When choosing a hiking backpack, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is whether to go with a framed or frameless model. The backpack you choose determines how much gear you can carry, your comfort, and your hiking speed. The best hiking backpack for you depends on several factors including the weight and volume of your gear, how far you’re hiking, your physical condition, personal preference, and more. This guide outlines the pros and cons of using a frame vs frameless backpack to help you decide. We’ll cover weight, volume, comfort, ventilation, durability, cost, efficiency, and much more. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the perfect backpack for your next adventure.
What is a Framed Backpack?
Framed backpacks have a rigid structure built-in. They can’t be folded or compressed. Framed backpacks are usually large. They often have a capacity of 40-90 liters.
The frame serves several purposes. It helps to distribute the weight you’re carrying from the backpack to your hips and shoulders. This allows you to carry more weight. It also helps to improve comfort and reduce the chance of injury. The frame prevents the backpack from shifting on your back as you move around. In addition, it gives the backpack structure. This makes packing easier.
In the past, the frame was made from heavy materials such as wood or steel. These backpacks were durable but far too heavy. Modern backpack frames are made from lightweight materials such as aluminum, plastic, or carbon fiber.
Framed backpacks can be divided into two categories: internal and external frame. Each offers its own advantages and disadvantages. I’ll outline each in the following sections. If you want more in-depth info, I also have a whole article comparing internal Vs external framed backpacks.
Internal Frame Backpack
Internal frame backpacks have a rigid frame that is sewn inside of the backpack. The frame is usually completely covered in fabric so you can’t see it from the inside or outside of the backpack.
On most models, the frame is a rectangular structure made from aluminum tubes. It is sewn into the edges of the back panel. Ultralight internal framed backpacks use stays. These are aluminum bars that slide into pockets on the inside of the back panel. Some models use a rigid frame sheet that is made from plastic. The sheet is sewn into the back panel.
The frame of internal framed backpacks is stiff but not completely rigid. You can’t fold it or compress it. Most internal frames are designed to have a bit of flex. This improves the backpack’s suspension system. The suspension system helps transfer weight from your pack to your hips and shoulders. It also allows the pack to move with you. For example, if you bend at the waist and arch your back, the pack will flex with your back.
Having the frame on the inside makes the pack much sleeker and less cumbersome. When the bag is packed, you wouldn’t even know the frame is there. This is useful while hiking through densely forested areas and technical terrain.
The internal frame is the most common hiking backpack design. Internal frame backpacks have pretty much replaced external frame models at this point. If you walk into a sporting goods store or onto a hiking trail most of the backpacks that you see have an internal frame.
External Frame Backpack
External frame backpacks have a large metal frame that is clearly visible from the outside of the pack. The shoulder straps, hip belt, and mesh or foam back padding attach to one side of the frame. The main compartment of the backpack, where you store your gear, attaches to the other side of the frame.
The frame is completely rigid. It doesn’t flex or bend at all. The load also sits up high on your body. This helps the pack better distribute weight to your hips. The frame also holds the load away from your body. This improves ventilation. The external frame is made from aluminum tubing.
On most models, the frame extends several inches down below the bottom of the fabric backpack. The hip belt is mounted to the backside of this section of the frame. The other side is designed for lashing bulky gear such as your tent or sleeping bag. On some models, the frame extends a couple of inches above the top of the backpack. This is a good place to lash a foam sleeping pad. This design allows you to carry bulky and heavy camping gear.
These backpacks look a bit dated. External framed backpacks have been pretty much replaced by internal frame backpacks. Having the frame on the outside can also make the backpack a bit more cumbersome to carry around. The frame also adds a considerable amount of weight.
External framed backpacks remain popular among those who have to carry extremely heavy loads such as soldiers, hunters, and survivalists. Some hikers still use external framed backpacks for nostalgic reasons.
What is a Frameless Backpack?
A frameless backpack has no rigid structure or frame. When empty, the pack can be bent, folded, compressed, or rolled. It is essentially a bag with shoulder straps and a hip belt sewn on. Frameless backpacks are usually made from durable and water-resistant synthetic materials such as ripstop nylon, X-Pac, or Dyneema.
Some frameless backpacks feature a thick piece of foam padding or an insert that rests up against your back to improve comfort. This can give the pack a bit of structure.
You can also use the load itself to give the pack structure. A foam sleeping pad or sit pad can be used to make a kind of frame sheet. Some frameless backpacks even have a dedicated slot for your foam sleeping pad. In this case, the sleeping pad acts as back padding and structure for your pack.
Frameless backpacks tend to be smaller than framed backpacks. Most models have a capacity of 25-45 liters. 50-65 liter models are available but are less common. They are lighter as well because they lack a frame.
Frameless backpacks are smaller because they are designed for ultralight hiking. Most have a maximum weight capacity of around 10 kg or 22 pounds. They have a lower capacity because they can’t distribute weight to your hips quite as efficiently as framed packs.
Framed Backpack Pros
1. Framed Backpacks offer Better Ventilation
The frame holds the main body of the backpack away from your back. This greatly increases breathability. Air can freely pass between your back and the backpack, allowing sweat to evaporate and vent away. On some models, the ventilation is so good that you can even feel a cool breeze pass over your back as you hike.
Most internal framed backpacks have a mesh or foam layer of material that sits directly against your back. This material is designed to be breathable. Oftentimes, there are ventilation channels cut into the back panel for additional airflow. Some internal framed backpacks feature a mesh back panel that is held at tension by the frame. The frame holds the main body of the backpack away from your back.
On external frame backpacks, there is empty space between your body and the backpack. There is a large gap between your back and the backpack’s fabric. Only a small band of fabric rests against your back. This design allows for excellent air circulation.
This ventilation makes framed backpacks ideal for hiking in hot, humid, and tropical climates. Having a relatively cool and dry back greatly improves comfort. Your shirt stays dry. You don’t have sweat running down your back. Chafing is less likely as well.
Frameless backpacks can’t offer the same ventilation because the backpack rests directly against your back.
2. Framed backpacks offer more support
The purpose of the frame is to distribute the weight of the load to your hips and shoulders. Ideally, you want around 80% of your pack’s weight to rest on your hips and the remaining 20% to rest on your shoulders. The weight on your shoulders should sit on the front of your shoulders. Not the top.
Framed backpacks do a better job of transferring weight to your hips. The rigid frame efficiently transfers weight from the pack directly to your hips. As a result, very little weight rests on your shoulders.
Framed backpacks also have a suspension system. This includes the frame, shoulders straps, hip belt, load lifter straps, etc. These parts work together to support the weight of the load.
Frameless packs don’t offer the same amount of support. The suspension system is less effective because of the lack of a frame.
3. Framed Backpack can Carry More Weight
A well-designed internal framed backpack allows you to carry 30-50 pounds (14-22 kg) of gear. A strong hiker with a heavy-duty external frame backpack can carry 100-150 pounds (45-68 kg) of gear. To compare, most frameless backpacks have a maximum recommended weight capacity of around 25 pounds (11 kg) or less.
Framed backpacks allow you to carry more weight by better distributing the weight of your gear across your shoulders and hips. This is possible thanks to the rigid frame. It efficiently transfers the weight from the pack to your hips through the hip belt and to your shoulders through the shoulder straps.
One major benefit is that you can use more affordable camping gear. For example, you can use an $80 tent that weighs 8 lbs. You don’t have to spend $300 on an ultralight 3 pound tent.
The frame allows you to carry a heavier load more comfortably, more safely, and more efficiently. If you need to carry more than around 20 pounds (9 kg) of gear, you’re better off going with a backpack with a frame.
Just because you can carry more weight with a framed backpack doesn’t mean you should. A heavier backpack requires more energy to carry around. It’s also more cumbersome. A heavy pack can also throw off your balance. It’s important to avoid overpacking.
As a rule of thumb, your backpack should weigh less than 20% of your body weight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kg), your backpack should weigh no more than 30 pounds (14 kg). This rule only holds up if you’re of average weight. Otherwise, it falls apart. For more info on backpack weight, check out this great guide.
4. Framed Backpacks Can Carry a Larger Volume of Gear
The storage capacity of framed and frameless backpacks is measured the same. A 45 liter internal framed pack can accommodate the same amount of gear as a 45 liter external framed backpack.
Because framed backpacks can handle more weight, they are available in larger capacities. Most framed backpacks are in the 45-65 liter range. Larger models in the 80-100 liter range are also available.
If you use an external framed backpack, you can also strap bulky gear, such as your tent and sleeping bag, directly to the frame. This frees up lots of interior space, greatly increasing the total capacity of the backpack.
To compare, frameless backpacks usually have a capacity of 45 liters or less. Larger 65+ liter models are available but they are less common.
There are several benefits to using a larger capacity hiking backpack. Most importantly, you can carry bulkier gear. This can save you a significant amount of money by allowing you to buy cheaper, entry-level gear. You don’t need to buy expensive ultralight gear when you use a large framed backpack. For example, you can buy a bulky synthetic sleeping bag from Amazon for $100. You don’t need to buy a $300 ultralight compressible down sleeping bag from a cottage manufacturer. Cheaper gear can perform just as well as more expensive gear. It’s just heavier and bulkier.
Using a larger backpack also allows you to carry some luxury items. For example, you’ll have space for a camping pillow, an extra jacket, or some photography equipment. You’ll also have space to carry more food and water. This comes in handy if you’re hiking in an area where resupplying is difficult. You can also carry additional gear when you need it. For example, if you’re winter hiking, you may need to pack extra gear such as gloves, a hat, a scarf, snowshoes, and a bulkier sleeping bag. With a larger volume internal framed backpack, you’ll have some extra space for this gear. The extra space comes in handy.
5. Framed Backpacks are More Comfortable
Framed backpacks feature a suspension system that appropriately distributes the weight of your gear across your body. Most of the weight rests on your hips. The rest of the weight rests on your shoulders. When adjusted and packed properly, you hardly feel the pack.
Internal framed backpacks are also highly adjustable. You can adjust the shoulder straps, hip belt, load lifters, stabilizer straps, etc. Sometimes you can also adjust the torso length by moving the shoulder straps up and down. This allows you to better dial in the fit. A pack that fits your body is more comfortable to wear.
Another way framed backpacks improve comfort is by holding the main body of the backpack away from your back. There is either empty space or a thick foam panel that separates the pack from your body. The benefit is that you can’t feel your gear poking into your back.
Framed backpacks also tend to have more padding. The shoulder straps and hip belt are usually thicker and wider. This padding reduces pressure on your shoulders and hips, where the straps meet your body. Framed packs have more padding because they are designed to carry more weight.
Framed backpacks also feel exactly the same every time you put them on. They are consistently comfortable. This is possible because the structure of the pack is built-in and is always in the same place. If the pack was comfortable when you tried it on in the store, it will still be comfortable on the trail. With a frameless pack, you create structure in the pack with your gear. This is less consistent.
The superior ventilation of framed backpacks also improves comfort. Airflow between the pack and your body ensures that your back and shirt stay dry. Sweat evaporates away. This keeps you cool and comfortable while hiking in hot and humid climates.
6. Framed backpacks have a better suspension system
Hiking backpacks have a built-in suspension system. The suspension system consists of the frame, back panel, shoulder straps, hip belt, load lifter straps, stabilizer straps, and sternum straps. These components all work together.
The suspension system serves two purposes. It distributes the weight of your gear across your body. It also allows you to move naturally and freely while wearing the backpack.
Framed backpacks can have a more effective suspension system. This is possible thanks to the rigid frame. It efficiently transfers weight from the pack to your hips. A well-designed suspension system makes you feel like you’re not wearing a backpack at all. Almost like the backpack is floating against your back.
In order for the suspension system to work, the backpack needs to fit your torso properly. It also needs to be adjusted properly.
7. Framed backpacks are easier to Pack
When packing a framed backpack, you don’t have to be quite as careful about how you pack your gear. Because the pack has structure and sits away from your body, you don’t have to worry as much about your gear poking into your back. Because the frame helps distribute weight, you don’t have to be quite as careful about where you pack each item in your pack. If the backpack is slightly unbalanced, the frame can accommodate for the uneven weight.
When you use a framed backpack, you also don’t have to worry quite as much about the weight and size of your gear. Framed backpacks come in larger sizes and have a higher weight capacity. If you want to carry a massive synthetic sleeping bag, you can. If you want to pack 8 pounds of camera equipment, you can. You don’t have to go ultralight.
Many framed backpacks also have a second zipper near the bottom. This allows you to access gear at the bottom of the pack without having to remove everything. You can also strap some gear to the outside of your pack if you choose. This all makes packing a bit easier.
8. Framed backpacks offer more organizational features
Because weight isn’t as much of an issue, framed backpacks often come with additional features to help keep you organized. For example, the pack might come with a couple of extra zippered pockets on the outside for storing small items. Some models come with hip belt pockets. The pack might have a hook for your keys and a shoulder strap pocket for your phone. Some models come with loops for your trekking poles and ice ax. You might also get a water bladder pocket and an extra water bottle holder. Oftentimes, there is a floating lid with a large zippered pocket. Most models also feature exterior straps for lashing gear. There may also be a daisy chain that you can clip extra gear to.
These little features add a small amount of weight but greatly improve usability and convenience. It’s much easier to stay organized when you have a way to separate your gear. Frameless backpacks usually don’t come with these organizational features due to the additional weight that they add.
9. Framed backpacks feel more balanced
Internal framed backpacks feel more balanced because the frame holds the backpack in place on your back. It can’t shift around as easily as you hike. Your center of gravity remains in one place. You’ll feel more stable as a result.
This balance allows you to hike over loose, rugged, and treacherous terrain with more confidence. You don’t have to worry as much about losing your balance and falling. You’re less likely to topple over if you slip. If you do lose your footing, you can catch yourself more easily.
There is an exception to this. External framed backpacks do not feel as balanced as internal frame or frameless packs. The reason is that they hold the weight up high and away from your body. This is necessary to get proper weight distribution to your hips. The problem with having the load sit up so high is that it can make you feel top-heavy. This makes it a bit harder to balance. It’s easy to topple over if you trip or lose your footing.
10. The Frame Can Help Protect your Gear
The rigid frame prevents the backpack from being compressed from top to bottom and from side to side. This can help protect your fragile gear from getting crushed or squashed.
For example, if your backpack gets dropped with a fragile camera or laptop inside, the frame can absorb some of the impact. The frame can also help to protect your food from getting squished. For example, if you’re traveling with your backpack as a checked bag, the frame can help prevent your gear from getting crushed under the weight of other suitcases. This reduces the liklihood of damage.
11. There is a Larger Selection of Framed Backpacks
You’ll have far more options to choose from if you decide to go with a framed backpack. This is the case because the demand for framed backpacks is much higher than for frameless backpacks. More people buy them. To fill this demand, all of the major backpack manufacturers offer framed hiking backpacks. There are hundreds of options to choose from.
Because there are so many options available, you can choose any shape, size, weight, color, or material that you want. You can find internal framed packs in every weight class from ultralight to heavy-duty. You can find sizes from 20L to over 100L. Top load and front load options are available. Whatever features you’re looking for in an internal framed backpack, chances are, you’ll find one that meets your requirements.
Frameless hiking backpacks are a bit less common. They are a bit of a niche piece of gear.
12. Framed Backpacks are Healthier and Safer to Carry
The internal frame holds the backpack in place against your back. While wearing a framed backpack, you won’t feel like the pack is pulling you to the side or backward if it’s packed unevenly. You won’t feel the pack shift around on your back. You’re less likely to lose your balance and fall as a result.
The weight of your gear is also carried in a healthier manner. The frame distributes the majority of the weight of your gear to your hips. This puts less pressure on your shoulders and back. With a frame, you can carry more weight or hike further without having to worry about back pain or damage. If you suffer from any type of back or shoulder issue, you’ll be better off with a framed backpack.
This point is really only true if you’re carrying a heavier load. With a lighter load, the health and safety benefit is less significant.
13. Framed Backpacks are More Versatile
With a framed backpack, you can carry more gear due to the higher weight capacity and greater volume. This increases versatility.
For example, you could use the same framed backpack for four-season hiking. During the summer, you can pack light and just leave the pack partially empty. During the winter, you can use the extra volume and weight capacity to haul bulky cold weather gear such as a heavier sleeping bag, crampons, snowshoes, extra gloves, etc.
You can also use a framed backpack for hikes of different distances. A lightweight 30-50 liter framed pack can be suitable for day hikes as well as multi-day hikes and thru-hikes.
You can also use the extra capacity to carry extra gear or luxury gear if you choose. For example, maybe you want to pack a drone and photography equipment. Maybe you want to carry a wood tent stove. Maybe you want to bring an extra-large tent. With a framed pack, you can.
Internal framed backpacks also make excellent travel backpacks. I have used my 44 liter internal framed hiking backpack as a travel backpack for the past decade. In that time, I carried it on dozens of flights. It fits in the overhead bin of most airplanes, buses, and trains. Over the years, I’ve walked hundreds of miles through dozens of cities with it.
If you only have the budget for one backpack, an internal framed model is a great choice. A lightweight 40-60 liter internal framed backpack is an incredibly versatile piece of gear.
Framed Backpack Cons
1. Framed backpacks are heavier than frameless
The frame adds a significant amount of weight to the pack. A lightweight 45 liter framed backpack weigh around 3-4 lbs (1.6-1.8 kg). A 65 liter framed backpack weighs around 5 lbs (2.26 kg). A heavy duty external framed backpack can weigh over 10 lbs (4.5 kg). External framed backpacks are heavier than internal framed backpacks because the frame is usually larger, thicker, and made from a heavier material. To compare, an ultralight 45 liter frameless backpack might weigh just 2 lbs (0.9 kg). On average, a framed backpack weighs around 1-1.5 lbs more than a comparable frameless model.
Framed backpacks are heavier for several reasons. The frame itself adds a considerable amount of weight. Framed backpacks also tend to have thicker shoulder straps, hip belts, and back pads than frameless packs. The materials used are often thicker as well. This all adds weight.
The extra weight makes framed backpacks less efficient to carry. It takes more energy to carry the extra weight around. You won’t be able to hike quite as far or as fast when you use a framed backpack.
The weight of the frame does make up for itself by better distributing the load, allowing you to carry more weight more easily. It is still worth considering whether or not you actually need to carry the extra weight. If you’re an ultralight hiker, the frame can be dead weight you’re carrying around unnecessarily.
It’s also important to note that not all framed backpacks are heavy and bulky. Modern ultralight internal framed backpacks weigh just a few ounces more than frameless models.
2. Framed Backpacks are More Expensive
A quality internal framed backpack costs around $150-$300. To compare, an ultralight frameless backpack costs around $100-$200. On average, a framed backpack costs $50-$100 more than a comparable frameless model.
The frame adds complexity to the backpack. It is an extra part that needs to be manufactured and installed. It is also another material that needs to be produced. In addition, it also costs money to research and develop a frame that integrates into the pack’s suspension system. Modern framed backpack suspension systems are complex. This all adds to the cost of the backpack. You’re paying for the frame.
You can save some money on your hiking equipment when you use a framed backpack. This is possible because you can use cheaper gear that is heavier and bulkier. You don’t need to use premium ultralight gear. For example, instead of buying an ultralight tent for $300, you can buy a basic department store tent for $100. This can save you a substantial amount of money.
3. Framed Backpacks are Less Efficient
You may not be able to hike quite as fast or as far when you use a framed backpack. This is because the pack is heavier due to the weight of the frame. The extra weight slows you down. You burn more energy when you’re carrying more weight.
You won’t be able to cover as much ground each day. Your hikes will also take a bit longer. You may spend an extra 30-60 minutes on the trail to cover the same distance as other hikers who use frameless packs.
4. Framed Backpacks are More Difficult to Transport
You can’t compress or fold a framed backpack because the frame is rigid. This may not seem like a big deal because you’re always wearing your pack while hiking. It can be an issue while transporting your pack to your hiking destinations.
For example, while traveling, you might need to take your pack on a plane, bus, train, taxi, or boat. In many cases, luggage sizes are limited. A large framed backpack may not fit in the luggage storage area. It can’t be compressed to fit due to the rigid frame.
If you’re planning to fly with your framed backpack and use it as a carry-on, you’ll have to choose a model that is small enough to fit in the overhead bin of an airplane. On most airlines, the bag must measure 22″ x 14″ x 9″ or smaller to be considered carry-on. The length is often an issue with internal framed backpacks. Most hiking backpacks are taller than 22”. Framed backpacks can’t be compressed down because the frame is rigid. Frameless packs can be compressed to fit if they’re not packed full.
If you need to fly with a framed pack, be sure to check the airline’s luggage requirements and measure the bag before you book your flight. Most airlines will give you an inch or two of leeway.
I have used a framed hiking backpack as my main travel backpack for the past decade. My travel backpack is about 2” over the airline carry-on size limit. It measures 24″ high while the limit is 22″. Most of the time, I can carry it on airplanes without any issues. Every once in a while, a ticketing agent forces to check it. On some buses, I can carry it on. Usually, it’s too large to fit in the overhead luggage compartment. It usually fits on trains. Even when the backpack is partially empty, I can’t compress it to make it fit because of the frame.
5. Framed Backpacks are More Difficult to Fit
Sizing is crucial with framed backpacks. If the backpack doesn’t fit you right, it will not properly distribute the weight of your gear. At the very least, a poorly fitting pack will cause discomfort. In the worst case, it can cause pain or even a back injury if used repeatedly.
When buying a framed backpack, you need to make sure it fits your torso size. In order to do this, you really need to try the pack on and adjust it to your body to make sure it fits you. Fit is particularly important with external framed backpacks because they have fewer adjustment options. Internal farmed packs tend to be more adjustable.
Before buying a backpack, it’s a good idea to load it with some weight to make sure it feels comfortable when it’s full. Most sporting goods stores have some weighted bags that you can use to fill the pack and test it out. Remember, while hiking you’ll be wearing your pack for 4-8+ hours per day. It needs to be comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
This makes framed backpacks a bit harder to buy. You may or may not get a good fit when ordering online or when you buy used. You really need to try the pack on in person.
6. Framed Backpacks aren’t as Durable as Frameless
It is possible for a backpack frame to break. A luggage handler could toss your pack or stack other bags on top of it and break a frame tube. You could drop your backpack on an uneven surface and bend the frame. This kind of damage is uncommon but it can happen.
A bent or broken frame tube can tear through the backpack’s fabric and create a hole. A damaged frame also makes the pack sit uneven on your back. If this happens, the backpack is pretty much useless.
Some damage can be repaired. If the frame tears through the fabric but is not broken, you may be able to simply sew the fabric back together. This kind of wear is common as backpacks age. If an aluminum frame tube gets bent, you may be able to bend it back into shape. Be careful not to break it when doing this. If the damage is too severe, you’ll have to replace the backpack.
Frameless Backpack Pros
1. Frameless Backpacks are Lightweight
An ultralight frameless backpack weighs around 20-30 ounces (around 566-850 grams). To compare, a similar-sized lightweight internal framed backpack would weigh closer to 48 ounces (1350 grams.) On average, a frameless backpack weighs 8-16 ounces (220-450 grams) less than a comparable internal framed backpack. If you’re an ultralight hiker, this represents a significant weight savings.
When you compare a frameless pack to an external framed backpack, the weight difference is even more significant. A frameless pack can weigh less than a quarter of the weight.
Frameless backpacks are lighter because they simply contain less material. They don’t have a metal frame. They also tend to be a smaller capacity so they contain less fabric. In many cases, they are made from thinner and lighter ultralight fabrics as well. In most cases, there is also less padding. The shoulder straps and hip belt are usually thinner as well. You can get away with less padding and thinner straps because frameless packs are designed to carry less weight. You don’t need as much support to carry a 15 pound load as you need to carry a 30 pound load.
To save even more weight, some hikers choose to go without a hip belt. This can save around 2-4 ounces. You should only consider going without a hip belt if your base weight is under 10 lbs. Otherwise, it’s worth the extra ounces.
The lighter weight makes frameless backpacks more efficient to carry. It takes less energy to carry a lighter backpack around. You’ll be able to hike faster and further when using a lightweight frameless backpack. If you’re carrying less than 20lbs of gear, it doesn’t make sense to carry a heavy framed backpack.
2. Frameless Backpacks are Cheaper
In most cases, frameless backpacks cost less than framed models. An ultralight frameless backpack might cost $150-$200. A comparable framed pack might cost closer to $200-$300. You can save $50-$100 by going frameless.
Frameless backpacks are cheaper because they are less complex. This makes them easier and faster to manufacture, reducing labor cost. Frameless backpacks also contain fewer materials. There is no rigid frame and less fabric is needed to make the smaller bags. The shoulder straps and hip belt also require fewer materials because they are thinner and require less padding. The simpler design and lower material expense saves money.
There are exceptions. Premium ultralight frameless backpacks cost just as much or more than framed models. These are usually made from high-tech expensive materials such as Dyneema. They are made by hand by cottage manufacturers who cater to ultralight hikers. These premium ultralight packs can cost $300-$500+.
It is important to consider the cost of your camping gear. In order to use a frameless backpack, you need ultralight gear. Ultralight hiking gear is significantly more expensive than normal-weight hiking gear. When you factor in the cost of an ultralight sleeping bag, tent, and sleeping pad, using a frameless pack is more expensive. With a framed backpack, you can use heavier and bulkier camping gear that is much cheaper.
3. Frameless Backpacks are Easier to Fit
Sizing isn’t quite as important with frameless backpacks. When buying a frameless backpack, you don’t have to worry quite as much about your height or torso size. If the sizing isn’t perfect, you can usually adjust the straps to make the pack fit.
This makes frameless packs much easier to buy. You can use a simple size chart to help you pick the closest size for your height and torso size. Most frameless packs only come in two sizes, small or large.
This allows you to confidently buy online or buy used gear. As long as the fit is close, you can adjust the backpack to fit your body. You don’t need to try the backpack on in person if you don’t want to. If you’re of average size, you can use pretty much any frameless backpack.
Of course, sizing is still important. A 6’6” hiker can’t use a pack that’s designed for a 5’2” hiker comfortably. It’s still a good idea to measure yourself and choose a backpack that is designed for someone of your size. The pack needs to be comfortable.
4. Frameless Backpacks are More Efficient
With a frameless backpack, you’ll be able to hike faster while burning less energy. This is possible because the pack is lighter. It takes less energy to carry a lighter pack around. This allows you to cover more ground each day. You can hike further and see more in less time when you use a lightweight frameless backpack.
According to this interesting article about backpack weight and hiking speed:
“the general rule of thumb is that you should expect your pace to slow down around ten seconds per mile for every 1% of your bodyweight you are carrying. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds and your pack weighs 20 pounds, then you will be roughly 100 seconds slower per mile. On a ten-mile hike, then, a 20-pound load will add around 16 minutes to your trip time.”
Realistically, you may be able to cut 10 lbs. of weight by switching from a framed backpack to a frameless backpack and ultralight gear. This could save an average hiker nearly a minute per mile. This savings is particularly important for thru-hikers, who are covering hundreds or even thousands of miles.
With a frameless backpack and ultralight gear, you might be able to cover an extra 1-2 miles per day. If you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail over the course of 5-6 months and averaging 12-16 miles per day, you could complete the hike 8-12 days sooner by using a more efficient frameless backpack. This could make the difference between completing the hike and not completing it.
If you’re naturally a slow hiker, the time savings can be significant. Using a more efficient pack will allow you to hike longer trails that you may not have time to complete with a heavier and less efficient pack. You can also use this added efficiency to see more. We’re all limited by time. You can hike more trails when you hike faster and more efficiently.
5. Frameless Backpacks are Great for Travel
The lack of a rigid frame allows you to compress the backpack or even fold it up so it takes up less space. This can come in handy while traveling.
For example, frameless backpacks can work well as carry-on luggage. You can travel with a large frameless backpack and use compression straps to compress it down so it meets the carry-on size limit (usually around 22″ x 14″ x 9″) while you’re flying. When you’re not flying, you can expand the bag and carry more gear.
Alternatively, you could check your large suitcase or backpack and use a small frameless backpack as a carry-on bag. When you reach your destination, you can compress your frameless backpack and store it inside your main piece of luggage.
Maybe you’re traveling long-term and you want to do some hiking during your trip. You could fold up a small frameless backpack and store it in your luggage. When you want to take a hike, you can unfold the backpack, pack it with whatever you need for the day, and go hiking. When you’re not hiking, the backpack can stay folded up in your luggage.
Maybe you want a small backpack that you can use while you’re out sightseeing. Frameless backpacks make great day packs. While traveling, you can keep your frameless pack compressed in your luggage. There are special frameless packs that are designed for this purpose. They are called packable daypacks.
Maybe you’re going on a big hike that can only be accessed from a base camp. You may want to hike to the base camp with a large framed backpack with your frameless pack inside. From base camp, you could pack your lightweight frameless backpack and take day hikes from base camp. This way, you can enjoy fast ultralight hiking without a heavy framed backpack weighing you down. You still have all of your gear at base camp. This system can work well for mountaineering as well.
Frameless backpacks usually have a simpler design than framed backpacks. There are fewer zippers, stays, straps, and compartments.
There are a couple of benefits of using a simpler backpack. First, it will be more reliable because there are fewer parts that can break. You don’t have to worry as much about a zipper getting jammed or a plastic clip cracking. The simple frameless pack will also be lighter because it has fewer parts and contains less material. It will be easier to fit and adjust as well.
7. Frameless Backpacks are Ideal for Light Loads.
Lightweight frameless backpacks are designed for light loads. If you hike with less than 20-25 pounds (9-11 kg) of gear, you’re better off with a frameless backpack. You don’t need to carry around the extra weight of a frame. It’s unnecessary.
A lightweight backpack with a light load gives you excellent freedom of movement. You can easily hike up steep hills, through dense forests, and over treacherous sections of trail. You barely feel the pack. With a light load, you can also hike faster and more efficiently. You can cover more ground with less effort. This allows you to see more with the time that you have.
8. Frameless Backpacks are Durable
Frameless backpacks have fewer parts that can get damaged. There are no frame tubes that can bend, break, or tear through the fabric. There are fewer straps that can tear, zippers that can jam, and buckles that can break.
If your frameless backpack gets torn on the trail, you can sew it or tape it up and continue your hike. You may not be able to repair a broken framed backpack as easily. This makes frameless backpacks a bit more reliable than framed packs.
Frameless Backpack Cons
1. Frameless Backpacks Have Poor Ventilation
Frameless backpacks rest directly against your back. This means there is no room for air to circulate and for sweat to evaporate and vent away. Sweat builds up and soaks into your shirt and your pack.
On a hot or humid day, the back of your pack can get wet and the back of your shirt can become saturated with sweat. As you can imagine, this gets hot and uncomfortable. Chafing can also be an issue.
Some frameless backpacks do offer a bit of ventilation. They may have a foam pad built into the back panel. Some models have a rubber insert on the back panel that is covered with a mesh layer. These systems can improve ventilation but they aren’t nearly as effective as a frame that holds the pack away from your back.
Due to the poor ventilation, frameless backpacks aren’t ideal for hiking in hot, humid, and tropical environments.
2. You Can’t Carry as Much Weight with a Frameless Backpack
Most frameless backpacks are designed to carry a maximum of 22 pounds or 10 kg. With an internal framed backpack, you could carry 50+ pounds (23 kg) of gear. With an external framed backpack, you can carry over 100 pounds (45 kg) of gear if you’re a strong person.
Frameless backpacks can’t handle as much weight because they don’t distribute weight as well as framed backpacks. There is no frame to help transmit the load from your shoulders to your hips. More weight rests on your shoulders as a result.
Frameless backpacks often have less padding as well. The shoulder straps, hip belt, and back padding are often thinner to save weight. A lighter pack doesn’t require as much padding. If you overload your pack, the straps can start to dig in and put too much pressure on your shoulders and hips, causing discomfort. Over time, the straps can cause abrasions on your shoulders and hips. This gets painful.
3. Frameless Backpacks are Harder to Pack
When packing a frameless backpack, you need to think about where you’re placing each item within your backpack. You need to pack in a way that your gear provides structure to the pack. You also need the pack to be balanced. There is some strategy involved.
To ensure that weight is properly distributed, you need to pack your backpack carefully. The weight needs to be evenly spread between the left and right sides of the pack. You also need to make sure the pack isn’t too top-heavy or bottom-heavy. While packing, the heaviest items should sit close to your back. This helps you maintain your center of gravity.
If you pack the bag unevenly, there may be more weight on one shoulder or hip than the other. You could also have too much weight resting on your shoulders or hips. You want the weight to be even from side to side. If it’s not, the pack can rub as you walk. It can also cause you to walk in an unnatural manner. The pack can pull you toward one side.
The way frameless packs feel on your back will also be inconsistent. Sometimes you get a better pack than other times. If you pack in a hurry, the pack may feel less comfortable. It may take some trial and error to get your frameless backpack packed properly.
4. Frameless Backpacks Have a Smaller Capacity
Most frameless backpacks have a volume of 25-45 liters. Frameless day packs usually have a volume of 10-25 liters. To compare, most framed backpacks have a volume of 45-65 liters. Larger volume models up to 100 liters are also available.
There are some drawbacks to using a smaller backpack. Most importantly, you can’t carry bulky gear. Everything has to be compact. This means you have to buy expensive ultralight gear. In addition, there is no room for luxury items. You can only bring the necessities. You probably can’t pack a pillow or slippers in your frameless pack. There is no extra space.
Larger volume frameless backpacks are available but these are generally not recommended. A 65 liter frameless backpack is too easy to overload. It will feel unbalanced and unwieldy if not packed properly. It will also be too heavy.
5. Frameless Backpacks Can Lose Their Shape
There is no frame to give the backpack structure. If you don’t pack carefully, the pack can fold or crumple on itself. When this happens, it will feel lumpy and uncomfortable against your back. The pack can also feel lopsided and pull in one direction if it loses its shape. It will also look funny.
To solve this issue, you need to pack the bag in a way that maintains some structure. Try to pack your clothing tightly. Roll the top closure so there isn’t any empty space in the pack. Use the compression straps to keep everything packed tightly so the load doesn’t shift. Place bulky items, like your sleeping bag, near the bottom then stack other gear on top.
Some frameless backpacks even have special pockets to attach a folding foam sleeping pad to the back panel of the pack. In this case, the pad offers two functions. It creates a structure for the backpack and padding for your back.
6. You Have to Use Ultralight Gear When you Use a Frameless Pack
Frameless backpacks are designed for ultralight hiking. Generally, this means your total pack weight should be less than 20 pounds, including food, water, and fuel. Your base weight should be under 10 pounds.
Base weight is everything that is not consumable, including your sleeping bag, shelter, sleeping pad, clothing, and backpack. Most ultralight hikers aim for a base weight of around 8-9 pounds. The only way to achieve this base weight is to pack ultralight gear.
There are a couple of drawbacks to using ultralight gear. Most importantly, it’s incredibly expensive. For example, an ultralight sleeping bag might cost $400 and weigh 1.5 lbs. A comparable middleweight sleeping bag might cost $150 and weigh 3 lbs. An ultralight tent might cost $300 and weigh 2.5 lbs. A middleweight tent might cost $100 and weigh 4 lbs. Buying a full set of ultralight hiking gear might cost you $500-$1000 more than buying normal mid-weight gear.
Another issue with ultralight gear is durability. Ultralight gear is made from thin materials. These tend to be more fragile. Weight is the most important consideration. It’s easier to break a pole on an ultralight tent. It’s easier to tear a hole in an ultralight shirt. Ultralight gear usually doesn’t last as long as standard weight gear.
You can’t really use heavy standard gear with a frameless backpack. It’s too heavy. If you pack 30-40 pounds of gear into a frameless backpack, it will be uncomfortable. The straps will dig into your shoulders and hips. Standard gear is also too bulky to fit in an average frameless pack.
If you’re just planning to use your backpack for day hikes, this point doesn’t really matter. It’s easy to pack light when you’re not bringing camping gear with you.
7. Durability Can Be an Issue with Some Frameless Backpacks
Frameless backpacks are optimized for light weight. Manufacturers use the thinnest and lightest fabrics available to achieve this light weight. Durability sometimes comes as an afterthought.
Some ultralight frameless backpacks are a bit fragile. The thin material can develop holes easily through abrasion. Over time, thin fabrics abrade away faster than thicker fabrics. A sharp piece of gear could tear through the thin fabric. Framed backpacks are usually made from thicker materials that are more durable.
There are exceptions to this. High-end frameless backpacks are often made from a fabric called Dyneema. This is an ultra-strong and ultra-lightweight composite laminated fabric that is made from polyethylene (UHMwPE) fibers. This unique material is 15 times stronger than steel on a weight-for-weight basis. It is incredibly durable. Dyneema is resistant to tears, moisture, UV light, and chemicals. Some of the most durable frameless backpacks are made from Dyneema. These are nearly indestructible.
Dyneema used to be known as Cuben Fiber. For more info on Dyneema, check out their website here.
In my experience, framed and framed and frameless backpacks are both extremely durable. A good pack should last at least 8,000 trail miles (12,800 km), regardless of the design. If you regularly overload your backpack, the stitching won’t last as long.
8. Frameless Backpacks Have Fewer Features
Most frameless backpacks are designed to be as light as possible. To reduce weight, manufacturers eliminate some features. For example, most frameless packs only have one main compartment. There usually aren’t many organization features because they add weight. There may be fewer attachment points on the outside of the pack. In addition, there may be fewer zippered pockets. The compression straps may be more minimalistic.
This makes packing and staying organized a bit more challenging. It’s harder to find what you’re looking for in your pack if everything is stored in one large compartment.
The suspension system may also be simpler. There may be fewer adjustment points. This makes getting a good fit a bit more difficult.
9. Frameless Backpacks are Less Versatile
Frameless backpacks are really only suitable for ultralight hiking. If you want to carry some extra gear, you’ll go overweight or you’ll stuff your pack too full. For example, maybe you want to go for a winter hike and you need to carry an extra layer of clothing, crampons, a scarf, a hat, gloves, and snowshoes. All of this stuff won’t fit in an average frameless pack. Maybe you need to pack 10 days worth of food. You’ll have trouble fitting it in a frameless pack.
That said, frameless packs can be multi-use. You can use them for ultralight hiking, day hiking, 3 season hiking, and travel. They can also work well around town as general-purpose backpacks.
Who Should Use a Framed Backpack?
A framed backpack is a better choice for anyone who plans to carry more than around 22 pounds or 10 kg of gear. The frame helps to distribute the weight across your back, shoulders, and hips. This allows you to carry more weight more comfortably and more efficiently.
If you’re buying a large backpack with a capacity greater than around 45 liters, you’re also better off with a framed model. The frame helps the larger pack maintain its structure. You’re also more likely to carry more weight in a larger capacity backpack. The frame helps with this.
For hikes where you need to carry more than 5-6 days worth of food or a large amount of water, you’ll be better off with a framed pack that can handle the extra weight and volume. This makes framed backpacks better for longer hikes where resupplying is difficult.
Those with back issues are also better off using a framed backpack in most cases. The frame can reduce stress on your back by better distributing the weight of your gear. This allows you to hike further without experiencing pain.
If you only have the budget for one backpack, you’re better off with a framed model. The higher weight and capacity add versatility. You can use a lightweight internal framed backpack for day hikes, multi-day hikes, long-distance hikes, winter hiking, and travel. It’s one of the most versatile pieces of gear.
Those who carry non-essential gear, such as a laptop, photography equipment, a pillow, an extra change of clothes, etc. are also better off with a framed backpack due to the increased capacity.
Who Should Use a Frameless Backpack?
Frameless backpacks are made for ultralight hikers. If you’re the kind of person who cuts the handle off your toothbrush, weighs every piece of gear, and counts every gram, you’ll appreciate the weight savings of a frameless backpack. It’s possible to reduce the weight of your pack by multiple pounds by switching to a frameless pack and going ultralight. Many frameless backpack users achieve a base weight of just 8 or 9 lbs.
Thru-hikers are usually better off going with a frameless backpack if they can get their base weight below 10 lbs. The lighter backpack greatly improves efficiency. You can cover more ground in less time with a lightweight frameless backpack. This can help you complete your hike before winter arrives.
Frameless backpacks also work well for day hiking. Most day hikers only need to carry around 3-5 lbs. worth of snacks, water, sunblock, a hat, and some first aid gear. You don’t need a heavy framed backpack to carry a few pounds of gear.
Frameless backpacks can also work well for travel. If you pack light, you can compress a frameless backpack so it fits within the carry-on size limits for most airlines. They also work well for daypacks. You can fold a small frameless backpack up and pack it in your main backpack or suitcase. When you want to go exploring, unfold it and pack it with a day’s worth of gear. There are even dedicated backpacks that are designed for this purpose called packable daypacks.
Frameless Backpack Recommendations
These days, ultralight hiking is more popular than ever. There are a wide range of frameless backpacks on the market. There are dozens of cottage manufacturers who make extremely high-quality and lightweight frameless backpacks. A few popular options include:
This 52 liter frameless backpack from Granite Gear features a rolltop closure, hydration hanger, and a large front pocket. It is incredibly lightweight at just 18 oz (0.51 kg). The pack is available in 3 sizes.
This ultralight frameless backpack weighs in at just 16.5 oz (467 grams), has a capacity of 38 liters, and can carry a load up to 25 lbs. (12 kg). The pack features three large exterior pockets, a roll top, and fully padded shoulder straps for extra comfort. This pack has excellent build quality. It’s built to last.
This frameless backpack from Hyperlite Mountain Gear weighs under 1 pound, has a volume of 30 liters, and has a weight capacity of 20 lbs. This ultralight pack is ideal for day hikes and overnighters. You can also pack it away into your larger backpack and use it for the final push to the summit. The pack features a roll-top closure, adjustable shoulder straps, and shock cord lacing in the front for attaching extra gear. This is a great pack for a true minimalist.
Framed Backpack Recommendations
Many major outdoor brands offer framed backpacks. There are hundreds of options available. In this section, I’ll outline a few popular framed backpacks to consider.
This lightweight framed backpack from Granite Gear offers 60 liters of volume and weighs just 2.12 lbs (0.96 kg). One interesting feature of this backpack is that the frame, hip belt, and lid are all removable. This allows you to convert the Crown 2 60 into an ultralight frameless backpack. Removing the frame reduces the weight of the pack to 1.7 pounds.
The Crown 2 60 also features large external stretch pockets, a hydration sleeve, and plenty of compression straps. The pack is available in four colors and three torso sizes. The price is reasonable as well. This pack offers an excellent value. It’s one of the most popular framed backpacks available for good reason.
This lightweight framed backpack from Osprey features a top load design with a floating top lid. It offers lots of organization and storage features including a massive stretchy front pocket, hip belt pockets, a shoulder strap pocket for your phone, trekking pole and ice ax attachments, a large zippered top pocket, and two large water bottle pockets. This pack is lightweight at just 2.95 lbs. It has a capacity of 44 liters. Two sizes are available.
I have owned this backpack for about a decade. During that time, I’ve used it mostly for international travel. I’ve taken this pack to around 50 countries. I’ve also done several multi-day hikes with it including the Wonderland Trail. This pack has performed flawlessly every time I’ve used it. It’s still in excellent condition even after years of abuse. If mine ever wears out, I’ll probably buy another. You can read my full review of the Osprey Talon 44 here.
This ultralight backpack from Hyperlight Mountain Gear features durable, abrasion-resistant, and waterproof construction. For organization, there are three large external pockets, an internal sleeve for a water bladder, and loops for attaching additional gear.
The Southwest 2400 does not have a traditional rigid wire frame or frame sheet. Instead, it uses a system called frame stays. These are lightweight aluminum rods that slot into pockets on the inside of the main compartment. They are shaped to fit your back.
The pack weighs 30.1 oz (853 grams) and has a capacity of 3400 cubic inches (40 liters). It is one of the lightest framed backpacks available. It comes in four sizes. The pack comes in black and white color options. This is a premium backpack. It is expensive.
Final Thoughts About using a Frame Vs Frameless Backpack
Your backpack is one of your most important pieces of gear. To make sure you choose the right one, your backpack should be the last piece of gear you buy when planning your hike. If you’re upgrading your gear, you should always buy your backpack last.
This is necessary because every pack has a maximum capacity. You want to choose a pack that is designed to carry the gear that you need. If your pack is too large, you’ll end up overpacking and carrying more weight than you need. Most hikers tend to fill extra space if they have it. If your pack is too small, you might be underprepared. You’ll struggle to fit everything you need.
As you can see, both framed and frameless backpacks have their own benefits and drawbacks. There is no perfect pack for every hike. When choosing a pack, you’ll want to consider how much gear you need to pack, the terrain you’re hiking, your body size, and your budget.
Frameless backpacks are ideal for fast and light hiking. They are durable, affordable, and functional. They do have a limited capacity so you have to be careful about what you pack and how you pack.
Framed backpacks are ideal for situations where you need to carry more than around 10kg or 22 lbs of gear. They are easy to pack, comfortable, and offer excellent organizational features. Whichever type of backpack you choose, I hope this guide helps you choose the right one for your next hike.
Do you use a framed or frameless backpack? Share your experience in the comments below!
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