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External Frame Packs?
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Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

External Frame Packs? on 02/24/2013 18:13:45 MST Print View

Serious question: does anyone use external frame packs? I have some questions. I would hate to think I'm missing some valuable piece of information.

1) Are there any distinct or inherent advantages an external frame pack has over an internal frame pack?
2) Are there any Light or Ultralight external frame packs in production?
3) Why did everyone switch over? Was it just aesthetic? The idea that you aren't carrying a metal frame?

Burning questions...


Dan Durston
(dandydan) - F

External Frame on 02/24/2013 18:30:18 MST Print View

Those are fair questions. Until a couple months, ULA sold the Ohm which was basically a light external framed pack (24oz). Now they're just selling the Ohm 2.0 which moves the frame internally. I've got an Ohm and it's great for its intended use (sub 30lbs).

I'm not an expert on the subject, but I think there was a fair bit of hype involved in the switch to internal frames and external framed packs have been somewhat unfairly vilified. For one, they're much nicer to use with the packraft because you can directly strap the frame to the boat.

Edited by dandydan on 02/24/2013 18:30:59 MST.

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Also on 02/24/2013 18:34:42 MST Print View

It looks like the major thing is ventilation. External frames have a lot of airflow moving that internal frame bags go through hoops to replicate. Any bag with a trampoline system looks like it's just masquerading as an external frame.

I wouldn't mind picking up something like a Kelty Trekker as a beat-up pack. I bet it lasts as long as anything short of a McHale, and it's only 4lbs. Similarly sized Ospreys weigh that much.

My outdoors club kids all use external frame bags. The people that show up to my meeting on time get the brand-new Kelty Trekkers, and I've used them myself and I dig them. The kids who show up late get logo-free frame bags from the late 80's. Still going!

So, idk, ventilation. Worth it?

Harrison Carpenter
(carpenh) - M

Locale: St. Vrain River Valley
Re: External Frame Packs? on 02/24/2013 18:37:10 MST Print View

From what I remember, external frames enable you to separate the weight from your back, enabling you to hold more of it on your hips. An added benefit is that weight distribution allows you to walk more upright. I switched from my old Kelty Trekker in order to reduce my base weight, but there are days when I miss hauling it around, and envision myself walking around carrying everything old-school: external frame pack, wool sweater, leather boots, Sierra mug, etc.

I know Z-packs makes an external frame Exo. I've not had the money to try it. :)

Edited by carpenh on 02/24/2013 18:42:09 MST.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
Re: External Frame Packs? on 02/24/2013 19:08:07 MST Print View

Internal frames came from the climbing world and were also better for balance with a load. Sleeker looking pack too so what Dan said is probably pretty fair.

For UL externals, besides the Zpack, think Backpacker mag classified the Osprey Exos series as external though a number of packs also have a raised suspension with a peripheral rod for ventilation and some sort of carry capacity (Osprey Hornet, etc..). Not sure it's exactly external, though, and think if there's a load bearing metal frame on the inside, you should (IMHO) call it an internal .. just feeling a '12 version of the ULA Circuit, '13 version of the Osprey Aether, etc..

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - M

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: External Frame Packs? on 02/24/2013 19:12:44 MST Print View

A good external frame will carry very heavy loads better. It's also nice to be able to strap bulky items to the frame. Internal frames are better for balance.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: External Frame Packs? on 02/24/2013 19:16:21 MST Print View

A fair amount of them squeak with every step.

I still have a Kelty Tioga floating around.

Was comfy.

Still see plenty on the trails here. Some are classics.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: externals on 02/24/2013 20:15:02 MST Print View

1) Are there any distinct or inherent advantages an external frame pack has over an internal frame pack?

>> An external is the be-all for 60+ pound loads. Select internals can do this, but making an external do it well is a lot simpler.

2) Are there any Light or Ultralight external frame packs in production?

>> Luxurylite if they're still around. But look at the issue this way; making a frameless pack which carries 20 pounds well is easy. Making an internal which carries 40 pounds is easy (though some manufacturers make this complicated). Making an internal which carries 50 or 60 or more is very possible, but requires a lot more thought (read $$ for the consumer). Given that externals shine for heavy loads, the "UL" standard for them will need to be a bit different.

3) Why did everyone switch over? Was it just aesthetic? The idea that you aren't carrying a metal frame?

>> Fashion/wanting to look like a mountaineer. 90% of casual backpackers (those who don't geek out on gear, carry 40ish pounds, and hike 2-6 times a year on trails only) would all be better served with an external. But externals are not sexy.

Externals are alive and well with backcountry hunters, and some interesting designs have either hit the market recently or will be later this year.

Edited by DaveC on 02/24/2013 20:16:32 MST.

Nick Larsen
(stingray4540) - F

Locale: South Bay
Re: External Frame Packs? on 02/24/2013 20:22:33 MST Print View

Take what I say with a grain of salt, as I'm somewhat new to backpacking and have never used an external frame.

While I really like my current internal frame pack, I hate the sweaty back and shoulders. And after a long day my shoulders start to feel a little sore from bearing some of the weight. Also, my bear can takes up almost all of the bag, makes packing hard.

I just recently picked up a used external circa 1970s. After removing the two unnecessary top bars, it weighs less than my internal frame by 10oz, at 3lb 5oz.

Just from trying it on, I noticed all the breathing room my back and the top of my shoulders have. Since all of the weight is on my hips, the shoulder straps leave my shoulders at a 45* angle and act more like load lifters.

1) not sure yet, but from what I've heard they carry a load more comfortably, and let your back breath. Allow you to carry bulky items like bear cans easier.
2) the luxury lite and zpacks exo, but neither truly replicate a traditional external frame IMO.
3) I think aesthetics, and marketing hype. Also the desire to think of ourselves as rock climbers and mountaineers, when really we hardly ever leave the trail...

I can see the balance advantage of internal frames for rock climbers and mountaineers, but I think that would go hand in hand with heavier fabrics, and kind of seems to be an oxymoron to UL backpacking IMO.

Of course I may be slightly biased as I am currently working on developing a true external pack out of UL materials.

Until then... You might want to check out the Jansport scout at only 3lb 10oz. It compares to even the lightest REI offerings. Also, you can take off the top "shelf" and top horizontal bar. Unnecessary IMO. Probably get it to 3lb or less.

P.S. just saw that David, above me, had some good points.

Edited by stingray4540 on 02/24/2013 20:32:21 MST.

Hk Newman
(hknewman) - MLife

Locale: Western US
External Frame Packs on 02/24/2013 20:53:49 MST Print View

Obviously they are best for flatlands, especially if a lot of water needs to be carried (flat deserts surrounding Big Bend N.P Chisos Mtns or other western desert flatlands .... or other flat places).

An older hiking acquaintance of mine, when hiking eastern Big Bend, said his old 1983 Jansport external weighed 3lb. and change, but could handle more gear strapped onto it. He saw no reason to change, though that packbag was on it's last legs due to UV damage.

Obviously, the frameless rucksack is more de rigueur here, maybe with a little piece of foam for fanciness, than either internal or external frame packs.

Richard Lyon
(richardglyon) - MLife

Locale: Bridger Mountains
External frame packs on 02/25/2013 07:36:39 MST Print View

One of my backpacking pals takes his 4 x 5 camera set up on some trips and has designed an external frame pack to store the various pieces. Quite ingenious. I'd say ready access to various pockets is an advantage of externals. It's been so long since I carried one I hesitate to make other comparisons beyond that and better ventilation. Dave is right, fashion sense plays a part in the automatic preference for internals.


Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Fashion Sense on 02/25/2013 08:30:05 MST Print View

Maybe frame packs will sweep back into fashion like vintage T-shirts, and we'll see a mess of them in 2015. I like the Kelty Trekker; I'm honestly considering picking one up this year. If I find the new version on sale, I'm pulling the trigger. Not for fashion; I feel like a real load-hauler is something I can use when I'm carrying three tents for all the college freshmen who find it exasperating.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: External frame packs on 02/25/2013 08:32:20 MST Print View

The old style externals do have a different center of gravity and can be top heavy if not loaded prpoerly. Of couse they were designed for carrying bulky heavy loads. It may be that the large capacity contributed to the weights people were carrying then. They make it easy to strap stuff on, creating the monstrosities we like to ridicule.

They can be annoyingly noisy. A couple years ago, I took one on the short hike to Cape Alava on the Olympic Park beaches so someone could use my regular pack and it squeaked and rattled the whole way.

I had one of the "freighter" style bare frame with a tip-out shelf that worked well for hauling a 4x5 camera and accessories. They have been popular with hunters for taking out large game in sections.

The old Jansports were quite light and are still lighter than most of the internal frame packs of similar capacity. If you took an old Jansport frame and added modern UL suspension and pack bag, would would have a very light pack that could haul bulky heavy items well. If Jsnsport would make a Ti tubing frame and a Dyneema or Cuben bag and update the back panels a bit, you would have a very interesting pack.

The Osprey Exos packs do have a perimeter frame but I think they are more of a hybrid. You do get good weight transfer and air flow and "pack collapse" is non-existent. You can pack without concern for items poking you in the back and can concentrate on load balance and convenience.

Edited by dwambaugh on 02/25/2013 08:33:46 MST.

Erik Basil

Locale: Atzlan
Re: External frame packs on 02/25/2013 08:32:25 MST Print View

Well, from a fashion sense, my internal-frame packs look to me like what they are: climbing gear. My external-frame pack looks to me like what it is: a high sierra backpack. I've used both for both activities, and the trusty Kelty (pictured to the left here) is still in service.

I am keenly aware that my Tioga is heavier than virtually all of the awesome internal/no-frame packs popular with UL backpackers and on this site. I am also keenly aware that, although it CAN easily carry 60lb of gear or deer meat, I don't like doing that anymore. That load capacity is not why I prefer the Kelty and not why I suggest the adjustable-frame Kelty externals to my Scouts.

I prefer the external frame packs because of the way they keep the load directly off the the spine, the ventilation behind the back, the stability of the packbag on trails (not climbing ladders or rocks or scree... not saying that), the ability to manage weight onto the hips, simplicity of strapping on gear and capacity/design to accommodate things like bear canisters.

I used to marvel at the cool and light Coleman Peak 1, flexible plastic external frame packs, particularly at their silence...a Kelty doesn't squeak like a Jansport but will inevitably require one to learn the skills with appropriate use of a crayon or candle. I've noted that those Coleman frames many of us recognize from the early 80's appear to be on other-branded packs I see on Sierra Trading every once in a while -- I need to get a weight on those. They aren't adjustable, but I recall them as being light.

One thing for certain, the not-trendy, not-UL external frame packs are not very BPL-core. Even REI doesn't carry them in our local store (they keep an old external with hideous straps as an exemplar to sell other packs, killin' me). It is true that these obsolete boat anchors weigh more, empty, than some hikers bags with their sleep systems in it. I have fantasized, briefly, about asking someone like Dan McHale to replicate my Tioga bag in some super-cool Dyneema grid or whatnot, but just can't cut the cord with my old buddy. For now, I remain happy, upright and proud of the old rig.

Max Dilthey
(mdilthey) - M

Squeaking on 02/25/2013 08:37:09 MST Print View

I am surprised at the squeaking comment. My group all uses externals, like I said before, and not even the ancient ones squeak.

I might put that in the same category as Thermarest crinkling; things I inwardly mock other backpackers for being bothered by. Then again, if my bike needs adjusting I have to do it on the spot because shifting will drive me Insane.

Erik Basil

Locale: Atzlan
Re: Squeaking on 02/25/2013 08:51:43 MST Print View

Max, it's pretty common with metal-frmed externals for them to develop a squeak, but it's simply resolved most of the time. Some packs never do it, but it was pretty common "in the old days" to occur.

On a Kelty or other rigid-frame rig, the squeak usually pronounces as the pack shifts or jounces during stride. Mine, for example, will squeak on descents if I don't deal with it. On the flex-frame, metal Jansports, the squeak can happen during jouncing, but also as the frame torques or flexes. The plastic-framed rigs are, of course, silent.

Most of the squeaks are from either a back-band (mesh strap) or shoulder strap/grommet moving against the frame or, in the case of the Jansports, the sleeved joints rotating against one another just a skitch. In all cases, the classic fix is to rub a candle or crayon on the squeak point. I was reminded of this after I took my Tioga bag off to wash and repair, cleaned the frame and then forgot to "wax". Of course, I didn't note this until I was it was a funny reminder. Scrit... scrit... scrit...

kevin timm
(ktimm) - MLife

Locale: Colorado (SeekOutside)
Externals and Weight on 02/25/2013 09:36:40 MST Print View

Externals simply can carry weight much better and ventilate better. I think many of the older style externals may not work well for going through trees and scrub etc, but this is can be overcome. I carried a pretty good load this weekend in a MYOG external through steep canyon country and it performed pretty well. The difference between it and some of my light internals from a comfort and movement perspective was minimal but the difference in load carrying was significant. I'm a fan of externals.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Externals and Weight on 02/25/2013 13:07:26 MST Print View

My old Kelty external frame was very sweaty. Possibly a little better than a frameless pack.

And it squeaked. My brother has an external pack that squeaks.

Andrew Zajac

Locale: South West
external frames on 02/25/2013 13:33:43 MST Print View

I don't remember who told me this, but I have heard that it had to do with the silhouette. External frames tend to be wider and therefore aren't great for bushwhacking or for mountaineers who need to scramble and move through potentially confined spaces. So my impression is that the change was mostly an aesthetic move.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: External Frame Packs? on 02/25/2013 13:38:36 MST Print View

External frames are not the first choice of cross country skiers. Because of the way our arms move, we choose a narrow pack with little or no frame.