In the past, external framed backpacks were the standard. These days, spotting one on the trail is a rare occurrence. Over the past 30 years, sleek, lightweight, and modern internal framed backpacks have taken over the trails. For most hikers, an internal framed pack is the best choice. That said, external framed packs still have their place on the trail. In this guide, I’ll explain the differences between internal and external framed backpacks. I’ll also outline the pros and cons of using internal vs external frame backpacks. We’ll cover weight, carrying capacity, comfort, ventilation, durability, cost, and much more.
The best backpack for you depends on a number of factors including the size and weight of the equipment that you need to carry and the terrain you’re hiking through. Personal preference is an important consideration as well. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the right pack for your next adventure.
What is a Framed Backpack?
Framed backpacks have a rigid structure built in. They maintain their structure, even when empty. The frame helps to distribute the weight of your gear across your hips and shoulders. This allows you to carry more weight more comfortably and safely.
In the past, backpack frames were made from heavy materials such as steel or wood. Modern backpack frames are made from lightweight materials such as aluminum, plastic, or carbon fiber.
Framed backpacks can be divided into two categories: Internal frame and external frame. In the following sections, I’ll outline the two in detail.
What is an Internal Frame Backpack?
Internal framed backpacks have a rigid structure that’s sewn into the inside of the backpack. The frame is completely covered in fabric so you can’t see it from the inside or outside of the backpack.
The internal frame is stiff but not completely rigid. You can’t bend or fold an internal framed backpack. Most internal frames are designed to have a bit of flex.
This design improves the backpack’s suspension system. The suspension system helps the pack transfer weight from the pack to your hips and shoulders. It also allows the pack to move with you as you hike. For example, if you bend at the waist and arch your back, the pack will flex with your back. The suspension system also helps to absorb shocks as you step.
Internal framed backpacks hold the load close to your body and relatively low. This improves stability by maintaining your center of gravity near its natural position.
Internal framed backpacks also have a slim profile. This allows you to hike through narrow trails and densely forested areas without getting caught up on branches and other obstacles.
There are several different internal frame backpack designs. Most internal framed backpacks have a rectangular frame structure that is sewn into the edges of the back panel of the pack. This structure is usually made from aluminum tubing.
Ultralight internal frame backpacks usually use aluminum stays. These are long flat aluminum bars that are sewn into pockets on the inside of the backpack. The stays sit vertically against your back. They are shaped to sit comfortably against your back.
Some internal framed backpacks use a rigid frame sheet. The sheet is sewn into the back panel of the pack. It sits against your back. The frame sheet is usually made from plastic. Carbon fiber models are also available.
Internal framed backpacks were invented by Greg Lowe, the founder of Lowepro, in 1967. They didn’t start becoming the standard until the early 1990s.
These days, the internal frame is the most common design for hiking backpacks. They are sleek, modern, and innovative. If you walk into a sporting goods store or go hiking, almost all of the backpacks you’ll see have an internal frame.
What is an External Frame Backpack?
External frame backpacks have a large rectangular metal frame that is clearly visible from the outside of the pack. The shoulder straps and hip belt attach to one side of the frame. The main body of the backpack, where you store your gear, attaches to the other side of the frame.
The frame of external framed backpacks is usually completely rigid. It doesn’t flex or bend at all. On most modern models, the frame is made from aluminum tubing.
The frame usually extends about 6” below the bottom of the backpack’s fabric body. The hip belt attaches to this section of the frame. You can lash gear to the bare section of the frame, under the main compartment. This is a good place to store bulky gear such as your tent or sleeping bag. Some heavy-duty models feature a built-in folding shelf to support heavy loads strapped to the pack.
The frame usually extends a few inches above the main compartment of the backpack. You can also lash additional gear here. This is a good place to attach a foam sleeping pad. Attaching bulky and heavy items directly to the frame improves weight distribution and stability.
On external framed backpacks, the load sits up high on your body. This design allows you to carry an extremely heavy load while maintaining a healthy upright posture. The rigid frame directs most of the weight to your hips. This can make you feel a little top-heavy while hiking on uneven terrain. The frame also holds the load a couple of inches away from your back. This helps with ventilation.
External framed backpacks are the original hiking backpack design. Before the early 1990s, pretty much all hiking backpacks had an external frame. Over the past 30 years, they have become increasingly rare.
These days, you rarely see one on the trail. That said, external framed backpacks are still in use. They 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 the Difference Between an Internal and External Framed Backpack?
The main difference between internal and external framed backpacks is the location of the frame. As the names suggest, internal framed backpacks have a frame that is sewn into the inside of the backpack’s fabric. On external framed backpacks, everything is mounted to a clearly visible frame including the backpack’s main compartment, shoulder straps, and hip belt.
Both backpack styles also carry the load a bit differently. Internal framed backpacks are designed to carry the load close to your body and lower down. This keeps your center of gravity close to where it naturally sits. External framed backpacks hold the weight away from your back and high up on your body. This allows you to maintain a better posture while hiking.
The design and look of the backpacks are also completely different. External framed backpacks are easily identifiable. They have a big bulky metal frame. Internal framed backpacks appear much sleeker and smaller.
Most internal framed backpacks only have one large main pocket. External framed backpacks often have one large pocket and multiple smaller pockets for organization.
Internal Frame Backpack Pros and Cons
- Lighter- Internal frame backpacks weigh 1-2 lbs less than external frame models.
- More comfortable- Internal frame packs offer more range of motion adjustability. They’re also lighter.
- Cheaper- Entry-level models start at around $50.
- Better balance and stability- Your center of gravity remains in its natural position because the backpack sits close to your body.
- More versatile- Internal framed backpacks can be used for day hikes and multi-day hikes in all seasons. They make great travel packs.
- Better fit- Internal framed backpacks are more adjustable. This allows you to dial in the fit better.
- Better selection- More internal framed backpack options are available.
- Easier to transport- It’s easier to fly with them and take them on public transport.
- More efficient- The lighter weight allows you to hike faster and burn less energy.
- Better looks- Internal framed backpacks look modern.
- Less supportive- The internal frame doesn’t transfer weight to your hips as efficiently.
- Poor ventilation- The pack sits against your back. Your back gets hot and sweaty.
- Less storage capacity- You can’t lash as much gear onto the pack.
- Can’t handle as much weight- Most internal framed packs have a max carrying capacity of around 50 pounds.
- Fewer organizational features- Most models have one large compartment.
- Fewer camping gear options- You must use a tent and sleeping bag that are small enough to fit inside of the pack.
External Frame Backpack Pros and Cons
- You can carry a heavier load- External framed packs can carry 60-100+ pounds.
- More supportive- External frame backpacks do a better job of transferring weight to your hips.
- Better ventilation- The frame holds the pack away from your back. This allows sweat to vent away.
- More storage capacity- You can lash additional gear onto the frame. This allows you to fit more in the pack.
- More organizational features- External framed backpacks have multiple outer pockets. You can also strap gear to the frame.
- More camping gear options- You can strap a bulky tent and sleeping bag to the frame.
- Heavier- The large external frame makes the pack heavy.
- Less comfortable- External frame backpacks can feel stiff. They are also heavier and less adjustable.
- More expensive- Entry-level models start at around $100.
- Can feel unbalanced- External framed backpacks sit up high and away from your body. This can make you top-heavy.
- Less veratile- External frame backpacks are usually made for hunting.
- Less adjustable- External framed backpacks have fewer straps to adjust. This makes it harder to get a good fit.
- Worse selection- Most major brands have discontinued external framed backpacks.
- Harder to transport- External framed backpacks are bulky and cumbersome.
- Inefficient- You’ll burn more energy while hiking with a heavier pack.
- Looks- External framed packs look dated.
Internal Vs External Frame Backpacks
There are benefits and drawbacks to both backpack designs. In this section, I’ll outline some of the main strengths and weaknesses of internal vs external framed backpacks.
Internal Vs External Frame Backpack Support
The main purpose of a backpack frame is to distribute the weight of the load between your hips and shoulders. Ideally, you want around 80% of the weight to be on your hips and the remaining 20% to be on your shoulders. The weight on your shoulders should sit on the front of your shoulders. Not the top. There shouldn’t be any weight resting on the top of your shoulders.
External frame backpacks do a better job of transferring the weight of the load to your hips. The weight sits up high. The rigid frame efficiently transfers the weight of the load down to the padded hip belt. The frame doesn’t flex. As a result, very little weight rests on your shoulders.
This design allows you to walk in an upright and comfortable position. You can maintain a good posture. The drawback is that you’ll feel a bit less agile because. The backpack makes you top-heavy because it sits so high on your body. The frame also holds the load away from your body. This changes your center of gravity. You can’t move quite as quickly as a result. You’re not as nimble with an external framed pack. This makes it harder to hike on rugged or unstable terrain.
Internal framed backpacks feature a suspension system that transfers the majority of the load to your hips. The suspension system consists of the frame, the shoulders straps, the hip belt, load lifter straps, etc. These parts work together to support the weight of the load.
Internal framed backpacks hold the load closer to your body. This keeps your center of gravity closer to its natural position. This makes you feel more balanced while hiking on loose or uneven terrain.
The drawback is that internal frames don’t do quite as good of job of transferring the load to your hips as external frames. Because the frame can flex, internal framed backpacks don’t offer quite as much support for heavy loads. More weight ends up resting on your shoulders. Some of the weight may end up resting on the tops of your shoulders. This gets uncomfortable.
Another drawback is that you have to lean forward slightly to effectively transfer the weight to your hips. This is necessary because the weight sits lower on your body. If you stand completely upright, too much weight rests on your shoulders. It’s harder to maintain good posture.
Winner: External framed backpacks are more supportive. Internal framed backpacks feel more stable.
Internal framed backpacks are lighter than external framed backpacks. On average, an internal framed backpack weighs around 3-4 lbs. (1.36-1.81 kg). Ultralight models are available that weigh under 2 lbs (0.9 kg).
To compare, external framed backpacks usually weigh over 5 lbs. (2.27 kg). Some heavy-duty models weigh 7-10 pounds (3.18-4.5 kg). Ultralight external framed backpacks are available that weigh around 3 lbs. (1.36 kg).
On average, an internal framed backpack weighs around 1-2 lbs (450-900 grams). less than a comparably sized external framed backpack. That is a significant weight savings.
Internal framed backpacks are lighter because the frame is made from thinner and lighter materials. An internal frame is usually made from skinny aluminum tubes or a plastic sheet. Some ultralight models use simple aluminum stays or a carbon fiber frame. External framed backpacks, on the other hand, have a much larger and thicker aluminum frame that adds a significant amount of weight.
The fabrics are often different as well. Internal framed backpacks are usually made of lightweight, low denier fabrics. External framed backpacks often feature thicker fabrics. There are also additional pockets that add weight.
When you use an internal framed backpack, you may also have to use lighter-weight camping gear to make everything fit. Internal framed packs aren’t capable of carrying as much weight. This saves even more weight.
Most hikers try to keep their pack weight below 30 pounds while using an internal framed pack. Large models often have a maximum capacity of 45lbs.
With an external framed backpack, you may be tempted to use heavier gear because you can just strap it to the frame. Space isn’t an issue. This greatly increases the weight of your packed backpack.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks are lighter than external framed backpacks.
External framed backpacks offer better ventilation than internal framed backpacks. This is the case because the frame holds the main body of the backpack away from your back. There is a large gap between your back and the backpack’s fabric. Only a small band of fabric rests against your back.
This gap allows for air to freely pass between your back and the main body of the backpack. Sweat can evaporate and vent away. Your back stays cool and dry as a result. You may even feel a cool breeze on your back.
Most internal framed backpacks sit directly against your back. Breathability is poor. Your back gets hot and sweaty as a result. Over time, your shirt gets wet with sweat. This gets uncomfortable. Chafing can be a problem for some people.
Most internal framed models do have some kind of ventilation system. There may be a mesh or foam layer that rests against your back. This improves breathability. Sometimes there are ventilation channels built into the back panel. This allows some air to pass between the main body of the backpack and your back. These features help but don’t solve the problem.
Some internal framed backpacks feature a mesh back panel that is held at tension by the frame. This panel sits directly against your back. The frame holds the main body of the backpack away from your back. These models offer similar ventilation performance to external framed models.
Ventilation is an important consideration if you hike in hot, humid, or tropical climates. Having a cool and dry back greatly improves comfort. Your shirt stays dry and you don’t have sweat running down your back. Chafing is also less likely. If you only hike in cold dry climates, ventilation is less important.
Winner: External framed backpacks offer better ventilation than internal framed backpacks.
Comfort is subjective. Most hikers find internal framed backpacks to be more comfortable than external framed backpacks. There are several reasons for this.
First, internal framed backpacks allow for a greater range of motion. The frame is designed to offer a bit of flex. This allows the pack to move with you as you hike. For example, if you bend down to pass under a low tree branch, the pack will bend with you slightly. It kind of forms to the shape of your back. This makes the pack feel less noticeable while you’re wearing it.
Internal framed backpacks are also more adjustable. You can adjust the shoulder straps, hip belt, load lifters, and stabilizer straps. Sometimes you can also adjust the torso length. This allows you to better dial in the fit. A pack that fits your body is more comfortable to wear. In addition, internal framed backpacks are also lighter. This all improves comfort.
Internal framed packs can get hot and sweaty because they don’t offer much in the way of ventilation. If you don’t pack properly, the pack might feel lumpy against your back. Your gear can dig into your back. This is possible because the pack rests right against your back. You can feel your gear through the back panel. Sometimes you also have to bend slightly at the waist to remove pressure from your shoulders.
In some cases, external framed backpacks are more comfortable. Because the frame holds the main compartment away from your back, you get much better ventilation. Your back and shirt stay dry. You’ll stay cooler and more comfortable. This can make external framed backpacks more comfortable to wear in hot and humid climates.
You also can’t feel your gear poking into your back because the main compartment doesn’t sit right up against your back. The frame holes your gear a couple of inches off of your back.
Carrying a particularly heavy load is also more comfortable when you use an external framed pack because they offer more support. The straps won’t dig into your shoulders. Most of the weight rests on your hips.
External framed backpacks also allow you to stand up a bit straighter and maintain better posture. This is because the frame transfers the weight to your hips.
External framed packs can feel a bit stiff. The pack doesn’t move with you as you bend your back. Generally, external framed packs also aren’t as adjustable. It’s harder to get a good fit.
There are a number of factors that affect the comfort of a backpack. The frame design isn’t the only consideration. Fit is crucial. If a backpack doesn’t fit your torso size, it won’t be comfortable to wear. The suspension system and overall design of the backpack also play a major role in comfort. Some backpacks are designed better than others. The quality of the components and build quality are also important. High-end backpacks are often more comfortable than entry-level models. Padding can also affect comfort. Some backpacks have more padding on the hip belt, shoulder straps, and back panel. Ventilation is also important. Packs with more ventilation are more comfortable to wear. You’ll want to take all of this into consideration when choosing a pack.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks are more comfortable than external framed backpacks. There are some exceptions.
Storage Capacity of Internal Vs External Frame Backpacks
The storage capacity of both internal and external framed backpacks is measured the same way. A 65 liter internal framed pack can accommodate the same amount of gear as a 65 liter external framed backpack.
Multiple sizes of each backpack design are available. Internal framed backpacks come in more sizes. You can find models from 25 liters to 100+ liters. External framed backpacks are only available in larger sizes. Most models have 60-90 liters of storage capacity. Larger models are also available.
One major benefit of external framed packs is that you can lash bulky or heavy gear to the frame. There is a dedicated place on the frame under the main compartment that is designed for lashing gear. On some models, you can also lash gear to the frame above the main compartment. The gear stays secure because it’s attached directly to the frame. You can lash your tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag to the frame.
Lashing this bulky gear to the frame greatly increases the total capacity of the backpack by freeing up space inside. Anything you attach to the frame leaves more space for gear inside the backpack’s main compartment. This allows you to carry more gear with an external framed backpack than a comparably sized internal framed backpack.
Most internal framed backpacks also allow you to lash gear to the outside. There are straps sewn onto the outside of the main compartment where you can attach gear. These straps are usually located on the bottom of the pack. Many models also have top, front straps, or side straps as well. Some packs also have daisy chains and extra loops for attaching accessories like trekking poles or an ice ax. Many external framed packs also feature small outside pockets for storing small items.
You can’t lash quite as much gear to an internal framed backpack. This is because the straps attach to the backpack’s fabric. If the gear is too heavy, the seams can fail over time. The backpack can also become a bit less stable because the gear that’s lashed on isn’t supported by the frame. It just hangs from the backpack’s fabric. Your gear can sway around as you walk. This gets annoying. It’s also more likely to come loose.
The extra capacity of an external framed backpack comes in handy if you hike during the winter. You can lash a warm sleeping bag, insulated sleeping pad, and snowshoes to the frame. This leaves you more room for extra winter clothing in your pack including a hat, gloves, and scarf.
To make sure that your backpack has sufficient capacity, you should buy your backpack last after you’ve accumulated all of your other gear. This way, you know how much space you need to accommodate all of your gear. If you try to stuff 60 liters of equipment into a 40 liter backpack, you’ll end up with a bunch of stuff strapped onto the sides. This gets messy.
Winner: Both internal and external framed backpacks have the same storage capacity, assuming the volume of the bags is the same. You can lash more gear to external framed backpacks because the gear lashes directly to the frame. This allows you to carry more gear with an external framed backpack.
Maximum load weight of Internal Vs External Frame Backpacks
External framed backpacks allow you to carry more weight than internal framed backpacks. Most models are capable of carrying 60-90 lbs (27-40 kg). A strong person could carry as much as 150 lbs (68 kg) with a sturdy external framed backpack. To compare, most internal framed backpacks are designed to carry a maximum load of 30-50 lbs (14-23 kg).
External framed backpacks allow you to carry more weight by better distributing the weight of your gear across your hips and shoulders. This is possible thanks to the large, rigid metal frame. It efficiently transfers weight from the pack, through your shoulders, and to your hips. The majority of the weight rests on your hips.
Internal framed backpacks don’t distribute weight quite as well because the frame is smaller and more flexible. This flex improves comfort but reduces the amount of weight that you can carry. The pack can’t transfer weight to your hips as efficiently.
Being able to carry a large amount of weight makes external framed backpacks ideal for hunters who need to pack a large amount of meat out after a kill. Soldiers who need to carry lots of heavy gear also benefit from external framed packs. Many militaries use them. Winter campers also appreciate the extra carrying capacity. You can lash a heavy wood tent stove and firewood to your external framed pack. Those who carry a child on their back may also need the extra capacity. Most child carriers have an external frame. Survivalists often use external framed packs as well to hike into the wood with heavy-duty survival gear and tools.
If you regularly need to carry more than 50 lbs of gear on your back, you’re probably better off with an external framed backpack. For the average hiker just carrying some basic camping gear and food, the 30-40 lb carrying capacity of an internal framed backpack is more than enough.
Just because you can carry more weight with an external framed backpack doesn’t mean you should. A heavy backpack requires more energy to carry around. It’s also cumbersome. You can lose your balance more easily with a heavy backpack as well. It’s still important to avoid overpacking.
As a rule of thumb, you should try to keep the weight of your backpack below 20% of your total body weight. For example, if you weigh 200 lbs (90 kg), your backpack should weigh no more than 40 lbs (18 kg). This rule only works if you’re of average weight. For those who are underweight or overweight, the rule falls apart. For more info on backpack weight, check out this great guide.
Winner: External framed backpacks can handle much more weight than internal framed models because they do a better job of distributing the weight. If you need to carry more than 40-50 pounds, consider using an external framed backpack.
In the past, external framed backpacks were the cheaper option. This is no longer the case. These days, internal framed backpacks tend to be cheaper.
You can buy an entry-level internal framed backpack for $60-$100. Comparable external framed backpacks start at around $120. If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off going with an internal framed model.
In the mid-range, prices are similar. You can buy a decent internal or external framed backpack for $150-$250. In this price range, you can choose whichever frame style you prefer.
At the high-end, internal framed backpacks are more expensive. You can easily spend $300-$500+ on a premium ultralight internal framed backpack from a cottage manufacturer. These models are made from high-tech ultralight materials and feature complex suspension systems.
There aren’t very many high-end external framed backpacks on the market these days. Because demand is so low, few companies offer them.
You can save money by buying used. If you look around at garage sales, thrift stores, and online, you can find a nice internal or external framed hiking backpack for less than $50.
One important consideration is the fact that an external framed backpack can save you money by allowing you to use lower-end camping gear. For example, if you use an external framed pack, you can use a cheap and bulky synthetic sleeping bag from Walmart. You don’t have to buy a high-end compressible down sleeping bag. The same is true of tents. You can buy a cheap entry-level model instead of an expensive ultralight model. Using cheaper but bulkier gear can save you hundreds of dollars.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks are available at lower prices than external framed backpacks.
External framed backpacks usually come with more organizational features. Most models feature multiple outer zippered pockets on the sides and front of the main bag. These work great for keeping small gear or snacks organized. You can also lash large and bulky gear to the frame. This leaves you more space in the main compartment. Of course, you’ll also find a couple of water bottle pockets on the outside of the bag. On most models, you access the main compartment through the top. Some offer front access.
Internal framed backpacks come in a range of different designs. Some offer better organization than others. Ultralight internal framed backpacks offer very few organizational features. They usually only have one main compartment and a couple of water bottle pockets. There may be a front pocket where you can stuff some additional gear.
Some internal framed backpacks offer plenty of organizational features including side pockets, a top zippered pocket, multiple water bottle pockets, a water bladder pocket, hip belt pockets, a phone pocket, trekking pole and ice ax loops, and a hook for keys. Many models also feature straps on the outside for attaching some extra gear such as a sleeping pad.
Most internal framed backpacks are accessible from the top. Some models offer front access. This can make it a bit easier to get to your gear. Some models also have a zipper on the bottom of the bag that allows you to access your sleeping bag more easily.
Winner: It depends on the pack. External framed backpacks usually offer more organizational features. Ultralight internal framed backpacks offer the fewest organizational features.
Balance and Maneuverability
Your balance will be better when you use an internal framed backpack. This is the case because internal framed backpacks hold the load closer to your body. This way, your center of gravity is less affected by the weight of the backpack.
In addition, internal framed backpacks hold the weight lower on your body. This keeps your center of gravity a bit lower. You’ll feel more stable as a result
This makes internal framed backpacks the better choice for hiking on loose, uneven, and treacherous terrain. Internal framed packs are also better for hikes that require some climbing or scrambling. You’re less likely to lose your footing and fall when your pack is balanced. If you do lose your footing, it’s easier to catch yourself. You’re more nimble.
External framed backpacks hold the weight up high. 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. As you can imagine, this could be dangerous. For this reason, external framed backpacks are a better choice for hiking wide and relatively even trails.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks feel more balanced than external framed backpacks. Being balanced allows you to maneuver more easily.
Versatility of Internal Vs External Frame Backpacks
Internal framed backpacks are more versatile than external framed backpacks. You can use a lightweight mid-sized internal framed backpack for 4 season hiking. You can use it for day hikes, overnighters, and multi-day hikes. In addition, you can use the same backpack for travel. I traveled with the same internal framed backpack for a decade. You could also use the same backpack as a gym bag, school backpack, grocery-getter, cycling backpack, and more. An internal framed backpack can be an incredibly versatile piece of gear.
In my experience, a 40-45 liter internal framed backpack is the most versatile if you like to pack light. If you want a bit more space, a 60 liter pack is also a good option.
External framed backpacks are a bit less versatile. They’re really only suitable for one purpose. Most models are made specifically for hunting. Hiking-specific models are also available. You probably won’t want to use an external framed backpack for travel or around town. They’re too bulky and cumbersome. They look out of place on a city street.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks are more versatile than external framed backpacks.
Fit and Adjustability of Internal and External Frame Backpacks
Sizing is crucial with framed hiking backpackacks. If the backpack doesn’t fit you right, it won’t properly distribute the weight of your gear. At the very least, a poor-fitting pack will be uncomfortable. In the worst case, it can cause back pain or even a back injury if used repeatedly.
Internal frame backpacks are a bit more forgiving when it comes to fit. This is because most models feature an extensive suspension system that is fully adjustable.
You can adjust the hip belt, shoulder straps, load lifter straps, stabilizer straps, and sternum straps to dial in a perfect fit. Many models also allow you to adjust the torso height by moving the shoulder straps or hip belt up and down. Sizing is slightly less important because there are so many adjustments you can make.
External framed backpacks usually don’t have this many adjustment options. In most cases, you can only adjust the shoulder straps and hip belt. This makes it harder to get a perfect fit. Sizing is more important because there are fewer adjustment options.
This adjustability makes internal framed backpacks a bit easier to buy. If the pack doesn’t fit you perfectly, you can make it fit by making some adjustments to the suspension system. External framed packs are a bit less forgiving in this regard.
Before buying a framed backpack, it’s important to make sure it fits your torso size. To do this, it’s best to try the pack on and adjust it to your body to ensure that it fits properly. It’s also a good idea to load the pack with some weight to make sure it’s comfortable when full. Most outdoor goods stores have some weighted bags that you can use to fill the pack and test it out.
For this reason, it’s best to buy a backpack in person. You may not get a good fit if you order online or if you buy used. At the very least, you should make sure the company you buy from has a good return policy so you can return or exchange the pack if it’s not your size.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks offer a better fit because they are more adjustable than external framed backpacks.
You’ll have far more options to choose from if you go with an internal framed backpack. This is the case because the demand for internal framed backpacks is much higher than external framed backpacks. More people buy them. To fill this demand, all of the major backpack manufacturers offer internal framed hiking backpacks. There are hundreds of options to choose from.
Because there are so many options available, you can choose any shape, size, capacity, 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. Whatever body type you have, you’ll find a suitable internal framed pack that fits you.
These days, external framed backpacks are a niche item. Many sporting goods stores only carry a couple of models. Sometimes, you won’t find any external framed packs at all. Most companies have discontinued their external framed backpacks because they simply aren’t popular anymore. There is little demand.
If you want to buy an external framed backpack, you may have to make some compromises. Because there are fewer options available, you might not be able to find the exact style that you want.
Winner: You’ll have a larger selection to choose from if you go with an internal framed backpack.
Transportation and Travel
Being able to easily transport your backpack is important if you regularly travel to your hiking destinations. Internal framed backpacks are easier to transport than external framed backpacks.
The main reason is that internal framed packs tend to be more compact. They are also somewhat compressible. The frame usually doesn’t extend the full length of the pack. The frame is also much smaller. In addition, all of your gear goes inside of the bag. Nothing is strapped to the outside. This results in a much more compact and streamlined backpack.
You can easily toss a couple of internal framed backpacks in the back of a car, taxi, or Uber. You can take them on even the most crowded public transport systems. I’ve taken my internal framed backpack into packed busses, metros, and trams. You can walk down crowded city streets with an internal framed backpack without worrying too much about knocking into someone or getting caught up on obstacles.
It’s also easy to check an internal framed backpack in for a flight. Models that are smaller than around 45 liters can be used as a carry-on bag on most flights. As long as the pack measures less than 9” x 14” x 22” (22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm) it can be used as a carry-on. Most airlines give you a couple of inches of leeway.
Internal framed backpacks are ideal for travel. I have used my 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.
External framed backpacks are a bit harder to transport. They aren’t ideal for travel. They are bulky.
It’s also easy to catch the frame or gear that is strapped to the pack on obstacles as you’re walking around. In addition, it’s easy to knock the pack against things. It’s difficult to judge where the pack is because it sticks out further behind you.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks are easier to transport. They make great travel backpacks.
Hiking Gear Selection
External framed backpacks give you more options in terms of hiking gear. The size of the tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad that you use doesn’t matter as much because they attach outside of the main compartment. You’re not limited by space inside of the pack.
The weight of your gear also doesn’t matter as much either because external framed packs do a better job of distributing the weight to your hips. Carrying a few extra pounds in an external framed backpack isn’t that big of a deal.
This allows you to use whatever hiking gear you already have. Alternatively, you can buy cheaper and bulkier gear from a big box store or buy older used gear. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on lightweight hiking gear.
If you use an external framed backpack, you can buy an entry-level sleeping bag and tent from a big box store, strap them to the frame of your pack, and go hiking. For example, a low-end sleeping bag might cost $100. A lightweight and compressible down sleeping bag might cost $300. An entry-level tent might cost $80. A compact backpacking tent might cost $250. You might save $500-$1000 by using an external framed backpack and cheap gear rather than an internal framed backpack and lightweight gear.
You can also pack more comfortable gear. For example, if you want to carry a slightly warmer sleeping bag that weighs a few ounces more, you can. If you want a bit of extra space, you can carry a two-person tent rather than a solo tent. You could also pack some luxury items such as a camping pillow.
Internal framed backpacks are designed for lightweight hiking. Ideally, you want to keep the total weight of your pack below around 30 pounds, including your food, water, and fuel. Your base weight should be less than 15-20 lbs. Base weight includes all of your non-consumable gear including your sleeping bag, shelter, sleeping pad, and clothing. You need to use lightweight gear to keep the weight within this range.
You also need to consider the size of your gear because it has to fit inside of your pack. Not much can be attached to the outside. You have to use reasonably compact hiking gear when you use an internal framed pack. Even if you use a large model. This limits your gear selection.
Winner: External framed backpacks allow you to use a wide range of tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads. They are less limited by the volume and weight of your hiking gear.
Trail Conditions for Internal and External Frame Backpacks
Internal framed backpacks are suitable for hiking on a wider range of trail conditions. Because the pack sits closer to your body and lower on your back, your center of gravity remains near its natural position.
This improves your balance, stability, and agility. You can hike on rugged, slippery, or loose terrain more easily with an internal framed backpack. While walking over slippery wet rocks and logs, ice, or loose gravel, you’ll feel more sure-footed. If you have to do a bit of scrambling, you can.
Internal framed backpacks are also narrower and more streamlined. All of your gear is inside of the pack. This allows you to hike through densely forested areas or off-trail more easily. You’re less likely to get stuck between trees or boulders. You’re also less likely to get branches and shrubs caught on your pack as you hike.
External framed backpacks aren’t ideal for hiking on uneven terrain. The weight of the pack sits higher and away from your back. This makes you feel a bit less balanced. You have to step carefully. If you take a bad step and slip or lose your footing, you can easily topple over. It is still possible to hike on rugged terrain with an externally framed backpack. You just have to be a bit more careful where you step. Trekking poles can help to stabilize you.
External frames can get caught up on obstacles more easily because they are wider and larger. Your gear can get damaged if it gets caught on a branch. For example, a thorn could snag on your sleeping bag and tear a hole. It’s more exposed. For this reason, external framed packs aren’t ideal for bushwhacking. They are better suited for open trails.
Winner: internal framed backpacks allow you to hike in a wider range of trail conditions than external framed backpacks.
Ease of Packing Internal and External Frame Backpacks
Most internal and external framed backpacks have a top-loading design. This means the main opening of the bag is at the top. It usually closes with a shock cord. You load the pack from the bottom to the top like a sack.
Some internal framed backpacks also have a second zipper near the bottom. This allows you to easily access gear in the bottom of your backpack without having to remove everything. Some models have a sleeping bag pouch sewn into the bottom where you can stuff your sleeping bag.
Some internal framed backpacks are front loading. This means the whole front panel zips open. This can make it easier to access your gear. You can remove individual items without having to dig through the whole bag or remove everything to get to the bottom. This design is more common in internal framed backpacks that are designed for travel.
Internal framed backpacks are designed to fit all of your gear inside of the pack. The design discourages strapping gear to the outside. There are external straps but they are really only useful for small and lightweight items like a rain cover, sandals, or trekking poles. The external straps aren’t designed for heavy loads. Your tent and sleeping bag go inside the pack. If you attach too much gear to the outside of your pack, it can become difficult to access the main compartment.
This style of packing keeps your backpack compact and streamlined. It also helps to protect your gear. While bushwacking, you don’t have to worry about a sharp thorny shrub tearing a hole in your tent. You don’t have to worry about your pack getting caught up on a branch.
External framed backpacks are designed to carry part of your gear outside of the main compartment. You are supposed to strap your tent and sleeping pad directly to the frame. You can easily attach extra gear to the frame if it won’t fit in the main compartment.
The benefit of this is that it’s easy to access your camping gear when you arrive at camp. You don’t have to dig through your backpack to get your sleeping bag out. If it’s raining, it’s less likely for your clothing to get wet. If you prefer this style of packing, you might be better off with an external framed pack.
Another benefit of external framed backpacks is that you don’t have to be quite as careful while packing. Because the frame holds the pack away from your body, you don’t have to worry about a piece of gear poking into your back.
Because the frame does a better job of distributing weight, you don’t have to be as careful about where you pack each item. If the pack is slightly unbalanced, the frame can accommodate for the uneven weight.
When you use an external framed backpack, you also don’t have to worry as much about the weight and size of your main 3 pieces of gear. If you want to carry a palatial 6 person tent, you can just strap it to the frame. If you need to carry a bulky -20° sleeping bag that weighs 8 pounds, you can strap it on. You might not be able to fit this bulky gear in an average-sized internal framed backpack and you can’t strap it to the outside.
A drawback of having gear strapped outside of the pack is that it is exposed to the elements. If you get caught in a heavy rainstorm, your sleeping bag is more likely to get wet if it’s attached to the outside of your backpack. You’ll need a good waterproof cover.
Winner: Both designs have their benefits and drawbacks when it comes to packing. Internal framed backpacks are generally easier to pack. External framed packs can handle more gear.
Efficiency of Internal and External Frame Backpacks
With an internal frame backpack, you’ll be able to hike faster while burning less energy. This is possible because the pack is lighter. You can move faster and with less effort when you’re carrying a lighter load. This allows you to cover more ground each day. You can see more in less time when you use a lightweight internal framed 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.”
This means that if you’re carrying a 20 lb pack and you weigh 200 lbs, you’ll lose around 100 seconds per mile. A 10 mile hike will take you an extra 16 minutes. If you bump your pack weight up to 40 lbs, the same 10 mile hike will take you over half an hour longer.
Realistically, you may be able to cut 10 lbs of weight by using an internal framed backpack and lightweight gear instead of an external framed backpack and average weight gear. This could save an average hiker nearly a minute per mile. For thru-hikers who are covering hundreds or thousands of miles, this is a significant savings.
With a lightweight internal framed backpack and ultralight gear, you might be able to cover an extra 1-2 miles per day. If you’re hiking the Pacific Crest Trail over the course of 5-6 months and averaging 15-18 miles per day, you could complete the hike 8-12 days sooner by using a lighter and more efficient internal framed backpack.
If you’re naturally a slow hiker, the efficiency increase can be significant. Alternatively, you could use this added efficiency to see more. You can hike more trails when you hike with an efficient internal framed backpack.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks are more efficient because they are lighter.
Internal framed backpacks offer the most modern design. High-end models are made from high-tech materials such as Dyneema fabric. This is an ultra-strong and ultra-lightweight composite laminated fabric that is made from polyethylene (UHMwPE) fibers. It’s incredibly abrasion and puncture resistant. It’s also waterproof.
Modern internal framed backpacks are lighter than ever. Manufacturers are constantly innovating and experimenting with new materials and designs to cut weight. Ultralight internal framed backpacks weigh in at around 30 oz (850 grams).
Suspension systems are also improving. Manufacturers use computer modeling and modern materials to produce packs that feel like they’re floating on your back. Improved padding systems improve comfort as well.
Modern internal framed backpacks also offer excellent ventilation. The back panel is made from highly breathable materials. There is often a large ventilation channel built in. Many breathe as well as external framed packs.
There isn’t really any innovation going on for external frame backpacks. The designs have pretty much stayed the same over the past couple of decades. There is really no reason for a company to produce a high-tech external framed pack. If someone wants premium features, they’ll buy an internal framed pack.
Winner: Internal framed backpacks use the newest materials and technologies. External framed backpacks are considered to be obsolete by many hikers.
Internal framed backpacks offer a sleek and modern look. Having the frame on the inside also makes the pack appear smaller. You’ll blend in on the trail when you use an internal framed pack because it’s the style that everybody else uses. An internal frame backpack will also blend in at the airport and in hostels and on city streets.
External framed backpacks look a bit dated. Using an external framed pack can draw some attention. They don’t blend in. Other hikers may ask you about your old backpack. This can be a good or a bad thing. Some hikers enjoy the retro look. Some like to keep the tradition of external framed backpacks alive.
Winner: Looks are subjective but most hikers prefer the looks of internal framed backpacks.
Who Should Use an Internal Frame Backpack?
For most hikers, an internal framed backpack is the better choice. They’re lighter and more comfortable to wear. They also improve your balance and agility on the trail. In addition, they offer greater efficiency.
If you like to keep your pack light, you’ll also be better off with an internal framed backpack. With ultralight camping gear, it’s pretty easy to keep your base weight below 15 lbs and your total pack weight below 20 lbs. With ultralight gear, it’s possible to get your base weight below 10 lbs. A lighter pack makes hiking faster and more efficient. It’s also more comfortable to wear.
Internal framed backpacks are also a better choice for hiking narrow trails or hiking off-trail in densely forested areas. These packs are slimmer and more streamlined. All of your gear is secured inside. The pack is much less likely to get caught on a branch and other debris hanging over the trail. You can easily pass between narrow gaps without worrying about getting caught up.
Internal frame backpacks also work well for day hikes. Most day hikers only need to carry 5-10 pounds worth of food, water, sunblock, a hat, and some first aid gear. You don’t need a heavy external framed backpack to carry a few pounds of gear.
Those who only have the budget or space for one backpack may also be better off going with an internal framed model due to the versatility. You can use an internal framed backpack for day hikes and multi-day hikes. You can also use it for travel and around town. A 40 liter internal framed backpack is an incredibly versatile piece of gear.
Internal framed backpacks can also work well for travel backpacks. If you pack light, you can fit everything into a backpack that is small enough to fit within the carry-on size limits for most airlines. In most cases, a 40 liter pack fits the carry-on size requirements. I always travel with an internal framed travel backpack.
Who Should Use an External Frame Backpack?
External framed backpacks are ideal for those who need to carry a load heavier than 40-50 lbs. The frame better distributes the weight. This allows you to carry more gear comfortably and efficiently.
For example, hunters often use external framed packs to carry hundreds of pounds of meat out after a successful hunt. A winter camper may use external framed packs to carry a heavy wood stove and a large hot tent. Hikers who need to carry 6-7 days of food or a large amount of water may also be better off with an external framed backpack that can handle the weight. Survivalists who need to carry heavy tools into the woods may also benefit from the large capacity of an external framed pack.
Those who are on a tight budget may also be better off using an internal framed backpack. You can save a good amount of money by buying bulky entry-level camping gear and strapping it to the frame.
If you have back issues, you may also be better off using an external framed backpack. The frame can greatly reduce stress on your back by moving the majority of the weight to your hips. This allows you to hike further without experiencing back pain.
Internal Frame Backpack Recommendations
Pretty much every outdoor gear manufacturer offers internal framed backpacks. There are hundreds of options available. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the most popular models to consider.
This lightweight framed backpack from Granite Gear is one of the most versatile and popular hiking backpacks on the market. It offers 60 liters of volume and weighs just 2.12 lbs (0.96 kg).
One unique feature of this pack is that the frame, hip belt, and lid are all removable. This allows you to convert the pack into an ultralight frameless backpack. Removing the frame reduces the weight of the pack to just 1.7 pounds. This makes it incredibly versatile. You can use it for ultralight and normal backpacking as well as travel.
In addition, the Crown 2 60 offers extra-large stretch pockets, a hydration sleeve, and multiple compression straps. It’s available in four colors and three torso sizes. The price is very reasonable as well. It’s an all-around great pack.
This lightweight internal framed pack from Osprey has a capacity of 44 liters and weighs 2.95 lbs. It features a classic top-loading design with a floating top lid. This pack offers a good amount of organization and storage features including a floating top lid and large pocket, stretchy front pocket, hip pockets, a phone pocket, trekking pole and ice ax mounts, two stretchy water bottle pockets, and a water bladder pocket. It’s available in two sizes.
I have owned this backpack for over a decade. During that time, I’ve used it heavily. I’ve traveled to over 50 countries with it and have carried it on countless day hikes and multi-day hikes. This pack has performed flawlessly for me. I’ve abused it for years and it’s still holding up just fine. You can read my full review of the Osprey Talon 44 here for more info on this pack.
This budget internal framed backpack from Teton Sports is available in 3 sizes including 45, 55, and 65 liter. The 55 liter model weighs 4.5 lbs (2 kg). It features an integrated rainfly, a sleeping bag compartment, side pockets, and plenty of straps and bungees for attaching extra gear. The pack is adjustable to fit a wide range of torso sizes.
This pack would be a great choice for someone who is looking to get into backpacking on a budget. The price is very reasonable for the features and quality that you get. It would also make a decent travel pack.
This ultralight internal framed 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 the curves of your back. The stays are lighter than a traditional internal frame.
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. Four sizes are available. The pack comes in black and white color options. This is a premium backpack. It’s expensive.
External Frame Backpack Recommendations
When it comes to buying an external framed backpack, your options are somewhat limited. Most models on the market today are designed for hunters. A few hiking-specific options are also available. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the more popular external framed backpacks on the market.
Kelty is one of the few large outdoor goods manufacturers that still offers a traditional external framed hiking backpack. The Trekker 65 offers excellent ventilation and is extremely efficient at carrying heavy loads.
This pack also offers plenty of organizational features that you would expect from an external framed backpack including zippered side pockets, a large front pocket, a hydration reservoir, lash tabs, an ice ax loop, and a daisy chain. In addition, this pack features an excellent suspension system with padded shoulder and hip straps, load lifters, belt stabilizer straps, and a sternum strap.
If you’re a hiker looking for an external frame backpack, this is probably your best choice. It comes with some modern features but maintains the classic external frame design.
This heavy-duty external framed backpack from ALPS offers 5250 cubic inches (86 liters) of storage space and weighs 7.5 lbs. It’s made from durable ripstop fabric.
This backpack is designed for hunting. It features a convenient spotting scope pocket, side accessory pockets, and a rifle holder. You can also detach the main compartment from the frame and use the frame only to haul heavy loads of meat.
The backpack features a unique lashing system with three adjustable straps and a freight shelf for hauling heavy loads. This pack can easily haul 70-100 lbs of gear or meat. The straps and hip belt are adjustable for a range of torso sizes.
This large external framed backpack offers 90 liters of volume and weighs around 10 pounds. It’s made from durable Realtree fabric with heavy-duty stitching and reinforced Hypalon where the pack meets the frame. It’s durable.
This pack is designed for hunting but can also work well for hiking and camping. It features multiple zippered outer pockets for organizing gear, a hydration pocket, a waterproof rain cover, a freight shelf, and plenty of straps for attaching additional equipment.
The pack also offers an ergonomic design. The back is made from soft and breathable fabric. The top frame is curved to protect you from hitting your head on the frame.
Vintage External Frame Backpacks
If you’re looking for a traditional external framed hiking backpack, buying used is an excellent option. There are loads of vintage hiking backpacks from the 1980s and 1990s that are still in decent condition. You can find them in thrift shops, at garage sales, and online. eBay is a good place to look. If you shop around, you could snag a nice one for less than $50.
Final Thoughts About Internal Vs External Frame Backpacks
As you can see, both internal and external framed backpacks have their own benefits and drawbacks. There is no perfect pack. When choosing a backpack, you want to consider how much gear you need to pack, the terrain you’ll be hiking on, your body size, your budget, and your personal preference.
Internal framed backpacks are ideal for fast and light hiking. They are lightweight, comfortable, durable, and affordable. They do have a limited capacity in terms of volume and weight so you’ll have to be careful about what kind of gear you pack and how you pack it. It’s easy to overload your pack.
External framed backpacks are ideal for situations where you need to carry around heavy weight. They offer excellent weight distribution. They are also easy to pack due to their organizational features. It’s easy to strap large items, such as your tent and sleeping bag, to the frame.
Before you buy a backpack, try it on and adjust it to your body size. Load it up with 20-30 pounds of gear, and walk around with it for a while. Every decent outdoor retailer will allow you to do this. Try on several different packs including an internal and external framed backpack so you can compare the two and experience the pros and cons of each design on your own. Trying the gear out will make the decision much easier.
Whichever type of backpack you choose, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision.
Do you use an internal or external framed backpack? Share your experience in the comments below!
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