Best External Frame Backpacks
Unless you are an avid hiker, history buff, or spend a lot of time with your outdoorsy grandfather, you may not have heard of an external frame backpack. Shockingly enough, the first version of this backpack can be traced all the way back to 5,300 years ago. After the original invention, there have been many different versions; even the innovation of attaching a wooden chair to your back and tying all of your essentials on top of the chair. Luckily, as time went on and newer materials became available to us, the human race evolved, just as the external frame backpack did. Now, we wonder, why change something that has been so faithfully useful for thousands of years? Lately, it seems that external frame backpacks have received an undeserved bad rap. Over the years, some long distance hikers and campers have migrated from external frame backpacks to internal frame backpacks, because they claim that internal frame backpacks are easier to use and are more comfortable.
However, many tried and tested hikers will not give up their external frame backpacks. There is a reason that external backpacks have prevailed for all of these years, and you can’t mess with perfection. These styles of packs keep weight off of your back by placing it on your hips, are easier to load up, and can carry more gear with ease than the newer internal frame backpacks. In your travels, you have probably come across that seasoned veteran that has been traveling those trails since the Eisenhower administration, and they most likely are using the very same external frame backpack. There is a reason that these veterans are loyal to their style of backpack, and it’s because they know, through years and years of experience, that their model of backpack will meet all of their needs and will last them throughout all of their outdoor adventures.
If you are a hiker who feels like you need to finally retire your old pack, or you want to retire your internal frame for something different, fear not. There are still plenty of external frames still on the market, you will just have to sift through a lot of the more modern internal frames to uncover the real gems. It may take a little bit of digging, but it will certainly be worth it in the long run. Luckily for you, we have done the sifting and found some of the best external frame backpacks that are currently on the market that will likely become a welcome addition to all of your outdoor adventures in the coming years.
- BACKSIDE XTERNO II BACKPACK
- ALLEN ROCK CANYON BACKPACK
- ALPS EXTERNAL FRAME BACKPACK
- Lower profile
Best External Frame Backpacks
The Backside Xterno II Backpack
The pack is made from rugged diamond ripstop nylon, so that is able to really take a beating on those untraveled pathways, and the nylon is coated with a polyurethane coating that will keep materials dry when the weather turns ugly.
For the amount of room that this bag can carry, up to 6,000 cubic inches of storage, it is surprisingly light, weighing in at just over 4 pounds. That makes it a little lighter than the average external frame backpacks.
The price of this bag runs about the middle of the road. It is not the most expensive model that is out there on the market, but it is also not the least expensive. Given the smaller frame and the additional storage, this comes at a great price.
Some packs tend it sit higher on the back, but this model has a more short and squat design. It is available in one only color and has padded shoulder straps and waist straps to ensure that you are comfortable.
The mesh lining on the back will keep your backside nice and cool on those hikes on really hot days. It has one big pocket that loads from the top, but it also has two modestly sized pockets that are able to store smaller items that can be easily accessed, such as granola bars, bottles of water, cell phones and car keys.
If you are looking for an external frame backpack that is easy to load and doesn’t sit as high up on your back as some of the other models on the market, this is an excellent choice.
- Superior storage
- Mesh lining on back
- Slightly more expensive than some of the other packs
Allen Rock Canyon External Frame Pack
One of the best features of this pack is the rugged materials that make up the pack. It is able to really take a beating out of difficult trails, and it has waterproof in case you get caught in rainy weather. The straps are well padded as well to ensure your complete comfort.
This model weighs in at just over 7 pounds, which is a little heavy for a pack that doesn’t hold as much weight as some of the other packs out there.
The price of this pack is one of the most affordable packs on this list. If you were ever unsure of giving an external pack a try, this pack will make an excellent start.
Due to the fact that this pack is designed with hunters in mind means that it one comes in one color, neutral tan. It sports reversible compression panels that are designed to keep your center of gravity stable while scaling treacherous terrain.
Padded straps on the shoulder and along the waistline keep pressure off of your back, so that you won’t be completely exhausted when you make it to your destination, no matter how much stuff you pack into your bag. When the rains really start to come down, a waterproof cover is affixed to the bag to cover your pack and keep your belongings safe and dry.
If you are in the market for a new external frame backpack, the Allen Rock Canyon External Frame Pack is a great choice without holding you back or breaking the bank.
- Users report that welds are weak and give over extended use
- Some users wish the straps were longer
ALPS Mountaineering Red Rock External Frame Pack
As with all ALPS Mountaineering packs, this model is made from high-quality materials that are able to withstand even the harshest camping conditions.
The weight of this pack is one of its best features, it weighs in at just over 3 pounds, making it one of the lightest packs out there.
For an ALPS Mountaineering pack, this pack is offered at a very affordable price point, and it is one of the least expensive packs out there. If you were looking to try a brand name external frame pack but didn’t want to spend the additional money, this is a great option.
This bag is only available in red. Some of the other packs out there sport a long and narrow design, but this pack is a little bit different. It sports a short and fat pack design that doesn’t sit as high up on the shoulders, which makes it great for those that don’t like a pack that hangs up over their head.
There are many pockets on the exterior that are perfect to gain quick access to the hiking tool that you need the most, such as water, energy bars, and cell phones. Straps along the bottom may not be big enough to hold a full sized sleeping bag, but they can carry additional blankets or mats.
For hikers that want a pack with a lower profile than some of the taller models, and want to buy a brand name without the added cost, this is an excellent option.
- Brand recognition
- Lower profile
- Cannot carry a sleeping bag
- Can only hold 2,050 cubic inches of storage
Vargo Exoti 50
The pack is made from a durable, uncoated Nylon and is finished with a DWR finish. This doesn't make the pack completely waterproof but it will keep your items dry until while you run for cover. The external frame is made from titanium alloy and is ultralight. The hip belts are comfortably padded with a thickness of 1.5-centimeters.
Altogether, the pack and frame of the Exoti 50 only weigh 2.11-pounds. Vargo doesn't recommend using the frame to lug more than forty pounds, which is great for your back but can be inconvenient if you were hoping to strap on a few extra tools, tents, or gear.
The price of this pack runs a little bit on the high end in terms of price, but is by far not the most expensive pack on the market. The way that the frame and pack distribute the weight on your hips and shoulders has been described as "priceless."
With the age-old argument of internal versus external backpacks, Vargo has combined the best of both. The padded titanium hip belt sits in the perfect spot on your lower back, taking tension off of your shoulders. The hip belt also features two zippered pockets for easy access to important items. The X shaped load lifting compression strap system is what makes this external frame bag feel more like an internal frame. The X system keeps your items from falling to the bottom of the bag and provides a more stable feeling within the bag.
The shoulder harness and hip belts are adjustable and ventilated for maximum comfort. The pack is hydration bladder compatible and also features a mesh water bottle pocket on each side.
For someone who is just transitioning to an external frame backpack, the Exoti 50 is perfect. While on the more expensive side, this bag the provides the best of both worlds and is slowly gaining a cult following. It may seem like a big investment at first, but with the confidence that this bag will last you for many years, in the long run, it pays for itself.
Only holds up to 40 pounds
Bag is slightly narrow
Kelty Tioga External Frame Backpack
The materials used for this pack are tough and strong and will be able to handle whatever the mountain throws at you. The zippers are concealed, so that they will not rust when the weather gets rough, ensuring that your belongings will stay safe for the duration of your hike.
The weight of this pack runs about the middle of the road, weighing in at approximately 5.8 pounds, which is pretty normal for an external frame backpack. What makes this pack great is that is able to store 5,500 cubic inches of gear.
Due to its superior carrying capacity that comes from the trusted brand of Kelty, this backpack is a little bit more expensive than some of the others and is one of the more expensive packs on this list. However, if you are a hiker that doesn’t like to travel light, this will be well worth the money.
This pack only comes in black. It offers a top-loading design so that loading things into it is simple and easy, and the top flap is sure to keep items safe and protected. The padded shoulder straps and waist cinch are sure to keep your body from becoming stiff and sore when you finally make it to your destination.
Just like any other Kelty pack, the Tioga provides many side pockets to provide quick access to trial necessities such as water bottles, energy bars, and cell phones. It also has a bottom unit that is able to simply affix a sleeping bag.
If you are a camper or a hunter that needs all the room you can get to carry and all of the essentials for a great camping trip, this bag will give you all the room that you need and then some. It does cost a little bit more than some of the others, but all of the additional features make it well worth the slightly higher price.
- Superior storage space
- Easy to load
- Brand recognition
- Some users find that the frame is a little too bulky
- Some users report that the shoulder straps can dig into collarbone
ALPS OutdoorZ Commander
The exterior of this product is made from a high-quality ripstop nylon, meaning no matter what kind of weather conditions that you find yourself in, all of your belongings will stay safe and dry inside this bag. The padded shoulder straps have a buckle in the middle to distribute weight evenly over your torso.
The weight of just the frame alone weighs in at approximately 7 pounds and 5 ounces, and the bag that clips to the frame weighs just over 2 pounds. The interior of the pack is quite large and offers 5,250 cubic inches of storage space.
This bag is modestly priced and sits roughly in the middle of the road. It is not the most expensive unit on the market, but it is by far the least expensive.
Due to the fact that this pack is used primarily for hunters, the only color option available for this model is brown. It has a painted black frame that the brown bar affixes to via a secure latching system.
Since this bag is designed for hunters, there is an additional place to hold a rifle that runs along the side. On the bottom of the pack is a place to affix a blanket or a sleeping bag. In addition to shoulder straps, this pack also cinches around the waist and has additional pockets that can be used to store your wallet or your cell phone.
For hikers and hunters that want a great external backpack that checks off of the boxes of what a great pack needs to do in the wilderness, this model accomplishes that and then some.
- Quality brand
- Additional pockets
- Some users report that it is noisy
- Some reports that the top bar pushes heads forward
Kelty Yukon Hiking Backpack
As with any Kelty product, this pack is made from the highest quality materials that are able to take a beating and can hold up on even the most difficult of trails.
This model weighs in at 4.5 pounds, which is pretty much the norm when it comes to external frame backpacks.
For a Kelty product, this pack is sensibly priced. It is not the most expensive unit on the market, but it is not the least expensive.
The design of this model is made for hikers that find that some of the other designs on the market are a tad too big for them. Not all hikers are over 6 feet tall, and it sometimes feels like other packs were made for taller people. This pack has a short and squat profile to enhance stability and distribute weight more evenly.
There are pockets on the exterior that are perfect for holding a bottle of water, energy bars, and cellphones. The padded shoulder straps and waist strap means that the weight will be evenly distributed so that you can keep up with the pack.
If you often find that many of the products out there on the market seem to favor only the tall campers, the Kelty Yukon has your back. It’s offered at an affordable price and supplies with all of the things you want from a pack to make your hikes a little bit easier.
- Brand recognition
- Excellent for shorter campers
- Many accessory pockets
- Not a perfect fit for all campers
- Doesn’t hold as much
Kelty Trekker 65L Pack
The exterior is constructed from a thick and sturdy material that will keep all of your things safe and secured. The zipper design makes this model a top-loading unit so there is minimal risk of losing things due to faulty zippers.
This frame and pack are significantly lighter than most, weighing in at just over 4 pounds. It is able to comfortably carry up to 55 pounds of gear.
Kelty is known for providing great quality products at an affordable price, and this pack is no different. It is slightly more expensive than some of the other packs out there but is by no means the most expensive. Considering the quality of materials and sturdy design, this pack comes at a great price.
This model only comes in red. It has silver bars that serve as the frame that the bag affixes to. In addition to having padded shoulder straps, it has a nice padded belt that cinches at the waistline to ensure that all of the weight is distributed evenly and doesn’t slow you down.
What makes this pack great is how you load up your gear. You flip open the top flap and load all of your stuff in from there. Once loaded, simply lower the flap into place and secure. The flap acts as a rain guard and as an additional measure to ensure that your things will way safe and dry. It also has 4 good sized pockets that can be easily accessed to store energy bars, water, cell phones, and wallets.
For hikers that want something that sports a simple design, but is impeccably well crafted to easily tote all of your camping gear in, this pack is definitely worth the slightly padded price tag.
- Brand recognition
- Top loader
- Adjustable suspension
- Pack sits up high above head- often catches on branches
ALPS Mountaineering Zion
The materials that were used to compose this pack are a high quality and durable material is that sturdy enough to take a beating and will keep contents dry in even the most miserable weather. It uses number ten zippers to ensure that campers get quality and durability.
The weight of this unit is 4.94 pounds, making it one of the most lighter packs out there on the market. It is able to hold 3,900 cubic inches of portable storage, with the option of hanging more things off of the frame.
One of the better features about this pack is the price. It is one of the more affordable packs to make this list. That being said, it still is a bit of an investment, but external packs are famous for being virtually indestructible, so it should be the only pack you will need to buy for quite some time.
This pack is only available in a neutral charcoal color with sharp royal blue accents. The frame that the bag attaches to is a painted matte black. The padded shoulder straps buckle in the middle to help evenly distribute weight.
In addition to padded shoulder straps, this model also comes with support that wraps around the waist to help distribute weight over the entire torso. It also has pretty good sized pockets on the side that is perfect for holding a bottle of water, energy bars, phones, and wallets for easy access.
This is a great option for hikers and hunters that need an external backpack that is able to comfortably hold all of your camping gear so that you can head out on even the most difficult trails without missing a beat.
- Brand recognition
- Durable and comfortable
- Bottom compartment isn’t big enough for a sleeping bag
- Some users dislike the fact that the main compartment is split in two
Vihir External Frame Backpack
The materials used for this bag are made from 100 percent nylon, making it incredibly tough and durable. It has padded shoulder straps that keep your arms comfortable, and a vented back to ensure that your body stays cool and comfortable even on those long heights on hot summer days.
This is one of the lighter packs to make this list, weighing in at just over 3 pounds.
The most handsome feature about this pack is the price. It is offered at a fraction of what some of the name brand packs are offered. If you were curious to try out an external frame bag but didn’t want to dish out the extra money, this bag would be an excellent option.
Unlike some of the other packs, this one is offered in a variety of fun colors, such as green, red, blue, and army green. It has many additional buckles and zippers that have sharp red accents.
The material itself is made from waterproof material. However, if you are carrying expensive electronic devices you may want to double check to make sure that water doesn’t penetrate your bag. In addition, this model can also be sold with a rain guard.
For hikers that want to give external backpacks a try without spending the extra money on some of the name brand design, the Vihir backpack is a great choice without breaking the bank.
- Top loading
- Doesn’t hold as much
- No place to hang a sleeping bag
The Criteria We Used To Find The Best External Frame Backpacks
The average weight for an external frame backpack usually weighs anywhere from 5 to 7 pounds. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, and there are some lighter packs out there on the market. Lighter models typically weigh less because they either they are just smaller, meaning that they don’t carry as much, or they are made from lesser quality materials. Before you take the financial plunge, make sure that the lighter models are lighter because they are smaller, and not because they are made with inexpensive materials.
Durability is something that is incredibly important when shopping for a new pack. This gear is meant to really take a beating out in the middle of the wilderness, so you want to make sure that it can hold up to not only difficult trails but also inclement weather. Ripstop nylon is the material that you want in a pack because it is incredibly durable without being too expensive, and it has a modest level of water resistance. Ripstop nylon that is coated in polyurethane gets bonus points in our book, and packs that come with a waterproof cover that snaps onto the frame gets a gold star.
When you come across those seasoned trail veterans out there, they love to tell you about how long their external frame backpack has lasted them. There is just something about an external frame that is able to endure the test of time. To be able to last, the most important feature is the frame itself. Good frames are typically made from solid steel or aluminum.
Some external frame backpacks can really cost you a pretty penny, and some of them cost more unnecessarily so. Some of the name brands such as Kelty and ALPS offer excellent packs that use the highest quality of materials and will not break the bank. They do cost more than a traditional backpack, of course, but considering how many years it will last, it makes them well worth the slightly padded price tag.
The problem with buying a pack that will last you multiple presidential administrations is that you won’t have an opportunity to buy a different style of bag when your current one breaks, because it most likely never will. That’s why it is really important to buy a model that it is not only indestructible but also looks good. When selecting the best models we tried to make sure that it looked sharp, but was also constructed to be packed and carried easily. Narrower models adjust the weight proportionally on your body, but can sometimes be a little cumbersome and can catch on branches and brush.
Typically, the main compartment of the pack is meant to hold everything that you need to set up camp, and the contents are not easily accessed when you are in the middle of a hike. Bags that come with the additional feature of side pockets are perfect for storing trail snacks and water to be accessed without the need of opening the main compartment of the bag. Also, packs that have the ability to store a blanket or a sleeping bag along the bottom.
Other Factors To Consider
Kelty was the original inventor of the external frame backpack, and it hit the market in the early 1950’s. Recently, campers have been gravitating to internal frames, because they don’t look as dated and have a narrower and sleeker design. When shopping for an external frame, you may come across some difficulty. Because a lot of outdoor gear companies focus so much of their efforts on internal frames, rather than external. Some campers even believe that over time, external frames will be a thing of the past. Kelty is still one of the top brands that sell external frames, and they come in many different designs and models. If you buy your frame now, you most likely will not have to worry about buying another.
There is a certain stigma surrounding external frame backpacks that make them considered to be ‘old school’. Newer generations of outdoor adventurers seem to be drawn to the sleek and streamlined design of internal frames because they are more compact and look less bulky, but they just don’t have the same ruggedness of an external frame. Before you make a purchase on a new backpack, be sure to weigh all of the benefits and disadvantages of external and internal frames, and try not to be swayed by the younger generations that look down upon external frames.
Take into consideration all of the things that are important to you when you are camping. Are you planning on being on the trails for an extended period of time and need the most room to carry all of your gear? Are you going to be traveling in hotter climates? Do you want to buy one pack and not have to worry about buying a replacement in subsequent years? If that’s the case, an external frame will certainly meet all of your needs. If you want a backpack that will be there with you until the day you have to hang up your hat, the investment of a great external frame backpack will be something that you surely won’t regret, no matter what anyone will tell you.
Q: Why opt for an external frame backpack?
External frames are the perfect pack if you need to carry a lot of gear. When it comes to carrying capacity, some external frames blow internal frames out of the water and can carry up to an impressive 200 pounds. Additionally, if you need to carry items that are a little bit more cumbersome, or that don’t fit inside the pack, you can affix the item to the exterior bars on the frame. An internal frame pack does not offer this advantage. Another advantage of external frames is the fact that the backpack will not be directly touching your back. This is much more comfortable in warmer climates.
Q: What is the difference between an internal frame and an external frame?
Internal frame backpacks are exactly what they sound like: they have a frame that is built into the interior of the fabric of the backpack. There is no way to detach the backpack from the frame, and you cannot affix anything to the bars. The benefits of an internal frame pack are that they are typically a little more compact and distribute weight evenly with a narrower design. External frame backpacks have a frame that is on the outside, and the backpack hooks to the frame itself. One downside to external frames is that they are a bit more cumbersome and make it more difficult to navigate through small spaces or rocky terrain.
Q: How to clean an external frame backpack?
Upon returning home from your long journey, you may notice that you have brought much of the earth home with you on the outside of your bag. To give it a good clean for the preparation of your next journey is easy. Detach the pack from the frame, and take a shop vac to rid the interior of any crumbs and loose debris. The outside can be easily wiped down with a wet cloth or a sponge. Although ripstop nylon is OK to be thrown into the washing machine, due to the fact that it has zippers, it might not be a great idea to throw it into the washing machine.
Q: How should my backpack fit on my back?
To ensure that all of the weight is distributed evenly, it is important that all of the straps and buckles are securely fastened. Be sure that the shoulder straps are placed squarely on your shoulders, and buckle the belt securely on your hips. Most packs have the ability to adjust the buckles so that it will fit on your hips comfortably. Be sure that it is not too loose or not too tight, otherwise, the weight will be shifted away from your hips and cause your back to become tired and strained.
Q: Is it easy to remove the pack from the frame?
Most external frames have screws and snaps that affix the fabric to the frame. To remove the pack, simply unfasten the screws (you can do this by hand). Most packs have about 6 to 8 screws on each side, so it should be relatively easy. Removing the pack is also a great option to have because if your pack is ever mauled by a bear, you don’t have to spend the extra money to buy a whole new backpack, because you still have the original external frame, and you can just buy a new pack which will be significantly less.
Q: How should I pack a backpack for a camping trip?
An external frame backpack will be able to carry all of the necessary tools for a successful weekend out in the woods. The place below the bag provides excellent room to strap on a tent, a sleeping bag, or a blanket. The main compartment is great for extra clothes, cooking ingredients, a first aid kit, water, or a flashlight. It is also best to pack the heaviest items closer to the bottom and pack the lighter items on top to ensure that the backpack isn’t top heavy and pulling at your shoulders. When packing your gear, really take the time to ensure that all of the materials are in the proper place, because if they are not, you are going to have trouble navigating long distances if your pack is too heavy or unbalanced. A lot of people like to use packing cubes with their external frame backpacks to feel more organized. Packing cubes are available in many different sizes and can make it much easier to find what you’re looking for when you finally settle into your tent at the end of a long hiking day.
Q: What are the benefits of using an external frame?
External frames are great because they are more versatile than internal frames. They are often lighter, meaning you have more room to pack the essentials without holding you back. Users find that they are also cooler than internal frames because there is a gap that is about 1 to 2 inches deep that separates you from your pack to keep your back cool and dry. Internal frame backpacks don’t offer this to users and can become hot and uncomfortable when used for hours on end. By positioning the weight higher up on your back, external frames can also promote better posture. Personally, I have found myself leaning forward when using an internal frame backpack, in an attempt to balance out the weight. With an external backpack, this issue is almost non-existent.
Q: Why are external frames considered to be ‘old school’?
External frames were the original camping backpack, and have been used since invented by Kelty (a brand that made this list a number of times) in 1952. It swept the market in the 1950’s and was hailed by campers as being the ultimate hiking backpack due to its inventive design and ability to carry an entire campsite right on your back. When internal frames hit the market, campers ditched their bulky frames for something that looked a little bit sleeker and a little bit more modern. Internal frames are considered to be more comfortable, but often that comfort comes at the price of utility. Don’t let the fads manipulate what type of backpack you select, because you most likely will be saving more money in the long run because external frames are something that will last you a very long time.