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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > Aarn Design Peak Aspiration pack > Test Report by Lori Pontious

Aarn Peak Aspiration Pack
Test Series by Lori Pontious

INITIAL REPORT - January 10, 2011
FIELD REPORT - April 1, 2011
LONG TERM REPORT - June 5, 2011

Tester Information

NAME: Lori Pontious
EMAIL: lori.pontious (at)
AGE: 44
LOCATION: Fresno County, California, USA
HEIGHT: 5'7" (1.7 m)
WEIGHT: 165 lb (75 kg)

I backpacked, camped and fished all over the lower 48 states with my family as a kid, and then life happened. I restarted these activities about four years ago - I dayhike or backpack 2-6 times a month. I am between light and ultralight. I have a hammock system and own a Tarptent. I am a side sleeper and typically use a NeoAir on the ground. My base weight depends upon season and where I go.

Product information

Manufacturer: Aarn
Manufacturer URL:
Listed Weight, Peak Aspiration: 3.47 lbs (1.57 kg)
Actual weight, Peak Aspiration: 3.57 lbs (1.62 kg)
Listed Weight, Sport Balance Pocket, pair: 14 oz (400 gm)
Actual weight, Sport Balance Pocket, pair: 14 oz (400 gm)
Volume, Peak Aspiration: 45 L (2,746 cu in)
Volume, Sport Balance Pockets, pair: 12 L (732 cu in)
Size: Long torso, medium hip belt
MSRP, Peak Aspiration: $195
MSRP, Sport Balance Pockets: $60

Product Description

The Peak Aspiration (aka "the pack") is one of Aarn's Stronglite series - intended to be "tough and multi-functional." The main bag of the pack is made of 7500D cordura nylon, 500D cordura nylon, and 210D ripstop nylon. Upon pulling the pack out of the packaging, I note different colored straps - color coding, to help me remember where things connect, in the event that I take apart the pack. Which I promptly did. Fortunately, there is an 11x14" poster with diagram included, entitled "Fitting and Using Aarn Bodypacks." This provides very detailed instructions on how everything attaches and what all the multitude of buckles and straps do.

The main body of the pack has an impressive array of attachment points and a sizable front pocket big enough for my tarp and a rain jacket. I could easily attach my trekking poles, a snow shovel, ice axe or crampons. The lid of the pack is designated as a hydration pocket, though there is no egress point for a tube. I suppose I could close the zipper around a tube. Shock cord zigzagging down the front provides compression and there are sturdy loops where I could easily attach bungee cords to strap on my huge heavy snowshoes. Flipping the lid back, I find a rolltop closure with buckles, just like a dry bag. There is a thin strip of hook and loop to seal the opening before rolling it shut. The inside of the pack is bright orange and waterproof, according to enclosed literature.


The backpanel at first glance appears to be mesh, like so many backpacks, but closer inspection reveals that it is not a single layer of netting, but a springy open weave of thin filaments. Unfastening some strong hook and loop allows me to unfasten the mesh from the top of the pack and pull it down to reveal the shoulder harness adjustment - which has a lot of adjustability. As I am on the short end of the long torso size, this is an exciting find. Packs without this adjustment do not work well for me. The hip belt is also easy to adjust, with some heavy duty hook and loop attachments. To access this attachment I placed the pack face down and flipped the belt over, in the direction of the back panel.


Included with the Peak Aspiration were Sport Balance Pockets, one of several options for front pockets on the pack. These are fastened on the harness of the pack in front. They are made of 500D cordura and 210D ripstop nylon, and have mesh pockets on the front and sides, with compression straps on the front. There is a single stay in each which keeps the pocket angled correctly so that the pocket does not come into contact with the body, and with the help of the instructions I can bend the stay so that it fits better, if I find that it digs into my hip. In the event I am moving through a narrow space, the instructions indicate that I can unsnap the bottoms of the pockets and swing them to the side if they become an obstruction. In a difficult water crossing the instructions suggest the same, and letting them become a pair of flotation aides. Sport Balance Pockets currently on sale at the website include waterproof liners; mine do not have waterproof liners, as they are an earlier model.

Also included: two straps that will allow me to use the Sport Balance Pockets as a day pack. This is a neat feature, and explained some mysterious fasteners I was initially puzzled about - D rings on one pocket, and oval shaped plastic discs on the other. The color coding (brown, see below) suggested they went together - but not when the pockets are on the pack, since they are along the outside seams of the pockets in that configuration. Along with the chest clip attachment they fasten the two pockets so they don't flop around independently when wearing them as a day pack.


Since fit and balance are so important with this kind of pack, and a picture is worth a thousand words, I borrowed an image from the Aarn website to demonstrate proper packing methodology, which differs significantly from conventional backpacks. The next picture is my usual three season gear, minus the bear canister.


And at this point I realized that I will have a challenge ahead of me, packing the Peak Aspiration with my gear. This is a completely different pack. It's not just the location of items that will change - it's the items themselves. Water bottles will be easier to use with the Peak Aspiration instead of a 2 liter hydration bladder, for example.


The instructions encourage experimentation with adjusting the pack for the first day or two which will give me a "far more comfortable and efficient carry." So I packed my gear in and put it on. Then I quickly took it off and unpacked. Then I reordered and rearranged and repacked. And took it off again - this time moving the shoulder harness down another notch on the backpanel, and ripping apart the hipbelt, angling it slightly and shortening it somewhat, then putting it all back together again. I added some water to the water bottles and put them in the front pockets. And, like magic, the hip belt stopped digging in and folding under, the load stabilized, the harness felt more comfortable - and I thought, well, this is going to work after all.

I did some mobility testing - deep knee bends, high leg lifts, a little belly dancing, and the load stayed put. I felt like I should be off balance and clumsy with all that pack protruding in front of me; the Sport Balance pockets seemed like they should have gotten in the way, and my body sense (trained by many hours with internal frame backpacks of other brands) told me that I shouldn't be able to squat and do the hula. But I could.

I weighed in the full pack - 30 lbs (13.6 kg), with three season gear, a liter (1.06 qt) of water, a week of food, and room left for more. I need to move a few more items into the front packs - so far they are half full. The difficult part is that none of my gear is particularly heavy, and the heavier items don't fit in the front pockets. Some items, like the pot, are too big. I can put lunch and snacks in front plus a few individual meals, at least, but the entire food bag/bear bag is too bulky. And so it went with every piece of gear - does it fit in front? Should it go there?

For fine-tuning fit, I needed a friend. So I took the pack to a friend's house, showed her the instructions, and she helped me wrestle the single stay out of its sleeve, bend it some, eyeball it, bend it some more.... And then wrestle it back into the sleeve. It was not easy to get it just so. I still didn't know if I'd got it right... so a shakedown cruise was called for. My usual habit is to test backpacking gear on day hikes. Fortunately, my schedule was cooperative.

I had been planning a hiking group outing to Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park, California, for some time. It afforded me the opportunity to see how the pack adjustments were working before I took the Peak Aspiration on an overnight trip with a full load. I loaded it up with luxury items - stove, hot soup for lunch, extra water for beverages, a nice puffy down jacket for relaxing in - and went snowshoeing. The pack weighed about 20 lbs (9.1 kg). I made the 8 mile (13 km) round trip without trekking poles just to be sure I could assess the pack fully, without aides to help my balance. Throughout the day I found myself standing straight - I wasn't shoeing uphill while leaning forward as if walking into a stiff wind, and a few times I found myself leaning or turning in ways that previously would have meant compensating for the shifting weight of the pack, and discovered the need to compensate was not there. I was able to kneel, bend down, and sit down with the pack on, without the weight shifting and throwing me off balance. I did find that I had misadjusted the metal stay, but not in such a way that I couldn't hike in relative comfort.

Have Aarn, will snowshoe

My initial out-of-the-box impression of the Peak Aspiration - too complicated, lots of straps, not sure the front pockets will work well for me. My opinion after three days of study and then five hours of use - the majority of the learning curve with an Aarn Bodypack is in adjusting my approach and my expectations. Using the pack has helped me understand why this might be worth the work of altering my approach to packing. The one annoying thing - when loading the pack in and out of vehicles, the front pockets dangle like lead weights and seem to have a mind of their own. Wrestling the pack around is cumbersome. Once on my body, neither the front pockets nor the backpack are awkward at all; I am able to pivot and bend and move freely.

Come back in a few months for the Field Report, after I take the Peak Aspiration on a few overnight outings.



February 4 - 6, 2011. Search and Rescue Winter Training, Hume Lake, Sequoia National Forest. Temperature range: 35 - 50 F (-1.7 - 10 C). Elevation: 5,200 - 6,000 feet. Forested ridges and canyons, full of pine, oak and manzanita, mostly under snow of varying depths. Clear skies, no wind.

February 26 - 27, 2011 - Ohlone Wilderness, Mission Peak/Sunol/Del Valle Regional Parks, San Francisco Bay Area, California. Temperature range: 28 - 40 F (-2.21 - 4 C). Elevation: 390 - 3,817 feet (119 - 1163 m). Partial cloud cover, slight breeze.

March 11-12, 2011 - Henry Coe State Park, Gilroy, California. Temperature range: 40-70 F (4 - 21 C). Elevation: 800 - 2600 feet (244 - 792 m). Partially cloudy, intermittent breeze.


Loaded with my 24 hour search and rescue gear plus a snow shovel for a total weight of 28 lbs (12 kg), I wore the pack while attending a training scenario based out of Hume Lake. My team was assigned a grid through rolling terrain under snow, which we worked across on snowshoes. At times even with snowshoes I found myself sinking deep between rocks and fallen trees, and once fell through into running water beneath the knee-deep melting snow. Throughout the weekend of being deployed, recalled, and walking an obstacle-littered straight line through snow for several miles while staring at a GPS screen, I put the pack on many times, threw it in and out of vehicles, and generally focused on the task at hand. I took the front packs off for Sunday's search, knowing we would not be spending the night in the field and not needing the full capacity of the pack. This led to my discovery that the water bottles I brought do not stay in the side pockets of the backpack. I lost the first one somewhere in the back of the truck on the way to our assigned grid, and lost the other while searching. Fortunately, we are sent out in teams and companions shared their water with me. The backpack proved to otherwise work quite well all on its own without the front packs, though there was a very noticeable difference in how the load is balanced. The pack without front pockets functions well as a regular internal frame backpack.

Heading out into the Ohlone Wilderness solo was my first outing minus snowshoes with the Peak Aspiration. This also meant I did not need an extra layer while walking, so wore my typical three-season hiking clothes, consisting of a synthetic long sleeved shirt and nylon convertible pants. I carried about 25 lbs (11 kg) of three-season gear. As I walked I could feel the ventilation on my back provided by the mesh back panel. Over the steeply graded trails of three regional parks I narrowly avoided sliding down muddy and snowy slopes. I noticed that over a ten mile (sixteen kilometer) day that my hips felt a little sore. The following day was the same; at the end of the day upon removing the pack I could feel soreness across my hip bones. This has occurred with other packs, usually ones without a padded hipbelt. Since I can, I attempted to rectify the issue by adjusting the hip belt again.

On the next outing to Henry Coe State Park, I carried 16 lbs (7 kg) in the backpack and 5 lbs (2.3 kg) in each front pack, and was able to do so without further hip pain. This would seem to indicate success in adjusting the pack to fit better. Over the course of the weekend I was quite comfortable wearing the pack, as my companion and I climbed the ridges and ascended a peak on the steep grades of Coe's trail network. I found the fit of the pack comfortable over the 14 miles (22.5 km) we hiked that weekend.

I have to say that I am still adjusting to having the front packs. On the positive side, it is easy to load things into them in the order I will need them, and to have navigation aides and snacks easily accessible in the top of one, and gloves, hat, camera, and bandanna in the top of the other. The netting pockets on the front packs hold small items well; I was not forced to stop and take off the pack for sunscreen or eyeglasses but had them right in front of me. The water bottles are another matter. I have tried several kinds and dislike the pull-top bottles, so have settled on a wide mouth bottle in absence of anything better, but still prefer my hydration bladder to any bottle.

Fine tuning the pack has been an ongoing project for me. I believe I have it right where it needs to be. However, even if in the future I experience hip pain or other discomfort, the pack requires no tools or great expertise to adjust, and can be re-adjusted on the trail if need be. I have experienced no shoulder issues, despite my "trick" shoulder which tends to act up when a shoulder strap puts pressure on it. I note that I do feel the weight of the pack on my body all the time when hiking. This is not a bad thing. With the typical internal frame backpack, it's not unusual to have the weight shift suddenly and put me off balance while maneuvering through a difficult spot between rocks or on steep brushy hills. With the Peak Aspiration I did not find this to be the case.

I did not have the opportunity to test the waterproofness of the pack. I did on various occasions attach shovel, trekking poles, sleeping pad, or umbrella to the outside using the cords provided, with good results - nothing came loose while the pack was in use. As noted previously, there are a lot of cords and straps and adjustments possible; I experimented with leaving some of them unfastened part of the time. I wore the pack without attaching the cords that stabilize the front packs by connecting them to the hip belt. The front packs do move noticeably from side to side when those are not fastened. Leaving the sternum straps unfastened produces an even more pronounced movement of the front packs. Once these are in place, however, the pack feels quite stable and I actually hike without thinking about the front packs at all.

Overall, now that I have had some outings with the Peak Aspiration and become accustomed to a different packing scheme, my experience with the pack have been positive. None of my initial concerns have proved to be an ongoing concern - with practice in adjusting and putting on the pack, the awkwardness of handling the front packs and backpack as a unit has diminished. Now when preparing for a trip I remove the front packs, load gear and provisions into them, and transport them independently of the backpack, and putting them on is the last thing I do before starting to hike.

I'll be back in a couple of months with my final report.



April 17, 2011. Search and Rescue Fitness Hike, San Joaquin River Gorge, Sierra National Forest. Temperature range: 50 - 80 F (10 - 27 C). Elevation: 600 - 2,000 feet (183 - 610 m). Foothills, with brush and oak and pine. Clear skies, slight wind.

April 23, 2011 - Pinnacles National Monument, California. Temperature range: 55 - 65 F (13 - 18 C). Elevation: 1,400 - 2,300 feet (427 - 700 m). Cloudy and breezy.

April 24 - 25, 2011 - Henry Coe State Park, California. Temperature range: 40 - 55 F (4 - 13 C). Elevation: 1,200 - 2,500 feet (366 - 762 m). Partial to full cloud cover, gusting winds up to 10 mph, intermittent light rain/mist.

May 13 - 15, 2011 - Ventana Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest, California. Temperature range: 30 - 55 F (-1 - 13 C). Elevation: 1,200 - 4,500 feet (366 - 1372 m). Partial to full cloud cover, intermittent rain/mist, snow, hail.

June 2 - 3, 2011 - Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, Aptos, California. Temperature range: 50 - 60 F ( ). Elevation: 700 - 1700 feet ( ). Partial to full cloud cover.


I wore the pack for a fitness hike for Search and Rescue. On our annual fitness hikes, we are expected to hike a minimum of 8 miles (13 kilometers ) in three hours wearing our overnight packs, with a minimum weight of 20 lbs (9 kg) excluding water. I did not complete the hike in the allotted time due to my position as sweep - another volunteer was struggling to make the hike in time, and I had to stick with him - however, we completed the route within four hours. I ran approximately half a mile (.8 km) downhill with the pack loaded to 25 lbs (11 kg). While running I found that if I could manage a smooth stride the pack rode well enough. I was not off balance, though I did not like the jostling motion of the front packs as I ran. The pack did not create sore spots and I otherwise completed the hike in comfort.

I tried out the front packs in daypack mode, while visiting Pinnacles National Monument. I carried the usual dayhike necessities which weighed out at about 8 lbs (4 kg), including a water filter, and hit the trail. We made a 9 mile (14 km) loop with a lot of climbing and some maneuvering through rocks. The only thing that bothered me were the stays in the front packs, which constantly caught on my belt. It was not until I got back to the car that it occurred to me - I could have removed the stays! Oh, well. I missed having a hip belt, and by the end my shoulders felt sore, but this was gone by the following morning.

I went from Pinnacles to Henry Coe State Park for a quick trip out to Mississippi Lake, a destination I had not made it to earlier in the year due to weather. I packed a light load of 10 lbs (4.5 kg) in the backpack and 12 lbs (5 kg) in the front packs - and left the parking area at 1:00 pm. After collecting water at Coyote Creek, I hiked until evening and made camp on a ridge and set up for the night, then rose before sunup and started hiking again. I did the round trip of 28 miles (45 kilometers) in a day, with roughly 8 hours of sleep, returning to the car at 2:30 pm the following afternoon. Cumulative elevation gain was about 6,500 feet (1981 m). The Peak Aspiration rode well and caused no soreness, nor was I ever off balance despite repeated rock hops and leaps to cross streams. I expected to find some sore spots on the hip bones due to the intensity of the trip but other than some friction points on the balls of my feet, I had no issues.

On my next overnight trip, we backpacked to Pat Springs and made camp, then day hiked the narrow and sometimes precarious trail to Ventana Double Cone, using the front packs as a day pack. I remembered to remove the stays and carried two full water bottles, plus the ten essentials, food, and rain gear. Along the way to the peak we found ourselves forcing our way through brush encroaching on the trail. We completed the 16 mile (26 kilometer) round trip and camped again at Pat Springs. Unfortunately, I found that my right shoulder did not tolerate even the minimal weight and began to hurt. Without the stays, or a waist belt, it was impossible to keep the front packs from sliding down my back and sagging, putting all the weight on my shoulders.

Pushing through an easier section of overgrown Ventana trail

In the morning we woke to snow on the ground, and experienced rain, side-blown snow and hail on the way back to the car. The Peak Aspiration repelled moisture and kept the contents as dry as they had gone into the pack bag. Melting snow collected on the outside and moistened some of the pack fabric, but none of the moisture got through the waterproof pack lining. I noticed that water actually beaded and ran off the side panels and lid of the pack.


Once I found the proper adjustments, the Peak Aspiration turned out to be a comfortable and balanced pack. I did not encounter any difficulties related to the way the pack carried the weight I put in it, or in how it fit or balanced on my hips. Using the front packs as a separate day pack was less comfortable. I did not like the way the day pack configuration worked for me, with or without the stays; without a hip belt the front packs tended to slide too far down my back, and I had shoulder pain after each use.

The Peak Aspiration has proved to be durable enough for me to store it in trunks under other packs, or the backs of jeeps or trucks without fearing that the pack fabric would tear. The only damage incurred while I have used the pack was a shock cord on the front of the pack, which separated from the plastic tab as I was adjusting the cord around my camp shoes. This has not been a problem since I now grab the shock cord instead of the plastic tab to make adjustments with the cord lock. The pack is otherwise no worse for the wear than when I received it in January. In the course of Search and Rescue training I have thrown the pack into truck beds and even from the back seat of a helicopter to the ground. As long as all my gear is safely zipped inside the front packs and the backpack, I felt confident that the pack and contents would survive. The front packs (while in use as a day pack) survived intact after being worn through walls of brush and branches.

I have not exposed the pack to prolonged wet weather, but what precipitation I did experience did not make it through the lining of the pack. Once I am able to get the waterproof liners for the front packs, I would want to test the pack in the rain further, to draw conclusions about the waterproofness of the pack as a whole.

The Peak Aspiration has proven to be less complicated and less cumbersome than I initially thought, now that I've adapted my packing methodology to the use of front packs and I have had practice moving the pack in and out of different vehicles. I have enjoyed having many gear items in front of me and accessible without removing the backpack. The side pockets of the backpack are not so useful due to larger items like water bottles not seating down into them and therefore being too easily ejected and lost; however, I do find that a poncho or a sit pad lodges well in the pockets so they are of some use. The lash points on the front of the pack, and the front pocket, hold items quite securely and have been useful when I am carrying camp shoes, trekking poles, a snow shovel, snowshoes, or a foam pad.

I have also been surprised with the ventilation provided. Even though the Peak Aspiration does not have the trampoline construction so many packs have, the mesh gives my sweaty back some air space. A pleasant change from foam padding.

Overall, I find the Peak Aspiration to work as advertised in helping me maintain balance as I hike. Thank you to Aarn and to Backpack Gear Test for the opportunity to review the Peak Aspiration. I anticipate that I will be using it again on a regular basis for backpacking, particularly for winter outings.

Read more reviews of Aarn Design gear
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Reviews > Packs > Internal and External Framed Backpacks > Aarn Design Peak Aspiration pack > Test Report by Lori Pontious

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