A comprehensive guide to external frame backpacks.
Published March 16, 2021
External frame backpacks are considered vintage and "old school," but that doesn't mean you should pass them by. External frame backpacks have their advantages, especially if you are carrying heavy loads. Read on to learn more about these classic backpacks and why they are still relevant in the ultralight world.
An external frame pack is easy to spot. The tubular frame that provides rigidity and support is located on the outside of the backpack body.
Anatomy of an external frame backpack
RISE IN POPULARITY: 1950s to 1970s
External frame backpacks took off in the 1950s when Kelty introduced its first modern-era external frame backpack models. They made carrying heavy loads easy. Backpackers, boy scouts, hunters and more bought them by droves.
DECLINE: 1970s to 2020s
These external frame packs remained popular until the 1970s when internal frame packs were first introduced. Improvements in materials and technology made it possible to manufacture internal frame packs that were lighter and more nimble than their external frame counterparts.
These internal frame packs gained popularity and eventually surpassed the external frame because of their light weight and compact size.
WHERE TO NEXT: 2020s Onward
Though not as popular on the trail as they used to be, external frame backpacks still have a strong following among nostalgic hikers, hunters, and military/tactical owners. Owners appreciate the external frame pack's ability to shoulder a heavyweight and the ample pockets available to store tools and gear.
Keep your external frame pack if you want, and wear it proudly. If anyone questions you, just give them one of these three reasons that explain why external framed packs are still relevant.
Carry heavier loads: An external frame pack is designed to be a workhorse. The frame helps distribute the weight directly on your hips and off your shoulders. You can carry heavier loads (ex: 50+ lbs) and experience less fatigue. Most external frame packs are adjustable so you can dial in the frame size to match the load that you are carrying. Whether you have a light load or a heavy one, the external frame pack makes it easy to carry a heavy load.
Easy packing/organization: External frame packs are known for their versatility in storing and organizing gear. They often have multiple outer pouches for stashing items. These pouches are bigger and more abundant than what you’d find on a comparable internal frame pack. There also are ample attachment points for trekking poles, ice axes, and headlamps. You can even dangle a pot or two off the back of the pack.
Breathability: Unlike an internal frame backpack that rests against your back, the external frame pushes the fabric pack away from your back. As a result, there is a gap between your pack and your back. This space allows for airflow, keeping you dry even when you are sweating up a storm. It also prevents items in your pack from poking you in the back.
(Bonus) Old School look: Want a conversation starter on the trail? Then wear an external frame backpack. Almost everyone you encounter hiking will have an internal frame or an ultralight frameless pack. The old-school look of the external frame pack will turn heads. You'll get questions and comments galore.
Let's be honest. External frame backpacks can be useful, but they are outdated. Not wanting the vintage look, many people have shelved their external frame packs and swapped them out for an internal frame. The choice to go internal is more than skin deep. Weight and fit also play a role.
Lighter pack: Internal frame packs tend to be significantly smaller and lighter than external frame packs. Most of the added weight in an external frame pack comes from the thick tubular frame as well as the abundance of pockets. More pockets means there is more fabric and hardware like zippers and clasps. For those who want to trim ounces, the extra weight from a heavy frame and additional fabric is a no-no.
Better mobility: An external frame pack can be awkward on your back. It is top heavy and can throw off your balance especially when rock scrambling to climbing steep inclines. The large frame also can snag on branches and brush along the trail. An internal frame pack is compact and holds the weight closer to your body, allowing the backpack to move along with you. You are more agile on the trail.
More design and brand options: External frame packs may come in different colors, but almost all of them have the same look and same basic feel. Internal frame packs, however, are available in a variety of designs and brands. You can find internal frame packs for a diversity of sports, including backcountry skiing, rock climbing, bikepacking, and hiking. Some are made for men, while others are made for women. Having choice and being able to find a pack that is perfectly suited to you is a driving force behind the popularity of the internal frame pack.
Thru-hiker on the CDT carrying an internal frame backpack.
|Vargo Exoti 50 Backpack||2 lbs. 11 oz||50 L||$300|
|Kelty Trekker 65L Pack||5 lbs 5 oz||65 L||$140|
|Kelty Tioga 5500||5 lb 9 oz||90 L||$190|
|Zpacks Arc Blast||1 lb 27 oz||55 L||$349|
|ALPS Mountaineering Red Rock||3 lbs. 11 oz.||34 L||$110|
|ALPS Mountaineering Zion||4 lbs. 15 oz.||64 L||$155|
Weight: 2 lbs 11 oz
Volume: 50 L
Equipped with an ultralight titanium alloy frame, the Vargo Exoti 50 weighs a mere 2 lbs and 11 ounces, making it the lightest external frame pack on our list (and possibly on the market). This lightweight frame is paired with a modern, ultralight pack that looks and feels like an internal frame backpack. It sits lower on your back than your average external frame pack. This low center of gravity makes it less top-heavy. It also has compression straps that you can use to pull the weight as close to your body as possible. Because it fits more like an internal frame than an external frame pack, you are less likely to lose your balance or snag branches with this pack.
Available at Amazon
Weight: 5 lbs 5 oz
Volume: 65 L
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, the Trekker 65L is an organizer's dream. You can cram sixty pounds of gear into this tank of a backpack and store your overflow on the outside of the pack. Sadly, it is missing hip belt and strap pockets, but you can add those on at a later time. Just watch where you walk as the Trekker 65L sits high on your back. It may throw you off balance if you lean too hard in any direction and may snag on branches if you are not careful.
Available at Amazon
Weight: 5 lbs 9 oz
Volume: 90 L
Kelty made the first external frame packs, and the company is still the market leader. Just look at the Tioga, another classic external frame pack from Kelty and you’ll see why. The 90L Tioga has ample room for packing all the gear you need for a multi-day hike. Internally, the compartment has a divider for a sleeping bag and plenty of room for clothing and gear. On the outside, there are multiple pockets and lashing points. The tubular aluminum frame that evenly distributes even the heaviest loads and the padded straps make the Tioga one of the most comfortable external frame packs on the market.
Available at Amazon
Weight: 1 lb 27 oz
Volume: 55 L
This incredibly lightweight pack is a newly revolutionized version of the external frame backpack. It cut’s out the large bars traditionally associated with external frame packs for an ultralight carbon frame build. The pack has a patented ‘arc’ design that sits comfortably while allowing room for airflow to pass along the back. It features a convenient, large, mesh external pocket that’s ideal for storing gear or wet clothes. There are also removable straps at the base and top of the bag to lash extra items. The pack has a simple, practical design with lots of add-ons and fit adjustment options for personalization. It can hold around a weeks’ worth of food and ultralight gear, and is one of the lightest packs available to date.
Available at Zpacks
Weight: 3 lbs 11 oz
Volume: 34 L
The ALPS Mountaineering Red Rock is a compact external frame backpack that is ideal for youth or a small adult. The pack's main compartment only holds 34L, which is suitable for a weekend trip and not a long-distance hike. You have to be creative when packaging as the internal compartment is too small for a sleeping bag. You can fit your clothes inside the pack to keep them dry and then utilize the exterior pockets and lashing points to attach your sleeping bag and other necessities. Because it is so compact, the Red Rock doesn't sit as high as most external frame backpacks. You’ll have better balance and can move more easily through thick brush.
Available at Amazon
Weight: 4 lbs 15 oz
Volume: 64 L
The big brother to the Red Rock, the 64L Zion is sized for multi-day trips and similar long-distance hiking trips. It has a sturdy aluminum frame and padding on the shoulder straps and waist belts for the long haul. Like most external frame packs, the Zion has plenty of exterior pouches and lashing points for you to carry everything but the kitchen sink. Camp chair? Machete? Rifle? You name it, you can bring it. It's a bigger pack and maybe more suitable for an average-sized man and not a youth or smaller woman.
Available at Amazon
CAPACITY: DOES NOT ALWAYS INCLUDE THE OUTER POCKETS
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.
WEIGHT: THREE TO FIVE POUNDS
External frame backpacks tend to be heavier than their internal frame counterparts. While most internal frame backpacks weigh under 4 pounds, external frame backpacks designed for long-distance hiking weigh in at about 5 pounds or more. A few models use a titanium frame and a lightweight pack material to shave their weight down to just under three pounds.
FRAME MATERIAL: ALUMINUM VS TITANIUM
Most frames on an external frame backpack 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.
Detachable external frame (Vargo Exoti)
BACKPACK FABRIC: POLYESTER VS NYLON
Both polyester and nylon are suitable backpack fabrics and you can’t go wrong with either one. Nylon is stretchier and lighter than polyester, while polyester is heavier and can handle a bit more abuse because it is abrasion resistant. Moisture is one area where the two fabrics diverge. 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. You don’t need a DWR treatment and the fabric dries faster when it does get wet because it does not retain a lot of moisture.
STORAGE: LOOK FOR ACTIVITY-SPECIFIC ATTACHMENT POINTS AND POCKETS
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.
COMFORT: MANAGING WEIGHT AND ADJUSTING THE PACK
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.
BACKPACK TYPE: FRAME ONLY VS FULL PACK
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.
How to pack an external frame backpack?
External frame backpacks position the load firmly on your hips. You should pack them from light to heavy.
Bottom: start at the very bottom of your backpack with the lightweight items that you won't need to use during the day, such as a sleeping bag or puffy jacket.
Middle: pile on the medium-weight things that you don't need to access regularly like your stove and fuel canister. Place these items in the middle and away from your back.
Top: Finally, place the heaviest items at the top of the pack, next to your back. The things you need to use during the day, like your water filter or snacks, can go in one of the external pockets or pouches.
For more detailed info, check out How to Pack a Backpack.
How to size an external frame backpack?
The frame height is critical to getting a good fit with an external frame backpack. The ideal frame height is based on your torso size and the weight that you are carrying. You first need to find your torso height, which is the length between the vertebrae at the base of your neck and the bottom of your back.
Once you know your torso height, you need to determine how much weight you will carry. The more weight you carry, the taller the frame that you will need. This extra height helps to distribute the weight more firmly on your hips.
If the weight varies on different trips, don't worry, as most external backpacks can adjust their frame height to match the load you are carrying.
How to fit and adjust an external frame backpack?
Begin by adding a few items to the backpack so you can adjust it with some weight in it.
Lengthen or shorten the frame based on your torso length and the weight you are carrying. Check your owners manual or manufacturer’s website for details on how to adjust the frame length. In general,
Adjust the straps. Similar to an internal frame backpack, you begin by loosening all the straps and then putting on the backpack. Grab the waist belt and securing it snugly around your hip. The hip belt should fit so the center of the band sits right at the top of your hip bones.
Tighten the shoulder straps and make sure the pack frame is secured against your back. The last two adjustments are the chest strap, which should be taut but not tight around your chest, and the load lifters. The load lifters are at the top of the pack and pull the weight towards your back. As you tighten these lifter straps, you should feel the weight shift from your shoulders to your hips.
Visually check your fit. The shoulder straps should come up and wrap down around the shoulder, while the load lifter straps should be positioned at about a 45-degree angle. You may have to adjust the torso length and loosen/tighten straps to get a comfortable fit. After hiking about 30 minutes, you may want to spot check the straps and retighten them if needed.
📷 Some of the photos in this post were taken by Jonathan Davis (@meowhikes)
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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