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Kelty Tioga

The Tioga has been discontinued. If you're looking for something new, check out the best external frame backpacks for 2021.

photo: Kelty Tioga external frame backpack


Price Historic Range: $89.95-$179.97
Reviewers Paid: $35.00-$159.00


12 reviews
5-star:   4
4-star:   6
3-star:   1
2-star:   0
1-star:   1

Proven design.


  • Tough
  • Proven external design
  • Handles heavy loads without failure
  • Has the side pockets I came to love


  • May be outmoded in some ways
  • All external frames ride away from the body

I owned and carried one of these for years, as did a college roommate. It was quite a number of years ago but the new models seem essentially the same. It was basically the first aluminum external readily available anywhere. Other makers quickly followed when the market became obvious, but Kelty was there first and for many, including me, the proven and well reviewed design sold me.  It cost an impoverished college student a pile of money for those days. I probably ate less for a semester to pay for it.

This pack was once the standard in the woods, and pretty standard even as college counter cultural luggage. They were everywhere!  They had a well deserved reputation for toughness and being a traditionally and reliably styled pack (as opposed to what was seen as a dramatically innovational Jansport—I eventually owned one of those too).  I can remember one night my roommate and I camped at the foot of a non challenging climb in the Swangunks, both of us carried Kelty Tiogas.  (Guess where I went to college!) 

The older model I had back during the Paleocene had a heavy metal buckle on the hip belt that I replaced as soon as plastic became available. I think it lacked the carry strap on top that they have now. The hip belt was a simple 2" stiff nylon belt, no padding, no friction mesh. Soon after getting the I added a  pocket to the flap to carry my poncho. It was a handy addition.

There was no sternum strap and stabilizer straps too were not yet dreamt of. I eventually replaced the older suspension system with a newer design that I self made, but it was not for any failure of the original. It was still ticking when I upgraded the works. It did carry better after I changed the suspension. This was so long ago that Kelty packs (including this one) were made of non-waterproofed nylon fabric. You either did it yourself (I did not) or carried a pack raincoat (mine was given to me by my roommate).

They are tough. They take a licking. I really like that quality in any outdoor equipment. I used it and I abused it. It was thrown into and dragged out of the cargo hold of countless Trailways buses. The frame eventually became scarred but unbroken. No crack ever appeared, no weld ever failed, the frame did not warp. The bag never ripped or unraveled (although I had to seal the seams and the cut edges myself). A car trunk  was once slammed on it. I carried it hitchhiking to and from trailheads and to and from college. It fell to the pavement perhaps dozens of times.

Decades of use had mine entirely intact with few signs of use except for the filth on the yoke (mostly from my sweaty body) and the scars on the aluminum from my abuse. One of the advantages of the traditional Kelty green color (the color has not changed in 40+ years)  is the way it hides dirt. It is also obscure when you want to be little seen in the woods. Or stealth camping where you shouldn't be. I like obscure colors too.

Reactionary? Yes. Are there better packs now? Yes. Are there more comfortable packs now? Yes.

However: this pack handled heavy loads for me with ease, or as much ease as a 64 lbs. load could be carried. It likely still can carry them, perhaps better. It took a licking and never needed a replacement part or even a repair as long as I owned it.

Source: bought it new
Price Paid: Unknown after these decades.


Thanks for this review of your Tioga, David. I'd love to see some pictures in your review of your decades-old pack!

5 years ago
David Williams

I would be delighted to show a picture, but this noble veteran was long ago retired to either the local Goodwill or more likely to an impoverished youngster. I try to hand stuff on to needy folk who want to pack rather than dump it.

5 years ago

Thanks, David. Hopefully someone out there is enjoying this pack.

5 years ago

Over all this is an excellent external pack. Like most packs the water bottle pocket is hard to reach when you are on the trail. The pack also squeeks a little bit but it is around 3 years old. The hip belt's buckle started to slip after a year, but it is not that expensive to buy a new buckle. This pack is a very good pack for the money. It carried all the gear I needed for a two week backpacking trip in the mountains. I recommend this pack to anybody who is looking for an affordable external pack.

Design: External
Size: 4800
Number of Pockets: 7+1 waterbottle pocket
Max. Load Carried: 55-80 lbs
Height of Owner: 5'11''
Price Paid: $125

My opinion, best backpack ever made. It never quit on me. It took every ounce of abuse and every mile like it was nothing.


  • Tough as hell. Handles heavy loads as easy as breathing.
  • Easy to get to pockets. Compartments internally so you didn't have to dig for everything like these new stuff sack designs.
  • The frame lets you add pockets and tie off extra gear as needed.


  • It would pull if the load wasn't balanced properly. Original design was not water resistant but a can of turtle wax and a hair dryer once a year fixed that problem.

First pack I ever owned. Was in Boy Scouts for a year and saved up to get a new pack. That thing went everywhere with us—Appalachian Trail, North County Scenic Trail, C&O Canal, and countless other off the wall trails that we would trip over.

My last year in scouts one of the others fell and pulled his back when we still had five days left on our third night of the C&O Canal. I was the only one that still had an external frame. Everyone was arguing about how to split up his gear so we could finish the hike. I got tired of the arguments and strapped his pack to my bag and took off. It took four or five small adjustments so it wasn't too offset. Carried his on mine for three days like that without a single problem.

That old pack made it through 12 countries and a few million miles over 20 plus years before I let it go. I dislocated my knee really badly and my doctor said no heavy trails for a few years. A friend's son was getting into scouts so I taught him everything I could about how to care for and adjusted my old pack before I gave it to him.

That was ten years ago now and the kid still has it, won't give it up for anything. Right now he has it in England on Hadrian's Wall and is supposed to be heading to Rome afterwards, cross country. Told my friend this will make the fifth wall trip and third cross country into Italy for that old pack. His wife laughed at me until he told her that I wasn't joking.

He ordered another one a few days ago and she doesn't know it yet. I'm seriously considering getting another one and introducing the international, Kelty Coyote, to the closest corner for a little while. 


Amazing fun, countless miles, abuse beyond any modern pack could handle, unbelievable load capacity.

Source: bought it new
Price Paid: Don't remember


Thanks for sharing some memories of your Kelty Tioga pack, Eugene. Sounds like it has had some great adventures.

2 years ago

This is a great pack for 10 days in the mountains. I like the 3 L water side pouch that you can fill up with the Playtpus 3 L bag. Frame pack makes it easier to get on over your head. Holds a lot of weight.


  • Durable frame
  • Cleans easily with a water hose
  • Not all that bulky as an internal


  • Miss the bottom support frame on the older models
  • Sleeping bag needs WP Duffle for the outside bottom
  • Shoulder straps need additional padding.

I used this pack while hiking Philmont Scout Reservation. It did the job for 10 days on the trail. External frame held up in the rugged environment. Easier to get on than the internal framed. Lot less bulk when empty to carry restock supplies at camp then repack.

The zippers seemed to stick but never failed. An extra sleeping bag compartment on the bottom would be helpful with an extended frame.

Overall A+. 

Source: borrowed it


Welcome to Trailspace, Ben.

5 years ago

I've had my Tioga for over 25 years now. I've taken it on over 30 trips. It's been a great trail pack. One of the most durable things Ive ever owned.

Had to replace the pack bag after a bear used it to lift himself up on a bear pole in the middle of the night. The frame never bent. I sewed up the bag but ended up replacing it. It's also been dropped a few times and fell out of a tree.

The thing is simply bomb proof. Also, it keeps you cool if you live in a warm climate.

The pockets are great. I especially like the long side pocket. I use it to store my tent. I Iash my sleeping bag to the lower frame so I have more room in my bag. It swallow just about everything I've thrown at it. I once carried about 70 pounds in it and it wasn't too bad.

The pack is top heavy though so it isn't good for scrambling up hills. But if you're a trail hiker, it's outstanding.

Price Paid: $140 in 1987

Good starter pack, lots of external pockets. Great for Boy Scout pack. Only negative comment is the lower compartment zipper is poorly designed. It is a tough zip when you have a 20-degree mummy to stuff into the compartment.

Design: top loading with front loading lower compartment,
Number of Pockets: 3
Price Paid: $35 ebay

I guess I'm just not an internal frame kinda guy. I tried to like the things--they sure do look neat and obviously have some stability advantages that would benefit climbers--but I'm not a climber, I'm a hiker, and I would much rather be concerned with my surroundings than with my pack. Also, I'm pretty hot natured, and the internal frame packs I've tested have left my back drenched with sweat.

I went with Kelty because I have almost universally had good experiences with their products. The Tioga is no different. It has some clever features, like an integrated water bottle holder under an upper pocket, an inner pouch perfect for a hydration bladder (and with a hemmed tube port exiting it to boot) and an easy to adjust frame with plenty of suspension attachment points that should handle most any heighth. That said, the frame is admittedly pretty wide, but that suits me just fine. Narrow shouldered people might want to look elsewhere. But everywhere you look the construction is typical Kelty: neat and well finished. The packbag is beefy and will hold almost too much stuff, carrying enough for a week on the trail in my experience with it thus far. It might even go twice that.

I've barely mentioned the ride. The Tioga does very nicely on my admittedly battleship sized bod, carrying heavy loads with ease, and it does so with a comfortably solid feel that leaves me free to enjoy the view whether I'm on a level, flat trail or picking my way up a barely there rocky switchback And oh yes, it's cool to wear. Not as in fashion, but as in temperature. Gads, the difference. It felt like my core temperature was 20 degrees cooler wearing the Tioga than with an internal. Better still, the balance is such that I walk upright, not hunched over like a neanderthal.

That this wouldn't seem to be a blatant ad for the Tioga, I include some not-so-good points: the suspension is kinda wimpy, not particularly well padded or curved; the packbag could desperately use a rigid sheet on the side that faces the frame so gear wouldn't stick you in the back, and the sleeping bag compartment seems pretty small. On the other hand, the suspension is a cinch to replace, and my local shop had no problem getting Kelty to send a replacement hipbelt that not only fit better, but included a rigid panel within the belt for better weight transference. I would urge anyone owning a Tioga to upgrade to this belt.

In summary, this is a great pack for the money. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone, beginner or otherwise. It's got the beef to last a lot of miles, and the comfort to make those miles downright pleasant.

Design: External Frame
Size: 4500 ci.
Number of Pockets: 5
Max. Load Carried: 55+ lbs
Height of Owner: 6'2''
Price Paid: $150


I found that I also had a couple pokes in the back, and I had to pay attention to my packing. But as you said it could use a sheet, i though maybe one of those slippery plastic roll up things we used as a sled could go in and it would only add a few ounces.

5 years ago

I should start out by saying that I don't really like big internal frame packs (they're too hot in warm weather) although I think they rule in midsizes. I bought the Tioga specifically for a trip to Escalante, the price/size was just right. If you have to carry 30 lbs of water it's nice to have a frame to lash it to. Since then, I find myself using it more than any of my other packs especially if I'm hiking trails. Once I got the adjustments dialed in I found it to be so comfortable that I'm able to carry stuff that I used to leave home (crazy creek chair, coupla beers). It's a little creaky but it was only $100 and I've since seen it for even less. I've read that it's not for smaller framed people.

Design: External frame
Size: 4500
Number of Pockets: 3
Max. Load Carried: 60 lbs
Height of Owner: 6'
Price Paid: $100

Version reviewed: 1972

I consider this the finest cargo pack every made. Every time I'm hiking in the Sierras, I pass at least two other people carrying an original Kelty Tioga, made by Dick Kelty. We've all tried other packs (including the Super Tioga) and always come back to this old one. What a load carrier! I prefer it loaded to 35-40 pounds. The straps are adjustable for shoulder width and one can constantly vary the load from shoulder straps to waist best, which by the way, is more like a seatbelt in a car. Can you believe I have a half dozen week-long Grand Canyon trips, a few dozen high Sierra trips and Mt. Lassen trips on this pack that I bought in 1972 and it's still going strong, even after having been batted (loaded to 50 pounds) 15 feet by bears in Yosemite?! If it ever breaks, I'll just fix it. (I even have a spare frame for it. Parts like end-plugs and waistbelts are still carried by REI for this thing! To get one, try yard sales and swap meets!)


Design: external frame
Size: 4500+
Number of Pockets: 5
Max. Load Carried: 72 lbs
Height of Owner: 5 ft. 9 in.
Price Paid: $85 (1972)

I have been very pleased with this pack. I find it very comfortable and thus far well-designed (my trips are generally 3-4 days). It has been surprising to me that I don't seem more of this pack in backpacking stores.

Design: external frame
Size: 4500
Number of Pockets: 3
Max. Load Carried: 55 lbs
Height of Owner: 5'9"
Price Paid: $85 (on sale)

I purchased this pack, for week-long trips, and loaded it down. There seemed to be endless space for strapping equipment to, which saved more of the inside space, so much at even at 60 pounds, I had to put equipment back inside to balance the load. The high pocket for the water bottle made it very easy to get to on the run. Seemed overall a good pack, no complaints at all, and I've had it for about 1.5 years now.

Design: External Frame
Size: 4500
Number of Pockets: 3
Max. Load Carried: 60 pounds
Height of Owner: 5'9"
Price Paid: $139.99

I would not recommend this pack. I just returned from hiking the John Muir Trail and was very disappointed with its performance. There are numerous sharp edges and attachments that constantly scrape and cut your skin when donning or removing the pack. While the pack was still new, the coating on the fabric at the top quickly cracked and began to peel away. It's not particularly comfortable either-- so buyer beware!

Design: External
Size: 4,500
Number of Pockets: 3
Max. Load Carried: 65 lbs
Height of Owner: 5'9"
Price Paid: $159

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