Internal vs External Frame Backpacks

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?



Tweet out to me so that others can benefit from your question too! Tweet to @SurvivalBloke

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.