingly, no longer completely watertight though a few bin bag liners inside the pack avoids any dampness in a downpour (note: the dry bag liners are replaceable).
The Natural Balance has won a string of awards, most recently Germany’s Outdoor Industry Awards in 2015 where it earned the Gold Winner title for best backpack. It may look odd and a tad on the bulky side, but to wear it is to experience its magic.
Capacity: 63-litre capacity plus 15 litres in the front pockets (short version)
Weight: 2 kilograms including pockets and liners