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Internal vs. External Backpacks

External Frame

Teton 55L Internal Frame Backpack

Internal Frame

Kelty External Frame Backpack

Full disclosure: I like external frame backpacks.  Seriously, I have two antique military external frame backpacks.  A 1973 ALICE (All-purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment, although "lightweight" is a relative term) and a P64 military issue backpack from 1964. 

 

Additionally, I've used old Kelty aluminum frame packs and regularly switch between two Coleman Peak One packs (a large and medium-sized) which are the inspiration for the MOLLE external frame packs used by the military today.  

I also have an internal frame nearly ultra-light backpack and if you've watched any of my recent videos on Amputee Outdoors, you'll notice that I use a small internal frame backpack on my day hikes.  

So, yes, I have a bias...however... I'm not oblivious to the downsides of external frame backpacks.  Having said all that, let's discuss the two options.

Pros

  • Massive variety - if you've looked online or a brick-and-mortar store for internal frame packs you've probably been overwhelmed by the selection.  There are packs for every body type, all are adjustable, packs for different types of backpacking and environments, and hundreds of variations in storage, straps, belts, etc.  Search long enough and you can find your perfect backpack. 

  • Lightweight - this is one of the major factors when picking out any gear, the weight.  Internal frame packs are generally lighter.  However, I have encountered some internal frame backpacks that have sacrificed weight for durability and size.  

  • Stability - an internal frame, by its very design,  hugs against your back.  This combined with the multitude of straps you can tighten down means the pack is more stable on those uneven trails. 

  •  Compact - internal frame backpacks don't have parts sticking out that can catch on branches and such.  Definitely a benefit on those trails that aren't regularly attended to.  

Cons

  • Pricey - While you can find very cheap internal or even no-frame backpacks on sites like Amazon, you will regret purchasing them.  A good internal frame backpack is going to be over $100. 

  • Back sweat - the price you pay for having a pack that hugs your body.  Even in winter, I've worn internal frame packs resulting in my shirt and jacket being wet from sweat.  Sure it may have meshing or airflow channels, but they do little good after a couple of miles. 

  • Limited external attachment points - with the exception of military-styled packs with MOLLE straps, internal frame packs don't have a lot of options to attach random stuff to like your wet socks, or extra pouches need for the specifics of your environment. 

  • No padded belts - internal frame backpacks have padded side belts to rest on your hips, but the back part is just another part of the pack with little to no padding. 

  • Being poked - there always seems to be one item that, despite your careful packing, jabs you in the back or shoulder as you hike along.

 

Pictured: Teton 55L Backpack

Link: https://amzn.to/3cxH0rq

Pros

  • Affordable - don't buy an external frame backpack from Amazon or any other retailer unless you're looking for a heavy-duty hunting backpack.  Instead, scour Craig's List, outdoor consignment shops, thrift stores, eBay, etc.  A quick search on Craig's List resulted in 25 packs under $100.  

  • Load capacity - if you need to carry a lot of gear, (think winter camping), an external frame pack is what you want.  Loading up 100+ lbs of gear on an external frame backpack is very doable.  

  • Back and hips - the upright frame of externals means that the load doesn't incline into you and all the weight is evenly distributed and pushed down to your hips.  

  • Hip belt - external frame backpacks typically have a hip belt that goes all the way around your back.  When you're carrying a full load, this provides a much greater level of comfort. 

  • Air circulation - with the frame keeping your pack an inch or so from your back, you're not going to be sweating so much.  

  • Creative external storage - you can get very creative with a frame when it comes to lashing things to the outside of the pack.  Even attaching the backpack of one of your fellow hikers if they are injured. 

  • Modular - the straps, belt, and pack on an external frame backpack are all removable and replaceable. I've got a Frankenstein pack that uses different parts of several other external frame backpacks to create a really comfortable backpack. 

Cons

  • Weight - External frame backpacks can weigh as much as twice as much as an internal frame pack. 

  • Awkward luggage - packing an external frame backpack in the trunk of a car or as check-in luggage at the airport isn't easy.   I've seen an external frame backpack get lodged in a luggage carousel at an airport. 

  • Branches are a problem - ducking under logs, branches, etc., with an external frame backpack is awkward and you will invariably catch at least one good branch on any hike you do. 

  • Not good for those with back problems - if you have back issues, the weight of the pack being held away from you can become a problem.  A painful one.  The pack will also sway a little more than an internal frame backpack and this can acerbate your back problems even more.

 

Pictured: Kelty Trekker Backpack

Link: https://amzn.to/3IRT96I 

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