Internal vs External Frame Backpacks

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What’s the difference between an internal and external frame backpack?

Internal frame backpacks are completely different than external frame models.  The only real similarity they share is that they both hold stuff.  Once you get past that, you’re dealing with two very different animals.  One is made to carry copious quantities of gear while the other is designed to feel like it’s part of your back.  We’re going to examine both styles so you can have a better idea of which to choose.

 

External Frame Backpacks

These have a frame that is -you guessed it- external to the pack itself.  These backpacks are basically a frame with a backpack strapped to them.  Although this type of pack is widely external-frame-packconsidered “old school”, there are a couple distinctly positive characteristics which you will only find on an external frame design.  First is the ability to easily organize your gear.  Not only are these types of packs known for their many small compartments but, it’s also quite easy to attach gear externally to the frame itself.  Ventilation is also a strong point for these packs.  The way these packs are designed to sit up against your back, there is always a space between your back and the pack itself.  This provides a great channel for air to move through.

External frame packs were designed to carry lots and lots of weight and encourage a more upright posture while hiking.  They transfer load very easily and cost about half what you’d pay for a comparable internal frame backpack.  However, every proverbial rose has it’s thorns.  One of the downsides to a backpack like this is due to it’s sheer bulk, it’s not the most stable thing out there.  A backpack like this is much less balanced overall than it’s internally structured counterpart.  With a lack of compactness and bulky feel in general, anyone can see that the external frame backpack was designed for wide, clear trails.

 

Internal Frame Backpacks

Internal frames seem to be the “in” thing.  Not just in the past couple of days but over the last decade or so, these packs have solidly positioned themselves as the De Facto camping/hiking/backpacking/survival packs.  Internal frame backpacks have a full frame as well, it’s just completely hidden and strategically integrated within the pack material.  This internal-frame-packstyle pack is known for it’s form fitting characteristics.  Once you strap one up, you’ll feel that it really hugs your body.

These packs promote outstanding mobility.  Because they form to your body, it’s almost like they become part of you.  This allows you to have more overall balance and control on your hike and, because they are all-in-all slimmer than their external frame counterparts, you can safely maneuver through the tightest of trails and paths.  Another great thing about internal frame backpacks is because they have become the industry standard, the selection is second to none.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of internal frame backpacks, they too have their own unique set of disadvantages.  Ah yes, there seems no escape from life’s Yin and Yang.  I suppose the most frustrating thing about this style is that they all seem to have one massive compartment.  Yes, there are multiple access locations to this compartment, but that doesn’t mitigate the time it takes to pack your gear in the most intelligent order.  It never seems to fail, the piece of gear you figure you’d least likely need, you stuff in the back or bottom and VOILA, it’s the first thing you need!  In addition to that, carrying heavy loads in these packs is cumbersome at best.  Because they mold to your body, there’s really no decent weight distribution or transfer.  It’s like a big heavy backpack that also kind of sits on your waist.  One last thing I’d like to point out is that its very difficult to attach external gear.  Try strapping a rifle to one of these backpacks and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

I threw together a quick comparison table of these two backpack styles.  It may not be as detailed as it could be but it’s a good nuts and bolts side by side to illustrate the points I mentioned in this article.

[table “4” not found /]

So, what do I use?  Internal or External frame backpack?  Both.  I know, that’s the worst answer because it really doesn’t accomplish anything.  Let me explain, if I’m going on a weekend camping trip to one location, external frame pack all the way.  If I’m going on a 3 week backpacking excursion where there’s a different site each evening and the entire thing is backwoods, I go with the internal.  It’s like a huge backpack that holds the necessities.

What do you prefer?

 

Questions?

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Meet the Author

I'm a former US Marine, full-time father and husband, and part-time survivalist. I like old things, like music, furniture and time-tested survival technique, but there's always a place in my heart for new technology such as weapons and sleeping bag fill. I'm here to share my knowledge and experience, and I hope you'll share yours as well.

20 comments… add one
  • Trihakni Putra Jun 24, 2015, 12:44 pm

    so, its better to use the right frame backpack for the right field huh?.. i agree with you, the mobility of internal frame help me move while in jungle, rather than using external. both have good and bad points.

    • Mike Jun 24, 2015, 8:45 pm

      There’s a good and bad side to both designs. When I use an external frame, I feel like I can take more gear. That’s not really true in reality, but the external frame makes me feel like I can tie more pieces to it. I use internal frame gear almost exclusively now. Even when I got on 30 day humps, I just take a 72 hour pack. Stove, bowl, many pairs of socks, fishing pole, shot gun, hammock…. and that’s about it.

  • KiWi Nov 7, 2015, 11:47 pm

    Thoughts on where you carry the load primarily for each type? In other words, does the external frame do a better job of transfering weight to the hips as opposed to the shoulder? I’d love an opinion on this.

    • Mike Nov 18, 2015, 2:26 am

      Internal/External is such a preference thing. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. I think the external frame does a good job of allowing you to rig a wild load of gear. It also keeps everything off your back better than an internal. However, the external is a far bit clunkier. Like I said, it’s a very, very much preference thing. No matter what you choose, the load needs to be on your hips or you aren’t going to make it far.

  • David Nov 30, 2015, 12:55 am

    External frame all the way, the others make me sweat too much; and that causes excess dehydration meaning I have to carry more water. (I’m in Australia, it isn’t exactly abundant in water for outdoor pursuits.)
    It’s almost impossible to find external frame where I live these days, and that’s a shame. I haven’t been able to try it yet, but I think they would also work at home for things like mounting a back pack sprayer. Those things are terribly damaging to the body!

    • Mike Nov 30, 2015, 5:48 pm

      David – these are great points. I really think either designs have their strengths, but your gripes about the internal frame models would be mine as well.

  • Perry Jan 22, 2016, 2:54 am

    I’m looking to get a better backpack for my wife. She’s using an fairly small plastic external and it’s not made to carry much or be out for multiple days. We’ve made it work in the mountains of CO by strapping an extra carry bag to it. She says she needs something larger that transfers more weight to her hips.

    I’m using my dad’s old external frame pack, made in America over 40 years ago. I love it but it’s nearly impossible to find an external now. We have a trip planned this summer to do some mountain and glacier travel in Washington State. Do you have any experience with internal/external for someone on ice?

    • Mike Jan 23, 2016, 12:27 am

      You know, if I were on ice, I would definitely want an internal frame pack. In that situation, I want something that is going to hug me, almost becoming part of my back, and load transfer has to be so good, it’s almost clever. There are many 72 hour packs out there, but one of my absolute favorites is the DAG Ghost. It’s a 72, and it has a wonderful hip strap which is even removable! Check it out here. You can’t go wrong with the Ghost – I have it and love it.

  • Gordon Fox Feb 14, 2016, 11:51 pm

    I’ve had a 45L conventional foam backed rucksack with top and side straps about 10 years for backpacking long distance trails, but I’m fed up of having a sweaty back, even in the UK in winter on a cold day, I still get damp and I’m dripping in summer even though there are air flow vents in the foam back padding. I looked for external frame packs, but they are unavailable unless they’re used items from ebay, Gum Tree etc, or old used military surplus like ALICE packs or Swedish LK35s (very cheap). Unfortunately the surplus ones, although great quality, tend to have heavier frames, necesarily robust enough to take the punishment of a soldier on exercises or in battlefield situations. Soldiers, of course, train to carry far heavier loads than most of us require as we don’t need spare capacity ammunition, and other weaponry. The older military packs don’t always come with a decent, well padded hip belt, which is essential, otherwise hips will hurt with a leanly or non padded hip belt and without one shoulder’s are going to ache and get very sore.

    Over this winter, I decided to make something simple and use a 40L dry sack bungee corded to it (those double to quickly guy my British Army Basha shelter sheet) to carry gear, I went into some local woodland and cut myself some saplings (about 20mm Ø) for the side uprights and split a wider piece of deadwood branch in half (about 50mm Ø) for the base, cut them to lengths to fit my body and made up an old style triangular ‘Roycroft’ packframe.

    Rather than lash it together old style, I drilled and bolted the triangle together with rustless bolts and shakeproof washers, sawed off the excess threaded part of the bolt and filed them flat to the nut; very solid. I drilled smaller 3mm Ø holes at regular intervals about 25mm apart along the length of the uprights, then threaded and criss crossed paracord tightly between them to prevent the dry sack poking through when attached. I got a 25mm thick foam gardener’s kneeling pad and cut it to fit the base split cross member and was also able to cut a triangular pad for the top of the triangle to fit between my shoulder blades, these allow the frame to stand away from my back for ventilation apart from the shoulders and hips.

    For attachment I have a large capacity bum bag (fanny pack), which is great for day walks, with top straps to take a rolled up waterproof, twin side bottle carriers, padded hip belt and 25mm wide shoulder straps I duct taped on and padded up with some cut up 50 mm wide strips of old sleeping mat foam, used its top straps to fix it to the base and made an attachment point on a cross member just below where the triangle intersects that the shoulder straps could thread through to fully secure it at the top.

    It’s now finished, but I’ve yet to try it on a 15 mile trek. with the empty dry sack and bum bag carrying system, it weighs in at just over 2lb. I reckon by using different materials I can make a pack frame up that’s lighter but still strong enough. The only way to do that is with hollow tubing and there are videos where guys have made there’s up to fit ALICE packs using 20mm Ø UPVC plumbing tube or electrical conduit, however I fancy keeping it natural and using bamboo, cutting and steaming it into a more ergonomic shape that follows my back’s contours for a tighter fit, whilst still leaving a gap for ventilation, that will balance more like my conventional backpack.

    • Mike Feb 16, 2016, 3:01 pm

      Gordon – thank you for this recipe and setup you’ve got. It seems you’ve taken this to a science – I like!

      I fixed your email. Thanks for the comments!

  • Eric Jun 9, 2016, 3:45 am

    For me it’s an external frame pack, I have a JanSort Denali with the metal reinforced hip pad.
    And it a front loader which is great after owning a top loader.
    It has more than enough patch points and extra pockets a large bottom pocket and a huge top pocket.
    As well as compression straps, it’s easy to open in cold weather. It has an ice ax, crampon pouch attachments and nifty map pocket on the front. The high bar on top makes it the perfect place from my North face VE 25 tent and enough room on the bottom for my snow leopard sleeping bag.
    I like to attach my military fanny pack with gear in it, to one of the crampon attachments.
    The pack is well balanced for an external frame pack
    It has held up well over the years going on many trips both with friends and when I was a scoutmaster. Some of the gear I carry is probable a little heavier than most people carry, but the pack handles it well and it carries fine.
    I wish JanSort would bring it back.
    Simple put I LOVE IT and would not trade it for anything.

    • Mike Jun 9, 2016, 7:40 pm

      Eric – *lots* of folks prefer the external pack design. It really feels like you’re packing when you can attach things to a frame. MOLLE is nice, and very low profile, but there’s a certain feeling you get when you pack up an external frame.

  • Dylan Jul 12, 2016, 7:10 pm

    I like the interanl better. I have used for the Grand Canyon and it was really easy to use. It made hiking a lot easier.

    • Mike Jul 18, 2016, 11:39 pm

      To each their own. That’s what I say Dylan. There’s so many pros and cons for both setups. Actually, I’ve been looking at these “floorless” shelters lately and trying to warm my mind up to the concept. Have you seen those? They’ve got little stoves in them. Kifaru makes them.

  • Jacob Brainard Nov 2, 2016, 4:50 am

    I currently have a 55 liter internal frame pack. I love it and we have been through a lot together, but i have been looking for a size increase as well as the ability to carry a rifle with me. I am soon free from any obligations and am planning much longer backpacking excursions. I was thinking that an external frame would allow me to carry more gear and much more weight, but in your article you said “If I’m going on a 3 week backpacking excursion where there’s a different site each evening and the entire thing is backwoods, I go with the internal.” Why is this? wouldnt you be able to carry more gear and supplies with an external? size will generally not be an issue for me as i wont be doing a lot of hiking through dense vegetation, nor weight. I actually relish the idea of carrying more weight, the challenge will make me feel less of a pog. Thank you for your time.

    • Mike Nov 2, 2016, 2:04 pm

      Jacob, this is a yes, and no question. Let me explain. I do feel that if I’m going to pack a lot of gear, especially different shaped items, particularly a rifle, etc, I like External frame packs. The reason I say if I’m going deep backwoods, I would prefer an internal frame model, is because it’s a little closer to your body, and less bulky in general, so less likely to snag on bushes and such. Ever seen the movie Labyrinth? Find a clip of that movie with the little old lady she meets. That’s how I pack external frame setups 🙂

      • Jacob Brainard Nov 3, 2016, 4:10 am

        Awesome, thank you for your clarification and the timely response. This is a great site and you have answered many questions. Have you ever been to Gates of the Arctic in Alaska? I am planning to hike up the Alatna River Valley, unless anyone has any better suggestions.

        • Mike Nov 8, 2016, 1:13 pm

          I have not been there, but it sounds amazing. How long will you be out?

  • Randy Johnson Dec 20, 2016, 9:02 am

    Really informative post!
    Thanks for sharing Mike 🙂

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