Ask the Gear Guy

Internal or external frame?


backpacks-200x148I need a new backpack. What’s better: Internal or external frame?

- Confused Carl, Aptos, Calif.

Dear Confused, you must be a mind reader because thousands of other guys are wondering this same thing. Then again, if you really were a mind reader you wouldn’t need to ask me questions because you’d already know exactly what I was thinking, right?

I digress.

So, backpacking packs come in two types. External frames packs are those with a framework on the outside. These old-school-style packs are the best choice if you’ll be hiking mostly on groomed trails carrying lots of weight. They’re especially good at transferring the load so you can hike in a more comfortable upright stance. They’re also about half the cost of an internal frame pack, which has its support hidden inside like a skeleton.

Internal frame packs are usually more form-fitting, so they are better for guys who’ll be hiking rugged trails that require freedom of movement and balance. Most internal frame packs have one huge compartment with a couple of zippered access points, whereas external frame packs usually have lots of smaller compartments that make organization easier. You can also easily attach extra gear – such as a sleeping bag or fishing rod – to the frame.

Which type of pack is better is really up to you and your needs.

Comments about “Internal or external frame?”

  1. Denner 1 says:

    I like external framed backpacks because then you can tie items on the back.

  2. Steve-272 says:

    I bought a Teton internal frame pack, but abandoned it and went back to my old Jansport External frame pack because it took me forever to find my stuff, and then to put it all back in compared to the external frame pack, and because the internal frame pack made my back all sweaty.

  3. Mountain Man says:

    Externals for the experienced hiker!

  4. Off-Trail Monkey says:

    External packs, buy them for life. :^)

  5. YOLO says:

    Internal for mountain climbers

  6. Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) says:

    All elite mountaineering climbers and hikers use internal frames. If you ever see films of people summiting Mt. Everest, not one of them will have an external. Internal is the best way to go for comfort and ease on the back. the best use for external packs is for heavy loads on trails.

    • WhiteBlaze says:

      You are completely wrong. External frame packs put the load directly onto your hips and internal frame packs put A LOT more weight on your shoulders. People climbing everest do use internal frame packs because they’re covering steep, rocky terrain. If you’re not summiting K2 or Everest most people will be better served by an external frame pack.

    • Ginko says:

      Mountainclimbers use internal frames because that is the best option for mountain climbing, and many internal frames are tailored for this purpose (better balance, heat retention, ultra-light ultra-compact gear, etc…). Just because it’s good for mountain climbing doesn’t mean it’s good for everything else, and for any extended hiking an external frame is the best choice, even in rugged terrain.

      • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) says:

        You both have obviously never had an internal. Internals do not put a lot more weight on your shoulders. they tend to put a little more but not a lot. and did you ever consider that if an internals works for die-hard mountaineer’s then they will work for easy going trail hikers? I have taken mine on a five day hike through Idaho wilderness with no trail and it had plenty of room for all my gear. Your both wrong. and I think i have explained why very clearly.

  7. Skip says:

    I like external frames as they are built very strong and hold my sleeping bag well away from my back and legs. Many Internal frames do not have a back mesh to separate the backpack form the hikers back, lack of a back mesh can also cause retention of more body heat making the internal frame backpack potentially more uncomfortable and sweaty when hiking.

    • sam says:

      I purchased two new Camp Trails bsack packs at a flea market internal I think as there was no frame with them. There is a u shaped rod in each one. Anyone know where I can purchase the frame for them?

  8. 4thYearScouting says:

    I personally prefer the external frame. I have never tried an internal but my brother has one but it isn’t to bad at all. My pack has lasted roughly 4 years and is going to retire soon. These packs work well with bigger individuals since they are designed for more wieght. I can carry mine fairly easy in my troop and I notice the smaller scouts generally use an internal frame.

  9. Bigwilly says:

    I myself have never used a external frame and I am sure they are good but the internals are very fitting to your body and if you pack it the right way they feel extremely light.

    • Paracordist says:

      I totally agree with you! I have an REI 2010 Mars 85L internal frame pack and it is amazing! I would never hike with an external frame. I have plenty of air flow between my back and pack and love it. Internal frames all the way! I see a lot of people replying that you can’t hang much stuff off the outside of an internal frame. I can get snowshoes, an inflatable sleeping pad, 2 large backpacking water bottles, and a fishing pole on the outside, plus all of my ropes and stuff. You just need to find the kind of internal frame pack that has lots of hooks, loops, and clips for attaching stuff.

  10. Scouter35 says:

    I need a backpack that is light, but can also carry a fair amount of gear. I also need it to be pretty good on the back. Any help?

  11. RJ says:

    My scoutmasters have always recommended external frame backpacks, and i myself prefer them too.

  12. magic says:

    i love my external pack it has lots of pockets and has a great fit but can weight you down at times and is hard to pick up if you arte going on a long trip but is very adjustable so it can fit your size.

  13. Nils says:

    Everyone talks about how external frames let you “strap on a lot more gear” remember you are supposed to cary only 25-35% of your body weight. The more stuff you can carry the more stuff you will carry. Even if you don’t really need it.

  14. GERM-X says:

    my external pack has lasted 13 years its great

    • Hand me down says:

      I got my grandpas trail wise from the 1950-60s it is incredible no damage except pealing of wax on the waxed canvas inside and some slow zippers how can I fix the zippers all metal zippers other than that it is great

      • naturegirl says:

        using wax or paraffin will greatly improve the zippers on the back pack. Just rub the teeth down and it should work perfectly.

      • Gandalf says:

        You may only need to tighten the wings (the slotted side parts of the zipper head) of the head lightly and slowly so you do not over tighten with a pair of pliers so the head is seated better on the lips of the zipper. Also a little lubricant would go a long way here, after all trail miles are tough on a lot of things.

  15. Tman says:

    It’s all a matter pf preference. Although this is not always true, internal frames tend to be lighter, narrower, and more flexible than external frames. External frames, however, are better for carrying more gear.

  16. caca says:

    i NEED HELP I WANT A CHEEP EXTERNAL FRANE ONE WITH LOTS OF ROOM FOR A GOOD PRICE.WERE SHOULD I LOOK? HELP

  17. Steve-272 says:

    I bought a new internal frame pack, but abandoned it and went back to my old Jansport External frame pack because it took me forever to find my stuff, and then to put it all back in compared to the external frame pack, and because the internal frame pack made my back all sweaty.

    • asm26 says:

      Steve-272,

      Most of the new internal frame backpacks have at lease two access points so that you do not have to remove everything to get at the things at the bottom. The newer ones also have designs that keep air space between your back and the pack. Try some of the backpack from Osprey.

    • Roger to hiking says:

      If you have an internal frame you have to buy expensive gear so it will fit. External frames you just strap it on the outside. External is better.

  18. soon to be eagle scout says:

    thanks for helping me on my camping merit badge

  19. Rugrat Hauler says:

    I use an external frame pack and like how I can fasten a mountain of gear to it. I backpack with wife and 3 small kids and need a pack to strap tons of stuff to. I have not seen an internal pack that can do that nearly as well as my external frame and it is comfortable. Although 80-90 lbs gets hard on the hips at times… Time for the kids to get bigger and haul their own stuff.

  20. A.S.R. says:

    I have all internal frame packs for hiking. I like the way that they fit your body. Also I hike allot of not very well groomed trails with my troop so the internal is good for that. Also I life the load more on my hips than my shoulders. At one time I was carrying so many textbooks in my normal backpack that it killed my shoulders so I ended up using my smallest internal frame pack I had. That really saved my shoulders. I also really like the adjust-ability of an internal frame pack.

  21. LewCaptLWS17 says:

    Hello everyone! Im going on a 10 day very soon. can anyone please give me a good pack reccomendation. Im looking for a cheep, durable internal frame. Thanks :)

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) says:

      I know this is to late (because you made the comment in May) but I would go with the TETON explorer 4000 I youed that thing for our no-trail 25 mile hike. I works GREAT!!! at sportsmans warehouse it is only $70! great pack!!

  22. BS Luvr 2 says:

    I would seiriosly go with a external frame backpacking pack!!!!!!!!!

  23. owns many-a-pack says:

    The absolute best pack i own is a military issue large alice pack. They are no longer used, so it was very cheap, its external frame, but has a small and inconspicuous frame. Take the frame out to haul wood, etc/ Love it.

  24. pegazpegasus says:

    i have both….and do must agree they both look great….but i would say that i prefer the external…..the reason is that when arrived at shelter time…my kelty come easly appart and the aluminium frame is a great harness to carry heavy loads with not much effort….attaching timber….water….anything with paracord…and eventually a harness modified with cordage for:example….and the kelty…by itself can be a food holder to be hung in tree to prevent scavengers been interested in it….etc…..the internal has all moderne “appliances” and thats all

  25. Valcour says:

    External frame packs tend to be heavy at 6 lbs or so. Getting the weight down is the best way to have more fun hiking and camping so I found the LuxuryLite external frame pack that weighs only 2lbs and it works great for me. And it automatically stands upright when I set it down.

  26. TheyCallMeSam says:

    I have a Kelthy 3950 external frame pack and have summited many mountains including Ranier and stuart. The only problem i have had with my pack is in climbing up steep rocky sloaps, dirt gets into the pins and makes a squeeky noise…..which i kinda like actually:) but overall i have no problems with hiking rugged trails. Just dont hike like a subaru driver and you will have no problem handaling one of these packs.

  27. Wandering Willie says:

    I am thinking about getting an external backpack, because they seem cheaper and being in the Texas heat it allows air to flow threw your back so you don’t get all sweaty.

    • zMarko says:

      I am going for the external back pack because my son needs to clamp attach a tent, a sleeping mat and a sleeping back to it. To me these reasons alone would point to an external pack.

  28. soaringeagle says:

    I have used a External since late 2003 early 2004 and I love it. Sits comfortably and it holds plenty of stuff. I have taken my Kelty Trekker 3950 to Philmont (83 miles) and 43 miles in a canoe with very few problems. Never have had a problem packing it and it has never caused me to fall due to balance issues. This pack has also gone with me to the Sierra Nevadas where we did some rugged trails which was a bit difficult but nothing to serious. In the end I would definatly recomend External Frame Backpacks over Internals and yes I have used an internal and I hated it (not comfortable at all).

    P.S. I would recomend Internals if you are looking at doing alot of canoeing easier to get in the bottom of the canoe. Otherwise Externals ALL THE WAY!

  29. ASMinUtah says:

    Seems like the sporting good stores have tons on internal frame packs and only a few choices with external frames. I recommend that scouts get external frame packs for non-technical hiking. I like them because you can tie bulky (not necessarily heavy) items to the frame like a closes cell foam pad and a tent. Look for a pack that you can tie something on top and something on the bottom.

    With a lot of internal frame packs your only going to fit it all in if you buy a new tent, a new sleeping bag, and fancy air mattress. Better to spend your money on red licorice.

  30. loken1860 says:

    I own a gregory Z55 a smaller internal frame pack. It distributes weight very well and is very comfortable. I have used several other recent models of internal frame packs and found this to be a trend. I have looked at several external frame packs and found them to be good all around packs. I have also found them to be heavy. Not all internal frames are lightweight my other pack which is an internal frame alps pack is 5 1/2 pounds. But the lightest packs with frames on the market are internal frame packs. The most important thing is fit. Buy what feels the best and fits your needs.

  31. jackm says:

    Thanks for all the imput, really helps when trying to make a decision between the two. I guess the bottom line is what kind of hiking you are planning on doing

  32. Drake says:

    i was using a kelty jr tioga and it is external and i hate it.
    every time i trip i hit my head everytime i trip.
    so i got a new pack a kelty coyote 4900 and i love it
    so i would go with internal, but thats just me

  33. newscout 101 says:

    i didnt know what backpack to get but now im getting an external frame

  34. Lionel says:

    I have recently heard about the Universal S-curve fit. Is that something better than an internal or external frame or is just another marketing gimmick?

  35. cool backpacker 101 says:

    i like the internal frame packs because they are more comfortable,, and they allow more movement

  36. philmont 09 75 says:

    I going to philmont in 2009 with scouts and I been backpacking and I use and exyernal framed kelty pack. One of my friends tells me how great internal frames are for philmont im not sure what to use

  37. ret-sm says:

    Several of the perceptions of the internal frame pack “downsides” are no longer valid. Todays internal is more of a hybrid between the two styles than ever before. Osprey, Gregory, Kelty, Deuter, and most other brands are now producing internal frame packs capable of carrying a reasonable load with an eye to backpanel ventilation, external pockets, lash points, and other organizational perks.You only need to look at how few external frames are on the market to see which way the trend is going.

    I used an external in my 17+ year scout career and have now switched to an internal as I am active with the local Search and Rescue team. I prefer todays internal for weight to load bearing capacity, comfort, stability, and ease of use. While one of the primary reasons given for preferring an external frame is load capability. I think I would prefer to teach a scout to purchase gear and pack “smart” rather than heavy. There are several good internals that can be found for around the same cost as an external, including those with adjustible torsos that will grow with the scout.

  38. dave says:

    From what i have read more like the internal frame.

    internal-good for canoeing, rugged trails, you won’t get snagged on things, have a lot of room, and LIGHT WIEGHT, but it’s hard to strap things directly to the pack, and it’s a BIT PRICY.It keeps in heat wich could be good or bad depending on the weather.

    The external frame is balenced out, well organized, and is durable, but it’s bad for canoeing, it restricts movement, and it’s HEAVY. it also lets the air flow.

    Thanks for readin.

  39. BSA Scout says:

    If you are looking at canoeing or going on rugged trails, I would recomend the internal frame. External frames tend to be heavier, but balance out better, and are good for the heat of Texas. I once went camping in northern Michigan, and I liked the way my friend’s internal pack worked in that kind of weather.

  40. camper says:

    i have a internal frame High Sierra Sentinel 65, it has served me well on my past few camping trips. i personally prefer an internal frame. but the problem is that it’s harder to strap stuff to the pack itself. i got it on sale so it was only 80 bucks!

  41. sup says:

    INTERNAL FRAMES ARE BETTER THEY ARE EASY ACCESS YOU DO NOT GET SNAGGED ON SRUFF AND LOTS OF ROOM WORKED GREAT FOR ME ON PHILMONT IT WAS LIGHT WEIGHT AND HAS LOTS OF ROOM LOOK AT REI THEY HAVE GREAT SERVIC AND FIT PACKS WELL THEY CAN BE A BIT PRICY THOUGH BUT THEY HAVE SALES AND THAT IS HOW I GOT MINE FOR CHEAPER

  42. matt123 says:

    i am going to philmont in august 2009 it will help THANKS

  43. Hiker says:

    i had think it can be hard to strap and even fit certain external frame packs into canoes one boy in my troop had to strap it onto the gunnels wich isnt very desirable just somthing to think about

  44. T829 says:

    I personally think Internal Frames are better

  45. scouterDad says:

    Internal frames will ride snug against your body which can be great in tight spaces. The drawback I have noted on internal frames is that they DO ride snug against you…which means they trap heat against you….and you sweat more. That means you will need more water to drink, and if there is not a source you must carry the extra water weight making the pack weight potentially substantial. If you are cold weather packing…the extra warmth can be a real good thing though…

    So consider the type of hiking you plan…cold weather and caving or tight confines do lean toward the internal..hot wether and long trips, the external with the air flow acrtoss the back and the extra capacity of hanging stuff outside the frame is very handy.

  46. Mr.Everest says:

    I have an external frame kelty youkon 2900. It is good for open trails and long-term camping trips, and has a good amount of freedom to carry alot of gear. But however it has a down side, it doesn alow you to move in certain ways, such as if you need balence on the trail it does not move with your body and is rather stiff and makes manuvering difficult wich doesnt mean its bad but it would be nice to have alittle more freadom.

  47. Backwoods_Traveler says:

    I have used both an internal and external frame. Having the opportunity to do guidework through NC in the Blueridge parkway area, I have had the opportunity to stay on the trail and do some fantastic bushwhacking, with both an external and internal frame. It is true that external Frames carrying weight fantastically and at times can be well organized. With that being said, I have a Kelty Stormcloud 5600 and it is fantastic. Well organized, carries weight well, excellent durabiltiy. The internal frame sits much closer to my back and allows me to do much more maneuvering, especially in tight bush areas or water scenarios. The internal frame pack also seem to be the lighter of the two. It all comes down to preference, however in certain conditions, the internal has always proved invaluable.

  48. dude says:

    I have a kelty coyote and its awesome. its internal

  49. caspian991 says:

    I have the scout external frame, but personaly, i think internals are better,

  50. eagletrail says:

    I’ve have a Kelty Sierra Crest, witch is a external frame, And I LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    With some space on the inside and sides, you can put some importent gear in it, like food and stuff, and on the out side you can hang pot’s, tie fishing kits to it, and if your like my little brother, a helment.

    So I’d go with an External pack.

    Yours in scouting

    Eagletrail

    P.s. Kelty arn’t selling Sierra Crest’s any more.

    P.s.s. I’ve had my pack for four years now.

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