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External vs Internal Frame Backpack: Let The Battle Begin

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Do you want to be a hellraiser?

Then you should go on a hike with a group of highly experienced backpackers and ask them to express their opinion on the topic ‘external vs. internal frame backpack’. You will most probably trigger a passionate discussion that can last for hours. The debates would burn more calories than the hiking trip itself.

Even though the external frame backpacks are nowadays considered as old-school by most manufacturers and outdoor enthusiasts, those type of packs are far from being dead. If you look around, it would be difficult to see many of them on the trail. However, there are people who still praise packs with an external frame and believe that in certain circumstances they are more appropriate than those with an internal frame.

That is why this subject is a ‘hiking hot potato’. It still splits the community, regardless of the fact that seemingly the whole world uses backpacks with an internal frame. Heck, as of this writing, there is even a crowdfunding campaign for sliding backpacks that will float on your back.

Which one is better – the pack with an external or internal frame? What exactly does that mean in the first place? When and where to use them and what are the most common pros and cons of both? What are the most famous brands that produce such backpacks and is it worth it to invest in an old-fashioned external-framed backpack?

In this article, I will try to answer those popular questions. So follow me on the trail and let’s begin.

External Frame Backpacks

Surprisingly or not, there are many people, especially from the young generation who haven’t even heard of external-framed backpacks. If you are one of them, don’t worry. Just continue reading.

What Is A Pack With An External Frame?

The definition is as straightforward as it sounds. It’s easy to distinguish a backpack with an external frame because of its rigid structure. The aluminum frame is outside of the pack and it puts it away of your back. It’s like coming from another age. That’s why it looks strange and unusual to those who are used to wearing only internal frame backpacks. Even if you have never had an external frame pack, chances are your parents once did.

Such kinds of packs have the usual straps and belts allowing you to stabilize the bag for more comfort and security.

External vs Internal Frame Backpack

Jansport D-3 Pack. Image via Haolenate

At the beginning, the frame was not even metal – it was wooden. The first packs with an aluminum frame appeared in the middle of 20th century. These bags were used primarily for military and mountaineering purposes.

Recently there are rucksacks with reinforced plastic external frames that are lighter and even more flexible.

Pros

Let’s examine the most common advantages of using a backpack with an external frame:

  • They’re less expensive – generally such backpacks come at a lower price as compared to packs with an internal frame. You can find a good bag with an external frame in the price range of $100 - $200, depending on the size.
  • They can carry heavier loads – thanks to their solid structure, external-framed backpacks allow carrying up to 100 lbs of load. This becomes possible because it’s easier to attach heavy gear to the external aluminum frame that is quite sturdy.
  • Better cooling – as mentioned above, there is a small space between the frame and the back so that the pack is not glued to the body. This acts as a natural ventilation system that doesn’t keep the heat. That makes it perfect for summer backpacking.
  • It can stand still – you can put the pack everywhere and it can stand still on its own because of its stiff external frame. That’s why external-framed packs are arguably more durable too.
  • Better back position – the rock-solid external frame keeps the back always upright thus preventing it from inclining forward, no matter the weight of the load. This enhances endurance for longer hikes and improves posture.
  • More simplicity – many people who don’t like dealing with all the bells and whistles that an internal frame backpack has, find external frame packs easier to deal with. Sometimes the lack of many features is an advantage.

Cons

Sure enough, external-framed backpacks have their disadvantages. Let’s see them:

  • The weight – these backpacks tend to be significantly heavier than others. Again, that’s because of their sturdy aluminum frame.
  • Instability – a backpack with an external frame doesn’t fit the body as good as an internal-framed pack. Sometimes this results in your body swinging side to side because of the shift in the load inside the pack.
  • Difficult maneuvering – the big external frame makes it hard for you to walk on bushy terrains. It can easily catch on branches, leaves, and any kind of vegetation. Besides, speed hiking, especially on steep trails is almost impossible
  • Hard transportation – external frame backpacks are difficult to carry be it on a plane or in a car. They take bigger space because of their protruding frame.
  • Lack of many features – unlike internal frame backpacks, those with an external frame don’t have so many options. That’s why they are less adjustable and hardly customizable. For instance, they don’t have as many pockets and compartments which makes strategic packing a challenge.
  • Not good for people with back problems – if you suffer from any back issues, wearing an external frame backpack for a long time might worsen the situation. That’s because the pack doesn’t embrace the body well and it may easily lean to one side when you walk.
  • Potential damage of externally attached gear – everything that you cannot put inside of the pack and hangs attached on the frame is exposed to damage. It can easily get snagged or wet because of rain.

When To Use An External Frame Backpack?

Many people prefer using backpacks with an external frame during summer trips because of the better ventilation system. Also, it’s important where and how you hike. It’s best to be with such a pack on easy, flat terrains that are not technical. That’s because an external frame rucksack is difficult to manoeuvre with and it is not as flexible as an internal frame pack.

Suitable terrains would be long, open trails free of obstructions such as dense vegetation. An external frame backpack would allow you to bring your bulky gear on such trails. You want to go on a trekking in Sahara desert? Your good old external frame pack would be an excellent choice.

Popular Brands

Arguably, the most recognized manufacturers of external frame packs are the ubiquitous Kelty. Some of their famous models include Yukon, Trekker, and the 90L Tioga. Other popular brands and models are Alps Mountaineering Red Sock, Alps OutdoorZ Commander, Alps Zion Mountaineering Pack, and Slumberjack Rail Hauler 2.0. These are also the packs with the highest customer ratings.

Internal Frame Backpacks

Now it’s time to take a look at the industry standard. Let’s start with something simple but important.

What Is A Pack With An Internal Frame?

It’s highly unlikely that you don’t have such a backpack. Today, everybody does, even the dogs. The entrepreneur Greg Lowe first created the internal frame rucksack in 1967. Later he founded the companies Lowe Alpine and Lowepro that were successful in producing outdoor equipment.

an internal frame backpack

Internal frame packs are industry standard.

Unlike the external frame rucksacks, here the frame is hidden inside of the bag and it’s surrounded by fabric section. Even internal, the frame can still be aluminum. It also can be titanium or plastic.

Pros

Without further ado, let’s check out why internal frame backpacks are so popular:

  • They are lighter – the weight of a backpack is a purchasing factor for almost every mainstream hiker. In most of the cases, a backpack with an internal frame is not as hefty as a backpack with an external frame. This results in many benefits such as easier transportation and better pliability. In addition, such rucksacks are often carry on appropriate.
  • High customizability – having plenty of bells and whistles, internal frame backpacks offer better adjustability. In that way, you can easily fine-tune your pack so it best suits your needs.
  • More comfort – packs with an internal frame encompass the body very well, thus providing unparalleled stability. For instance, the Kelty Coyote 80L comes with a revolutionary PerfectFIT™ Suspension system that allows the pack to embrace your body. Plus, you can tweak it while you walk. Another advantage of the better fit is that it keeps you warm during winter hikes.
  • No load shifting – distribute the gear evenly for better balance. Then use all the straps and belts wisely so that the pack perfectly fits to your body. Now, you don’t have to worry about the load swinging from side to side, thus making you unstable on the trail.
  • Suitable for all types of hikes on all trails – an internal frame pack is quite easy to manoeuvre with. That’s why there’s no problem to take it with you wherever you go, no matter the difficulty of the terrain.
  • Larger internal storage – Having plenty of pockets and compartments, internal frame backpacks provide more possibilities for strategic packing. If you pack your rucksack wisely, you can take an impressive amount of gear with you. Sure enough, this depends on the volume capacity of the backpack.
  • Bigger purchasing choice - what do I mean by that? It’s simple. Today, it’s rare to see external frame backpacks on the store shelves. On the contrary, there is a plethora of models with internal frame. This gives the buyers space to breathe so that they can make the right choice based on their needs and budget.

Cons

Make no mistake that internal frame packs have their disadvantages too. Don’t believe me? Just keep on reading.

  • More expensive – that’s true especially if you want to reward yourself with a decent pack for extended hiking trips. You need to sneeze at least $200 bucks if you want to have a reliable pack that will last for years. At least that’s my recommendation.
  • More sweaty – no matter how breathable the material is or how sophisticated the ventilating system could be, internal frame packs doesn’t cool you down as efficiently as external frame backpacks do. That’s because of their ability to embrace the body and that keeps the heat.
  • Complicated packing –plenty of features and storage space such as multiple pockets and compartments make it difficult to organize everything and to pack it inside. That requires planning, effort, and practice.
  • Difficult to attach external gear – even though newer models allow smooth attachment of external gear such as ice axes or walking poles, it’s almost impossible to attach larger gear externally. However, that’s not a big deal given the fact that nowadays, most of the gear is not as bulky as it used to be.

When To Use An Internal Frame Backpack?

Because of their versatility and flexibility, backpacks with an internal frame can be your companion on long, technical terrains. That includes rocky tight trails, steep hills, and rough mountain peaks.

rocky terrain

With an internal frame backpack you can walk on more technical terrains.

When the back fits close to your body, you can easily make upper-body movements. That’s why internal frame packs are excellent for mountaineering and even skiing.

Popular Brands

Here’s a nifty table I prepared especially for you that showcases some leading companies producing highly performing internal frame backpacks. I also put their bestselling models.

​                          Brand

​                           Model

​                           Kelty

​          Redwing 50; Redcloud 110

​                       North Face

             Banchee 65; Hydra 38

​                          Deuter

​Futura Pro 38 SL; Futura Vario 50+10

​                     Teton Sports

​​    Scout 3400; Mountain Adventurer

​                          Osprey

​                     Aether; Otmos

Final Verdict

As we are approaching the end of this trail, one questions remains. Which is better – external or internal frame backpacks?

Here’s what – it’s all about personal preference. The most important thing is to feel comfortable with your pack and to be able to put all the needed gear in it. Don’t forget to take into consideration the terrain and the weather conditions as well.

hiker

It's about personal preference.

My opinion is that it’s not unusual that external frame packs are a vanishing breed.  

It’s a normal evolution. Today, you can do anything with an internal frame backpack. New, enhanced models appear more often than ever that can satisfy even the most pretentious desires.

With that being said, external frame packs certainly have their advantages that still make them the preferred weapon of choice of many hooked backpackers.

Now stop reading and leave a comment below. What is your experience with backpacks and which type do you prefer?

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 8 comments
SkyPath - March 14, 2019

Awesome article! Great and detailed information, even has a video! I will definitely share this article to my friends, and if I need a backpack for hiking, I will use the backpack your introduce! Thank you so much!

Reply
    Asen - March 15, 2019

    Hey there,

    I am really glad you like the article.

    Reply
Diego - March 15, 2019

Hi, this is awesome content. I didn’t know you have this types of backpacks. Cool to know this if I want a backpack I know where to find one

greets

Diego

Reply
    Asen - March 15, 2019

    Hi Diego,

    Always happy to help, my friend. Stay safe!

    Reply
Todd P Matthews - March 15, 2019

I’d be going with an internal frame, simply because it’s a lighter load for me. While external is great in potentially keeping you cooler, the internal frame would be an easier one for my back if I were to venture on longer hikes. Though I must say, the external frame would test my body more if I were up to the challenge!

Reply
    Asen - March 16, 2019

    Hey Todd,

    I agree with you. External frame packs still have their advantages but compared to the internal-framed ones they are dead technology.

    Reply
Lerakinz - March 15, 2019

Hi, this is very helpful. I would love to go hiking very soon. I prefere the internal frame back pack though because it is light and m not good at carrying heavy things.

Reply
    Asen - March 16, 2019

    Hey Lerakinz,

    I also prefer internal frame backpacks. Thanks for hanging around and happy hiking.

    Reply

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