What Is the Best External Frame Backpack? 

 January 20, 2023

By  Diane Wuthrich

External frame backpacks are a good choice for carrying heavy loads when hiking or hunting. They distribute weight evenly while reducing sweat in the back. But with all the models out there, many wonder what to look for in an external frame backpack.

Weight distribution, lumbar support, and adjustability are essential in an external frame backpack. Smaller side pockets are a great feature too, because they make it easier to access and organize small gear. Weight, size, and durability are important too.

backpacker hiking

When shopping around for a backpack with external frame, there are some important things to understand. Read on to learn more.

A backpack with external frame is touted as one of the best types of backpacks for hiking and hunting, primarily because they allow you to carry heavy, bulky gear without causing too much strain. Its invention actually dates back to the US Civil War, when they were designed to be used by soldiers as they carried their loads to long distances.

Today, it’s still a popular choice for outdoor enthusiasts. Unlike internal frame or frameless backpacks, external frames have a visible solid structure where you can attach heavy gear to its aluminum frame. This makes it more efficient for said sports.

On top of that, these packs also provide better cooling since there’s a space between your back and the bag. Reduced sweat and increased ventilation are other major benefits of using external frame backpacks, especially if you are going to hike or hunt during the hot summer months.

Here’s what you should look for in a backpack with external frame:

Weight distribution

Efficient weight distribution is a key feature in external frame packs. Not all external frame packs have an H-like frame, but this is the ideal feature for weight distribution because the center of gravity is placed higher.

Lumbar support

Lumbar support ensures that weight is transferred to your hips, which is excellent for improving both stability and comfort. It also helps reduce back pain, which is important especially if you are going to be carrying heavy loads on your back for long periods of time, or plan to be out on the road frequently.

However, if you already have existing back problems, you’re better off staying away from external frame backpacks in general because you’ll be forced to conform to its shape as opposed to the other way around.


Most models enable adjustment of the frame as well as the harness position. This will help you get a good personalized fit for the size of your body. Being able to adjust the fit of your backpack can be a great help in lessening the burden of carrying a heavy load.

Side pockets

Side pockets are extremely helpful for accessing gear and other items such as your water bottle, trekking pole or tent. without having to unpack your bag each time. Choose models that have side pockets to cater to your needs. You may also want to consider other external attachments that can help you carry your headlamp, an ice axe, or pots and pans.


Given that external frame packs are typically used for extended trips, it’s ideal to go with one that’s lightweight. You’ll already be needing a serious amount of supplies and gear for longer trips, and a heavy backpack will only add to the burden. Having said that, light external frame packs aren’t known for having the biggest volume capacities so you may have to go with a heavier model for all your equipment.


Backpack volume refers to the space inside the pack, which is measured in liters though in some cases, cubic inches. Choosing an external frame pack with the right volume is crucial in ensuring your bag isn’t too big or too small.


Both the backpack fabric and the frame contribute to the durability of external frame packs. Backpack fabrics vary depending on the manufacturer, but you can’t go wrong with high denier nylon or polyester as these are known for water resistance. On the other hand, frames made from aluminum, iron, and titanium will last a long time without any issues.

External frame packs are designed to haul heavy loads, so they don’t come in small sizes. Choose your volume depending on the length of your trip, and the size of your gear such as tents, sleeping bags, or hunting equipment. If you will be hiking for 2-3 nights, a pack that’s 45 to 55 liters would be suitable while anything above 55 liters is ideal for trips 3 nights or more.

However, you can use a 45 liter external frame pack or even bigger if you are going hunting for the day since the nature of this activity will require you to carry a heavy load.


When it comes to cost, external frame backpacks are more affordable than most internal frame packs, which is always a good thing. Buy what you feel comfortable spending, but it’s best to go with a brand and model that has a good following, which you can verify through their online reviews.

What is the best external frame backpack for hiking?

Hikers can see big value in using external frame backpacks because of their ability to carry heavier loads, easier organization and storage, and breathability. They also have a unique old-fashioned look.

Here are some of the best models for hiking:

-   Kelty Trekker
-   Vargo Exotic 50
-   Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic External Frame Backpack

What is the best external frame backpack for hunting?

Certain external frame backpacks are ideal for hunting because they’re durable, are made to handle extremely heavy loads of a hundred pounds or more, and some because they’re made specifically to withstand the unique requirements of hunters.

There’s also one feature that you should look for in backpacks for hunting: quiet. The backpack material shouldn’t make any noise even when they get snagged on bushes, and its buckles and zippers can move quietly.

Here are some excellent external frame packs for hunting, which you can compare with our backpack comparison tool:

-   Slumberjack Rail Hauler 2500 Backpack
-   ALPS Mountaineering Zion External Frame Pack
-   ALPS OutdoorZ Commander

Frequently Asked Questions

Is an external frame backpack better?

There are certain situations wherein an external frame backpack is a better choice than internal frame or frameless backpacks. These are:

  • Trail walking, hunting, or hiking on well-maintained trails that don’t require you to scramble over rocks
  • Going on long expeditions that require you to bring heavy gear
  • If you are prone to sweating a lot during long hikes or plan to go on expeditions during the summer, since external frame backpacks are more ventilated
  • If you are on a tight budget

On the other hand, there are some considerations that, for some people, may not make external frame backpacks the better choice. These are, if you:

  • Intend to travel on cars, trains, and planes frequently, backpacks with external frame will prove to be a challenge because they are bulkier and bigger
  • Are above or below average height, because shoulder straps on these bags are notoriously harder to adjust. They also usually come in a narrower height range
  • Will be navigating uneven terrain
  • Will be hiking in a forested area, since the structured frame may get caught on tree branches

How do you pack an external frame backpack?

External frame packs don’t conform to the body as much as internal frame packs do. They are designed to be top heavy, which is why you can easily become unbalanced if you don’t pack it correctly.

Here are some tips in packing:

  1. 1
    Put all small and light things that you won’t need to access during the day, like your sleeping bag and change of clothes, in the bottom of the backpack.
  2. 2
    Items of medium weight should be packed in the middle.
  3. 3
    The heaviest items should go on the top of the pack.
  4. 4
    Place things you’ll need during the day on the side pockets, such as maps, drinks, snacks.
  5. 5
    If you have any items of an awkward shape, or that is long or bulky, attach it to the frame itself. Make sure that they are balanced and properly secured so that they don’t swing and affect your balance.
About the author

Diane is our head writer and researcher for our backpack informational content. Her everyday carry is a Herschel.

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