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Top External frame backpacks Reviews and Buyer's Guide

Last updated July 2, 2019

External frame backpacks might seem a bit old-fashioned, but they are actually a great choice if you need a backpack that allows you to carry a lot of stuff.

So if you have decided you need an external frame backpack, you will need to choose the right model.

This can be surprisingly difficult as there are quite a few models to choose from + you need to find out which of the backpacks that are of good quality and have the features you need.

The Best External Frame Backpack

Having checked hundreds of external frame backpack reviews, we can say that the Slumberjack Rail Hauler is the best choice for most people.

Slumberjack Rail Hauler
This is the best reviewed external frame backpack.
How we rate the bags

We have checked 158 external frame backpack reviews, so we can show you the weighted average rating of all the bags.

Using the average ratings, you can check what all the reviewers think instead of just viewing the subjective opinion of one specific reviewer.

It's much simplier to find the best bags that way.

Also Great

If the Slumberjack Rail Hauler isn't your style, you might also consider the Kelty Super Tioga.

The Super Tioga is a close runner-up with a rating of 4.10 out of 5.

Kelty Super Tioga
The second-best reviewed external frame backpack.
Finally, you might consider the Kelty Trekker.

The Trekker is the third-best rated external frame backpack with a rating of 4.07, but it's usually more expensive than both the Rail Hauler and the Super Tioga.

Kelty Trekker
The third-best reviewed external frame backpack.
Below is the list of all top 4 best external frame backpacks. Great if none of the three bags above are your style.

The 4 Best External Frame Backpacks

PS: We have checked 158 reviews to make this top 4 list!

RankExternal Frame BackpackRating
1Slumberjack Rail HaulerSlumberjack Rail Hauler
Available on Amazon
Check Deals
15 reviews
2Kelty Super TiogaKelty Super Tioga
Available on Amazon
Check Deals
74 reviews
3Kelty TrekkerKelty Trekker
Available on Amazon
Check Deals
22 reviews
4ALPS Mountaineering BryceALPS Mountaineering Bryce
32 reviews

Buyers Guide to External Frame Backpacks

Man in the mountains with external frame backpack [toc] So, they may be old school as far as backpacks are concerned but you will be hard pressed to find a better workhorse than an external frame backpack. If you are planning on carrying as many items with you as possible, this is the pack that is going to help you do that.

Just because these type of packs are considered old fashioned doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to examine. You are going to need to understand the construction, capacity, suspension system, and more with these backpacks. Fortunately for you, we have taken care of all of this. Whatever you wanted to know about external frame backpacks, you will be able to find here.

Everything You Need to Know About External Frame Backpacks

External frame backpacks aren’t used all that often these days so it can be quite difficult to find information about these type of packs. To make sure that you get the best possible one for yourself, you will first need to understand all of the various elements regarding this category. Here is all of the relevant information:

What are External Frame Backpacks?

First things first, let’s take a look at just what these packs are and how they are built. Essentially, this type of backpack consists of a fully exposed frame from which a pack is suspended. The actual design varies from manufacturer to manufacturer although the basic components remain the same.


More often than not, the frame is made from aluminum although it is possible to find more flexible plastic frames as well. The aluminum frames do work well when you are trying to carry a significant load for an extended period of time. However, where they fall short is their restriction of movement. These frames are quite rigid and as such, don’t follow the natural movement of the body. This means that moving or twisting your upper body can be very difficult.

Plastic frames help to offset these inconveniences. Due to the properties of the material, these are more flexible, making it easier for you to twist your upper body. As a result, these tend to be more comfortable to carry as well.


The two vertical bars on the frame can be joined in a U-shaped formation or be apart from one another at the top and bottom. All frames do have crossbars, however, which join the two bars together. Sometimes, these crossbars can extend far above the top of the backpack. This creates a greater amount of space to tie additional belongings to. Then there are other designs still, which have ledges. This, too, is for additional storage purposes, like for a sleeping bag.

The Pros and Cons of an External Frame Backpack

As with all backpacks, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with the external frame design. To know if this is the right type for you, you will need to weigh the pros against the cons:


Carry Lots of Gear and WeightWhile this may be considered an old fashioned or outdated backpack, there is a reason that it is still very much in circulation – it works. In fact, you will find it very difficult to replace the external frame pack when it comes to carrying weights.

If you are not the kind of person to travel light or are heading towards harsh conditions which require a lot of supplies, this is the pack for you. It has been built to allow you to carry much more than you thought possible. For instance, with the right pack, you may be able to carry up to 50kg without really feeling it.

They Are Comfortable in Warm Weather
External frame backpacks come with a rather important feature: they create a lot of space between your back and the pack. As a result, there is more air circulating in this area, cutting on how hot you feel. Therefore, it is a great option for hiking or camping in the summer.


Side to Side Movement with Heavy Loads
These backpacks aren’t a great option for someone who isn’t sure footed. This is because when you are carrying a very heavy load, the backpack can sway. As you can imagine, this impacts your balance and the way that you walk too.

Heavier than Internal Frame Packs
While the external frame packs do help you to carry a greater load, there is the matter of them being quite empty themselves. Even when the packs are empty, you can expect them to weight quite a bit more than their internal frame counterparts.

What Capacity Do You Need?

As mentioned, these external frame backpacks can be quite hefty on their own. Therefore, it isn’t a good idea to go for a pack that is larger than strictly necessary. By choosing a backpack with the capacity that you are most likely to need, you can keep the overall weight down.

  • Day Trip (25 to 40 liters): if you will only be outdoors for a day and will not be camping overnight, you aren’t going to need too much. With a backpack of this size, you should be able to carry food, water, cameras, emergency kits, an additional layer of clothing, and perhaps a couple of personal devices.

  • Weekend Trip (50 to 70 liters): if you will be camping outdoors for at least two days, you are going to need more food rations and water. You will also need a tent, sleeping bag, and a greater number of clothes. A portable stove may be able to fit into this space.

  • Multiday Trip (60 to 80 liters): for this type of trip, you will need a bag that can accommodate all of the above equipment just in a greater number. So this means more food, more water, and more clothes.

  • Expedition Trip (80+ liters): these trips may require actual gear such as walking poles or rope in addition to the food, water, and clothes. Depending on the season, you may need the pack to accommodate winter versions of the gear.

  • Size of the Pack

    Along with the capacity of the pack, you should also be concerned about its size. This refers to both the frame as well as the backpack itself. The size of the backpack, as you can imagine, is determined by its capacity.

    If you want a mid-sized pack, then look for ones that will be no longer than your torso. It must sit comfortably between the base of your neck and the top of your hip bones. This will make the bag proportional to your size and easier to carry.

    For oversized, expedition sized bags, clearly, this will not be possible. Still, the bag should not be much taller than the top of your head, when it is on your back. Any longer than this and you will find it quite difficult to walk around, especially on rougher terrain.

    If you do decide on longer crossbars so you can take more items with you, the same rule as above applies. It should just clear the top of your head so that you will find the load easier to carry.

    Pack Material

    The material that the pack is actually made of is also important as it will determine how heavy or light the pack will be, among other things. Now, you will have to decide whether your main goal is a lighter load or a more durable material. Most times, the thicker materials are tougher but are also heavier. In certain instances, such as with rip stop material, you can get the best of both worlds.

    The material that you choose will also depend just how waterproof your backpack is. If you are planning on trudging through rain, you should look for materials that are waterproof or water resistant. Laminated polyester and nylon or tarp material are the best for this particular property.

    Strap System

    When you are carrying the kind of weight typically associated with external frame backpacks, the straps are even more important than usual. This is because they are what will determine how comfortable you are for the duration of your trek.

    The shoulder straps should be well padded and have features that make it easily adjustable for your torso length. The sternum strap on this type of packs are often quite thin but they should be strong and be adjustable so that the pack can be secured more tightly.

    You will find that most of the hip belts on the external frame backpacks have a greater amount of padding than usual. Since you are supposed to carry most of your weight around this area, this stands to reason. Look for thick and comfortable padding so that there will be no friction around your hips and the load will be easier to bear.

    Pack Accessibility and External Storage Features

    Most external frame backpacks have a top loading feature. This means that there is usually only one large internal compartment where all of your items have to go into. The main downside of top loading backpacks is that you need to unpack everything just to find one item, especially if they have moved around during the trek.

    The best way to overcome this disadvantage is to rely on external storage pockets. Therefore, the more there are, the better. This allows you to organize your pack a little more. It also gives you better access to items without requiring you to stop and reach around your pack. This is particularly important in the case of water bottles and gear that you may need on your trek.

    Speaking of gear, you should look for a pack that has lashings, D-rings, or other attachment points. This will allow you to keep your equipment on hand for when you need it.

    On the same note, if you will be taking a sleeping bag with you, look for frames with ledges. This way, you can carry the sleeping bag on the frame and save space inside your pack.

    There is quite a bit to get through with external frame backpacks. Still, by knowing all of this information, you can make a better decision and find a good pack for yourself.

    6 More External Frame Backpacks

    Classic external frame backpacks and models that haven't yet got enough reviews to be ranked.

    RankExternal Frame BackpackRating
    Kelty SanitasKelty Sanitas
    Kelty YukonKelty Yukon
    Kelty TiogaKelty Tioga
    ALPS Mountaineering ZionALPS Mountaineering Zion
    Vargo Ti-ArcVargo Ti-Arc
    Allen Rock CanyonAllen Rock Canyon

    List ID 12. Images from Amazon Product Advertising API and shop datafeeds.

    Amazon deals/prices updated daily (last 2020-04-04).

    Last updated on July 02, 2019