Five miles into my hike around the iconic Mitten Ridge in Sedona, I stopped on the side of the trail for some water and to survey the damage. Looking down, I saw that the soft, brittle, slippery sandstone terrain had taken a toll on my shoes: the tops were completely covered in red dirt and small stones gritted between my toes. There was a tear in the bottom of my pants from an accidental encounter with a prickly pear cactus, some dried blood just above my ankle. My cheeks were rosy red from the hot sun. But that’s when I realized something was missing. Despite a full pack of over 40 pounds, my shoulders and lower back were in pretty good shape.
Resting on them was one of the industry’s hottest new backpacks, the Osprey Atmos AG 65 ($230+). The purpose of my hike was to test out its highly touted new “Anti-Gravity Suspension” system, a technology meant to ensure the pack hugs the contours of a hiker’s body, distributes weight, reduces movement, and increases comfort (i.e. eliminates back sweat and shoulder/hip pressure).
“Customizable suspension” is a trendy consumer topic, something that all brands tout in some way, whether it’s The North Face’s “slimmed-down style that improves load management and reduces overall pack weight”, Arc’teryx’s “fully customizable harness and triple-access interior… that keeps your upper body happy”, or the Deuter Aircontact’s “pivoting suspension”. So it begs the question: If everyone is putting the spotlight on suspension, why all the hype over Osprey’s “Anti-Gravity Suspension”? Is it really any different, and if so, what sets it apart?
Osprey, which started out as Santa Cruz Recreational Packs in 1974, has a long history of making packs. In 2000, up against increased costs here in the States, it relocated its production overseas to Vietnam. This type of move typically results in a decrease in quality, but founder Mike Pfotenhauer moved to Vietnam himself in 2003 to oversee operations; and in 2009, Osprey further comforted its faithful with the introduction of its “All-Mighty Guarantee” that ensures the company will repair any damage or defect in its products free of charge. Osprey’s quest for “anti-gravity” began well before all that, though, when it released the first-generation Zero-G pack in 1993.
Imagine the difference between someone leaning on you and someone hugging you. The person can be “molded” to you in either scenario, but the one hugging you is going to stay part of your form even as you move, while the person leaning will naturally shift their pressure.
Now in 2015, the company continues to be one of the industry’s leaders in suspension design, and the innovation present in Osprey’s new technology, deemed its fourth-generation anti-gravity effort, was obvious before even trying it on. Distributing weight and accomplishing all the tasks listed above comes down to the design of the suspension system, and Osprey’s is definitely groundbreaking. While many packs use some type of “webbing” or “netting” between their straps to help the pack mold to the back and create airflow, previous models have only run it the length of the wearer’s back, from the shoulders to the lower back, along the body of the pack. The Atmos AG, however, runs that webbing continuously from the upper back down and spreads it on around the hips and onto the hip straps. It might seem a small change, but it makes a huge difference in performance: The extension of the webbing around the hips serves as an anchor of sorts and reduces the movement of the suspension system itself while you’re walking.
The suspension systems of other packs can be susceptible to shifting (back and forth or side to side) when you walk because their suspension systems do not go beyond your back and shoulders, nor do they cradle around you as the Atmos AG does. To picture this, imagine the difference between someone leaning on you and someone hugging you. The person can be “molded” to you in either scenario, but the one hugging you is going to stay part of your form even as you move, while the person leaning will naturally shift their pressure. Now, this movement and pressure may not be noticeable as being negative in the moment as you walk — you are trekking on uneven ground, after all — but these tiny shifts in pack weight are what take a toll and make or break your experience over several miles.
The hip straps themselves on the Atmos AG are also a big advantage of the design. When not deployed around your hips, they fold in towards the pack as if they are spring loaded, looking like arms crossed over a chest. To put the pack back on, the wearer must pull out those “arms” in order to fit the pack around the hips. The tension then pulls the arms back inward toward the center of the pack so they are snug and hugging your hips. This feature no doubt creates extra surface tension between the straps and your body that reduces movement and shifting (it is also nice for when you put the pack down or check it at the airport, because the straps stay folded in and do not flail all over the floor or take up extra space). The pack also sports the standard multi-day features, such as a removable floating top lid, upper and lower side compression straps, dual stretch mesh side pockets, zippered hip belt pockets, an internal reservoir sleeve, and a lower zippered sleeping bag/dirty laundry compartment. More specialized attributes include dual ice tool/trekking pole loops with bungee tie-offs and a large stretch mesh front pocket.
Even though my testing was only on day hikes and did not test durability over the course of a multi-day trek, I was impressed by Osprey’s two new points of technology. They really did make a noticeable difference in performance. The “spring-loaded” hip straps took some getting used to when taking the pack on and off, but I grew to really feel comfort in the slight pressure they naturally put on my hips, which led to me not cinching them as tight as I normally would. Over the course of a day’s hike, I felt less wear and tear on my skin as a result — something anyone who has ever experienced a pack-induced hip rash will appreciate.
Back on the trail, I found some shade, wiped the dried blood from my ankle with some water, removed the stones from my shoes, and slapped some sunscreen on my face. It was nearing midday, and I knew it would only get hotter and dustier. Over the next few miles, I knew, these factors would only continue to bear down on me with more weight. Clipping in around the waist and stepping back on the trail, I was happy knowing that my pack would not be one of them.