Internal Versus External Frame Backpacks

Internal frame VS external frame backpacks, ask a group of backpackers which one they prefer and your sure to get a variety of answers.

This article is based on my personal opinion, established through years of hiking, backpacking and camping.

Backpacking in Southeast Texas

There are pros and cons to every argument – some of it depends on what you like, and what your going to be doing with it. Personally, I do not think there is a “right” or “wrong” answer here. All I can do is tell you why I pick my packs and go from there.

Cool weather –   Having the pack right up against your body helps retain some of your body heat in cold weather.  Depending on how cold it is where your hiking at, this may or may not be a big deal.

Hot weather – Here in east Texas summer temps can get stay in the 90s, day and night.  In July and August day time temps can easily reach the lower 100s.   The external frame allows your body heat to escape from around your back. Just having that little bit of air space can help out a lot.

I have seen people carry an internal frame pack during the summer. When they drop the pack, their back and their pack is drenched with sweat. Just having that little space between your back and the pack can really help out when its 90+ degrees.

Strength – External frame packs feel stronger then internal frame packs – it might be just me, when I have a heavy load, I like having something solid to grab onto. Internal packs just seem flimsy and week – but I know that is not the case.

Military testing – the military test a lot of stuff. So there has to be a reason why they continue to pick an external frame pack over an internal frame. I do not know the “exact” reason, but there has to be something there.

Heavy loads – When you start dealing with heavy loads, the closer you have the pack to your body, the better. Extending the pack off your body just a few inches can put more strain one yourself.

Its like when you carry something that is heavy. Do you hold it at arms length, or do you get it as close to your chest as possible? The same goes for your back. The closer you hold it, the better it carries.

To counter the “having your load next to your body” debate, external frame packs seem to handle heavier loads better then internal frame packs.

We can sit back and say – this pack does that well, while that pack does this well. But a lot of it boils down to which pack serves you the best. It might take you 3, 4, 5 or more packs before you get one that fits well and carries well. Regardless of what you buy, later on you might find something that you do not like.

My Backpack Collection

  • Jansport cloth backpack – frameless
  • Fieldline – internal frame
  • Medium ALICE – external frame
  • Large ALICE pack – external frame
  • Maxpedition Falcon-II pygmy – frameless
  • Maxpedition Condor-II – frameless
  • Maxpedition Vulture-II – frameless
  • MOLLE-II 3,000 cubic inch with external sleep system – external frame
  • Large MOLLE 4,000 cubic inches – external frame
  • Kelty Big Bend, 4,000 cubic inches – internal fame
  • Three day assault pack – frameless
  • Medium MOLLE pack – External frame
  • Patrol pack – frameless

Before I just grab a pack and head out into the woods, I’ll take the time to size up the situation.

  • How long will the trip last?
  • Cool, warm, hot or cold weather?
  • How long will the trip last?
  • Will I need extra clothes?
  • How much water and food do I need?
  • Is it a day hike, or camping trip?
  • Hammock camping or tent camping?
  • Sleeping bag or poncho liner to sleep in?
  • Am I bringing a camp stove or MREs?

Once some of those questions have been answered, then I will sort through my packs and pick one out. The pack will then be loaded and try it out to see how it fits. Mount the loaded pack, do some squats, pick something up off the floor, twist around a little bit and just get the “feel” for the loaded pack.

If I dont like how that pack wears when its loaded with my desired gear list, I’ll try another pack. But most of the time the first pack is the one I go with.