External frame packs vs soft frame packs

6:11 p.m. on August 26, 2014 (EDT)
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In your opinion do external frame packs work better for carrying extra weigh over long distances or for extended trips vs soft packs of the same volume?


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VS


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9:44 p.m. on August 26, 2014 (EDT)
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Externals usually "work better" for really heavy loads, but are generally nit as comfortable. I would say if you are 60-70 lbs or less an internal of sufficient stoutness is the better option, if your over that then go external or go custom. I have a kifaru bikini frame now , which i love, and i use it for backpacking and hunting and its comfortable from 30lbs up to 150-200lbs(as comfortable as 150lbs + can be!)

5:10 a.m. on August 27, 2014 (EDT)
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Depends on the design of the soft packs.... My Lightwave Wildtrek 60 has an internal aluminum frame which offers great support, but also makes the pack sleeker and more compact. You can have the best of both worlds.

10:06 a.m. on August 27, 2014 (EDT)
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One of the classic questions. I now have a red extra large Kelty Tioga from the 1970s that is like new and it is the pack I have always wanted. I carried a TNF Cascade for many years with an internal frame and never liked it. The external frame gets my vote because of the ease of transferring weight to the hips, air circulation on the back, and all of those handy outside pockets and places to lash things.

I grew up with a Trapper Nelson and an Army Alice pack and internal frames have never felt right.

The heavier the load the more an external makes sense. They are especially good for odd loads like an elk quarter.

I have yet to go backpacking "off-trail" where I have needed handholds, the one type of hiking where an internal frame is supposed to excel.

 

10:33 a.m. on August 27, 2014 (EDT)
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For heavy loads where you are not bushwhacking but on fairly decent trail, I would go with an external frame. They are quite comfortable and easily distribute the load well. They are also good for carrying odd sized items. However, they are typically rather broad, making cross country treks difficult. They won't work for scrambling, and in brush their width makes the frame easy to catch on things.

Internal frame packs also work well. The former provide some support and are often narrower, and lower, m akin scrambling a possibility and off trail work much easier. They don't work as well for large loads or with cumbersome items.

Frameless packs also have a use. When packed correctly, they can provide good support, with the contents providing a frame of sorts. Jensen style packs and rucksacks fall into this category.

For me, rather than any one pack, I choose what is appropriate for the trip and what I expect to encounter. For example, when canoeing, I use Duluth packs, a wannigan with a tump and blue barrels with harnesses. The Duluth works for my clothes, sleeping bag and pad and tent. The wannigan carries my axe, saw, stove and cooking utensils, fuel. The blue barrels are somewhat critter proof and work for food.

12:51 p.m. on August 27, 2014 (EDT)
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I don't have a lot of experience with external packs with true external suspension systems and belts.  My knowledge and experience comes from what I consider a hybrid:  the Dana Design Loadmaster series.  They were external packs with small, internal frame-like details (load lifters and belt adjustments).  Smart designs.  Overall, I prefer an internal with a stout suspension system.  I've never backpacked any significant distance when their extreme limits were exposed, causing me to wish I maybe had an external.  My body is going to fail me before the pack does.

9:55 a.m. on August 28, 2014 (EDT)
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The public has spoken. As I have mentioned before, the wall of packs at the main REI store in Seattle has about 80-100 internal frames and not one external frame. Is that partly a fad, because so many young people have never used an external frame pack? It becomes a moot point, because soon there may not be any external frame packs. To me it is just not right.

Canoe stores are going out of business all the time. Cheap plastic kayaks are everywhere. Retailers respond to the demand, they do not necessarily carry what is best.

10:42 a.m. on August 28, 2014 (EDT)
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ppine said:

The public has spoken. As I have mentioned before, the wall of packs at the main REI store in Seattle has about 80-100 internal frames and not one external frame. Is that partly a fad, because so many young people have never used an external frame pack? It becomes a moot point, because soon there may not be any external frame packs. To me it is just not right.

Canoe stores are going out of business all the time. Cheap plastic kayaks are everywhere. Retailers respond to the demand, they do not necessarily carry what is best.

 With things gearing towards the lightweight, and ultralight end of the market, I dont think people need to carry as much anymore.... which in my opinion renders the external less favourable.


I personally dont use one because I dont really do backpacking, mostly overnighters, usually off trail for at least some portion, often involving fair amount of elevation gain and some scrambling, so I need a sleek smaller pack.

2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2014 (EDT)
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TJ1984 said:

 With things gearing towards the lightweight, and ultralight end of the market, I dont think people need to carry as much anymore....

 I had to laugh at this comment, because it reminded me of a discussion a group of us had while sitting on a glacier in Peru last month. We were setting up our high camp with ultralight tents, cooking on ultralight stoves in titanium pots, using ultralight ropes (8.9 mm ropes that are as strong as 11mm ropes were 20 or 30 years ago), with ultralight wire-gate carabiners, ultralight crampons and ice tools, 800-900 fill down jackets, 100 gram cameras with 10 megapixel resolution, and so on. One of the guys (our expedition climbing safety director) summed it up as, "Here we are with 30 kg each of all the latest, greatest, lightest gear. That's the same total weight I carried up up this mountain 15 years ago! And it feels just as heavy as my pack did back then."

3:25 p.m. on August 28, 2014 (EDT)
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I miss my old Peak 1 external frame pack, which was stolen long ago. I have had several internal frame packs since, and have always had concerns with them. I find some of the shoulder adjustments limiting on internal frame packs.  

I've had even more trouble over the last several years due to an L5-S1 torn disc. My current pack is an Arc'teryx Altra 85 which has an internal frame, and is the best pack I have ever owned. I hope to have a review coming soon... The pivoting hip belt (it is referred to as a load-transfer disc) does an amazing job keeping the weight directly on your spine. My disc tear is at around 5:00, and too much weight distributed on my right hip starts tearing me apart immediately. This pack also has a shoulder strap adjustment system that is similar to my old external's ladder adjustment (ladder adjutment, isn't that what its called?). Many of the trails I frequent in WV are poorly maintained, and I find the internal frame a little easier when working around blow-downs, off trail, etc.

In my opinion, both types of pack work for me... I plan on getting a hold of another external frame pack someday before they become as rare as steel pennies. Perhaps someone will start the next trend: selling Hydrogen or Helium infused backpacks... Introducing the MoonWalk 65L!

3:35 p.m. on August 28, 2014 (EDT)
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It somewhat depends on where you’re going. I disagree with the blanket assertion that external is better on-trail. Many of the “on-trail” places I go are so lightly maintained that you still have to use the five D’s of dodge ball to get through them. This is murderous with a big squared off frame that seems to go out of its way to catch on stuff.

I’ve actually only used a couple externals over the years (both Kelty brand) so my experience is somewhat limited in that regard, but after some time spent comparing my experiences I found that for me, with the equipment I was using, there was actually too much load transfer to my hips with the external frame packs resulting in hip fatigue (and sometimes lower back) that I just didn’t get with my internals. I tried various configurations and adjustments but my overall view is that internal frame packs are generally  more comfortable for me.

 I do however miss the toughness of my Kelty; you could literally throw the thing down a slope and go after it if you needed to with no worries.

My 2 cents…

5:12 p.m. on August 28, 2014 (EDT)
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Bill S said:

TJ1984 said:

 With things gearing towards the lightweight, and ultralight end of the market, I dont think people need to carry as much anymore....

 I had to laugh at this comment, because it reminded me of a discussion a group of us had while sitting on a glacier in Peru last month. We were setting up our high camp with ultralight tents, cooking on ultralight stoves in titanium pots, using ultralight ropes (8.9 mm ropes that are as strong as 11mm ropes were 20 or 30 years ago), with ultralight wire-gate carabiners, ultralight crampons and ice tools, 800-900 fill down jackets, 100 gram cameras with 10 megapixel resolution, and so on. One of the guys (our expedition climbing safety director) summed it up as, "Here we are with 30 kg each of all the latest, greatest, lightest gear. That's the same total weight I carried up up this mountain 15 years ago! And it feels just as heavy as my pack did back then."

 Well theres no substitute for self-restraint!........... except cool gear! Lots of cool gear! I admit I am guilty of this, especially being a chemist.... new fabrics, lighter alloys, all of that intrigues me too much to not buy it!

11:42 p.m. on August 28, 2014 (EDT)
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Pat, if it was my reference regarding external is better on trail, I should clarify that external is really not good off trail as the are more cumbersome than the slim lines of most internal frames. As with any pack, proper adjustment and proper size. as well as correct loading is the key. In my review of Duluth packs, I mentioned someone who thought a tumpline was an instrument of torture and Duluth packs not far behind. Certainly, advances in technology have given us some great new tools. At the same time, I wonder if we have also lost the skills of using some of the old tools. External frame packs need to be loaded much differently than internal frame or frameless. My venerable B4, vintage 1963, is still going strong and has a lot of adjustment on the frame and attachment points.

Bill, I love your friend's comment. Although we are all gear heads here at TS, it is important to not worship the gear as icons, but simply tools to help us enjoy the outdoors.

7:49 a.m. on August 29, 2014 (EDT)
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Erich, nah I wasn’t referencing any particular comment but rather the general notion. You make a good point about sizing and that does make me wonder if that has had a bearing on my experiences with external frames. I'm short and wide but have a longish torso for my height (seems disproportionate to my short legs , lol); I always have issues getting a proper fit in a pack. I actually just had to forego a Review Core testing opportunity because the pack I was going to test could not be adjusted close enough to wear for testing (the torso was a good length but the shoulder straps were just too long and couldn’t be adjusted far enough to fit).  My main pack was custom ordered for my oddities and I’ve resigned myself to that route going forward.

This discussion also touches a bit on semantics as far as what on and off trail mean to different people (based on where they live and what they are used to).  Here in the Southern Apps even established trails become overgrown quickly unless frequently maintained (and only the very popular areas are regularly maintained). When folks in this region talk about off trail trips, it’s best to think “jungle” and in some cases you’ll do well to cover a half mile in an hour. I’ve talked to some folks out west who mention off trail routes and they are often referring to a line of sight route over granite and maybe above tree-line or following a large drainage,etc…different challenges altogether.

1:04 p.m. on August 29, 2014 (EDT)
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Yes, Pat, off trail is probably too broad a term. Here in the PNW, we have a pretty good trail system. The Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier being a good example. That is where an external frame would work well...mostly above or at tree line. Some trails in the Olympics are the same, as are many trails in the Central and North Cascades. Hiking in the Sierra on established trails can be the same. However, venture up an old mining trail or fisherman's trail barely marked with surveyor's tape, and the external frame becomes a hindrance. So, on wide maintained trails like the PCT, they do fine. Even in limited xc in the alpine, they can be good. But crawling up an alder and devil's club choked drainage to a beckoning lake? Leave it at home.

It sounds like your body type makes it difficult to find an external frame that works for you. Unfortunately, with so many companies making internal frames, it is easier to find one that fits. Customs, like Rivendell's Jensen pack are also available. But external frames are more rare. I know that when I got my B4, They made three different sizes and back bands, shoulder strap and belt attachment points could be moved around to suit an individual's body. The bag could be moved up and down as well.

12:07 p.m. on August 30, 2014 (EDT)
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It makes sense that lighter packs will continue to be the norm, and the advantages of external frames will diminish. Except for people like hunters and others that carry odd and heavy loads.

The origins of backpacking are intertwined with external frame packs, and it makes me sad to see them continue to disappear.

The point about overgrown and tangled trails also makes internal frames handier. I have rarely had that problem but it is easy to see how it could be frustrating to catch on branches all the time.

2:35 p.m. on August 30, 2014 (EDT)
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Some "trails" are more off than on:


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If you look carefully up ahead, you will see that this aqueduct goes into a tunnel that is about 200 meters long. You had to bend over and/or squat down to get through without banging your head or dragging your pack.

Actually, we cheated a bit here, Most of our gear was transported on burros, though they followed the same path.

4:53 p.m. on September 3, 2014 (EDT)
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It has been a while since I carried an external frame pack.  the last one I used regularly was left at my parents' house and apparently discarded when they moved a few years ago - an Eastern Mountain Sports backpack that was in great shape despite its venerable age.   I think today's more robust internal frames and suspensions can comfortably carry at least as much weight as an external.  by "more robust," I mean those backpacks with relatively stiffer 7000-series aluminum stays, or synthetic equivalents like stiffer types of fiberglass or carbon.  The majority of internal frame backpacks have softer aluminum stays that will eventually bend under a heavy load.

The better internal frame packs may actually be more comfortable to carry with a lot of weight because most innovations with hip belts are being implemented with the internals, not the externals.

externals have certain advantages.  they do a better job allowing air to circulate across your back than most internal frame packs intended to carry heavy loads.  They have a frame, as Pine observed, that makes it pretty easy to lash things securely - though most good internal frame backpacks have a health number of fairly secure lash points, too.  and they have a certain ability to adapt to carry very odd-shaped loads, though some internal frame hybrids can do the same thing (there are many hunting-oriented internal frame solutions that are designed to work with a sling to carry out big game).  by "internal frame hybrid," I am thinking about the NICE frame that Mystery Ranch makes.  not a true external frame, but capable of carrying more than I would normally want to.  http://www.mysteryranch.com/hunting/nice-frame-packs/nice-frame-pack  one factor I haven't seen above - externals tend to be much less expensive these days, so they make a great starter backpack for younger hikers or economical entry point for someone new to backpacking.   

they have disadvantages too.  the packbags are smaller than the internals intended to carry a big load - meaning you may have to lash stuff to the frame, whether you want to or not.  if you're not on trails as often, or on trails that aren't so well-maintained, external frames can catch and snag on protruding branches.  That is merely inconvenient most of the time.  rarely, it can be very dangerous to your health - if you snag and lose your balance in the wrong place & fall, it's a very big deal.  The extremely fixed and rigid frame can also, occasionally, affect one's balance more than most internal frame solutions.  again, that's mostly a minor issue, but a balance-induced fall is not ideal.  External frames also tend to be more uncomfortable for me across my upper back and shoulders.   the internals do a better job (in my opinion) shaping to your shoulders and upper back. 

 

 

10:18 a.m. on September 5, 2014 (EDT)
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Andrew,

My hiking partner of 35 years still carries his original EMS external pack which he bought in around 1975. I am very happy with my recent acquisition of a Kelty Tioga from the same time period. It is a hard thing to realize we are dinosaurs because we used to be cutting edge at one time. Age sneaks up on people when they are not looking.

One of the undeniably appealing  things about externals is that they are so familiar. Carrying an internal frame pack for 15 years or so was okay, but felt different.  I like the new pads and tents, but am going retro on everything else.

2:36 a.m. on September 7, 2014 (EDT)
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ppine and all, this idea of "retro" has me laughing. I have in the past 15 years, restored several mid century modern homes in Puget Sound and consult with people doing the same. What I say in lectures and articles is that it isn't so much "retro" as timeless well thought out design.

I look at outdoor gear much the same way. Change may be good if it improves things. But if you have high tech gear because it employs materials or designs that are just different, but not necessarily better, and sometimes not as good, than you are just buying into the ad agency speak.

In my review of Duluth packs, I mentioned they have been around for over 100 years. I have used other newer packs for canoeing, including the new (old material) Frost River waxed cotton packs and they simply don't meet the needs as well as the simple Duluth.

I will agree that a bent shaft canoe paddle is more efficient for speed than a straight shaft. But overall, does it perform as well on a long trip? It depends on the trip but is much more specific on what you encounter. Generalization more than specialization.

12:17 p.m. on September 7, 2014 (EDT)
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Erich,

I am always happy to be able to make people laugh even at my own expense. The absurdity of real life is a never ending source of entertainment. Much of the gear talk is babble about nothing to me, but I am one hand clapping. I get "Backpacker" magazine for free and it makes me laugh.

Here's to Duluth Packs, and Dulut, Minnesota for that matter.

I like your first paragraph. My brother and I bought and turned lots of houses in Seattle in the 1970s. We bought them from HUD in those days for cash. My first house cost $8,500 and I sold it two years later in Ballard for $34,000. That was big money. I was ahead of my time living in Ballard then, working at Firshermen's Terminal while going to grad school at the U in forestry.

I have run into lots of mid-Century houses, furniture, and modes of living in Palm Springs. My folks have a place there to escape the Seattle winters.

My new modified mantra has evolved into: "the old ways are the best ways unless something really better comes along." I don't think internal frame packs are better, but the new pads for sleeping definitely are. So are some of the new tents.

 

12:54 a.m. on September 8, 2014 (EDT)
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ppine, though no one else on TS will understand, I lived in Ballard from 1984 to 2004. For those others on TS, think of neighborhoods with working class ethnic communities. Ballard was Scandinavian, hardworking Lutherans. Lots of lutefisk and pickled herring.

10:03 a.m. on September 8, 2014 (EDT)
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Ufdah. I was partying with my old salmon fishing friends in Seattle last month. I had friends that used to take me to the Swedish American Club. I lost out on a promotion at the docks once because I wasn't Norwegian.

Seattle was a wonderful and easy place to live in the 1970s. It was cheap and there was no traffic. Nearly all the young people were interested in the outdoors. I had so many friends that camped and backpacked I never got to go on trips with some them. We went x-c skiing all the time at Snoqualmie. Sometimes we would bring a pack and spend the night. I used an external frame pack then and I do now. 

11:46 p.m. on September 8, 2014 (EDT)
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I'll add my two cents worth here.  I used external frame packs for years, from the 1970s until about five years ago.  With the exception of a no-name cheap pack that I used for scout trips in the mid-70's, I have used Jansport packs most of that time, with my most recent being the Carson.

Each has its positives and negatives.  What an external frame pack has going for it are:

Lower weight for the features (capacity and pockets, too many of the light internal frame packs have very little usable pocket space)

Ease of lashing bulky items externally

Lower cost (I can get a Carson today for $120, you can't touch a quality 80L internal pack for that price, even twice that price is pushing it)

Much better back ventilation (very important for me, poor back ventilation is a deal killer)

In most cases better accessibility of contents because of full front zippers top and bottom

Internal frame packs are better for these things:

Better overall carrying balance for off trail use

Smaller footprint, reduces snagging in brush

I waited for a long time before getting an internal frame pack.  I finally settled on an Osprey Atmos 65, I can just fit everything I like to carry on week long trips.  It has decent back ventilation, and reasonable pockets.  I do a lot of off trail these days (for me this means boulder hopping), and the better balance off trail was what really drove the decision to get this pack.

2:21 a.m. on September 16, 2014 (EDT)
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Erich said:

..For me, rather than any one pack, I choose what is appropriate for the trip and what I expect to encounter...

 Of course Erich would say this!  And I think this says it all.

I always chuckle when hearing some of the answers to this question.  Pack selection is to hiking what club selection is to golf.  Of course certain brands and club head designs are better suited to various individuals, but you'll never hear golfers seriously claim a sand wedges are superior to five irons or putters.  So I am curious why hikers claim the superiority of internal frame packs over external frame packs and vice versa.  There is a reason the golf bag has fourteen clubs; likewise why there are soft packs, and internal and external frame packs.  Understand which best suits the intended application and go with that.

Ed

February 21, 2020
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