We tested the best external frame backpacks on the market today according to price, weight, comfort, durability, and capacity. Read on to see how they performed, which is best for you, and get some valuable buying advice.
Table of Contents
Best External Frame Backpacks
The best external frame backpacks are:
- Best Overall External Frame Backpack for Comfort, Weight, and Water Resistance: ZPACKS ARC BLAST
- Most Durable External Frame Backpack: KELTY TREKKER 65L PACK
- Best Lightweight Titanium External Frame Backpack: VARGO EXOTI 50 BACKPACK
|1. ZPACKS Arc Blast||1 lb 3.9 oz||55L||Lightweight carbon fiber||50D||DCF Hybrid||$375||9/10|
|2. KELTY Trekker 65L Pack||5 lbs 5 oz||65L||Aluminum||600D||Polyester||$244.95||9/10|
|3. VARGO Exoti 50 Backpack||2 lbs 11 oz||50L||Ultralight titanium alloy||70D||Nylon Ripstop||$299.95||9/10|
Best Overall External Frame Backpack
ZPACKS Arc Blast
- Weight: 1 lb 3.9 oz
- Volume: 55 L
- Frame Material: Lightweight carbon fiber
- Denier: 50D
- Fabric Type: Dyneema® Composite Fabric Hybrid
The ZPacks Arc Blast is a revolutionized version of what an external frame backpack can be. We like the design that cuts out the large bars traditionally associated with external frame packs and has replaced them with an ultralight carbon frame build.
At 1 pound 3.9 ounces this is by far the lightest external frame backpack on our list. It’s even competitive weight-wise with some of our favorite internal frame backpacks.
We found this to be a very comfortable pack with its patented ‘arc’ design. It sits comfortably while allowing room for airflow to pass along the back. We like the use of Dyneema fabric too which gives this pack great water resistance and good durability.
The pack has a simple, practical design with lots of add-ons and fit adjustment options for personalization. At 55L you can fit a week's worth of gear and food too.
The biggest downside is the price, this is the most expensive option we tested. Although it doesn’t look like your grandparents' external frame pack, the ZPacks Arc Blast is our pick for the best overall external frame backpack.
Best Classic Bombproof External Frame Backpack
KELTY Trekker 65L Pack
✅ Large volume
❌ Less comfortable
- Weight: 5 lbs 5 oz
- Volume: 65 L
- Frame Material: Aluminum
- Denier: 600D
- Fabric Type: Polyester
Described as indestructible, the Kelty Trekker 65L is the classic old-school style external frame pack. With six exterior pockets and plenty of attachment points for lashing gear to the external pack frame, coupled with a huge 65L internal capacity the Trekker 65L can haul your stuff.
We found it was possible to cram sixty pounds of gear into this tank of a backpack. At $245 it’s the least expensive pack we tested. And the solid external pack frame and 600D polyester fabric make this a bombproof option.
However, this is still your classic external frame pack that weighs a massive 5 pounds 5 ounces. Along with the pack weight we found the pack sits quite high up on your back too, making it the least comfortable pack we tested.
It may throw you off balance if you lean too hard in any direction and may snag on branches if you are not careful. But if you’re looking for that old-school external pack the Kelty Trekker 65L is our top pick.
Best Lightweight Titanium External Frame Backpack
VARGO Exoti 50 Backpack
✅ Ultralight version of classic style
✅ Well-balanced option
❌ Small volume
❌ Less water-resistant
❌ Less durable
- Weight: 2 lbs 11 oz
- Volume: 50 L
- Frame Material: Ultralight titanium alloy
- Denier: 70D
- Fabric Type: Nylon Ripstop Fabric
The Vargo Exoti 50 Backpack is our top choice if you’re looking for a classic, but lightweight, external frame backpack. The external pack frame is made with an ultralight titanium alloy frame, we love that this pack weighs a mere 2 lbs and 11 ounces, amazingly light for a classic-style external frame backpack.
We found it to be a comfortable pack too, looking and feeling more like an internal frame backpack. It’s positioned a bit lower on your back making the center of gravity a bit more balanced than other external framed backpacks. It also has compression straps that you can use to pull the weight as close to your body as possible.
We found the 70D nylon to be less water-resistant and less durable than the other external packs we tested. The Vargo also has the smallest volume of the packs on our list at 50L.
Key Things to Consider When Choosing
External frame packs are expensive pieces of gear, similar to internal framed backpacks. Budget packs are made from heavier materials and have a heavy-duty backpack frame. Premium external frame backpacks are made of lightweight and durable materials, like Dyneema. They also have a pack frame made of ultralight materials like carbon.
External frame backpacks that provide the greatest value:
Affordable external frame backpacks:
Premium external frame backpacks (most expensive):
External frame backpacks tend to be heavier than their internal frame counterparts. Most options are between 3 and 6 pounds. The lightest weight models use premium materials like titanium or carbon for their frames and lightweight pack material to shave their weight to under three pounds.
The Lightest external frame backpacks:
Highest Volume-to-weight ratio external frame backpacks:
Capacity on an external pack is calculated the same way as an internal frame pack. For most external packs though, this storage calculation includes only the compartment and not all the outer pockets or factor in the ability to strap extra gear to the frame.
The most spacious external frame backpacks:
External frame packs have all the comfort features you'll see in an internal frame pack. There are compression straps to secure a load, a telescopic frame to adjust for extra weight, padded straps, and lumbar support to help manage the weight distributed to your hips.
Despite all these features, many people find external frame backpacks to be less comfortable overall. This is due to their heavy total weight, thanks in part to the beefy backpack frame. The most comfortable packs tend to be the lightest.
The most comfortable external frame backpacks:
Capacity on an external pack is calculated precisely the same way as an internal frame pack. A 60-liter external frame pack holds the same amount of gear inside as a 60-liter internal frame pack. For most external packs though, this storage calculation includes only the compartment and not all the outer pockets.
Other Things to Consider
Most frames on external frame backpacks are aluminum which is relatively lightweight, strong, and affordable. Some packs, like those from Vargo, have a titanium frame that is even lighter than aluminum yet still strong enough to carry a heavy load.
These titanium frame packs shave pounds in some cases, but they tend to be more expensive. ZPacks Arc Blast is a carbon frame pack built to be even lighter than titanium. It is also the most expensive.
Detachable external frame (Vargo Exoti)
External frame backpacks are made from 3 main types of fabric. Nylon is the least expensive, but less waterproof and durable. Polyester is also inexpensive, but heavier than nylon. But it is more waterproof than nylon and can handle a bit more abuse. Dyneema is the most durable, lightweight, and most waterproof material, but it’s also very expensive.
External frame packs are known for their durability. With a robust pack frame and thick nylon or polyester fabric, these packs can last a lifetime. They are designed to carry a lot of weight, sometimes up to 60+ pounds. ZPacks Arc Blast is the outlier on our list. It’s a durable frame backpack but it is less durable than classic-style external frame backpacks like the Kelty Trekker.
External frame backpacks are known for abundance of their pockets and attachment points. There's room for ice axes, water bottles, knives, firearms, and more. You can attach small items to your shoulder straps, stuff things into your hip pockets, and cram stuff into the pouches on the back.
Need even more space? You can lash items to the back or clip them to the frame. You seemingly never run out of space.
The material of an external frame backpack will play the biggest part in weather resistance. Nylon absorbs water when it gets wet and is often treated with DWR to make it water-repellant. Polyester does not absorb water when it gets wet. A DWR treatment isn’t needed with polyester and the fabric will dry fast. Dyneema is the most water-resistant material on the market.
Most, but not all, external frame backpacks include a frame with an attached pack that is not removable. Some external frame packs, though, are sold as a frame only. You then can connect your own pack—homemade or purchased—using straps or buckles to secure it to the frame.