Love the outdoors but hate carrying heaps of gear around? Sounds like you could be in need of an external frame backpack! Designed to bear heavy loads, external-framed backpacks are ideal for outdoor enthusiasts that need a lot of gear on the trail.
External frames are typically made of durable materials such as aluminum or steel so that they won’t buckle under pressure. Plus, having the frame on the pack exterior means that you can clip on extra bits of gear and not worry so much about space. External frames are also great for weight distribution, and typically carry the bulk of the weight higher up as well as directing weight towards the hips.
External frame backpacks do hold your load further from the body than internal frame backpacks, so they’re better suited to well-trodden paths rather than scrambles (although we doubt you’d take tonnes of gear on a scramble anyway!).
Whether it’s hunting implements, camping equipment, or fishing gear you need to take with you on your next outing, there’s an external frame backpack out there with your name on it. Here, we’ve brought you a selection of the best external frame backpacks around so that you can be sure to find the one that’s right for you – enjoy!
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Best For Hunting
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We’re starting off strong on our list of the best external frame backpacks around with the Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic.
This sturdy backpack has a whopping 90L capacity thanks to its durable alumni alloy frame, yet it weighs in at under 6 lbs – considerably less than we were expecting for a pack of this size. And in case that wasn’t enough, it also features tonnes of extra storage spots, including three zippered side pockets, a large front pocket, a stash pocket…. plus a sleeping bag compartment, mesh water bottle holders, and an internal organizer – phew!
It also features a hydration pocket for anyone that likes to stay hydrated on the go (but you will have to purchase the hydration reservoir separately) as well as external lash points and ice-ax loops.
Despite its high load-bearing capacity, this pack is a dream to wear thanks to the presence of a sternum strap, heavily padded shoulder straps, a fully adjustable, ventilated hip belt with stabilizers that ensure great load distribution. On top of that, the mesh back panel allows great airflow, so you won’t get too sweaty out on the trail. Our only complaint is that it doesn’t come with an integrated rain cover, but you can easily pick up one of these separately.
Overall, if you’re after a pack that will make carrying tonnes of gear a breeze, then you’ll be hard-pushed to find better than this.
The ALPS Mountaineering Red Rock is one of the most popular external frame backpacks currently on the market for smaller folk (primarily teens and small adults) and it’s easy to see why.
This 34L backpack weighs less than 4 lbs and can accommodate a range of body shapes thanks to the adjustable straps (sternum, weight belt, and shoulder) and telescopic frame. As well as its customizable fit, this bag features vented lumbar support along the back panel making for one comfortable pack overall.
It also has an impressive amount of pockets and organizational features for a bag of its size, including a hydration pocket and port, various zippered side pockets, a (very) large water bottle pocket, a zipper lid pocket, and straps for attaching a roll mat at the bottom (although it’s missing a sleeping bag compartment). We also love that it packs from the top down and features a ‘hold-open’ bar for ease of packing.
Constructed from durable water-resistant polyester this bag is built to last, yet it comes with a surprisingly low price tag (just make sure you pick up a rain cover separately if you want to make sure your gear stays dry). If you’re looking for a smaller external frame backpack with plenty of options for storing and attaching extra gear, then this pack is a great shout.
If you’re after an affordable way to carry around you’re hunting gear, then look no further than the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander.
This beast of a bag has a whopping 86L capacity and we love that the framework, bottom freighter shelf, and lashing system mean that you can carry around even large carcasses without any trouble. On top of that, there are dual side-hinged pockets, and a main, front, and spotting scope pocket so you can be sure to find what you need when you need it. Oh – and there’s a drop-down rifle pocket and hydration pocket too!
We know that all that gear combined with your haul can make for one heavy load, so we were pleased to see that this pack comes with both waist and chest straps, but make sure you fasten them tightly to make sure they don’t slide around on you. These straps, along with the torso, are adjustable too, so you can ensure the perfect fit, which is crucial when carrying heavy loads.
One thing we love about this pack is the fact you can remove the frame entirely if you want to (which you might sometimes, as there are reports of it creaking from time to time) – so you’re essentially getting two packs for the price of one. And, speaking of price, this backpack offers great value for money compared to similar items on the market. As with all the backpacks we’ve looked at so far, you’ll have to grab a rain cover separately but, all things considered, this is a super affordable external backpack designed for happy hunting.
The Kelty Yukon 48L Backpack is designed specifically for teenagers (although it can certainly be used by petite adults too), and getting them their own gear is a great way to get them off their screens and into the outdoors.
It isn’t the cheapest option out there, but don’t worry, you won’t have to replace it every year or so thanks to the adjustable torso length and width – simply expand the bag as the teenager expands! The shoulder straps, sternum strap, and waist belt are all adjustable too, so you can ensure the perfect fit for years to come.
Like all Kelty products, this bag has been built to last and features a durable aluminum frame and 420-denier polyester and reinforced with 420-denier oxford polyester. Although its capacity isn’t as large most as bags designed for adults, 48L is more than enough for a teenage wardrobe for the weekend. On top of the spacious main compartment and sleeping bag section, there are plenty of pockets, including zippered side pockets and a front stretch pocket, as well as a hydration compartment that doubles up as a laptop sleeve, gear loops, and ice-ax attachment points (no rain cover though, surprise surprise).
Oh, and we love that the lid can be removed entirely and used as a sling pack if you have lots of items you want to keep close at hand. It might not be the biggest pack out there, but it’s great for growing youth or as a casual pack for smaller-sized adults.
The ALPS Mountaineering Zion Pack is a fantastic allround pack with a slightly smaller capacity than some of the models which, combined with some of its other features, makes this one of the comfiest external frame backpacks around.
The frame itself is telescopic and not only the torso but also the waist belt can fit various body shapes so you can make sure this pack fits you just right (although some of the straps are a little stiff and can take some wearing in). The suspension components are covered in Lycra for additional comfort, and the back panel is extremely well padded with extra lumbar support and offers great ventilation too.
The main compartment is mainly accessed via the top (but you can also access it via a bottom door if you need something from depths!) and you won’t have any trouble packing thanks to the hold-open bar. It also has a designated sleeping bag compartment, a large front pocket, a hydration pouch, various side pockets, lashing tabs, and ice ax loops… so you can make sure you have every bit of gear you might need with you.
It’s reasonably priced and comes with a lifetime warranty too, so you can be sure that this sturdy little pack will last you for years to come – well done ALPS Mountaineering!
If you’re on the prowl for a high-end hunting pack and don’t mind shelling out for it, then the Eberlestock Gunslinger II might be right up your street.
The Intex-II frame itself has an external frame structure, yet it manages to remain lightweight and maintain a close distance between your back and the pack – you could say that it’s the best of both worlds. On top of that, if you do feel like using an internal frame backpack sometimes, you can easily convert this pack by picking up a compatible internal frame (purchased separately).
Designed for serious hunters that like to keep their gear in order, this pack features a full-width adjustable scabbard that can house almost any type of weapon, several organizational compartments in the top section, external molle for attaching extra bits of gear, and tonnes of other internal/external pockets. Oh, and it’s hydration compatible too.
The 500D nylon construction means this bag can stand up to wear and tear as well as light rainfall, and there are tonnes of compression straps on the outside to help you fight the bulk. This pack doesn’t feature a shelf for your haul though, so make sure you’ve thought about how you’ll transport your catch home.
Overall, this is one heavy-duty backpack that has more than enough pockets and sections as well as an almost universal weapons holder – perfect for hunting or tactical use.
And now for something a little different… the Solar Charger Hiking Backpack. This innovative external frame backpack is lined with solar panels on the outside, making it the perfect backpack for your off-grid adventures.
The 21W panels are super handy for charging your phone, torch, radio, and other gadgets when you’re out in the back and beyond, and the built-in loops, carabiners, and carrying pocket means you can have all your gizmos at the ready, even while they’re charging. And what’s more, you remove the solar panels if you don’t think you’ll need them.
The bag itself is constructed from abrasion- and water-resistant nylon and polyester, and the frame is positioned to allow great airflow between the pack and your back. Although this does mean the load is further away than with traditional internal frame packs, this is counteracted somewhat by the heavy-0duty compression straps that help to transfer weight away from the shoulders and down to the waist and your legs (which is where you want it!).
The main compartment has a 68L capacity, yet this bag weighs under 4 lbs. It also features tonnes of organizational features, such as attachment loops, bottom straps, a whistle on the sternum buckle, dual water bottle pockets, and even key rings, although the presence of the solar panels does mean there are fewer pockets on the exterior than other similar models (but we think its totally worth the swap).
The shoulder, waist, and chest straps are fully adjustable, and we love that the waist strap features pockets for quick-grab items.
If you’re hitting the trail and want a pack that will not only help you carry everything you need for your adventure but will also keep you powered up, then this bag is an absolute winner.
Last but by no means least on our list of the best external frame backpacks around is the Vargo Exoti 50 Backpack. This ultralightweight backpack is ideal for anyone looking to make light work of a heavy load.
The frame itself is made of durable titanium, known for its resistance to corrosion as well as its light weight. We love that the lid is removable too in case you want to further cut down on bulk. And speaking of bulk.. the X-compression straps on the front of the bag work wonders to streamline your gear and the pack is top-loading and lacks a sleeping bag compartment, helping to further reduce the dimensions.
It’s also one comfortable bag thanks to the support provided by the lumbar plate and the way that weight is transferred to the hips so efficiently. Plus, the shoulder, sternum, and waist straps are all fully adjustable to make sure you get the right fit. We’d like to see a few more pockets on the exterior, but we guess this pack is smaller than some of the others we’ve looked at so perhaps fewer pockets makes sense.
The main drawback of this pack is its high price tag…. but, if shedding some pounds is your top priority then trust us, with this pack, your 50L of gear will feel more like 30L!
As we’ve seen, external frame backpacks come in all shapes and sizes, but what are the main things you should consider before buying one? Here are a few pointers to help you out.
One of the best things about external frames is their weight distribution – they position weight higher than internal frames which directs the majority of the weight to your hips and legs (rather than your shoulders).
They are, however, designed for heavy loads, which makes it more important than ever to have good shoulder strap padding and, ideally, additional lumbar support. Additionally, you’ll also notice that all of the pack features here have sternum straps and hip belts to help distribute the weight of your load evenly – steer clear of packs lacking these!
A key advantage of external frames over internal frames is the fact that they hold the main part of the pack further away from your body, which enables fantastic ventilation. However, on the flip side, this positioning can make your pack feel a little unstable, especially on uneven ground.
Compression straps reduce the bulk of your pack and are a great way to feel more centered, so we definitely recommend keeping your eye out for a pack with decent compression (although we still don’t recommend scrambling with an external frame backpack).
Additionally, you’ll want a pack with an adjustable torso as well as other adjustable straps to make sure you get a snug fit – this will also go a long way towards making you feel more grounded.
Finally, if you’re looking for an external frame backpack, you’re most likely going to be carrying around a lot of gear with you. Obviously, a large capacity is the easiest way to make sure you can fit in everything you’ll need for your trip, but bear in mind that sometimes you can get away with a smaller capacity than you might think – especially if the pack comes with lots of organizational features. By opting for a smaller pack you’ll cut down on weight (and save some dollars), and you can always lash on extra gear to the frame itself or make use of the loops, straps, and attachment points featured on the best backpacks.
Still struggling to decide which external frame backpack is right for you? Not to worry – here are our top three to help you make up your mind:
If you’re after an external frame backpack for hunting, then we reckon the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander is your best bet.
With an enormous capacity, a rifle carrier, plus a meat shelf and a lashing system for your haul, this is the perfect hunting companion.
On top of that, it has tonnes of other organization features, is fully adjustable, and the frame can even be removed!
And the best part is, it’s way cheaper than we were expecting – what an absolute steal.
Our best allround external frame backpack has to be the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander.
It offers a unique blend of comfort and functionality thanks to its adjustability and lumbar support as well as its numerous pockets, compartments, and external attachment points.
What’s more, it won’t break the bank either, and it comes with a limited lifetime warranty too, winning.
But what’s our absolute favorite external frame backpack? You might have guessed… it’s the Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic.
This pack is jammed-full of pockets and other organizational features have a huge capacity and offer a fantastic weight: volume ratio. The load distribution is fantastic to make carrying your load a breeze and, speaking of breeze, the ventilation is top-notch too – what’s not to love?!