How important is choosing the right backpack for your wilderness adventure? It will be one of the most critical purchases you will make, as it could make a difference in where you are able to go and how easily you get there. It will determine what kind, and how much gear you can carry.

A backpack will essentially serve as your luggage in the wilderness. Take your time and select one that will serve you for many trips. I have used both types of packs in my adventures; carrying an internal frame pack in the White Mountains, while on a separate trip to the Catskill Mountains I opted for an external frame. I have found that the external works best for me, especially when hiking on a clear, marked path. All packs have some similarities, but it is the differences between the two styles where making the right decision becomes important.

Internal Frame Backpack Vs. External Frame Backpack
Internal Frame Backpack External Frame Backpack

The Backpack’s Purpose

Both internal and external packs carry the varied gear and necessities a backpacker needs. Think about this: How many days do you expect to average on trail? Just having a general idea of the amount of gear you intend to carry will help make selecting your pack a bit easier. Each pack is rated by volume (cubic inches or liters) equaling how much space is available inside the main compartment and additional pockets. Check the manufacturer’s tag for the size and for how many days’ worth of gear they recommend it can hold. Many backpacks feature a waterproof sleeve inside to hold a water bladder/reservoir, with a convenient hole for the drinking hose to go through. Of course, they all will have padded shoulder straps and padded hip belts, and most feature load lifter straps at the top which eases the burden on your shoulders. After considering the commonalties and basics, we move to where external and internal packs diverge.

Size

Man Looking Over Cliff

Externals were at one time the predominant pack on the market, but in the last twenty years, internal frame packs have become the industry standard. For airline and rail travel, skipping from one city to the next, internal frame packs cannot be equaled. More importantly, if you intend on bushwhacking, venturing off the designated trail and charting your own course with map, compass or GPS in hand, then you must choose an internal, since it is more compact, and since the weight is held more closely against the body, it will not shift side to side when attempting to circumvent obstacles you will certainly encounter on an unmarked path.

Framing

There is a diversity of internal frames now. In the past, internal frame packs used pre-bent aluminum stays that were inserted into one or two vertical pockets inside the pack bag to provide support. A lot of innovation has transpired over the years and now there are frame sheets with aluminum and alloy stays integrated into them; frame sheets with external aluminum bars that act like mini leaf springs and X frames give multidimensional suspension. The formfitting profile of an internal frame pack reduces the chance of snagging against rocks or branches and makes them ideal for climbing mountains. Internal frame packs are designed to be loaded with more weight between the small of the back to between the shoulders.

Comfortability

A relatively comfortable fit can be achieved by adjusting the torso length and harness. While carrying a heavy load isn’t always the most comfortable, a proper and precise fit will go a long way in helping to lessen the burden. Because internals ride right against your pack, they can be hot to wear. Some packs feature thick back padding or mesh made from synthetic material that wicks moisture away, keeping you more comfortable on the trail. Loops and daisy chains are added to hang small items on the outside. A top lid provides a small pocket that, on some models, can be removed and used as a hip bag – great for quick summit trips.

Packing

Many internal frames are top loading packs meaning that you need to load the pack from the top like filling a sack. There are some models though that have front panel access which makes packing easier. The design of internal frames discourages strapping a lot of gear on the outside of the pack. If your style of packing is to strap items onto your pack, external frames are better for that. Internal frame packs are not as good as externals in supporting heavy loads. If you need to pack in supplies to a remote location, or pack out after a hunt, an internal frame would not be the correct pack choice. Internal frames share more of the load to the shoulders than external frames do, but they move with a person.

Additional Features

Backpacking and Hiking

Unlike years ago, external frame backpacks are now rather uncommon on store shelves. More economical than internal frame packs, an external frame pack could be your best choice if you’re on a tight budget. They are designed to carry heavy loads – 45 pounds and up – over wide, established trails. The pack bag is attached to an aluminum or composite frame, usually with frame space left over, either above or below the pack bag, to attach larger gear on the outside, like your sleeping bag, sleeping pad or tent. Being able to attach bulkier items on the outside means you’re not as concerned about running out of space as you might be with an internal backpack.

Heavier weight is carried higher. Weight is directed by the shoulders down the frame, to the padded hip belt to the hips and legs. There are multiple adjustments for the shoulder straps and torso length, making the pack very adjustable for different torso lengths. There is often a back band or back padding to provide ventilation between the body and the pack bag meaning you’ll stay cooler than when carrying an internal frame pack. Multiple exterior pockets allow quick access to smaller items, or gear that may be needed on the trail. The most important feature, however, is that an external pack takes most of the weight off the shoulders and distributes most of it to the hips, thus making carrying a heavy load much more tolerable.

Since most external frame packs are designed with an H-like frame, the center of gravity is high, due to the weight distribution. Therefore, externals are not recommended for boulder hopping or bushwhacking.

Try it Out

Each pack has pros and cons, but only because they have different uses. Once you know what your trip will entail, you can then make an informed decision about which backpack to select. A good outdoor retailer will allow you to try on backpacks. Ask the salesperson to load them up, adjust the straps, and then walk around with them for a while. Take your time and make sure to try on several packs to help you decide. And, if you’re ever in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, I highly recommend visiting the one and only Campmor retail store located in Paramus, New Jersey. The salespeople in the backpack department are knowledgeable and can answer any questions you may have.

If you’re not able to visit, please don’t hesitate to talk to our pack experts by phone, live chat, on any product page under the Q/A or email. And please view our backpack cheat sheet below for further tips: