External vs Internal Frame Backpacks: Choosing the Right Bag

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Choosing the right bag so you can hike, camp, and travel in comfort (and possibly style) often begins with assessing the merits of external vs internal frame backpacks. Although internal frame bags have become more popular over the past few decades, neither is inherently ‘better’ than the other. Ultimately, the choice will depend on a variety of personal preferences and the activity at hand.

External vs Internal Frame Backpacks – A summary

  External Frame Internal Frame
Price
  • Generally less expensive
  • Generally more expensive
Weight Distribution
  • Carries heavier loads
  • Better for awkward, unbalanced loads
  • Center of gravity pushed back
  • Keeps load close to body
  • Numerous support points
  • Center of gravity pushed forward
Ventilation
  • Load is carried away from back, more airflow
  • Load hugs back, less airflow
Packing
  • More individual pockets
  • Fewer individual pockets
Activities
  • Better for long distances on established trails
  •  Better for activities requiring arm maneuverability (boulder hopping, skiing, climbing, rough trails etc.)

The Pros and Cons of an External Frame Backpack

The decision between external vs internal frame backpacks largely depends on what activities you plan on doing with the bag. External frame backpacks are built for carrying large loads over long distances with relatively smooth trails. This is not the bag you want if you plan on dodging lots of overhanging branches, hopping over rocks, or squeezing between narrow passages. The external frame pack is designed to carry heavier loads while maintaining an upright posture.  Since the external frame sits slightly away from the body, there is more airflow against the back. Folks prone to overheating or those hiking in very hot weather, may prefer this pack.

The Pros and Cons of an Internal Frame Backpack

Internal frame bags are more flexible, with numerous supports along the shoulders and waist. They conform to the body more – which can mean less airflow against the back, but is good for maneuverability.  Loads will ride closer to the back, bringing the pack’s center of gravity closer to that of the wearer. Shoulder straps are also generally narrower, allowing more arm movement. This pack is better for speedier hikes, and for activities that require arm movement. However, they generally have fewer pockets for compartmentalizing, less air ventilation against the back, and tend to be more expensive.

 

External vs Internal Frame Backpacks: What’s your Demographic?

Backpackers, hikers, and campers are lucky to have a wealth of options when it comes to choosing gear – however, sometimes having a wealth of options can feel overwhelming. The first step to choosing a new pack is deciding between external vs internal frame backpacks. Here are a few recommendations based on your needs and activities.

  What do you need?  Recommended Backpack
Average Joe - I don’t know, I just want a bag Osprey TalonKelty Redwing
Rugged Trailblazer -Excellent suspension-Good airflow-Attachment points Osprey Packs AtmosGregory Z35 Pack
Hardcore Mountaineer -Fits larger load-Compression straps- Suspension and comfort Deuter Aircontact 65+10 Backpacking PackGranite Gear Stratus Access Sage
Backpacker/ World Traveler - Lockable zippers- Raincover- Lots of pockets High Sierra Classic Series 59401
Canoe Paddler - Fits in canoe-Can also go hiking and camping  Teton Sports Escape
Winter Hiker - Enough room for winter gear  Osprey MutantGregory Alpinisto
Under 18 - A kid’s size pack Osprey Kids 18 Liter Jet DaypackKelty Juniors Tioga External FrameYouths Osprey Ace
Hiking with Baby - Baby-carrier-Enough room for baby’s things and my things  Osprey Packs Poc
Hiking with Children -Enough room for my stuff, and a few of the kid’s things JanSport Trail Series Katahdin External Frame

 

Average Joe

For those people not too worried about technical specifications and just want to be comfortable while on the trail. If you’re thinking ‘I just want a bag, and I want my stuff to fit in it’, focus on the size and fit of the bag and don’t worry too much about the pack’s other bells and whistles. Internal frame backpacks are easier to find and more popular among outfitting stores. For a solid pack that will hold your stuff comfortably during hikes consider the Osprey Talon or the Kelty Redwing. Both are durable, affordable, and get excellent reviews. You’ll  feel comfortable and impress your hiker-friends. For those looking for an inexpensive pack to get them through the day —–

Rugged Trailblazer

Hikers with experience have a better idea of what they want on the trail. The question of internal vs external frame backpacks is largely one of personal preference and the type of trail you’ll be embarking on. External frames are generally better on smoother trails. An internal frame may be better for a very rugged hike that will require scrambling or dodging branches. Experienced hikers should also start thinking about their pack’s suspension system – this modifies how the pack carries weight so you’ll feel comfortable throughout the hike. Good airflow along your pack and whether you’ll be attaching things to your pack (sleeping bag?) are also important considerations. Osprey Packs Atmos and Gregory Z35 (or Z40 depending on size preference) are both excellent choices.

Hardcore Mountaineer

Those of you about to embark on an expedition involving steep rocky mountains, cold nights, and long nights of camping are probably experienced enough to know what you’ll need from your pack. If there’s any doubt though – you’ll want a pack large enough to carry all your gear, compression straps to hold it all in, and an excellent suspension system to make it all comfortable to hold. Durability in a pack will also be important (it should last more than one expedition right?). Popular packs among the dedicated crowd include the Deuter Aircontact and the Granite Gear Stratus.

Backpacker/World Traveler

Not everyone in the backpack market plans to spend all of their time in the woods. Checkout our article on choosing a backpackers backpack. For the quick rundown – you want zippers to protect your stuff in shady hostels, a rain cover for the elements, and pockets to separate your dirty laundry from the clean. Durability, fit, and comfort are also important. Consider the High Sierra Classic  or the Osprey Talon.

Canoe Paddler

If your hike is going to involve time in a canoe definitely keep in mind the size and flexibility of your pack. For the question of external vs internal frame backpacks – consider going internal so you don’t need to worry about your rigid external frame catching on to things (or worse, not fitting well into the canoe). Consider the Teton Sports Escape for its ultra-lightweight internal frame.

Winter Hiker

Winter hikers tend to have bulkier gear and more of it. You pack will have to fit thicker sweaters, thicker sleeping bags, and perhaps more fuel for your stove, etc. Winter hikes can, of course, be of differing lengths and intensity. Consider what gear you plan on bringing: ice picks, snow shoes, ski poles, extra camping gear. Then plan on your pack from there. Compression straps and attachment points for your winter gear will be useful. Whether you go external frame or internal will be up to personal preference here. Consider the Osprey Mutant or Gregory Alpinisto.

Under 18

Nobody expects a 10 year old kid to lug around an 80 liter pack all day. However, it’s important for children to feel involved and gain the experience of carrying something around the woods. For kids 5-8 consider loading them up with a “normal” schoolbag. For those with hiking gusto the Osprey Kids 18 Liter Jet Daypack is a good choice as is the Kelty Juniors Tioga External Frame.

For children ages 12-16 consider the Youths Osprey Ace which offers an excellent suspension system (no more complaining!) and offers up to six inches torso adjustment for quickly growing kids.

Hiking with Baby

For those hiking with infants, consider a pack with an attached child carrier such as the Osprey Packs Poco. These packs come with attached day packs for necessary gear. Choose a hiking child carrier that is well padded and, of course, has a reputation for safety.

Hiking with Children

Offering children an enjoyable experience is key to getting them into hiking at an early age. Sometimes this means carrying some of their gear for them. If you’re hiking with tykes that can’t quite carry all their own stuff, you may have to help them out. This will require a larger pack. Focus on larger packs that have excellent suspension and compression packs. And remember how much you love your children. Consider the JanSport Trail Series Katahdin External Frame.

How to Choose a Backpackers Backpack

Backpackers – the kind that live in hostels, travel the world, and find themselves in urban and rural areas depending on the trip – will have different needs than hikers.  A backpackers backpack will have different features than someone preparing for a twelve day hike in the mountains. Here’s a list of what to look out for and what to avoid, ensuring you invest in the best pack for you.

  • External vs Internal Frame Backpacks

Internal frame backpacks are popular these days, and this works in your favour. Everyone has their own preference and you should weigh the pros and cons of external vs internal frame backpacks on your own. However, while it’s possible to travel with an external frame quite happily, many choose to backpack with an internal frame. A backpackers backpack should be able to survive the flight to your destination (and the baggage handlers), as well as be light and allow you maneuverability. A bent external frame after a long-haul flight will not make for a happy backpacker.

  • Waterproof Materials

You may not be planning to march around town in the rain, but weather has a way of not sticking to the plan. You may also find your pack unloaded onto wet pavement after a long rainy bus-ride or an overenthusiastic backpacker friend may simply spill his drink on you. Definitely look for water-resistant materials for your backpackers backpack, or you may end up with wet and musty-smelling clothes.

  • Lockable Zippers

Make sure the main compartment of your pack has two zippers that are lockable. If you plan on putting anything valuable in your pack (personal documents, jewelry, souvenirs, etc), be sure to travel with a lock that you can use. This is essential for a backpackers backpack – especially if you’ll be staying in shared dorms.

  • Multiple Compartments

Having multiple compartments on your backpackers backpack will help you separate and organize your pack. Keep your clean clothes separate from your shoes, your books separate from your wet umbrella, and your snacks somewhere easy to access.

  • Standard Size and Fit Rules Still Apply

Although a backpackers backpack will differ from a hikers pack in a few ways, the fitting rules are the same. Be sure to buy a pack that fits really well. You may also want to invest in a bag with a padded hip belt, padded shoulder pads, and padded back for more comfort. Once you’ve been walking around town a bit, you’ll be glad you went for the extra-comfort.

Don’t Waste Money

Don’t buy an 80L pack if you can get away with travelling on a 40L pack (the smaller bag is cheaper, and really you don’t want to be carrying all that extra weight). Also beware of bags that charge an arm and a leg for bells and whistles you just don’t need. A good backpackers backpack could run you up to $300, but a solid pack really shouldn’t cost you more than $100-$200.

Our Favorite Bags

With the above tips in mind – here are a few of our favorite packs (note the numbers in the name refer to capacity (liters), but the bags can often be found in other sizes if you click through):

Osprey Exos 46

  • This super lightweight pack is often praised by backpackers for its comfort and durability. It has an excellent ventilation system (so your back won’t get all sweaty) and will sometimes be allowed as a carry-on for international flights!

Kelty Redwing 50

  • One of the best- selling packs in the industry this backpackers backpack offers a full-access U-zipper with zippered side pockets, a stash pocket, and lots more pockets.  Suspension designed for all day carry comfort, with airflow back panel to keep you cool.

High Sierra Classic Series 59401 Sentinel 65

  • This top-loading bag comes with lots of compartments, its own rain-cover, and an excellent suspension system. Heavy loads won’t feel so heavy with this bag. It also comes at an amazing price (typically $240 – now $91.38!).

Arc’teryx Altra 65

  • For those of you willing to spend the big bucks, this is the pack to go to. Lightweight and comfortable, this pack can handle anything you throw at it. The U-zipper allows easy access, and the two ‘wingman’ pockets are accessible while carrying the pack (so you can grab your camera easily!). Water-resistant, perfectly balanced, and pretty to look at – this is an excellent pack.

Finding an External Frame Backpack

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External Frame Backpacks Are Still an Option

Internal frame backpacks are currently in vogue which means finding an external frame pack can be quite difficult. Since the 1980s the internal frame pack has been getting sleeker, sexier, and…more expensive. Pack retailers seem to have the question of external vs internal frame backpacks covered, but those external frames still have a loyal following. If you need reasons to purchase an external frame pack – check out the pros and cons of this sturdy bag. If you’re ready to find your next pack, read on.

The Big Outdoor Chains

Hiking and outdoor chain-stores are great places to go for backpacking and traveling gear. However, they do not offer a huge range of external frame backpacks. The North Face, Patagonia, L.L. Bean all only offer internal frame bags (at least online). Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) offers three external packs – all from the Kelty brand. Our favorite store, REI, offers a whopping 7 options – 3 of which are child carriers. We still recommend checking out REI’s store – their brand is known for its conservation efforts and commitment to hikers (plus REI members get a 10% annual refund!).

Just go to Amazon.com

Amazon.com offers a much wider selection on external frame backpacks and you can do all your shopping from the ease of your home. Their website is not great for navigating backpacks (REI for example lets you sort by capacity, frame type, gender, weight, etc). However, if you know what you’re looking for (and we’d be happy to make recommendations), Amazon.com is a great place to find deals. A search for “external frame backpacks” will give lots of options to choose from.

Buy Used

If you can’t find what you’re looking for at Amazon.com or one of the other standard hiking retailers – it may be time to look for a used external frame backpack. Ebay has lots of options and you could try your luck with Craigslist. You’ll really need to know what you’re looking for ahead of time though. Unlike the options listed above, used backpacks don’t often come with a return policy. So if the pack doesn’t fit right or arrives defective you may be out of luck.

How to Buy a Backpack – A Beginner’s Guide

Choosing the right backpack for hiking, camping, or world travel is an important choice that will literally weigh on you throughout your trip. It’s thus important to know what to look for before making a purchase. Here are a few guidelines for first-time buyers.

1.       External vs Internal Frame Backpacks

Backpacks are typically categorized into three types: daypacks, external frame, and internal frame bags. Daypacks are generally soft-backed and meant for single day hikes, runs, or bike rides. For longer treks requiring more gear you’ll want to go with a larger external or internal frame backpack. One is not better than the other, but be sure to read up on the pros and cons of external vs internal frame backpacks.

2.       Capacity and What You’ll Pack

Packs come in varying sizes, generally measured in cubic inches or liters. Choosing the right size is important so you’re not carrying excess weight, but have enough space for all the gear you’ll need. Think about how long you’ll be traveling and what kind of packer you are (do you prepare for every exigency or are you a bare minimalist). Although preferences will vary, there are standard sizes for weekend, weeklong, and expedition gear.

  Capacity: Will Hold:
Daypack 1200-2500 in3 / 20-40 liters Water, snacks, camera, light jacket, small trinkets
Weekend Pack (2-3 nights) 2500-3600 in3 / 40-60 liters Small tent, sleeping bag, few clothing items, few meals
Weeklong Pack (2-5 nights) 3600-4900 in3 / 60-80 liters Bigger tent, kitchen gear, good for summer weather trips
Expedition Pack (5+ nights) 4900+ in3 / 80+ liters Mountaineering gear, winter trips, gear for children (family hiking)

3.       Size or How Tall Are You?

Backpacks come in different sizes! Choosing the right size is important so that the weight of your bag can be carried evenly and not cause discomfort. Before purchasing an external or internal frame backpack, be sure to measure your torso length. Using a measuring tape have a friend measure from the knobbiest vertebrae at the base of your neck/top of your back (called the C7 vertebrae) down to the ‘shelf’ of your hips (or the iliac crest, if you put your hands on your hips, this is where your thumbs go).

Approximate Sizing for Packs (May vary by brand and style)

Pack Size Torso Length
Extra-Small (XS) Up to 15”
Small (S) 16”-17”
Medium/Regular (M) 18”-20”
Large/Tall (L) 20” +

 4.       Fit

Once you’ve decided on a bag or two that might work – try it on to make sure it fits properly! Put in 15-20 pounds and try to fill up some of the volume. Then loosen the main straps including the shoulder strap load adjusters, shoulder straps, hip belt, and hip belt load adjusters. Put the pack on, fasten the hip belt, and start tightening the straps. Shrug up high and tighten the hip belt while shrugging. Adjust all straps as need and finally fasten the sternum strap. Is the pack comfortable?

5.       Bells and Whistles

Packs are getting increasingly high-tech, however many of these ‘extras’ are exactly that and you can take them or leave them. A few to consider include: waterproofing, integrated rain cover, water-bottle pockets, ventilated back, and attachments points (ice axe loops, trekking pole lashings, ski carrying system, etc).

6.       Cost

A good pack can be an investment and for those planning to spend a great deal of time outdoors or on the road, it may be a good idea to spend a little extra. A good pack will likely cost you between $99-$300 depending on size, fabric, and brand. Travelers looking for a good pack that will hold up over the course of a trip should look to spend $100-$200. Packs at higher prices will likely come with lots of bells and whistles that only the most invested trekkers will need.