What Is the Best External Frame Backpack? 

 July 6, 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 tools and accessories. Be sure to get a bag in the right fit as well.

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

What to Look for in an External Frame Backpack

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 with less effort. Its invention actually dates back to the US Civil War, when they were designed to be used by soldiers as they carried their loads through long distances.

Today, it’s still a popular choice for outdoor enthusiasts. Unlike internal frames or frameless backpacks, external frames have a visible solid structure where you can attach heavy items such as a hunted animal or camping equipment to their frame. 

On top of that, these packs also provide better cooling since there’s 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.

That said, here's what you should look for in a backpack with an external frame:

Weight distribution

Efficient weight distribution is a key feature in external frame packs. After all, the primary purpose of an external frame is to distribute the weight of everything you are carrying between the shoulders and hips. In the ideal scenario, the best external frame backpack places 20% of the weight on the shoulders, while 80% is carried by the hips.

When shopping around for external frame backpacks, be sure to check the type of frame used. A solid, rigid frame means that weight is effectively transferred to the hip belt. The frame should never be flexible. 

Additionally, the pack's weight distribution system should include lumbar support. This 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.


To get the best fit possible, it's necessary to check your measurements against that of a backpack. Most backpack manufacturers provide the important measurements you need to know, such as torso length and hip belt size. However, external frame backpacks have fewer adjustment options compared to internal frames.

Regardless, the hip belt and shoulder straps must always be adjustable. But the good news is that there are many others that now allow you to adjust the torso length and even the height of the external frame for a perfect, customized fit. 

These are all crucial to adjust the fit of your backpack and 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, hiking pole, tripod, or umbrella 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 such as webbings or loops that can help you carry your headlamp, an ice axe, or pots and pans.


Backpack volume refers to the amount of space or storage capacity offered by the pack. This is usually measured in liters though, in some cases, such as hunting-specific backpacks, storage is measured in cubic inches. Choosing an external frame pack with the right volume is crucial in ensuring your bag isn’t too big or too small.

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 are 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.


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 ripstop nylon or polyester as these are known for unparalleled strength. On the other hand, frames made from aluminum, iron, and titanium will last a long time without any issues.


External frame backpacks are less common than internal frame packs. They are usually manufactured by brands that specialize in hunting or military gear, which means that they use more premium, high-end materials that can stand up to the ruggedness of the environments they will be used in. 

That said, external frame backpacks typically cost upward of $200. However, you can find good deals when brands go on sale.

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.

Recommendations For The Best External Frame Backpack

Hikers and hunters see the value of using external frame backpacks because of their ability to carry heavier loads, easier organization and storage, and breathability. There are several popular external frame backpacks on the market, such as those included in the list below. For more information, you can click on the link after reading the review:

Best For Hiking

Kelty Trekker 65 Backpack:  Kelty has been in the business of manufacturing high-quality outdoor gear since 1952. They have a clear dedication to loyalty, and each individual in the company is passionate about all the rugged activities you can enjoy outside. They know what a hiker needs when it comes to reliable and durable stuff, including backpacks.

The Kelty Trekker 65 has been around for several years now, but it has remained a favorite of hikers and mountaineers alike. There are plenty of reasons to give this bag five stars, though it certainly stands out for superior load carry and weight distribution. Most other external frame backpacks on the market can’t hold a candle to this pack’s ability to make heavy loads feel lighter and more comfortable to hike with.

It features a top-loading design, with a reservoir sleeve and hydration-compatible features. The load lifter straps and belt stabilizer straps work well together to redistribute the weight. 

There are a lot of useful amenities that hikers and campers will appreciate, such as a daisy chain, an ice axe loop, and a sleeping bag compartment. The waist strap also has ample padding, and you can truly feel the difference once you're well into your trip. 

Based on our testing, we also found that it has nearly limitless possibilities when it comes to adjustment so that you can get a perfect fit, regardless of how much you are carrying with you. The external frame can even be lengthened or shortened whenever needed, and you can replace the hip belt.

On top of that, the backpack body can also be heightened or lowered on the frame to accommodate individual needs and preferences on the trail. That said, the Kelty Trekker 65 is ideal for individuals whose torso measurements are between 16 to 22 inches. Women, as well as men who have slender frame, can also opt to purchase another hip belt from Kelty separately to fit them better.

The backpack’s capacity is 65L, and its specifications are 29 x 22.5 x 13 inches, with a weight of 5 lbs. and 5 ounces. It’s enough to carry all you need for two or three-night excursions. However, the plastic zippers feel flimsy, though Kelty has done a great job at designing this pack in such a way that it feels light to carry.

Overall, the Kelty Trekker 65 is a super tough and reliable external frame backpack for hiking.

Best For Women

Mystery Ranch Women’s Metcalf: Mystery Ranch has a solid reputation for superior-quality load-bearing products, including tough backpacks, especially for hunting and military use. All their packs use the best possible materials and are designed to last, despite being exposed to the wear and tear of seriously rugged use.

You don’t have to be in the military or hunting to appreciate the benefits of the Mystery Ranch Women’s Metcalf. However, if you are seriously interested in investing in an external frame backpack that is truly versatile and long-lasting, this pack is for you. The Metcalf has proven itself to be such a popular and reliable bag, that they came up with a women’s specific fit.

There are many unique features in this pack, but the Guide Light MT Frame stands out. It’s built with custom SJ Autobuckles, the brand’s new hardware, which is both strong and lightweight. The frame is rigid but offers enough flexibility and stability on the trails, which is helpful for safety during navigation. 

The Mystery Ranch Women’s Metcalf is constructed with robust materials all throughout, including a 500D Light Plus fabric that is tear-resistant and boasts high tensile strength. If it’s good enough for hunting or military use, then it’s good enough for outdoor adventures including camping, hiking, or mountaineering.

This external frame pack also comes with several useful attributes that make it more comfortable. These include a padded waist belt and shoulder straps, which reduce the pressure and weight when you are carrying heavy loads. During our research, we also found that the harnessing in the waist straps and shoulder straps ensures that the backpack fits like a glove while preventing the pack from moving around too much.

While many men’s backpacks can fit women, a women-specific fit such as the Metcalf makes a world of a difference in fit and overall comfort. It's equipped with features such as curved harnesses and narrower shoulder pads that women will appreciate. But it would have been nice if they added a rain cover to protect against the elements, though the pack fabric does have some water resistance.

The pack weighs 6 pounds and has a total of 71 liters in capacity. The dimensions are 31 x 14 x 12 inches. It’s hydration compatible, equipped with interior attachment points to make up for the lack of interior compartments, has side pockets for a tripod, water bottle, or rifle, and has compression straps that can be used to carry equipment.

The Mystery Ranch Women’s Metcalf packs a punch in terms of quality, durability, and features. However, at a price tag of $549, it can be expensive for most adults. Despite the price tag, we highly recommend this external frame pack for anyone who’s serious about investing in a bag that can handle almost anything you put it through.

Best Lightweight External Frame Backpack

Vargo Exoti 50: Vargo is a popular brand among travelers and outdoor enthusiasts who understand the value of titanium for survival, camping, backpacking, and hiking. Titanium is one of the best materials for outdoor use, given its incredible strength, light weight, and durability – most especially when it comes to external frames for backpacks.

The Varo Exoti 50 blends the best of both internal and external frame backpacks into one elegant pack. It makes use of an ultralight titanium alloy external frame, while the 50-liter capacity is perfect for backpacking and camping trips. The X-shaped load lifter compression straps do a wonderful job of keeping the pack high in the body, ensuring a stable and comfortable carry.

This model is suitable for people with torso lengths ranging from 16 to 22 inches, while the hip belt can fit 24 to 60 inches. The recommended pack weight is 35 lbs.

The backpack’s lumbar support plate is a nice touch, effectively transferring the weight from your back to the hips. It weighs just 2 lbs. and 11 ounces; this pack is one of the lightest external frame backpacks on the market. Best of all, it offers the benefits of both modern backpacks and the load-carrying advantages of an external frame.

The Vargo Exoti 50 is designed with a floating top lid and cinch opening, while the webbing straps allow you to adjust its height to further compress your belongings on top of the bag. Some people can find packing and unpacking with the cinch opening rather tricky, but it will depend on your personal preferences.

The spacious top pocket on the lid is perfect for keeping small accessories such as your gloves, hat, or a map – just about anything you need quick access to. The roomy main compartment houses an internal hydration pocket as well, while the webbing loop allows you to store a hydration bladder while suspended to save space.

On the exterior, the pack has one mesh pocket on each side for your water bottles. It’s good to note that the Exoti’s side water bottle pockets are larger than other backpacks, as they can fit as much as a 1-liter bottle pocket on each side.

Additionally, the suspension system includes a lumbar pad, hip belt, and adjustable shoulder harness which can be transferred up or down depending on your torso size. The hip belt and shoulder straps are padded with breathable material, which we’ve found to come in handy during hikes in humid conditions. During our testing, we also found that the ventilated frame is effective in reducing sweat while enabling your shirts to dry quickly.

With all these benefits, the Vargo Exoti 50 is a great choice for a lightweight external frame backpack. It’s got numerous fantastic details and excellent durability, so you shouldn’t go wrong with it.

Best For Backcountry Trips

Mystery Ranch Beartooth 80: For backcountry hunting or long mountaineering journeys, the Mystery Ranch Beartooth 80 is highly recommended. Mystery Ranch is famous for some of the best hunting backpacks in the world, and Beartooth is no different. This backpack is available in four sizes, from small through extra-large.

It’s constructed from 500D Lite plus Cordura fabric, which has been proven to be waterproof and even bombproof. How’s that for durability?! The Overload Shelf is a trademark feature of the brand; it’s simply unparalleled for carrying extremely heavy loads.

The Beartooth 80 is a monster when it comes to strength and the little details that matter. Hassle-free packing and access are made possible thanks to the 270-degree duffel-style opening, which allows you to find everything in the main compartment without having to take things out one by one. The light SJ Autolock buckles are easy to grip too.

The pack weighs 6.3 lbs. and has 80L of storage, which is definitely ample room for a week-long trip. That said, you don’t need to go on such a long adventure to use this bag; it’s equipped with compression straps that cinch the bag nicely all the way down. This way, the straps effectively prevent the bag from flopping around when it isn’t used to its full capacity.

The telescoping yoke is a nifty feature that allows you to customize its fit. Other excellent details include side stretch exterior pockets, hydration compatibility, a quick-attach frame cap, and zippered pockets on the removable lid.

While testing the Beartooth 80, we were surprised to experience just how comfortable such a heavy-duty backpack could be. Mystery Ranch did an exceptional job with this backpack, especially when it comes to all-around comfort and organization. You will not run out of space for long trips on this backpack, that’s for sure.

If there was one way Mystery Ranch could improve this backpack, it would be by widening the shoulder straps in the area above the shoulders. Regardless, it’s still a great overall bag, and that minor design flaw isn’t a deal breaker.

ALPS OutdoorZ Commander: The ALPS OutdoorZ Commander + Pack is another external frame pack on this list manufactured by a company that specializes in hunting gear. They started designing affordable yet quality outdoor gear in 1993, and through the decades, have evolved to gain expertise in hiking and camping gear. It’s a more affordable external frame backpack option compared to the Mystery Ranch Beartooth 80.

The ALPS OutdoorZ Commander is a tried-and-tested external frame backpack that is well-suited for these outdoor activities, including backcountry trips. Given all the premium features of this pack, it’s among the more affordable hunting packs out there, yet it’s versatile enough to accommodate mountaineers as well. It boasts a whopping 86L capacity (5250 cubic inches), and its frame dimensions are 35-41 inches in height by 15.5 inches in width.

This heavy-duty pack weighs 7 lbs. and 15 ounces, while the waist belt can fit 33 to 60 inches. ALPS OutdoorZ offers waist belts in other sizes for those who need them, though they need to be purchased separately. Meanwhile, the torso range is suited for those with 17 to 23-inch torsos.

The tough ripstop construction of this backpack ensures you’ll be able to travel far and carry thousands of pounds over the course of its lifetime without having to worry about breakage. It already comes with a rifle holder plus two side accessory pockets. It also comes with a spotting scope pocket, internal horizontal divider, and webbing loops. Lashing points for shooting sticks are provided as well. 

We tested this pack in rough conditions, crossing streams and thick forests. It proved how well the Commander stands up to the challenge; even in uncomfortable situations, it remains lightweight and solid. You can live out of this bag for trips over a week in length, which also makes it ideal for backpacking.

While this backpack is fairly easy to use, the pins can be challenging to install or remove. Fortunately, these pins can be replaced if you prefer to use a screw system. The organizational system of this bag is top-notch, too: there are well-thought-out pockets for everything you need, including knives, headlamps, flashlights, and so much more.

Overall, the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander has thought of everything you need for the backcountry and hunting in one bag. The price won’t break the bank, either!

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 meet the unique requirements of hunters.

There’s also one feature that you should look for in backpacks for hunting: quiet fabrics. The backpack material should be silent, 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is an external frame backpack better?

There are certain situations wherein an external framed backpack is a better choice than an internal frame or frameless backpack. 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 lots of sweat 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 situations wherein an external frame backpack is not recommended, such as when you:

  • Intend to travel in cars, trains, and planes frequently. Backpacks with external frames 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 them correctly.

Here are some tips for packing:

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


External frame backpacks are the right choice for carrying heavy loads, especially if you are hunting, hiking, or participating in military activities. This guide provides you with the information you need to consider before you buy an external frame backpack. 

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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