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Reframing Internal Frame Backpacks

Granite Gear Crown VC (available next year)
Granite Gear Crown 60 

I review a lot of backpacks on Section Hiker because I am genuinely interested in understanding what makes some backpacks good and others great. Since I’m into lightweight backpacking, I spend most of my time reviewing ultralight and lightweight packs that weigh between 1 pounds and 3 pounds and are made by mainstream backpack manufacturers such as Osprey Packs, Golite, Granite Gear, and REI or the so-called cottage manufacturers like Gossamer Gear, ULA, Mountain Laurel Designs and Zpacks.com.

Lightweight Backpack Design Trends

One of the interesting things I’ve observed is the convergence of mainstream manufacturers’ backpack designs with those from the cottage manufacturers. The packs they make in the 1 to 3 pound range are beginning to look and quack the same way. For example,  many mainstream backpack manufacturers are producing lighter weight packs with removable or optional components such as framesheets and floating lids, they’re using much lighter fabrics, and adding more external lash points or mesh pockets.

In response, ultralight packs from the cottage manufacturers have gotten a lot more rugged in the past year. Most manufacturers are already producing or have announced packs made out of tough Dyneema fabric, they’ve added rigid pack stays to help their packs carry heavier loads and counter the “frameless” objection, and replaced fragile mesh pockets with tougher materials.

Where’s the Internal Frame?

One of the fascinating design changes I’ve seen pick up steam amongst mainstream backpack manufacturers  has been replacement of the traditional internal or trampoline frames with framesheets and/or foam pads. It’s ironic, because these newer packs are still marketed as internal frame packs on retailer web sites, when in fact they’re essentially frameless, because there’s no direct connection between the frame and their hip belts anymore. Most of their framesheets are even optional, to reduce weight.

REI Flash 65 Framesheet/Stay and Optional Floating Lid
REI Flash 65 Framesheet/Stay and Optional Floating Lid

This is a widespread gear trend that can be seen in many lighter weight packs such as the REI Flash 50, the REI Flash 65, the Mountain Hardware Kanza 55, the Osprey Hornet 46the Osprey Mutant 38, and the Boreas Lost Horizon 60 (review forthcoming.) In terms of suspension, there’s really little difference between them and frameless backpacks such as the Golite Pinnacle, the Gossamer Gear Gorilla Backpack or the Zpacks.com Blast 32.

Lightweight Backpacking from The North Face
Lightweight Backpacking by The North Face

Reframing Internal Backpack Suspensions

The big question is whether frameless packs will become cool and “safe” for retailers to sell, or whether major manufacturers will redefine internal frame packs to include ones that have removable frames and don’t have a direct connection to the hip belt.

If these new packs are “frameless”, let’s start calling them such and stop beating around the bush.

What Do you Think?

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9 comments

  1. Indeed, a good question. I consider it a coup that major retailers carry Granite Gear Vapor Trails (or the replacement… the Crown, right?) and Golite packs at all. But you're right that they seem allergic to calling the packs frameless or to say the packs are made for light loads. This is definitely one of those situations where education (like what you're doing in your presentations) is the key.

    The average backpacker still seems to think that a seven-pound pack and a fifty-pound load is the way to go in backpacking, or even the only option. The presentation in Boston in May that I joined you for was a real eye-opener in how little the gospel of lightweight has broken into the mainstream. It was heartening to see so many people open up to the idea, though.

    On the other hand, it seems like all the manufacturers making lighter gear are helping the cause, although nobody in the mainstream seems to be saying "carry less." Carrying lighter gear doesn't make your load lighter, per se. It just means you can add more things to your pack for the same weight. As they say, a pound of feathers weighs the same as a pound of bricks.

  2. Checkout the REI web site – they now have a category for ultralight backpacks.

    My jaw dropped when I saw this last night. Who would have every expected that!

  3. There is a lot of design considerations to any good backpack. One of the first and foremost is the loading or weight capacity of the pack. Next comes the carry capacity or volume of the pack. Next is the intended use of the pack. These three, together, dictate the type of suspension used on the pack. Winter packs are different from three season packs.

    There are of course other things that influence a design. Body type is important and can cause you to change one pack for another type of similar loading and volume. Example: often women are more comfortable with hip loading and men like more weight higher on their backs. If you do a lot of bushwacking, then a taller, slim pack will suit you better. If you do a lot of trail hiking, then a more square, wider pack will suite you better. Durability is always an issue while bushwacking, rarely when trail hiking.

    It is unfortunate that many cottage manufacturers seem to be standardizing on mid weight backpacks. I use this scale for weights

    3-6oz: Super Ultra Light:

    6-12oz: Ultra Light

    12-18oz: Light

    18oz-32oz: Mid weight

    32oz-48oz: Mid heavy

    >48oz(3lb): Heavy

    Anyway, some outfits do produce good packs that are still light. Z-Packs, Six Moons designs, etc.

  4. I think it's interesting that ULA is saying that all of their packs have internal frames – they're playing into the same game that the retailers are playing, calling a duck a goose.

    That is, unless you're willing to concede that it's ok for an internal frame backpack to not have a direct and permanent connect to a hip belt anymore. Still sounds like a bait and switch to me.

    Maybe it doesn't matter if the end result is that people like a lighter wight pack with less volume. I'm old guard though. I like to know what something is when I buy it.

  5. Very interesting. I think that the trend toward providing lightweight packs that are not capable of handling what most would consider moderate loads (>25lbs) puts retailers at odds with their own message.. They carry all manner of useless junk, and actively sell this stuff. An ultralight pack wont hold many of their sleeping bags (the heavy, synthetic ones), much less the cappuccino makers and candle lanterns and wine glasses and all of the other useless stuff that they market as "necessary" for a backpacking trip.

    Somebody must buy that stuff… I suppose there's not much of a market for blue foam pads, wallyworld grease pots and cat stoves.

  6. Amen on the useless junk comment. Actually, I'd say most outdoor retailers do >75% of their business in "outdoor apparel", which to me translates as "fashion." Take a look at any major outdoor retailer and see how much floor space (or website space) is devoted to cotton clothing or jackets that will most likely never be used for active pursuits.

    Oops, we were talking about packs. Marco, your weight breakdown is interesting– my two packs are "Light" and "mid-heavy", but in either one I still have only a 8-12 pound baseweight. Where does that fall in your scale? You can have a mid-weight baseweight in a SUL pack, and a UL baseweight in a mid-heavy pack, right?

  7. Guthook, Yeah. Baseweight is measuring your pack AND your packed gear minus consumables (usually food and fuel, I also figure bug dope, soap, spices, tooth paste…ie anything that gets used up during a hike.)

    External framed packes, internal framed packs and no frame packs are the three main types of packs. The come in all sorts of sizes of which I consider ~2800ci the most usefull. I have my old Kelty Framed pack which is 3200ci but is desiged to add the sleeping bag, tent and mat on the outside. Soo, this is 3200ci of mostly food or about 3-4 weeks of dehydrated stuff. This weighs about 50 pounds at day one, discounting water. Mostly, I take a GG Miniposa for a week or so. this is one bag of food (11lb) and ~9lb of pack gear, but the pack only weighs about 15oz. I *could* fit a weeks food into the Kelty along with the down bag and neoair, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. My base weight goes from 9lb to 15lb with no gain in carry comfort and only slight gain in sleeping comfort (neoair vs nightlite.)

    For canoe camping (often with long, ie >5mi, portages) I use a Osprey Atmos 50. It is a little slimmer and fits the canoe better than the older Golite Trek. I made a week long trek two weeks ago between Old Forge, NY to Long Lake, NY and yoyo'ed back to Eighth Lake to be picked up. I got back a bit early and hiked up to Bug Lake for the night. Picking a pack depends on what you are using it for as well as how it carries. Your particular experience will dictate the type of pack that works best for you. As well has how you load the pack. A Z-pack Blast would not work well in the canoe, there is too much sand, rocking and sliding. But, that same pack would be ideal for a two night, 3 day trip into the high peaks of the ADK's. It weighs about 8oz.

    There is no rule that says a heavy pack *must* be used for heavy loads. Nor light packs with light loads. But given durability, load carrying, volume restrictions, and comfort, this is what usually happens. A classic example was the old Golite Gust. This was touted as a 35lb carry capacity but you were not comfortable carrying this weight in it. It carried well at 25lb, though.

    Gregory's hinged waist belt is a good idea, but they use a lot of heavy plastic.

  8. I agree completely: If these new packs are “frameless”, let’s start calling them such and stop beating around the bush.

  9. My backpacking style does not mesh well with true UL; I usually bring fishing gear (sandals, fly rod and reel) and I’m almost always in grizzly country (bear spray, 50ft. of paracord). Also, after years of mice chewing holes in my sleeping bags, I have concluded that tarp shelters aren’t worth it. Most importantly, I am more of a “get to a cool destination and hang for a few days” guy than a “cover as much distance as humanly possible” guy. So my base weight is going to be on the high side.

    In my non-UL experience, a 65L pack should be designed to carry 45lb comfortably. Like Guthook said – a pound of bricks weighs the same as a pound of feathers, and even the lightest of gear, when compressed, is going to be just as dense as anything else. So 65L of anything is going to weigh a lot. And for that weight range, I have found that only a true rigid frame will do. Which is why I scratch my head at all the UL packs on the market that have 65L capacities. Put a frame on that thing! That poor little plastic sheet is bound to get overloaded.

    As much as I wish I could cut my weight down by 15 lb. and go frameless, I know the reality of my situation and I patiently wait for a simple, lightweight bag mounted on a real, big-boy suspension frame. Apparently the new REI Flash 62 almost pulled it off, but they forgot how a frame is supposed to be attached at the lumbar area. Maybe next year.

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