Best External Frame Backpack: Choosing the Best Backpack for that Unforgettable Outdoor Experience

Backpack frame
Written by Russell McCarty

When you plan your outdoor trip regardless of its duration, the most important thing is to choose and buy appropriate outdoor equipment that will contribute to an enjoyable outdoor experience. Among all outdoor and adventure gears the most basic is definitely a backpack that must be chosen very carefully.

All backpacks that you can find in the outdoor market can be divided into two types – internal and external frame packs. In this article, we will focus on the latter and will tell you how to choose the best external frame backpack and what features in it are the most important. So what is an external frame backpack? It is a backpack equipped with a rigid aluminium frame that is made for carrying heavy loads.

They are much stronger and more durable than internal frame backpacks, and therefore are perfect for long backpacking trips. They appeared much earlier that internal frame packs and were widely used by soldiers in the army. Usually their frame is made of aluminium, however earlier there were also backpacks with wooden frames.

Advantages and disadvantages of external frame backpacks

External frame packs have both advantages and disadvantages that need to be taken into consideration when choosing a backpack for your trips. Thus, below we will discuss these pros and cons in more detail.

Advantages of external frame backpacks

  • One of the greatest advantages of such backpacks that is especially appreciated by hikers in summer is their good ventilation. It is provided due to their specific design: in contrast to internal frame backpacks, they sit up against the back by creating a kind of channel for the air.
  • Since they are designed specifically for carrying heavy loads, they have a unique capacity to transfer weight better. They are able to redistribute weight to the hips very well, which is crucial for long hikes.
  • They encourage you to have more upright position while hiking because due to their design the weight is carried higher on the back.
  • Most external frame packs have additional outside pockets and straps that are used for attaching and carrying extra stuff. Moreover, this also allows you to sort out and organize your hiking gear more effectively.
  • Packs of this type are much cheaper and therefore much more affordable.

Disadvantages of external frame backpacks

  • Due to their rigid frame and big size, these packs are quiet heavy, even when they are empty, so they might be not the best choice for beginners, female hikers and children.
  • Less balanced than other backpacks, which means that they are not very stable. Thus, they are not good for steep terrains and are better used for clear and wide trails.
  • In general, they look bigger and more bulky since they do not have an anatomical shape.

Features you should consider when choosing a backpack

The modern outdoor market offers a great variety of backpacks that are different in design, size, additional features and shape. Therefore choosing a backpack for your trips might become quite a challenging task. In order to help you to make the right decision, we will discuss the most important characteristics of backpacks that should be always taken into consideration.

The size and purpose of a pack

When you decide to buy a backpack for outdoor adventures and trips the first thing that you should think about is where and how exactly you are going to use a backpack. Thus, the choice of a backpack depends on the number of days that you are planning to spend in wilderness. The longer your trip is, the bigger and more spacious you pack must be.

All backpacks have a specific volume that is determined by the number of liters or cubic inches. Usually to determine the volume of a pack is not a problem because normally they have a special tag, on which it is pointed out. Thus, if you plan to use your backpack for short day trips that last for a couple of hours or one day, it is better to purchase a pack with a volume of 3000 cubic inches.

Such smaller packs are lightweight and are perfect for hiking trips during summer, when you do not have to carry with you bulky winter stuff and equipment. In case if your intention is to stay outdoors for a couple of days, then a backpack with the volume of 4000 cubic inches will be the best choice. Hikers that stay in wilderness up to one week, usually choose backpacks that are not smaller than 5000 cubic inches.

The longest trips that are considered more like an expedition and last for at least a week, require you to have the biggest backpack with the volume of 6000 cubic inches at least. In this case an external frame backpack will be definitely the best choice and the best companion.


If you want to feel comfortable while hiking, especially in summer months when the temperature is high enough, then you definitely need a backpack with good ventilation. As it has been already mentioned above, an external frame backpack is the right choice for you in such conditions due to its non-anatomical design.

Padded hip and shoulder straps

When you hike for a long distance with a bulky and heavy backpack, it is important to make sure that the weight you carry is distributed properly. It is necessary to know that it should be placed rather on the hips than on other parts of the body, including shoulders and the back. Therefore, it is essential to make sure that your back is equipped with a wide and soft hip strap.

Moreover, you should also ensure that the strap is easily adjustable. With regards to shoulder straps, their presence is also very important because they prevent from causing pain and discomfort especially when you carry a really heavy load. There are also many modern models of backpacks have an additional chest strap that contributes to better redistribution of the weight.

Waterproof qualities

Even if you are not going to travel and hike in wet and rainy conditions, you should understand that the weather is unpredictable and therefore it is important to be properly prepared by choosing a backpack with waterproof qualities. It does not mean that you should look for a pack that is 100% waterproof, but you should make sure at least that it is made of semi-proof material that does not allow your items getting wet easily.

Semi-proof materials also should be thick enough, so that it will not stay wet for a long time and get dry easily. Since originally external frame backpacks were created for using by soldiers in the army, you should not have any problem with finding a good pack of this type with necessary waterproof qualities.

However, even if the backpack that you chose cannot boast of waterproof features, you can always purchase a special cover that will protect it and your belongings in rainy weather.

Type of access

All backpacks can be also divided into two types depending on the pack access: a top loading and panel access. It is not possible to say which one is better because this depends on your own preferences. Backpacks with a top-loading access are considered to be the most typical and classic. They are opened from the top, and usually this type of access is quite convenient.

However, you should be prepared to face some difficulty in finding a particular item that might be placed somewhere at the bottom. With regards to pack with a panel access, they are opened like suitcases, which means that you will be always able to access any item inside the backpack.

Best backpack with external frame

Though we have told you already about external frame backpacks in general, their advantages and disadvantages, as well as about the most important features that should be taken into consideration, it is time to provide you with some reviews of the products that we highly recommend you to purchase. Hopefully, you will be able to find your backpack among them.

ALPS OutdoorZ Commander

ALPS OutdoorZ Commander

Weight: 8.4 pounds

Dimensions: 15.4 x 6.7 x 2.4 inches

Features: A top-loading access, internal horizontal divider, lashing straps, adjustable torso range, hydration pocket and port, clevis pin attachment system

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking trips

This spacious, strong and reliable ALPS OutdoorZ Commander is perfect for long outdoor trips in different weather and climate conditions. By purchasing it you can be sure that you receive a great companion in wilderness for up to two weeks. It has all the necessary features and advantages in order to be called a perfect backpack for long and positive outdoor experience.

It is made of a very durable charcoal-colored nylon ripstop fabric, has webbing loops for attaching extra gear and equipped with clevis pin attachment system. This pack is definitely more than just a backpack because a pack bag is fully removable, and its frame can be easily used separately without a pack as a versatile freighter frame.

Related: FOME Nylon Backpack Rain Cover – if you want to make sure that your items don’t get wet in rainy weather, we also recommend you to purchase this great cover made of 300D nylon material.

Check the price on Amazon

Kelty Trekker External Frame Pack

Kelty Trekker External Frame Pack

Weight: 1 pound

Dimensions: 22.5 x 29 x 13 inches

Features: External frame with adjustable suspension, a top-loading access with sleeping bag compartment, zippered side pockets, mesh water bottle pockets

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking trips

This spacious backpack is a perfect option for those who are looking for the combination of comfort and durability during long hiking and backpacking trips. The greatest advantage of this Kelty Trekker External Frame Pack is its lightweight profile, which is quite an unusual feature for external frame backpacks. Since it has enough of compartments and additional extra pockets, it is quite easy to organize your stuff and find any item even in complete darkness.

In addition, it has a separate sleeping compartment, which allows to carry your sleeping bag separately from other outdoor gear. The purpose of this backpack is to provide you with the highest level of comfort regardless of the length of your trip, weather conditions or types of terrain, in which you are going to hike.

Related: Kelty Rain Cover – choose this rain cover made of 100% nylon for additional protection of your backpack and items in rainy weather.

Check the price on Amazon

Outdoor Products Dragonfly External Frame Backpack

Outdoor Products Backpack

Weight: 3.9 pounds

Dimensions: 4.6 x 13.9 x 30 inches

Features: Top-loading main compartment, padded shoulder straps, bungee compression system, dual side pockets, mesh suspension system

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking trips

This unique backpack made of nylon is designed specifically for young backpackers like teenagers and older adults. Outdoor Products Dragonfly External Frame Backpack was made with comfort in mind: it has a top-loading design with the volume of 45 liters. In addition to the main compartment it also has two side pockets that are perfect for water bottles.

The pack is also equipped with padded shoulder straps and suspension system, which provides perfect ventilation. As a result, you will feel comfortable and cool while hiking with this backpack even in the warmest weather conditions. It is appreciated by hikers and outdoor lovers for its lightweight, good volume and excellent organization features.

Related: Outdoor Products Apex Trekking Pole Set – increase your comfort level and balance while hiking in steep terrains with these lightweight and adjustable trekking poles from the Outdoor Products.

Check the price on Amazon

The Backside by Black Pine Xterno II Backpack

External Frame Backpack

Weight: 4 pounds

Dimensions: 4 x 23 x 29 inches

Features: 100-liter volume, tough diamond ripstop body, side pockets and mesh pouches

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking system

The external frame backpack is designed specifically for rugged outdoor trips. Due to its great volume of 100 liters, it is possible to stay in wilderness with this pack up to several weeks. One of its greatest advantages of The Backside by Black Pine Xterno II Backpack is its waterproof qualities: the backpack has a tough ripstop body with a 2000 polyurethane coating that guarantees an excellent protection from any weather. Additional advantages include mesh pouches and side pockets, a special separate section for sleeping equipment, and super tough YKK zippers.

Check the price on Amazon

ALPS Mountaineering Zion Pack

ALPS mountaineering Backpack

Weight: 5.2 pounds

Dimensions: 3 x 15 x 35 inches

Features: A top-loading design, polyester ripstop, sleeping bag compartment, hydration compatible, multiple zippered side pockets, capacity of more than 69 liters

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking trips

Compared to many other typical external frame backpacks, this ALPS Mountaineering Zion Pack is packed with much for features and great value. Due to multiple side pockets a sleeping bag compartment it is easy to keep your outdoor gear organized. Since the capacity of the backpack is 69.3 liters, you can easily stay in wilderness for several days by having all the necessary items and outdoor equipment with you.

Even if the pack is fully stuffed, with its padded shoulder straps you can be sure that you will feel comfortable while hiking. This backpack is also hydration compatible, which means there is an additional pocket for a water bladder.

Related: ALPS Mountaineering Excursion Trekking Pole – for a more comfortable hiking experience, we recommend you try these high-quality 7075 aluminium poles that provide you with necessary support and balance.

Check the price on Amazon

Kelty Tioga External Frame Pack

Kelty Tioga Backpack

Weight: 5 pounds

Features: Fully adjustable suspension, a top-loading design, sleeping bag compartment, removable waist belt, padded shoulder straps

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking trips

A durable and convenient external frame backpack that is perfect for long outdoor trips. Despite its high capacity of 5500 cubic inches, which is 90 liters, Kelty Tioga External Frame Pack is appreciated for its lightweight and it is even lighter than most other external frame backpacks and even some internal frame ones.

Hikers and adventure lovers also like this backpack for excellent organization features: there 5 zippered pockets and extra 2 drop pockets that can be used for storage of small items. By hiking with this pack you can be also sure that you will not get tired easily due to the pack’s suspension system and the hip padded belt that provide a proper and efficient weight distribution.

Check the price on Amazon

Vargo Ti-Arc Backpack

Vargo Ti-Arc Backpack

Weight: 3 pounds

Dimensions: 5 x 31 x 15 inches

Features: Lightweight, titanium construction, ergonomic lumbar support plate, external pockets including hip-belt pockets and water bottle pockets, adjustable mesh shoulder harness

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking trips

This backpack can be definitely called as the next level in the evolution of external frame backpacks, since it combines the best features of both internal and external frames. Vargo Ti-Arc Backpack is known as a unique pack that is appreciated by its lightweight and excellent frame support. The frame of the pack is made of titanium and has an ergonomically designed lumbar plate that provides excellent weight distribution to the hips.

Though the capacity is not very high and is limited to 36 liters, you can always attach all the necessary stuff including stuff sacks, a tent or sleeping bag to its external frame. This backpack is a choice of those hikers, who want to go hiking light without sacrificing function or comfort.

Related: Vargo Titanium Water Bottle – a completely biocompatible titanium water bottle with minimum weight for great taste of water during your outdoor trips

Check the price on Amazon

Alps Mountaineering Red Rock Backpack

ALPS mountaineering Backpack

Weight: 12.9 pounds

Dimensions: 7 x 14.1 x 16.5 inches

Features: A vented lumbar and lycra cover suspension components, padded waist belt, shoulder straps, front lashing system, a top-loading design, telescoping frame

Best use: Outdoor and backpacking trips

Great, durable and modern external frame pack for young adventure lovers that has all the features of large backpacks. Alps Mountaineering Red Rock Backpack has all the necessary qualities and advantages in order to be called a great backpack for young scouts: a convenient top-loading design with a “hold-open” bar, padded waste belt for better distribution of weight, padded shoulder straps with multiple positions, top lid lash tabs, hydration pocket and port, multiple side pockets for better organizing of outdoor gear, and some others.

Related: ALPS Mountaineering Twin Peak Sleeping Bag – if you to want to make sure that you will stay comfortable in the wild, choose this ALPS two-layer sleeping bag with a microfiber liner.

Check the price on Amazon

In conclusion

There’s this notion that external frame backpacks are not very much demanded among hikers and are inferior in their features compared to internal frame backpacks. However, as you can see from this article about modern external frame backpacks, there are many high-quality backpacks of this type that can become your great companion during your outdoor trips.

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Russell McCarty

Russell considers backpacking one of his great passions in life. He actually managed to transform his passion into a living becoming a professional adventurer. Russell loves long-distance backpacking and he enriched his portfolio with famous trails like the Alaska-Yukon Expedition or the Appalachian Trail. With thousands of miles under his feet, Russell is the expert to consult when it comes to how to prepare for a successful outdoor adventure.