Backpacking has taken a distinctly ultralight turn over the last few years.
But for some of us, there is still a place for the rugged external frame backpacks.
This article will rate 15 of the best external frame backpacks on the market and explore a little about the pros and cons of external versus internal frame packs.
- Top 15 Best External Frame Backpack Reviews 2020
- Kelty Yukon External Frame Backpack
- Vargo Exoti 50 Backpack
- Alps Mountaineering Red Rock Backpack
- Alps OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag
- Kelty Tioga External Frame Pack
- Allen Rock Canyon External Pack Frame
- Kelty Trekker Hiking Backpack
- Slumberjack Rail Hauler Backpack
- Alps Mountaineering Zion Backpack
- A.L.I.C.E Pack Frame Mil-Spec
- Stansport Deluxe Freighter Aluminum Pack Frame
- Eberlestock Mainframe Pack
- Alps Mountaineering Bryce External Frame Backpack
- Vargo Ti-Arc Backpack
- AKmaxUS Military Surplus Rucksack
- What is an External Frame Backpack?
- Why External Frame?
- What to Look For When Choosing the Best External Frame Backpack
Top 15 Best External Frame Backpack Reviews 2020
Kelty Yukon External Frame Backpack
Review: This reliable Kelty pack is perfect for slightly shorter people or people who don’t want their gear to be loaded high on their back.
It’s a good middle of the road size that is ideal for shorter trips or longer thru-hikes when you can get away with packing the minimum gear.
- Weighs 4 lbs. 14 oz.
- Padded waist strap and adjustable shoulder straps.
- Plenty of ventilation across your back.
- Lots of pockets and compartments.
- Adjusting it to get the fit right can be a bit fiddly.
Vargo Exoti 50 Backpack
Review: This is a less conventional external frame backpack, finding the middle ground between internal and external frame design.
The weight is extremely well distributed making it very comfortable to wear.
- Titanium alloy frame is strong and lightweight.
- Comfortable and supportive.
- Compression straps keep everything compact and contained.
- Padded, ventilated and adjustable shoulder and hip straps.
- Only recommended up to 40 lbs. weight.
Alps Mountaineering Red Rock Backpack
Review: This is a smaller than average, lighter than average option as far as external frame packs go, and yet it doesn’t compromise on any of the support or comfort.
It is well padded, easily adjustable, and made of good quality, durable material.
- Weighs 3 lbs. 11 oz. which is pretty lightweight.
- Telescoping frame makes for easy size adjustments.
- Side compression straps.
- Plenty of storage pockets.
- Removable sternum strap.
- 34L capacity may be too small for longer trips.
Alps OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag
Review: This pack is one for people who are serious about external frame designs. It is heavy, but indestructible.
It is capable of carrying a huge amount of weight while remaining comfortable and supportive.
- Made of durable, waterproof ripstop nylon.
- Very comfortable carrying heavy weights.
- Designated space for holding a hunting a rifle.
- Large interior volume.
- Hydration system compatible.
- 7 lbs. 5 oz. is on the heavy side.
Kelty Tioga External Frame Pack
Review: This pack manages to have an impressive volume while at the same time not being too heavy. It has 5,500 cubic inch capacity while weighing just 5.8 lbs.
The supportive straps keep the load close to your body for stability and balance.
- Includes sleeping bag compartment.
- Padded waist strap is removable.
- Ample side pockets for organization.
- Adjustable suspension.
- On the expensive side.
Allen Rock Canyon External Pack Frame
Review: This is another pack designed with hunters in mind but it would be well suited to anyone spending extended periods of time in the backcountry and needing to transport a lot of gear.
It’s just the frame and harness sold as a package which could either be annoying or convenient depending on whether you already know what kind of bag you want to pair with it.
- Heavy duty aluminum frame.
- Plenty of lashing points make it easy to attach your load.
- Foam padded waist and shoulder straps.
- Heavy, weighing just over 7lbs.
- Doesn’t come with the bag, you need to purchase the bag you want to use separately.
Kelty Trekker Hiking Backpack
Review: Another reliable option from Kelty, this external frame pack is designed with hiking long miles in mind, being the ideal capacity for all of your gear while keeping the weight on the lower side.
It remains very comfortable and stable when carrying heavy weights and is tough and durable.
- 5 lbs 5oz is pretty lightweight.
- 65L capacity.
- Adjustable suspension.
- Convenient side pockets.
- Load placement may be too high for some people to be comfortable with.
Slumberjack Rail Hauler Backpack
Review: This 5 lbs. 9 oz. pack is designed to carry serious loads over tough terrain. It’s designed with hunters in mind with a large folding aluminum shelf for supporting extra cargo.
It’s very tough while the remaining middle of the road price-wise.
- Heavy duty anodized aluminum frame.
- Compression system keeps weight against the frame for balance and stability.
- Paddle holster compatible, reinforced hip belt.
- Comfortable with heavy loads.
- A bit creaky and squeaky until you get it adjusted to fit you properly.
Alps Mountaineering Zion Backpack
Review: This is a 64L top loading external frame pack that is ideal for hikers. It manages to weigh in at just under 5 lbs. which is a very good weight for a large capacity bag.
It has 4 large exterior pockets so you don’t have to chuck everything in the main compartment, and there’s plenty of space for lashing on extra gear.
- Comfortable and adjustable padded waist belt and shoulder straps.
- Hydration bladder compatible.
- Plenty of lashes and loops for attaching extra gear.
- Spacious despite its light weight.
- Straps are a little fiddly to adjust and don’t come with extra pockets.
- Some durability issues where the pack attaches to the frame.
A.L.I.C.E Pack Frame Mil-Spec
Review: Compatible with medium and large Alice packs, Government Issue LC-1 packs or any kind of bag you’re game to strap on, this frame is a reliable choice for external frame devotees.
It’s a “one-size-fits-most” deal and has comfortable padded shoulder straps and a kidney pad.
- Tough, durable frame.
- Customizable to whatever kind of bag you want to carry.
- Comfortable to wear, keeping the frame off your back and allowing for great ventilation.
- Doesn’t come with a pack.
Stansport Deluxe Freighter Aluminum Pack Frame
Review: This is another frame design that doesn’t come with a pack, but for the quality of this frame, you won’t mind having to buy a bag separately.
It’s ergonomically designed and has extremely comfortable shoulder and waist straps making it a reliable choice for heavy loads.
- Fold down shelf supports extra weight.
- Comfortable shoulder and waist straps.
- Lightweight, sturdy frame.
- Plastic clips attaching the shelf are a weak point and some of the stitching may require reinforcing for heavy loads.
- Doesn’t come with lashing straps for attaching a bag.
Eberlestock Mainframe Pack
Review: From the back, this frame looks like an internal frame pack, with a full length padded mesh back panel.
But, flip it around and you see a shelf and 3 buckled compression straps for attaching your load.
- The shelf is an extension of the frame so it’s reliable and strong with no breakable parts.
- The complete back panel and lashing straps mean gear can be attached and held in place without necessarily needing a bag.
- Easily adjustable to fit different sized people.
- Lightweight but strong and stable frame.
- Doesn’t come with a bag, but it’s compatible with many.
Alps Mountaineering Bryce External Frame Backpack
Review: This is a smaller version of the Zion, being a 59L top loading pack with 5 good sized external pockets. It is hydration bladder compatible and weighs just 4.8 lbs.
- Adjustable and well-padded shoulder and hip straps.
- Telescoping external frame can fit any torso length.
- Vented lumbar support.
- Plenty of pockets.
- Possibly not durable enough for really heavy loads.
Vargo Ti-Arc Backpack
Review: This external frame pack comes with one of the most comfortable and supportive hip straps on the market, being equipped with a huge padded lumbar support panel and extra wide straps.
- Large ergonomic lumbar support plate.
- Extra lightweight titanium alloy frame means the whole thing weighs less than 3 lbs.
- 36L bag allows for all the essentials with plenty of extra stowing options available outside of that.
- The space below the bag is ideal for strapping on a bear canister.
- It won’t cope with as much weight as the other external frame packs on this list.
AKmaxUS Military Surplus Rucksack
Review: This is a package deal for the classic A.L.I.C.E. pack and it’s frame. The 55L A.L.I.C.E pack is made of rugged high-density polyester and has more pockets and compartments than you’ll see in most other packs.
The aluminum-iron frame is fitted with galvanized metal buckles so there are no weak points, and it has padded, adjustable shoulder and hip straps.
- Military surplus quality is highly durable.
- Multiple pockets and compartments including a radio pocket on the left shoulder strap.
- The frame is compatible with both medium and large A.L.I.C.E. pack.
- Designed to comfortably carry 60 lbs.
- Few options for lashing extra gear to the frame.
What is an External Frame Backpack?
This is probably a good place to start!
External frame backpacks are pretty easy to spot, because, you guessed it, the frame is on the outside of the pack.
You’ll easily be able to see the metal tubing of the frame on either side of the pack, as opposed to internal frame packs where the frame isn’t visible.
But there must be more to it than that, right?
So far it sounds purely cosmetic.
Well, there are functional reasons for having the frame on the outside.
Why External Frame?
Even in today’s ultralight world, sometimes we need to carry heavier loads.
And when the situation calls, a lightweight internal frame backpack just won’t cut it.
External frame packs also allow for a gap between your back and your gear, making for good ventilation which can be really appreciated in hot weather.
However, there are some downsides.
If you’re looking for an ultralight external frame backpack, you probably won’t have much luck.
They’re designed to carry less weight and not have an infinite number of attachment points for lashing on extra gear.
What to Look For When Choosing the Best External Frame Backpack
Regardless of the downsides, external frame packs are much more comfortable than internal frame packs for some people.
So, even if you’re not looking to carry a small human on your back, an external frame pack could be just the thing to try if you’re still looking for your favorite go-to pack.
But there are a few things to consider before choosing…
Just like the best camping tent brands, the best backpack brands tend to be pretty consistent in making the top 10 lists backpack recommendations.
With the exception of a few excellent options on this list, choosing a well-known and reliable brand like Kelty, Vargo and Alps Mountaineering is a good start.
I’m definitely not a label snob, but there’s something to be said for a brand’s popularity when it comes to functional outdoor gear.
But choosing the best hiking backpack for your needs is about more than just the brand.
External frame packs tend to be a little heavier than internal frame backs as they are designed for carrying more weight, so need to be stronger.
But in saying that, there are some impressively light options out there.
So, if you’re going to be thru-hiking, definitely go for a lighter weight external frame pack.
You’ll get the versatility of external frame design with the weight of an internal frame.
This is less of an issue with external frame packs compared to the internal frame. Most external frame packs are more of one-size fits all deal because they are so easily adjustable.
But, make sure you know your torso size and double check this to be safe.
Some external frame packs are literally just the external frame with no bag included.
This may suit you perfectly if you’re looking for versatility and already have a dry bag or duffel style bag that would be compatible.
But for most people, getting a package deal is more convenient.
You lose out on some of the benefits of an external frame pack if it doesn’t have plenty of lashing points.
After all, a big part of the attraction is the versatility of being able to attach extra gear.
Check for a good number of lashing points and straps included.
This is only really a consideration if you’re going to be carrying really heavy and cumbersome loads but it’s worth deciding beforehand whether it’s a deal breaker.
Internal vs External Frame Backpack?
This isn’t a simple question to answer as some of it comes down to body type and what you’re most comfortable with.
But in general, heavier loads are well suited to external frame packs. Lighter, faster hikes with more scrambling involved are better suited to internal frame packs.
How to Adjust an External Frame Backpack?
The most important thing here is getting the length of the frame right for your torso length. The length of your torso is not the same as height (someone taller than you could have a shorter torso length), so you need to know your torso length and adjust the frame height accordingly.
After that, it’s all about the shoulder and hip straps and making sure that the majority of the load is being taken by your hips and not your shoulders.
How do I Know My Backpack Size?
As above, it’s all about torso length. Your torso length will decide what size harness (hip belt and shoulder strap combo) will suit you.
You’ll also want to know your hip width to make sure the hip belt will do up nicely.
What Helps with Backpack Back Pain?
A supportive and well-fitting backpack is crucial for managing back pain.
External frame backpacks are actually great from a back pain point of view as they are very supportive and help to keep the load balanced.
That concludes this article on the best external frame backpacks.
They are specific design and won’t suit everyone’s needs or body type, but if your current internal frame pack is bugging you, you might do well to try playing for the other team.
Have you used an external frame pack? Do you rate them?
Comment below to share your thoughts and be sure to download my e-book about solo travel safety.
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