Internal vs External Frame Backpack

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:

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  • Robert Jesionowski

    I have a Kelty treker 65. I sits more than close enough, that old adage is just that … old. The new externals are very comfortable and the load sits where it should. Nice thing is there is still some space and it is a design feature not a bug. You do not heat up. The part I appreciate the most is that my gear is very well organized, the pack has compartments. Kelty has reintroduced a 90L external frame which I plan to get, and pass my 65L on to me teenage son.

    • Mark_A_Thomas

      True, the one internal frame I tried only had two large full length pockets. It never failed, when on the trail if I needed something out of one of those pockets I had to pull everything out before I found it. With the four standard pockets on my Kelty I know where things are and I find it on the first try.

  • jimluschen

    THe North Face Backmagic. ‘nuf said!

  • Don

    I purchased a Kelty Tioga external frame pack in 1986, and used it for many 1 to 2 week long backpacking trips over the years. While I don’t often go on backpacking trips just for the fun of it any longer, as a wildlife biologist, I have been taking 2-5 research trips per year to the mountains over the past 10 years or years or so, usually for 5-8 days at a time, and often covering substantial distances. About 5 years ago, my old Tioga, after 20+ years of hard use and abuse, was literally falling apart. Zippers weren’t working, the stitching on the spin-drift collar had all come loose, and the belt attachments had also come loose. I sent the pack to Kelty, assuming that they would then tell me it was beyond repair, and although it had a life-time warranty, the damage was more “normal wear and tear” than material failure or workmanship. Much to my pleasure and surprise, Kelty repaired everything, and had the pack back to me within a week. My knees, ankles, and back will give out completely long before this pack does. While still somewhat biased toward external frame packs, I am especially a fan of Kelty. In this era of disposable products and rapid obsolescence, it is nice to know there are a few companies that still stand behind their products, no matter the circumstance.

    • Mark_A_Thomas

      For sure. In my comment above I mention my Kelty is 40 years old. I bought it at age 16 when I had to save for every piece of equipment I owned. I still have my Camp 7 down sleeping bag and Gerry down jacket. I didn’t know Kelty would make those kind of repairs.

    • WoozyCanary

      I started with a Kelty Tioga (or, maybe it was a Tioga 2) when i first started overnight hiking eons ago. For overnight trips, it was the only pack i ever used. Eventually, shoulder strap connections distorted, waist belt and back band wore out, but with replacement parts, the pack soldiered on.

      Eventually, with the slight bends to the frame from falling, holes in the fabric from rodents looking for food, etc., it was time to upgrade. After scanning the options, i was happy to see that Kelty had continued the line, and i bought a Super Tioga (5500 cu. in., i think) from Campmor.

      It hasn’t had a ton of use yet, but i’ve had it out a bunch of times, and it’s at least as comfortable and as well made as the previous versions. The waist and shoulder belts are better cushioned and the adjustments are better. The pack fabric seems a bit tougher. Big thumbs up to Kelty!

      I’m finally thinking about getting serious about winter hiking (at least day trips), so i’m looking for an internal-frame pack that has the the external lashing accommodations for crampons, snow shoes, etc. that the Kelty lacks. The ones i’ve tried on just don’t seem as comfortable to me as the Kelty. Hoping i can find something that works.

  • Alexander Jack

    When trying to compair the two back packs it really comes down whats comfortable for you and what and where you are planing to use it.
    Historically External frame packs come from the utility side in historically being used for carrying heavy bulky loads. Its best representation would be that of a pick up truck.
    Internal framed back packs come from the mountaineering back country skiing side where carrying the weight close to the body allows one to keep their balance easier and bushwack through brush without getting caught up in it. more like a SUV
    External frame packs have great advantages in that they have greater ventiliation to your back, can carry comfortably heavier, bulkier loads, are easier to stow gear in and as my PCH through hikers have pointed out when they have long streatches between watering holes that can easily carry the water in bulk containers to cover the distance. They stand up by them selves making it easier to use per say as a storage cabnet. The disadvantages is the bulk and in many ways the massive storage. Its really easy to over pack when you have massive amounts of room to put things.
    Internal frame packs have the advantage in feeling much more like a part of your body and will move wih you as you walk down the path. Their are generally narrower than the frame packs and carry for the most part everything internally away from the elements. There is also an internal framed backpack for every use one could think of big, small and heavy load to ultra light you can buy a pack for just what you planned to do. Disadvantages include the are hot, have dificulty carrying bulky loads and if you need to expand to carry additional gear its eithr a pack change or like an SUV you end up strapping it to the outside in some unwealdly location. Friends of mine that have through hikes the PCH with them pont out the comfort of the back pack in daily hiking and how much more secure they feel while tromping through snow in the high Sierras. The disadvantages they fely was in the feeling every morning they were reorganizing their back packs for the days hike in that everything was shifted out of place in setting up camp the night before. The lack of ability to take out a single item that they packed deep into their pack and the constant adjustment of their straps.

  • griz

    Trailwise berkley external. More than 30 yrs and still my favorite for everything but winter expedition or technical climbing.

  • Ted

    I have used external for over 30 years and find it meets all my needs. My favorite, and still in use, is a Camp Trails Ponderosa which is no longer made. Too bad, it was a good pack at a reasonable cost.

  • DDD

    Good topic. I think internal frames offer a updated sleeker looking pack which is good in tight trails or thick brush. In my experience internals put a lot of weight on your shoulders and there for more on your back. Where as an external frame if adjusted correctly will put almost all the packs weight right to your hips which makes it easier on your back. A few more things to consider is if you are hiking during the summer and it’s hot most internals will hold the heat on your back and can make it hard to cool down. An external has a suspension that holds the pack off you back to allow good air flow for sweat to evporate so it keeps you cooler. Let’s face it I love my old Kelty external. I have rattled on long enough and if you like internals fine I won’t hold it against you.
    DDD

  • Ron Baker

    I have an Osprey Internal frame for day trips and a Kelty External frame for multi days. The Internal looks way cooler and the External frame is a workhorse.

  • Patrick Radcliffe

    What kind of comparison is this article all you talked about is internal frame packs. The reason you don’t see as many external frame packs is that it takes a welder to build the frame for the best packs welders get paid more then a seamstress to build a pack. The biggest draw back to internal frame packs is that have to buy a high end highly compressable sleeping bags, then it goes the same way for tents too. My son and I use external frame packs my wife and daughter use internal frame packs. They have a hard time getting everything in their packs compared my son and I. He and I end carrying tents stoves and food. Just know you have to buy higher end gear that can fit into internal frame you get more freedom in size with externals which means less outlay to get you in backpacking. My suggestion if you are going on a long hall unsupported hike 50 miles or longer go external you can pack alot in it and lashed to it.

    • Mark_A_Thomas

      I’m glad you posted that because I had thought for a long time the same thing. The industry can centralize their manufacturing in one place and specialize in fabric and sewing machines. No outside vendor making the aluminum frames. Next, all they have to do is convince the customer how clever the new design is.
      What you are saying about packing is completely true, there is always something that doesn’t fit well in an internal pack.

  • Mark_A_Thomas

    I tried an internal frame a couple years ago. I found it harder to get the weight off my shoulders, which seemed to put a strain on my neck that lead to some minor headache issues. It could be that the pack was just not big enough for me, but besides the fact that the internal frame leaves you with a sweat soaked shirt where your back rests against it, the final decision to go back to my old Kelty external frame, came when the National Park and Forest Service started mandating bear canisters.

    These enormous, hard, slippery, space robbing camp stools, made packing the internal frame a challenge. Internal frames work best when items are small, compact, or compressible. A bear canister that can hold a week of food defeats you at every turn. With today’s modern down sleeping bags, some compressible to the size of a cantaloupe, I found I didn’t have to use the lower part of the frame to carry the sleeping bag, that used to be the size of two soccer balls. So, now I strap the bear canister down there instead.

    Also, just this last weekend with my Boyscout troop I had scouts with internal frames trying to carry, the rather old fashioned, foam ground pads. You can’t fold these or stuff them, so they end up tied on to the outside in the most ungainly fashion, bobbing, swaying, shifting and eventually falling off.

    One Scout asked how I made my pack stand on its own.
    Well, I told him the pack and I had been together a long time (40 years) and it was that and training like it was a dog, but really it is the hard bear canister on the bottom.

  • Oldelvis

    For younger children/ Scouts you should be looking for adjustable Internal Frame pack. They are much easier to adjust as the child grows, and , because they can tie less things on it, easier to keep the weight do to 30% of their body weight. Once you are done growing, you can look at external frame packs, but I still feel that internal is better.

  • macsnow

    I just purchased a used Camp Trails
    Wilderness External Frame backpack and I am not sure what the long tube-like compartments on the left side of the pack are designed to be used for. One tube-like pocket has a zipper closure. And behind that is a 2nd tube that is open at both ends. Any body know anything about this older external frame pack?

  • zamise

    Does anyone know if you can use an external frame pack without the frame (like a daypack), i.e. can the shoulder and belt harnesses be connected directly to the pack and not the frame?

    • WoozyCanary

      Not familiar with other brands, but for the Kelty Tiogas, no, the bag is designed specifically to work only attached to the frame.

    • fikonfraktare

      Generally not. The old US military ALICE pack (medium size) is designed to have shoulder straps attached. And the old South African military pack (SADF M83) come with straps attached on both the sack and the frame.