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What is an External Frame Backpack?

External Frame Backpack

What is an External Frame Backpack?

The suspension system on an external frame pack is a rigid aluminum frame. This is good for carrying very heavy loads because it’s rigid and ensures excellent load transfer to the hip belt if fitted properly. Externals frames also have lots of attachment points for lashing down bulky gear like bear canisters, large sleeping bags, or tents.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of external frame backpacks?

External frame packs are fairly heavy, even when empty. The protruding frame can catch on trees if you’re hiking through dense vegetation and they also have more side-to-side sway when loaded, which can throw you off balance if you have to do a lot of rock scrambling. On the plus side, you can carry a lot of gear with an external frame pack and they’re very good for long expeditions where you have to carry 50-100 pounds of pack weight. They’re also a lot cooler than many internal frame packs because there’s more air space between your back and the back of the pack.

Why don’t you see more external frame packs on the trail?

External backpacks used to be the norm, but most people carry internal frame backpacks now because they’re lighter and easier to maneuver. Backpacking gear also weighs a lot less than it used to and people don’t need as big a backpack to carry it. Many hikers still use external backpacks, but they tend to be people who got hooked on them when they were growing up. They’re also used a lot by boy scouts because they’re easy to reconfigure for kids who are in the midst of their growth spurt.

Which pack manufacturers still make external packs?

The leading makers of external frame packs are Kelty, Jansport, Alps Mountaineering, Outdoor Products, and Mountainsmith. has the best selection under one roof among all the online retailers, including adult and scout backs. The price of external packs tends to be significantly less expensive than internal frame packs, so they’re a good value.


  1. I wish it was as simple as you make it sound. There are several hybrid packs out there as well. Example: Osprey Atmos series of packs. These are much lighter than the traditional framed pack but still retain the benefits of support and cooling your back by placing a frame that all else is hung too. Not really an internal framed pack, though the pack is sewn over the frame rather than clipped,it has two distinct back panels: one for support against your back, one for the gear in your pack. More typical of an externally framed pack. Shoulder straps and hip belts are also *sewn* in. So, this is a hybrid of an external frame (2 back panels attached to a frame), an internal frame since it cannot be removed from the pack, and frameless (all sewn construction.) A different construction, these carry nice at 40lb…

    An external framed pack has all connections to the frame itself. The pack, shoulder straps, load lifters and wastebelt can be removed (and adjusted) individually. LuxuryLite for example. This has two distinct support mechanisms: one for your back attached to the frame, one for the pack body attached to the frame. Up to about 120lb maximum load.

    A full-on internal frame pack usually has mounts for the shoulder strap and hip belt on the frame itself. The sewing simply attaches the pack to the frame, makes up *part* of the frame and it cannot be removed. The pack and frame are integral. Usually, these also have load lifters. The point is there is no second support attached to the frame for the seperation between your back and the pack body. So, they tend to be warmer becasue there is no air space between your back and the pack body. Up to about 60lb maximum load.

    A frameless pack is all sewn construction. While they may use a stay, for stiffening the pack, nothing is attached to these. All structures (shoulder harness, waist belt) are sewn directly to the pack. Sometimes the waist belt can be removed. These are also warmer and can collaps if care is not taken to load them correctly. Usually about a 30lb maximum load.

  2. You've been reading ahead again! This is part of a series I'm writing on suspension systems. There's always a trade-off between how much detail to include, so I appreciate your comment very much because it explains some of the nuances I've glossed over. Did you learn all this by cutting open internal frame packs with scissors? I've been tempted, myself.

  3. I was just looking at photos of a friend who took his two kids and wife on a 3 day backpacking trip. As his kids are both less than 3 years old, he ended up carrying most of it. With 70 lbs and a lot of bulky things his only option short of spending more than $1000 on new ultralight gear was his external frame. I know it's a small niche but I was quite impressed at the endeavour!

  4. I have a Jansport Ranier that I picked up at Nanty-fest (a gear swap) for $20. It weighs about 3 lbs. I often look with interest at my wife's Go-lite internal frame as well as several others. I'm personally interested in the ULA Catalyst though not completely convinced that's it's the best solution for me. I see 3 negatives concerning my external frame: 1. Size. It takes up a lot of room in the car. 2. The "snagging on branches" thing, though kind of funny at first, is getting old. 3. Noise. Every so often I have to break out some soap or wax and lube up "Squeaky." Positives? 1. It was $20. 2. It's a back loader and that makes for easy access to my gear. 3. 3 lbs is pretty stinking light. 4. It's well designed with organization in mind. 5. The external frame design is cooler by nature than most internal frame packs, has better "weight on the hips" distribution and lends itself to a more upright/ less cro-magnon hiking experience. My thoughts, anyhow.

  5. I expect to see external backpacks make a comeback actually. There are many advantages to these packs that can be enjoyed by lightweight backpackers in a variety of applications. Check out the ULA CDT for example. It combines an old Kelty concept with a waterproof pack bag.

    Like you said, Kelty, Jansport and others still make these packs for a reason. There's money to be made in the segment. Maybe more than anyone realizes.

  6. David – That's a hard choice. I'd be tempted to stick with what you have if only to express my disdain for conformity! If you're really that close to 3 lbs, I'd save the money and buy a really nice sleeping bag/quilt or a UL shelter. If it ain't broke….

  7. Ha ha! You'd think we'd met! Non-conformist is a fairly dead-on description for me. I'm really pretty satisfied with my shelter(s) (Clark North American, Hennesey Deep Jungle)Next crucial piece of gear for me will be the underquilt. Big bucks, though.

  8. I used a JRB nest back in my hanging days. It was a great piece of kit. I'm a ground hugger now.

  9. No, nothing like destroying the pack. I have several, though. I have also assisted my daughters with buying theirs and their partners. Soo, I am guessing about 40 packs over about as many years. Some date back to the early/mid 70's (Internal frame, 2#2, Tough Traveler and an older military pack-frameless.)

  10. I've been using a Klättermusen external frame backpack for years now, and only had it pointed out to me a few weeks ago that it was in fact external frame. Suddenly all the odd looks I receive when out hiking make sense.

  11. I had an external frame Kelty that I used for many years. I thought it was indestructible until Northwest Airlines used it for wheel chocks under their jetliner and forgot to pull it out before taxiing–at least that's what appeared to have happened to it! When my daughter was young, she used to climb up on the pack as if it was a ladder and hitch rides down the trail with me. The first time I took my grandson to Big Bend, he rode my back on the same trails. I teared up as I reflected on carrying his mother in the same manner at the same age. The macho in me likes to think the tears were emotion, not pain, but I was twice the age when carrying my grandson as when toting my daughter.

  12. David, I well understand about gandchildren…

    Just be glad he decided you were the "horse" before he got bigger!!

    External frames are exactly that. Only a frame and suspension (like the ladder from a previous post.) They come in all sorts of styles, the simplest being 4 clear sections of 1×3 firring strips with some foam taped over the cross piece for your back. An old seat belt makes a good waist belt and shoulder straps. About $10 to make and works very well. A few screws make good attachments for the pack and lashings. Just about a pound, maybe a pound and a half for the frame and harness. Clear cedar can be laminated and made lighter. Split white oak baskets with some strapping was also used, but is rarely seen outside of the ADK's. Steam bending was also popular in the 1700 and 1800's and used throughout recorded history. Aluminum suplanted steel tubing around 1930 or so. Modern composite materials have increased comfort but are still not as durable as aluminum. Used since 1960 or so.

    The most modern external frame I have seen was one weighing a scant 3oz. The harness was made from cuben cloth as well as the pack. About 7oz total I believe. This was custom made, of course.

  13. For me one of the key measures of a pack's performance is its volume(capacity in litres or cu. inches) to weight ratio. It's a pity that manufacturers and catalogue writers don't give this info a standard. TGO magazine always quotes these figures when evaluating new packs.
    When I took a look at my old packframe and berghaus pack it turned out to have the best volume to packweight ratio of all the packs I own.
    So I think its a myth to suggest that such packs are not effecient carrying systems. Truth is that most people no longer need to carry the big loads these packframes were designed for. If you do, then the packframe is well worth consideratiion. Shoulder straps and hip belt have come a long way over the years and if today's packframes have kept pace with this, they must still represent the best way to carry big and cumbersome loads.

  14. Personally, I would love to see an updated external frame pack for smaller, lighter loads – narrower, shorter, smaller diameter tubing, less padding in the straps – all equaling less weight. I think it would be extremely comfortable for my aging spine and bulging discs. In fact, it would make a great DIY project which I owe it to myself to get busy on.

  15. I think a carbon fiber frame would do nicely. Maybe with a lower profile than an old-time external pack so it won't catch on low hanging branches, especially when there's 4 feet of snow on the ground.

  16. I've stopped using internal vs. external as a useful way to describe packs. Now I talk about how stiff the frame is. In general stiffer means easier to pack, heavier, and can handle heavier loads. Some internal frame packs are just as heavy and capable as external frames.

  17. My buddy and I both scored old but barely used external frame packs on Craigslist for $20. People are cleaning out their garages this time of year!

  18. I'm on the cusp of learning to sew. Maybe I should score a couple of these myself for "experimentation" purposes.

  19. I made a pack to attach to my frame way back and I think it could be a good place to start a new sewing hobby. Hip belts and shoulder straps might be difficult simply because of the tough fabrics etc. But I used the frame curvature as the template for the new pack and was at the time able to buy clips that attach the pack to the holes in the frame. Disconnecting the pack from the suspension system gives you much more flexibility to design a pack that is more radical in terms of compartmentation and access. Good luck !

  20. A couple of years ago I dug out my and my father’s old aluminum frame packs from the ’80s when I was in Scouts (I have a son who’s in Scouts now, and I’m on the troop committee) and found that in the intervening decades some of the foam in the shoulder straps had petrified. Where it wasn’t rock hard it, was crumbling and turning into powder, and so I had two useless straps. I put the two remaining good straps on one pack, and gave it to my son. After considering and rejecting trying to cut open and re-pad the straps for the other pack, I ended up buying two cheap Allen padded rifle slings and a tarp grommet kit. I folded the ends of the rifle slings folded over to double the thickness, and glued them down and applied the grommets through both layers. I had two new padded shoulder straps as good as the originals that I could pin onto the frame. As a bonus, they’re longer than the originals, which lets me open them up wider so I can get my arms through the straps more easily before I tighten them up.

  21. I love the concept of external frame packs. Internal frames are a pain to pack and unpack. But while I gave my Kelty the best shot I could, I had to give it up: I have yet to find an external frame with a true, angled women’s belt: they’re all made for straight hips and straight hips are something I do not have, lol. My Kelty Trekker caused sore spots and pressure in all sorts of places from my hips to my shoulders, it just wasn’t the pack for me. I do miss its ease of organizing and packing, though.

  22. Just found this information … I’m going back to an External Pack … I wish Kelty would work on a lighter weight Trekker … but until then, 20-25 ‘ultralightweight’ pounds in a nearly 4 lb 12 oz pack is what it’ll have to be … and my BACK will be the better for it.

    My friend who uses an internal is sure that the proper ‘fit’ will resolve all my back issues … the internal frame pack will still be pressing on the Fibromyalgia Pressure points no matter what ‘fit’ it is … the External frame resolves that problem … I wish I’d never been talked into the first Internal frame, even though it was a great pack …

    I read that the TREKKER can be a problem for WOMEN because it’s built for a MAN’s frame … no hips and across the breasts ……. INPUT????

    Thank you, Auntie Coosa
    67 1/2 and still thinking about a Thru Hike …

  23. More advantages of an external frame:
    — You can stand it up and not worry about it slumping into the mud.
    — Compartments make it easier to organize and pack. You don’t have to disgorge the entire contents to get to your stuff at the bottom.

    I have a external frame that I’ve been experimenting with to reduce its physical weight. It’s a fun project and I’ll keep using this pack until an internal frame comes up used at the shop I haunt.
    In the first round, I started at 5 lbs 6 oz and have hacked it down to 3 lbs 11 oz. with no damage to the integrity of the frame or the pack. On the second round, I hope to get it down to an even 3 lbs.

  24. I broke my collar bone a couple of years back and I’ve found that the external frame packs shoulder straps ride easier on the old break than do the ones on the internal frames.

  25. Hey all,

    I just bout a new external frame pack that has a plastic buckle waist strap fasten, but then an additional fabric strap with metal grommets that I’m not sure what it is for… can anybody help?

  26. I wish people would stop worrying about that extra pound that an external frame has and start thinking about how much lighter this pack makes carrying the rest of the weight you put in it. I am 68 and have been backpacking since I was in my 20s. I had an internal frame North Face pack when they first came out in 1980 and when it started to wear out switched to the Kelty Yukon 3500 external . Then this year I decided if I wanted to keep backpacking I had to do something to make the load feel lighter (I had already cut back weight I was carrying). I was reading these wonderful reviews about the new internal frame technology making the pack feel “ten pounds lighter” so I went to REI to try out an internal frame pack.

    The sales people put my usual 35# for an 8 day hike into a highly touted internal frame. I put it on and my knees buckled under me. I thought, this is it, I will have to quit. I tried several others and none were much better. Then I realized that I had my old Kelty external in the car and was curious, so I brought it in and we transferred the weight into it, I put it on and I felt like I was walking on air! The salespeople didn’t want to believe it and said, “that pack doesn’t fit you” (they did not realize that externals are fit differently). I even had the woman try it on and she was surprised that it “wasn’t bad!”

    I will make this short. I called Kelty and was able to get a newer and better designed belt that also fits my womanly shape better, and new straps. I added load lifters and these changes made a huge difference. I am so excited about my new-old pack and plan to use it for 3 trips in Glacier in August.

  27. New hip belt and shoulder straps should make a world of difference. Let’s face it, the extra weight of the frame only represents about half a day’s food. So if it brings you more comfort on a long trip, its a good investment.

  28. I like to use my backpack as a cabinet when I’m in camp. Everything handy and my pack is covered under the tarp. I’ve had a couple of Jansports through the years, and when the Golite Breeze came out I got one of them. I like the Breeze and the enforced minimalist style when using it, but since I started using a tarp instead of a tent like I did years ago I like to set up the tarp using a hiking pole at one end and the frame pack at the other. Very convenient and my stuff isn’t all out of the pack and possibly going to get lost or squashed. Comfort in camp, eh.
    I can still go pretty minimal, and the only extra weight is the pack, which isn’t really all that much. I just need to lose a little of my big belly to make that up.
    Look at the first edition of Colin Fletchers “The Complete Walker”. He very thoroughly goes through how he uses his stuff. The whole book is very in-depth about everything.
    Anyway, you can use an external frame pack and still go really lightweight, plus have the benefits mentioned above. Plus, when I look at the current selection of internal frame packs many of them (even the ones marked “ultralight”) are quadruple the weight of my Breeze pack.
    And you have a place to carry a bear canister in an external frame pack. I actually saw one guy in Sequoia National Park carrying his bear canister in his hands because there wasn’t a place to put it on or in his pack.
    Thanks for the great site.

  29. Friar Rodney Burnap

    The problem with this post is your bias is showing. External frame backpacks are so much better in so many ways than internal frame packs. You don’t pack them just like you would an internal frame pack that’s why you have the sway and the other problems that you mentioned in your article.
    If you adjust the waist belt properly 90% of the weight is carried on your hips. And the shoulder straps are used to keep the pack from falling backwards off your back..
    With the load lifters adjusted properly and your shoulder straps just barely loosened an external frame pack will carry better than an internal frame pack in every condition.

  30. Michael R. Booher

    I was wondering what this external aluminum frame was for..
    And now from reading all of these posts..
    I have a pretty good understanding and i am glad i have an external framed back pack
    And also understand what the belt was for..
    To shift the weight to your hips
    I have had 3 spinal i cant carry a lot but little by little perhaps i can work up to 35# of gear.
    Btw i can also now see that yes everything is easy to get to without unpacking the whole bag..
    Really well thought out and great design overall..
    Wonder what other little things there is to discover ..
    But this will totally help
    Thank you all..

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