Outside magazine, May 1994
Natural Balance's Vital Experience backpack takes an ambitious stab at one of the thorniest problems in pack design: how to carry a multiday load without feeling like you've got the freedom of movement of the Tin Man.
The key ingredients are the Vital Experience's "floating" shoulder straps and hipbelt. The lower ends of each shoulder strap are attached to a single piece of webbing that passes freely through a sleeve in the bottom of the pack; the hipbelt attaches similarly. This harness literally moves with you: Reach up to grab a tree branch, and the sliding webbing lets one shoulders strap go up and brings the other one down. mirroring the movement of your shoulders. Shift your weight sideways or twist, and the hipbelt won't stop you.
The load, meanwhile, doesn't get sloppy. There's enough friction in the system to mute the effect, and two of the pack's three flexible stays anchor forward on the hipbelt, distributing the load forward on your pelvic bones. The freedom in my hips felt great on walks over rough terrain, though I imagine the pack would pitch a little during some hard skiing.
Whether you choose the 3,800 cubic-inch back (four pounds, ten ounces) or the 4,250 cubic-inch model (four pounds, 15 ounces), consider the extra space you'll get if you opt for the Balance Buddies, optional accessory pockets (650 or 760 cubic inches per pair; $58) that attach to the pack's shoulder straps and stays. They keep water bottles and the like immediately accessible and counterbalance the load on your back.
$269. From Natural Balance Design Co., Box 1573, Fairfield, IA 52556; 515-472-7918