How to combine an ergonomic day pack and a camera insert to create a pain-free alternative to classic photography backpacks.

I’m 38 years old, and I’m a bit of a wreck. A lifetime spent behind a desk combined with bad luck playing the genetic lottery will do that to you. I love tramping (aka hiking, if you are a non-Kiwi), but years ago I was not enjoying the experience any more. Back and neck pain had finally caught up with my sedentary lifestyle. It was time to find a new carrying system.

I fell in love with Aarn Packs, a New Zealand outdoor gear company that specialises in ergonomic backpacks (or bodypacks, as they call them), after exploring the market for a while. Considering that they completely reinvented backpacks, that’s a bit of an understatement. I started using one of their bigger overnight packs and my pain just went away.

Aarn Liquid Agility

Aarn Liquid Agility

When I started getting into photography, their photo front-pockets really came in handy as well. While these pockets are great on overnight trips, they are a bit cumbersome for landscape photography.

And so I went on and bought an F-Stop backpack. The Guru is a classical photo pack that is accessed through a zippered back compartment. I loved that design since it allows me to just drop the pack in the dirt, unzip the whole pack panel, and have a clean space to work with. My F-Stop was an amazing photo pack that suffered one big problem: It was built by a company with an emphasis on photography rather than ergonomics. Within an hour of carrying it fully loaded, it was literally a pain in the neck.

The ICU fits nicely

The ICU fits nicely

So I had a chat with the friendly team at Aarn Packs to see if they had a pack that could fit a standard camera insert (F-Stop calls them ICU). To my surprise they did: Aarn’s Liquid Agility 30L day pack. I compared measurements of pack and ICU, and things looked promising.

Once I put both parts together, it was almost like the pack had been made with the ICU in mind. It fits perfectly with some room to spare at the top. Since the back panel of the pack happens to be rigid in places, the pack will not bulge and spill the contents stored in the ICU. It is as good a fit as you will ever get with two products that were never meant to work together. The fit is nowhere near as snug as in an F-Stop pack, though. Where an F-Stop pack can be unzipped with one hand, the Liquid Agility needs a bit more coercing. Where my Guru was boxy and rigid, the Liquid Agility is soft and malleable. The Aarn Pack just takes a little longer to open and close.

F-Stop Pro Large ICU

F-Stop Pro Large ICU

However, that is a compromise I’m more than happy to make. Just like my tramping packs, my new Aarn Frankenpack simply made all the pain go away. Let’s have a look at how they pull that off.

Shoulder-straps: The pack uses a technology called U & V flow. Normally each shoulder-strap is sewn into the pack at the top and bottom. It is really just a rigid strip of fabric with some padding. The straps on this pack on the other hand are free-floating. They form a loop that freely moves through a clip (top) and a little tunnel (bottom). While that sounds awfully technical, it feels amazing. Where a normal pack keeps my shoulders from rolling freely while I am walking, they can move naturally with the U&V system. It’s hard to explain how this feels, except really floaty. Using a normal pack feels as restraining as a straight-jacket in comparison.

Left: The V-Flow loop connects the top sections of both shoulders. Right: U-Flow does the same at the bottom, where the strap runs through a tunnel.

Left: The V-Flow loop connects the top sections of both shoulders. Right: U-Flow does the same at the bottom, where the strap runs through a tunnel.

Hip-belt: The belt is fairly sophisticated for a pack of this size. It is adjusted with two straps on each side. A belt with a single strap can only be pulled painfully tight to achieve a good fit. Two straps on the other hand allow to mold the belt exactly to the shape of your body. I find it achieves a much better fit with less padding, while staying more comfortable at the same time. This is really important since the hip-belt should carry most of the load. It takes weight off the shoulders and eliminates neck-strain.

The carrying system

The carrying system

The pack has a lot of the standard bells and whistles. With the ICU fitted, there is still space at the top of the main compartment. That’s where I put my filter pouch. The inside also has a small zippered compartment where I keep my business cards.

The outside sports two large stretch pockets and a ton of loops, straps and attachment points. I can easily attach a 0.7L water bottle and a full-size tripod to the outside.

The whole front of the pack is one big zip compartment. It runs along the whole height and width of the pack, but it lacks a little in depth. Throw something in at the top, and it will drop all the way to the bottom. It has two smaller zip compartments on the inside, but they are too small to store anything bigger than a mobile phone. To be fair, the front compartment of my F-Stop Guru was equally awkward to use. I assume this is a design drawback of packs with rear-accessible main compartments.

Note that you can attach Aarn front pockets (non-photo ones) to this pack to gain more easily accessible storage for little nick-nacks.

Right: The straps easily hold a full-size tripod (Sirui W2204)

Right: The straps easily hold a full-size tripod (Sirui W2204)

The plus in carrying comfort comes with a few drawbacks. Where an off-the-rack F-Stop pack is opened and closed in seconds, the Liquid Agility requires a bit more coercing. The V-Flow strap has to be unclipped at the top, and the zippers do not run quite as easily due to the softer materials. Especially when closing the pack two hands are needed to straighten out the zipper. This is largely due to the ICU fitting so snugly at the bottom. This is not a design flaw, but a drawback of me stuffing a third-party ICU into a pack it wasn’t designed for.

Aarn Packs constantly improve their packs. What I would like to see in future versions of the Liquid Agility is a redesigned front compartment. Items just drop to the bottom, never to be seen again.

Verdict

There is a lot to like about this pack. It fits a standard F-Stop ICU, which easily turns the Liquid Agility into the most ergonomic photography backpack that I’ve tried. Materials and craftsmanship are beyond reproach, and it fits plenty of gear, clothing and extras for a landscape photography outing of several hours. I went from trying to keep my F-Stop pack as light as possible and still coming back in pain, to throwing extra stuff into my Liquid Agility and not minding the pack at all. This backpack comes with a few drawbacks, but if you value ergonomics above all, you should give an Aarn Frankenpack a chance.


Sources

Aarn Liquid Agility
Read more about Aarn’s pack technology here and here.
F-Stop Large Pro ICU

This article was first published on the Lightforge blog