EXTERNAL vs INTERNAL FRAME BACKPACKS: WHICH ARE BETTER?
Most of us don’t have the luxury of a trusty alpaca, donkey, yak, team of sled dogs, or a softhearted sucker of a hiking partner willing to do our gear-carrying for us. As such, taking all of our gear with us wherever we’re going means relying on our own steam and strength, as well as, of course, a solid, trustworthy, comfortable backpack. But what type of backpack is best?
Browse any collection of photos of hikers in the 70s, 80s, and 90s and you’re likely to find a curious specimen of portation device that, like that era’s mullet and handlebar mustache, has largely gone the way of the dodo: the external frame backpack.
Like the mullet and the flamboyant whiskers, however, this once-popular pack type still has a few stubborn, die-hard adherents who swear by its superiority over internal frame packs, and brands such as Kelty, ALPS Mountaineering, and Vargo all include external-frame models in their product ranges. So, have they missed something, or have we?
What both types of pack have in common is that they carry stuff and require less feeding than the alpaca, donkey, yak, dogs, or gullible-cum-saintlike partner. Otherwise, they’re very different beasts…
In this article, we’re going to take a look at those differences by doing a bit of digging into the merits of the external frame backpack and weighing them up against the benefits of the more standard, internal frame backpack.
Before we get down to that, let’s first take a look at some of the article’s more pertinent take-homes.
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Are you likely to be trekking for days across vast stretches of unpeopled wilderness, or just day-hiking and overnighting with fairly light loads? Are you a better-have-it-here-than-at-home style of hiker or a backcountry minimalist? What you tend to get up to in the wild, in conjunction with your fitness levels, will largely determine what capacity and weight of pack will be best suited to your needs.
Most backpack manufacturers will list both the weight of their pack and its capacity, which is usually given either in liters (i.e. ‘55L’) or cubic centimeters (i.e 1000cc/1000cm3).
Pro Tip: Don't forget about external attachment points
When considering the capacity of your would-be pack, don’t forget to take into account external storage capabilities. Many external frame backpacks can carry more gear on the outside of the pack than they can inside, as seen in the video below.
The compartments of you backpack function, essentially, like an email inbox, giving you plenty of separate ‘folders’ (i.e. pockets and compartments) in which you can store your gear for organization purposes. This is handy for two reasons: firstly, you can easily locate your gear without fishing through the bulk contained in a single, large central compartment; secondly, you can keep wet or sharp gear (such as crampons) away from dry or fragile gear.
When considering a backpack, comfort is not only king but also queen, prince, princess and just about every other major member of the royal family tree. The other items mentioned in this list no doubt contribute to a pack’s nobility, but are not necessarily deal-breakers as regards a pack’s claim to the ‘throne’ that is your back.
If you are considering purchasing a new backpack for hiking, backpacking or camping then consider checking out the following:
Without comfort, essentially, a pack is all but useless. Some features that contribute to a pack’s comfort are padding, weight distribution, ventilation, and fitting, all of which we’ll take a closer look at in our side-by-side comparison of internal and external frame backpacks below.
Being able to jam all your gear in there and carry it comfortably, unfortunately, doesn’t equate to functionality. The type of terrain you’re tackling and a few other considerations, such as compactness and load distribution, will also determine just how practical and user-friendly your pack is.
Again, the answer to the internal vs external frame question will come down to weighing up the pros and cons and matching the pack to your type of outdoor adventure. On wide, well-maintained trails external frame packs are in their element, but on narrow, uneven ones they can be prone to snagging on branches and throwing you off balance.
If you plan on covering steep, exposed ground or doing any scrambling while wearing your pack, moreover, the high load positioning of external frame backpacks is the last place you want to have it.
Additionally, if you want a pack that will fit in the trunk of your car or even squeeze into your tent with you once emptied at the end of a day’s hiking, a smaller capacity, frameless pack may well be the way to go.
Internal frame backpacks, in a nutshell, are those with integrated suspension systems enclosed inside the rear of the pack, either in the form of aluminum stays, plastic frame-sheets, foam panels, or Dyneema webbing.
Usually, these packs are lighter and roomier than their external frame equivalents and are designed to conform to contours of your back, thus enhancing mobility and maneuverability, but also forcing you to bend over to balance the weight and restricting ventilation.
External frame backpacks are built with a rigid, usually aluminum or graphite frame on the exterior of the pack, as seen in these pics of the Kelty Trekker 65. They sit higher on your back but position more weight on your hips and lower body. The frame also provides airflow between the pack and your body by leaving a small gap between the two.
They’re not so common these days, but — as mentioned above — enjoyed something of a heyday back in the 70s and 80s. Below, we’ll discover whether this last generation of hikers were onto something or, as with the mullets, just showcasing a regrettable, short-lived quirk that’s best consigned to the annals of history.
Internal frame backpacks account for the vast majority of packs you’ll see anywhere around the world. Like any gear item, they have their advantages and disadvantages:
They might not be in fashion these days, but external-frame backpacks have a number of things going for them that might just tip the scale in their favor for some users. The most notable of the pros and cons are as follow:
As with any item of hiking gear, the selection process with backpacks will ultimately boil down to how you plan on using it and personal preferences. That said, the advantages and disadvantages above have demonstrated that the short and sweet answer is this: internal frame for lighter loads on more varied terrain, external frame for heavy loads on more level, wide trails, and for hikers who just can’t seem to find an internal frame pack that’s comfortable.
Alternatively, if you are looking to shave ounces off your next trip, then take a peek at our beginners guide to ultralight backpacking.
To help you choose, we’d recommend answering these questions after referring to the analysis above:
If you answered ‘yes’ to all or most of the above, then an external frame backpack might just be worth considering…
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Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.