Dissecting the External Frame Backpack

Backpacking has taken a decisively ultralight turn over the last decade and this has changed the style of backpack used from external frame to internal frame. At one time, most hikers preferred external frame backpacks.

What do external backpacks provide in terms of benefits?

Do today’s ultralight packs have more in common with external frames than previously thought?

In this article we take a thorough look at the older designs and let you know just how external frames compare to internal frame backpacks.

What Benefits do External Frames Provide?

At first glance, the heavy aluminum frame poking out above the hiker’s head seems like overkill. Let’s remember why these packs were invented in the first place - to carry heavy loads into the backcountry.

Kelty backpacks first pioneered the now “retro” design that most people think of when they hear about external framed backpacks.   

External/Internal Hybrid Ultralight Packs

Ultralight hiking. As thru-hiking gains mainstream approval, the philosophy behind external frames is making a comeback. Keeping gear on the outside of packs increases the utility of a backpack. Sleeping pads strapped to the top don’t take up precious room inside the bag.

Keeping rain gear on the outside helps increase the efficiency of putting on gear during inclement weather. Trekking pole holders, ice axes, and crampons, are better off stored on the outside to prevent puncturing fragile items inside.

There are packs that share similarities with external frames that are simply not marketed under the term. Newer to the backpacking world, small cottage companies, specializing in ultralight packs use external frame characteristics in their designs.

These packs may resemble internal frame packs but they feature pockets and straps for carrying gear on the outside.

One look at this sub 2lb pack and it looks like an internal frame. Upon closer inspection, it features many of the benefits of an external frame. Large straps across the top make it easy to tie a sleeping pad to the outside. The exterior pockets are designed for storing important gear. The interior pocket is a single compartment, hardly a multi-pocketed internal pack.

Built with ultralight Dyneema Fabric, this style of backpack has both an internal pocket and a large mesh exterior one. Storing gear on the outside is just as necessary as keeping gear inside. While it lacks the charming aluminum tubes that traditional external frames have, it still facilitates exterior storage methods.

Internal Frame Packs Vs. External Frame Packs

Internal Frames. Aptly named, the frame resides inside the pack, running parallel to the hiker’s back. Generally made from aluminum, the metal rods help to shift weight onto the hips and away from the shoulders.

This style of backpack features interior pockets, with some designs using zippers to separate the storage areas. The majority of gear is stored inside, offering more protection and a cleaner look.



Lightweight. Internal frame packs come in many shapes and sizes but many are under 3 lbs, some even weigh less than 2lbs. Every year new materials become lighter and more affordable, allowing new models to be more lightweight.

Carrying limit. Internal frames have a limit as to how much weight they can carry. Pack too much stuff and the seams will rip, threatening to tear the entire bag apart. The weight limit also force campers to invest in smaller, lightweight gear which is generally more expensive.

Easy to pack. With zippers galore and enough room to fit all the gear, packing is a breeze. Stuff your tent, sleeping bag, clothes and fill the zipper pockets with the excess gear. No confusing knots or noisy items bumping you as you walk.

Hot. Most models rest entirely against a hiker’s back. This prevents airflow and makes the friction zone a sweaty, and sometimes painful area.

Versatile. Going on a weekend trip? Flying in an airplane? Use your internal frame backpack wherever you travel, it’s more than just an outdoor bag. Just at home in a hostel as it is in a campground.

Limited space. Tying gear to the outside of an internal frame is difficult, and uncomfortable. Not designed for bulky items, its best to leave the bigger stuff at home.

External Frames. With large metal frames outlining a hiker’s back, this style of backpack has a skeleton look. A small pocket is attached to the middle of the frame which provides a bag to stow away smaller items and clothes.

The hip belts are situated below the frame and much of the gear is lashed to the top, above a backpacker’s head.



Carrying limit. External frames have a  burly exoskeleton which makes it perfect for strapping on heavy gear and/or meat. Many backpacks are rated to 50lbs with some as high as 100lbs.

Heavy. Traditional external framed backpacks are not lightweight. Weighing over 4lbs, sometimes even more. These packs are built tough and their materials weigh them down.

Plenty of space. With the ability to tie gear to the outside, users are only limited by their creativity and physical abilities. Take that heavy two person tent and the bulky sleeping bag on your next hike without worrying about making room inside a little backpack.

Hard to pack. Because the internal pocket is so small, most of the gear must be packed on the outside. Proper lashing is required and the jolts of the trail can loosen knots and spill gear.

Air flow. With hip belts situated below the frame, gear is kept away from a hiker’s back. Only the shoulder straps and hips are covered with fabric, the rest of the body is allowed ample opportunity to breathe.

Big and bulky. Tying gear to the outside of a pack means taking up more room on the trail. Running into low hanging branches or hearing the clunking of loose cookware is all part of the experience when wearing one of these packs.

Is an External Frame Right For You?

Bucking the trend of internal frames and rocking a retro-framed pack is well within the realms of possibilities. Maybe using one of the new ultralight packs is more your style. Whatever you decide, there is wisdom and utility with strapping gear to the outside of a backpack on a long hike.