Everything You Need to Know About the Best External Frame Backpacks

Man in the mountains with external frame backpack

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.

Materials

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.

Structure

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:

Pros

Carry Lots of Gear and Weight
While 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.

Cons

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.

    Top 10 Best External Frame Backpacks


    1 – Kelty Super Tioga 5600


    Kelty Tioga 5000 External Frame (Red/Charcoal)
    • Suspension Features
    • Packbag Features
    • Padded 3-layer waistbelt
    • Top panel loading
    • Belt stabilizers

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the Kelty Super Tioga 5600:

    Reviewers like these things about the Kelty Super Tioga 5600

    • One user love how the external frame holds the pack up off his back, and the weight seems to fall on the lower body.
    • Backpackers thought it’s a good classic bag that holds up well and pretty comfortable.
    • One user thought it’s an excellent classic pack with some modern features.
    • Others love how it easily straps to a tree or stands inside the tent vestibule, keeps everything out of the mud, easy to find.
    • Many users agree that the materials used feel strong, and feels like it will last a long time.
    • One user said that this pack rocks, old school style with amazing benefits.
    • Some users find the color and size spot on.
    • Others liked how it’s easy to adjust and comes with large pockets with huge holding capacity.
    • Many find the multiple pockets good way to store specific gear to gain fast access.
    • A lot of users agree that this pack is very well built, the shoulder straps are not too wide or too narrow and but are nice and thick.
    • The waist with very nice padding is also a favorite feature among users.
    • Some reviewers particularly like the hip belt system.
    • using just your thumbs, the cinch straps loosen like butter, but tighten up easily and don’t loosen unless you want them to.
    • Others love how the shoulder straps have two cinch points, designed for maximum comfort.
    • Others liked the padded belt that is large and comfy and doesn’t pinch as you hike.
    • One user specifically liked how the frame allows to adjust the width of the strap mountings in order to have the pack ride appropriately.
    • Many users love that it comes with sufficient pockets and attachment points.
    • Others find the suspension, fully adjustable, able to carry heavy loads.
    • Some hikers thought separation of main area from the bottom is great for sleeping gear that is light weight yet bulky.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • Some users noted how the the load lifters would easily slip off the shoulder straps and dig into my collarbone.

    2 – Kelty Trekker 65


    Sale
    Kelty Trekker 65 Backpack, Garnet Red
    • Five decades of design building packs focused on being duable, simple, comfortable and reliable for all your backpacking events
    • Tradition meets feature rich pack reliable external frame design for your next adventure
    • Features: Top Loading, Top Lid converts to Sling Pack, Zippered side pockets, front pocket w/ organization, Stretch front pouch, Hydration Compatible
    • Suspension Features: Adjustable suspension, External Frame, Dual density foam waist belt, Padded shoulder straps, stabilizer straps, Sternum strap
    • Dimensions: Size (L x W x D) 29 x 22.5 x 13 in, Weight 5 lbs 5 oz, Volume 65 L, Optimal Carry Weight: 20-55 lbs

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the Kelty Trekker 65:

    Reviewers like these things about the Kelty Trekker 65

    • Testers and reviewers say that it is a great light weight backpack.
    • The testers also said that the built fabric the pack is highly sturdy and durable over the years.
    • Some of the testers have also complimented the good load to hip transfer and good suspension system. They said that the manner in which the load is distributed didn’t hurt their shoulders or neck for longer carry.
    • Some reviewers are highly satisfied with the great storage capacity of the backpack.
    • Some travellers have complimented the ventilation system of the pack. They said that they travelled long with sweat only under the hip belt.
    • A few of the travellers also mentioned about the good and adjustable waist and shoulder straps that helped them to make the pack a perfect fit.
    • A couple of the reviewers also liked the external frame pockets to carry their gears for easy access.
    • Some mountaineers have said that they were able to carry long tools easily for climbing and trekking.
    • A few of the reviewers have said that they have used the pack as a daypack also as the bag can be compressed using adjustable straps.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • Some travellers complained that the top of the pack goes above their head when fully loaded. This made them to duck at places with low hanging branches.
    • Some travellers are also dissatisfied with the less number of external compartments for carry emergency gears.
    • A few of the reviewers have also complained for minor noises from the adjustment rivets while commuting.

    3 – Kelty Tioga


    Kelty Super Tioga External Frame Pack
    • External frame with adjustable suspension
    • Removable waist belt and padded shoulder straps
    • Top loading design
    • Sleeping bag compartment
    • 5500 cubic inch carrying capacity.

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the Kelty Tioga:

    Reviewers like these things about the Kelty Tioga

    • Some users like how the radial frame puts the load closer to the body for better balance.
    • A number of users describe it as a nice pack, great utility and very functional.
    • Some reviewers are impressed with how it allows for multiple packing options.
    • Many reviewers noted that it’s reasonably comfortable if packed properly.
    • One user said it offers instantaneous comfort, balance, and stability.
    • Load distribution, ease of maneuvering, hassle-free access, comfort packing options, functionality and huge storage space are cited as the best features of this pack.
    • A lot of hikers love its sheer comfort allows for an extended range with less muscle fatigue.
    • Many reviewers like how the frame is adjustable to torso length so they can get the hip to shoulder fit just right.
    • Others find the the sleeping bag compartment very generous.
    • A lot of hikers love how the frame and adjustable mesh keep the pack slightly off direct contact with their back, creating air gap and letting their back breath.
    • A lot of hikers who’ve used it for a while love how this pack gives them packing options and everything they need for any hike.
    • Others dubbed it as an excellent classic pack with some modern features.
    • Some users thought it’s so comfortable with a big load, they hardly notice its there.
    • Others find the colour and size spot on.
    • Some users are impressed with how the cinch straps loosen like butter but tighten up easily and don’t loosen unless they want them to.
    • One user commented that the whole system is designed for maximum comfort.
    • A number of reviewers like how it centers the weight right over their center of gravity.
    • Having the extra options of tying more gear and equipment on utilizing the external frame and the capability of supporting more weight sealed the deal according to one user.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • The bulkiness of the frame and the lack of compression straps make it impractical for going hiking as claimed by some users.
    • Some reviewers said that compression straps would be a good addition to this pack.

    4 – Eberlestock Mainframe


    Eberlestock Mainframe Pack
    • The F1 Mainframe feature Eberlestock Intex II frame and has endless posibilities to configure the pack for your needs.
    • Use the frame by itself when packing out game or add a number of different option via zippers, buckles or MOLLE/PALS webbing
    • The Mainframe also features 3 built in compression straps and like most Eberlestock pack and adjustable ladder harness.

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the Eberlestock Mainframe:

    Reviewers like these things about the Eberlestock Mainframe

    • Many reviewers noted that the Eberlestock Mainframe pack is the greatest innovation in modern pack making.
    • Other reviewers pointed out that the bag is very comfortable with plenty of adjustment.
    • Testers also noted that its construction is very tough.
    • Many users found that it is narrow and short, ensuring that it does not go past the shoulders or head and get caught in the brush.
    • They also mentioned that it is comfortable with a lot of amount of weight on it.
    • Several reviewers found out that its straps and padding don’t overheat.
    • Many of the users noted that it is intuitive and functional.
    • Users pointed out that the bag makes ducking through and underbrush very easy.
    • They pointed out that it works well with a duffel.
    • Several testers also felt that the bag is an excellent hunting pack.
    • Other users pointed out that it is lightweight and offers an excellent range of motion.
    • Reviewers also noted that the bag’s supporting shoulder straps and belt are far more comfortable.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • A user said that the bag is too pricey.
    • Another user thought that the zippers that attach it were installed to zip down rather than up, gravity tends to pull them apart.

    5 – ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite


    ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite
    • Unique lashing system secures meat for long haul
    • Smaller profile, lightweight aluminum frame and padded shoulder straps allows for comfortable movement
    • Padded waist belt can accommodate clip-style holsters so you can securely carry a hand gun
    • Fully equipped with 3 extension lashing straps, mesh back band, adjustable shoulder harness and organizational wing pockets
    • Weight: 4 lbs. 11 oz., Torso Range: 17" - 23"

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite:

    Reviewers like these things about the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite

    • Some users love its slim profile which allows for easier movement.
    • The lightweight aluminum frame makes the pack light yet strong as observed by some users.
    • Some users love how its lashing points provide additional external storage.
    • Others are thankful with how the mesh back band helps with ventilation.
    • Some reviewers are glad with how the wing pockets help organize and protect gear.
    • A number of reviewers are happy to find the shoulder harness is fully adjustable.
    • Some reviewers like that the padded belt has two pockets and includes reinforced webbing to accommodate clip style holsters.
    • Mesh Back Band, wing pockets, adjustable harness, padded waist belt and unique lashing system are cited as the main features of the bag among users.
    • One user refer to it as a great pack with great engineering.
    • With its high quality materials and workmanship some users are excited to put it to work in the mountains this season.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • Some users are disapointed to find that the clevis pins are secured by cheap split rings which seem to catch on anything these touch.
    • Others wish it had a few more pockets for some small essentials.

    6 – ALPS OutdoorZ Commander


    Sale
    ALPS OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag
    • Made of durable Nylon Ripstop fabric, giving you a long lasting use in the harshest weather environments
    • Organize your gear in one of the many pockets: two side accessory hinged pockets, main, front and spotting scope pocket
    • Torso range: 17 inch to 23 inch. Keep your essentials close with accommodation for clip-style holster, drop-down rifle pocket and hydration pocket and port
    • Detach your bag and use the frame to haul out meat with a unique, secure lashing system
    • Total Weight: 7 lbs. 5 oz., Bag Weight: 2 lbs. 3 oz., Size: 5250 cu. in.

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander:

    Reviewers like these things about the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander

    • Some users love how the pack attaches to frame and offers huge storage space.
    • Others like how the frame can be used as a stand-alone freighter frame.
    • Some users like how its drop down rifle holder pocket makes hauling rifle safe and handsfree.
    • Others are pleased with how the hydration port and pocket make the pack H2O compatible.
    • Some reviewers are glad with how the spin drift collar provides extra storage space.
    • Others like how the webbing loops provide space for lashing extra gear to the outside of the pack.
    • Many users find the overall design extremely strong and durable.
    • Some users are impressed by how the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander allows them to haul their meat from one place to the next.
    • Many users are thankful that it comes equipped with a unique lashing system to secure your meat.
    • The ability to carry a rifle or axe or tent poles on the side is great according to some users.
    • Some users are surprised to find that it even has tough patches on the side of the pack which effectively prevents wear and tear of the pack.
    • Others love how the straps can be snugged up tight to hold items in place but have quick-release buckles so they can get to their rifle fast.
    • One user described it as a huge pack which can carry far more than you probably want to haul.
    • The tie-down straps are strong and easy to use as observed by some users.
    • Many users are happy to find that all the shoulder and hip belts are all very well padded and adjustable.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • Some users are disappointed with the lack of a water bottle pocket.
    • Others noted the pack on the frame squeaks and makes noises as they hike.

    7 – ALPS Mountaineering Zion


    ALPS Mountaineering Zion External Frame Pack, 64 Liters
    • Top Loading 64 Liter External Frame Pack with Hydration Pocket/Port and Lycra Covered Suspension Components
    • Provides Vented Lumbar Support, Water Bottle Pocket, #10 Zippers, Multiple Side Pockets, Ice Axe Loop
    • Front Lashing System with Heavy Duty Carry Handle
    • Padded Waist Belt and Shoulder Straps, Multiple Shoulder Strap Positions
    • Weight: 4.94 lbs., Cubic Inches: 3900, Torso Range: 17-24"

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the ALPS Mountaineering Zion:

    Reviewers like these things about the ALPS Mountaineering Zion

    • Some users said that with multiple adjustment points, this frame fits various torso sizes allowing weight to be distributed properly.
    • A lot of users love how its internal space, multiple exterior pockets and sleeping bag compartment offer plenty of space to keep their gear organized.
    • For additional room and easy access, a number of reviewers are pleased with how the external frame offers multiple lashing points.
    • Load handling of the external frame combined with padded shoulder straps, vented lumbar support and pull forward tightening waist belt create ultimate comfort as confirmed by some users.
    • Overall, telescoping frame, load capacity, comfort and versatility are cited as the best features of this pack.
    • Others find the lower door on the Zion pack the perfect place to store sleeping bag.
    • Pockets throughout the pack help keep gear organized and in reach when needed as stated by some hikers.
    • A number of users love how the padded shoulder straps and waist belt are both completely adjustable in order to ensure a comfortable fit to the body.
    • One user thought that the many features found on the Zion make this pack ready for any adventure.
    • All the zippers and belt ties work as they should, easily and smoothly as observed by some reviewers.
    • Others are pleased to find the outside pockets all have double zippers with easy to find padded zipper pulls.
    • The pack itself is made of a waterproof material so users don’t have to worry too much with getting their things wet.
    • A lot of users find the fabric durable and the seams well constructed.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • Cinch straps ripped right out of the stitching as observed by a few reviewers.
    • Others find the opening a bit small, due to the frame and makes packing a bit of a hassle.

    8 – ALPS Mountaineering Bryce 59L


    Sale
    ALPS Mountaineering Bryce External Frame Pack, 59 Liters
    • Top Loading 59 Liter External Frame Pack with Hydration Pocket/Port and Lycra Covered Suspension Components
    • Provides Vented Lumbar Support, Water Bottle Pocket, #10 Zippers, Multiple Side Pockets
    • Front Lashing System with Heavy Duty Carry Handle
    • Padded Waist Belt and Shoulder Straps, Multiple Shoulder Strap Positions
    • Weight: 4.8 lbs., Cubic Inches: 3600, Torso Range: 15-20"

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the ALPS Mountaineering Bryce 59L:

    Reviewers like these things about the ALPS Mountaineering Bryce 59L

    • Most users said that this pack is well made and sturdy.
    • Many users said that it has plenty of storage for a weekend.
    • Many other users said that the side pockets make convenient places to store items that might be needed in a pinch.
    • Most users said that the pack is very adjustable and came with extra locking pins and rings.
    • Most reviewers said that there is lots of pockets and room.
    • Many other users said that it has attractive design.
    • Many other users said that the pack is very lightweight.
    • Reviewers said that the pack has very large capacity.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • One user complained that the hydration compartments are not deep enough.
    • Another user said that he needs more padding on the back.

    9 – ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Frame


    Sale
    ALPS OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag
    • Made of durable Nylon Ripstop fabric, giving you a long lasting use in the harshest weather environments
    • Organize your gear in one of the many pockets: two side accessory hinged pockets, main, front and spotting scope pocket
    • Torso range: 17 inch to 23 inch. Keep your essentials close with accommodation for clip-style holster, drop-down rifle pocket and hydration pocket and port
    • Detach your bag and use the frame to haul out meat with a unique, secure lashing system
    • Total Weight: 7 lbs. 5 oz., Bag Weight: 2 lbs. 3 oz., Size: 5250 cu. in.

    Here’s what the reviewers think about the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Frame:

    Reviewers like these things about the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Frame

    • Many users laud its lightweight aluminum frame.
    • A lot of users are so impressed with how the mesh back panel allows ventilation.
    • Some users are amazed with how the lashing system secures meat for long hauls.
    • Some reviewers are thankful with the presence of the freighter shelf which supports the heaviest of loads.
    • A lot of users apreciate its adjustable torso range to fit most sizes.
    • Others are thankful with the presence of an accessory storage for shooting stick holder, knife and flashlight.
    • Some users are glad that padded waist belt comes with two pockets and includes 2 inch reinforced webbing to accommodate clip-style handgun holsters.
    • Some users are impressed with how the aluminum frame and waist belt, along with the shoulder straps with cross-chest snap distribute the weight to the center of gravity and keep it all off the back.
    • A lot of users agree that this frame feels sturdy and well built.
    • Many hikers find this pack very versatile.
    • Some users said that this made hiking between main hunting areas much easier.
    • Some reviewers find the pockets well thought out, the material rugged.
    • Others said the ability to easily attach a pack to the frame is perfect for hunts.
    • Many users are surprised to see that the pack is surprisingly light, considering how much load it can handle.
    • Some users find the suspension smart and fully adjustable.
    • Some hunters are confident that the aluminum frame with freighter shelf will support maximum weight during the next successful hunt.

    Reviewers don’t like these things

    • Some users said it appears flimsy in several places with light-weight fabric.
    • Others thought the nylon feels cheap and the stitching below standards.

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    Last update on 2018-11-09 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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