If you’ve just discovered external frame backpacks, boy you have a lot to learn! Yes they look weird, but they’re the OG backpacking bags. And in some cases, they’re actually better than modern internal frame backpacks.
I’ll tell you all about the main differences between internal and external frame packs, and help you choose the best backpacks for you. I’ll also show you my favorite backpacks in both categories – just a quick overview of the best bags you can get for your money.
At A Glance: Best Internal/External Frame Backpacks
We’ll kick things off with some amazing backpacks, and finish it up with a detailed overview the differences between the two types. Keep reading to find the perfect large-capacity backpack for you!
Our Favorite Internal Frame
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Our Favorite External Frame
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The Rook 65 is one of Osprey’s best selling internal frame backpacks. It’s popular for its incredibly comfortable back system, which distributes weight almost as well as an external frame.
The pack is equipped with Osprey’s signature AirSpeed backpanel, which features outstanding breathability. Everything about the back system is adjustable, so it will be easy to get the perfect fit regardless of the body type. And with all that padding and breathable mesh, you’ll always be extra comfortable when wearing the Rook backpack.
It has a total capacity of 65 liters, but with lots of external attachment points. This includes attachment for hiking poles, sleeping pad and the Daylite daypack. Additionally, this backpack has so many different pockets and compartments that you’ll have no other choice than to stay organized.
This includes hip belt pockets, for the stuff you want to have within hand’s reach. The main compartment is very roomy, and it’s accessible from multiple sides. In fact, there’s a floating divider at the bottom of the main compartment, which lets you use the lower portion for a sleeping bag.
And if you unzip the divider, you’ll be left with a massive main compartment that you can access from both the top and bottom!
It’s worth noting that the Rook backpack is equipped with hip belt pockets, which are one of the best inventions since sliced bread. It also has an internal hydration sleeve, and it comes with a pricey Osprey rain cover, for ultimate protection from the elements.
The Redwing 50 by Kelty is one of the most popular internal frame hiking backpacks of the past decade. It’s a medium backpack, so it’s best for shorter adventures that last no more than 2-3 days. And it has a pretty affordable price point, which explains why it is popular with so many people.
This pack features Kelty’s Perfect Fit Suspension, which includes a ridiculously comfortable backpanel with spaced-out foam inserts that are covered with breathable mesh. Plus, you can adjust the height of the harness, as well as the length of the shoulder straps and the width of the hip belt.
In addition to that, the internal HDPE frame sheet does a great job at distributing the weight evenly, so that you stay comfortable even when the pack is at full capacity.
The main compartment is top-loading, and it features a removable top lid that converts into a sling pack. The pack is also equipped with eight internal and lots of external pockets, which means plenty of room to organize the small stuff. There’s even an organizer panel in the front compartment, which is perfect for the stuff you want to have handy at all times.
Sometimes you can’t afford to spend a lot of money on a backpack, which is where the Teton Sports Explorer comes in. With a durable exterior and a retail price well under $100, this is one of the best affordable internal frame backpacks you can get your hands on.
It features a completely adjustable back system, with thick padding and breathable mesh everywhere. This pack has a total capacity of 65 liters, which is spread over a variety of different compartments and pockets.
This includes five different side pockets, a dedicated sleeping bag compartment, and a hydration sleeve in the back. The bag is also equipped with lots of external attachment points, like the daisy chain webbing on the front panel and the dedicated sleeping pad straps.
In addition to that, the side pockets are perfect for storing hiking poles – they will fit into the stretchy pocket at the bottom, while the top pockets keep them in place. This is pretty useful since the backpack doesn’t actually have dedicated straps for hiking/trekking poles.
Oh, and this backpack comes with a sewn-in rain cover that guarantees total protection in case of a heavy downpour. And it means even better value for your money since this tends to be a pretty pricey accessory!
The Trekker backpack by Kelty is one of the best external frame backpacks you can get your hands on. It is made from 420D polyester, and it has outstanding breathability. The entire back system is covered with breathable mesh, which makes this backpack the best option for summer adventures.
It has a capacity of 65 liters, and then you could also attach a smaller trailer home to the exterior of the bag. Well, maybe not literally, but you get the idea. The ideal load capacity of the pack is 20-55 lbs, which is still a lot of gear. And you can get away with adding a few more pounds to the bag – just don’t overdo it.
Another great thing about this backpack is that the top lid converts into a small sling pack. This is great for those times when you want to leave the camp to go on a short hike, but you’d rather not carry an entire backpack with you. Well, with the Trekker pack you won’t have to.
This pack features a total of seven external pockets, daisy chain webbing on the top lid, front and side compression straps and a couple of attachment points at the bottom. If you need it on your hike, you’ll be able to make room for it in the Kelty Trekker backpack.
The Alps Red Rock pack is a great option if you want a good external frame backpack. It has an internal capacity of 34 liters, as well as an abundance of external attachment points including compression straps and a lashing system.
But that’s still a small capacity, even for an external frame bag. And actually, this is a very small backpack compared to some others. This makes it a great option for children and people who have smaller bodies, and struggle with some of the larger mountaineering backpacks.
The pack is made from polyester, while the suspension components are covered with Lycra. It weighs about 3.7 lbs, which is pretty good for such a bulky backpack. And it features really thick padding in the entire harness, for excellent carrying comfort.
Of course, it’s also very breathable, thanks to the fact that very few backpack components are actually touching your body.
This external frame bag is equipped with an adjustable sternum strap and a wide hip belt. There’s lots of padding in the hip belt, and it’s really going to hug your waist for that perfect, snug fit. But it doesn’t have any pockets though, which is a bit disappointing.
The Alps Zion backpack is another really great option worth considering. It is a moderately priced large capacity backpack, with a padded and ventilated back system. The frame is designed to fit torso lengths of 17-24”, which should fit most people. It is easy to adjust the frame, and even easier to get the perfect fit of the shoulder straps, hip belt, and sternum strap.
With a capacity of 64 liters, this backpack can easily hold all the gear you might need on longer adventures. And bear in mind that’s just the internal capacity; you can attach as much gear as you want to the exterior of the bag.
Plus, you don’t have to randomly attach carabiners to the frame. The Zion backpack is equipped with multiple external attachment points, including ice axe loops, compression straps, and a front lashing system.
In addition to that, this backpack features a total of seven external pockets for all the items you want to have easily accessible. One of those is a dedicated sleeping bag compartment, while another is a roomy open-top pocket that can fit water bottles of all sizes.
We’ll kick things off with detailed explanations of the largest differences between internal and external frame backpacks. This should hopefully give you a general idea of how to choose between the two backpack types, and which are better for certain scenarios.
The main difference between internal and external frame backpacks is weight distribution. Even though the new generation internal frame packs do a pretty good job at it, they still don’t come close to the OG external frame backpacks.
And that’s why the old fashioned packs are more popular with experienced hikers and backpackers. Especially those who like to carry everything they might need on their journeys – the weight distribution of external frame backpacks is just amazing. That’s the main reason why these backpacks are still popular – if you’re planning a long expedition that requires a lot of gear, an external frame backpack is the way to go.
Another advantage they have is that their internal capacity is not so important. You have a lot of extra space on the frame, which allows you to carry all the bulky items you could possibly need. And you can attach even more gear to the actual frame of the backpack, without worrying about weight distribution.
However, there’s no denying that the predominant type of large-capacity backpack on the market is the internal frame backpack. They’re simply the new generation of packs, and they can handle any task you have for them. Keep in mind that some people have never even seen an external frame backpack in their life, even though they are avid hikers and trekkers.
But the fact remains that internal frame backpacks have a much smaller overall capacity. You are limited to the internal compartments, and if you’re lucky you will have a backpack with some external attachment points or at least compression straps. And that’s if you spend several hundred dollars on a really good backpack.
Proper weight distribution is one of the key factors that decides how comfortable you are while wearing a heavy backpack. But there are other things that play a big part here – one of them is the breathability of the backpanel. The more breathable the entire back system is, the less sweaty you are. Which means less chafing and just generally a more comfortable experience.
External frame backpacks have a slight edge in this area. The frame helps create additional space between your body and the backpanel, which allows for great airflow. Especially since there’s usually a lot of space between the bottom of the bag and the hip belt – there’s a whole chunk of your body that’s not even in contact with the backpack. And that is in addition to the breathable mesh that you usually see on the harness and backpanel.
With internal frame backpacks it can be challenging to find that breathable backpack. You need to look for bags that have lots of breathable mesh, and not just on the backpanel but also on the hip belt and the shoulder straps. Then you also need to look for spaced out foam inserts on the backpanel – this is one of a few features that you can count on to guarantee sufficient ventilation.
Obviously there are tonnes of internal frame backpacks that are incredibly breathable, starting with pretty much anything Osprey makes. But they do cost a pretty penny, and that’s actually why an external frame pack might be the way to go if you’re planning a week-long expedition in the middle of July.
If you’re entirely new to external frame backpacks, then you’re probably wondering if they are at all adjustable. And they partially are – the majority of them will allow you to adjust the length of the frame and the position of the harness. Which does allow you to get a pretty customized fit, but it’s never going to be as close as you can get with internal frame bags.
The absolute best internal frame backpacks let you adjust everything about the harness, from its position down to how high you want the waist belt to sit. And that lets you achieve that perfect, body hugging fit that feels the most comfortable.
But another thing to consider is that you don’t actually need a perfect fit with an external frame backpack. The whole point of adjusting everything in the back system down to the milimeter is to achieve the best weight distribution, so that you feel comfortable even when you’re carrying your own weight in the backpack. External frame bags already excel at this – adjusting the back system is just about ensuring the backpack is going to fit your body and feel comfortable on long-haul days.
External frame backpacks are old-school, and that’s another thing worth considering. If you like being the center of attention and you want strangers to approach you and comment on your gear, then an OG pack sounds like the right option for you.
Bear in mind that quite a lot of people – the younger generations especially – have never seen an external frame backpack up close. It’s like carrying a Nokia 3310 in 2020 – you’re going to get a lot of curious looks, and people wanting to know what the hell you’re carrying.
But that shouldn’t be the only reason why you get an external frame backpack. There are lots of ways to stand out on the trails with an internal frame backpack as well – just go with a really bright color that hurts your eyes when you stare directly into it.
If you’re on a tight budget, then it’s best to stick with internal frame backpacks. Affordable and mid-range outdoor gear brands focus exclusively on internal frame packs, so it’s pretty easy to find a decent bag for some $50. That’s not going to happen with external frame packs – they’re pretty rare nowadays, and very few of them have price points in the double digits.
But it’s not so black and white when it comes to the value for money. That’s an individual thing – you’ll get the best value out of a backpack that you use the most often. And that could be either an internal frame or an external frame bag, depending on the type of your expeditions.
Another important factor here is how long you will be able to use a particular backpack. Durability is crucial for getting your money’s worth, but it’s not really possible to say whether internal frame bags are more or less durable than external frame bags. Five or ten years ago it was a no-brainer – external frame packs would have won by a mile.
But, with so many different brands focusing on internal frame backpacks, there are just so many amazing contenders out there. Bags from established brands like Osprey, Gregory etc. are known to last years and even decades. However, those are expensive brands that sell some really pricey backpacks, so outstanding durability is expected. When you compare the average, $50-80 internal frame backpack to a sturdy external frame backpack, the latter still takes the crown.
Still haven’t figured out whether you should pick up an internal or an external frame backpack? I’ll try to help!
It’s pretty simple actually – if you’re an average hiker or mountaineer, who doesn’t spend more than 2-3 days a time in the outdoors, then you should stick with internal frame backpacks. The vast majority of outdoor brands only manufacture these packs, so there’s quite a lot of amazing products to choose from.
But you can’t go wrong with the Osprey Rook 65 – this is one of the best internal frame backpacks that exist. It’s incredibly durable, very comfortable to wear and it features dozens of internal and external pockets and compartments.
Pick up an external frame backpack if you’re planning a long expedition, which requires a lot of heavy gear. These packs allow for better weight distribution, and they let you attach just about anything to the frame of the backpack.
Our favorite external frame pack is the Kelty Trekker – it has an incredibly comfortable back system, with a tonne of internal and external pockets for easy organization. And that’s in addition to all the different external attachment points, which are perfect for all those bulky and heavy items that won’t fit inside the bag.
Head over to Amazon to see the prices of all these backpacks, as well as the different colors you can get them in. And check out our relayed posts, for ideas on even more great internal frame backpacks!