The backpack industry offers a plethora of options, but all backpacks fall primarily into two categories: internal frame backpacks and external frame backpacks. Despite internal frames being the favored choice among many hikers, external frames still maintain a strong, dedicated following.

External frame packs are easily distinguishable with their external aluminum tubes, while internal frame backpacks resemble duffel bags hugging the user’s back, with a ‘frame’ typically composed of a metal stay, sewn into the backpack. Both types of packs aim to distribute weight vertically to prevent sagging at the bottom of the pack.

Historically, the external frame pack was the norm among hikers, while the internal frame packs, inspired by mountaineering gear, only gained traction among backpackers in the 1990s. By the late 1990s, internal frame packs became the choice for high-end and long-distance backpackers, but external frame packs have retained their advantages

Advantages of Internal Frame Backpacks

Internal frame backpacks offer several benefits that make them a popular choice among hikers:

  • Comfort & Balance: Most hikers find internal frame packs more comfortable as they hug the body closely, aligning the weight of the backpack closer to the hiker’s natural center of gravity. This feature is particularly beneficial for women, who generally have a lower center of gravity than men.
  • Adjustability: High-quality internal frame packs often come with highly adjustable suspension systems, enabling hikers to shift the load between the hips and shoulders as needed.
  • Compact Design & Protection: These backpacks are designed with numerous pockets and compartments, allowing most equipment to be stored inside, safe, and dry. This prevents gear from knocking against obstacles during hikes.
  • Expandability: Some internal frame packs come with additional pockets and pouches that can be attached or removed as needed, making them expandable for larger loads.
  • Organization: The presence of multiple compartments makes organizing and accessing gear more straightforward.

Advantages of External Frame Backpacks

Despite the popularity of internal frame backpacks, external frame backpacks hold their unique advantages:

  • Adjustability: External frame packs are ideal for young or growing hikers as the frames can be adjusted to accommodate growth.
  • Affordability: These packs are typically less expensive, making them a great choice for families on shorter outings.
  • Flexibility: External frame packs come with ample space for lashing extra items, a handy feature for families where parents might need to take on additional weight when children get tired.
  • Weight Competitiveness: Contrary to popular belief, external frame packs often compete favorably in terms of weight with their internal counterparts designed to carry the same load.
  • Ventilation: In hot or humid weather, some hikers prefer external frame packs due to better ventilation between the pack and the hiker’s back.

Frameless Backpacks: The Third Choice

Apart from the two primary types, there’s a less common choice: the frameless backpack. Essentially a duffel bag equipped with a waist belt and shoulder straps, this pack is best suited for ultralight hikers carrying minimal weight. Some hiking gear manufacturers also produce backpacks with minimal frames – best suited for lighter loads, and improper use with heavy loads can lead to discomfort.