The 7 Best External Frame Packs

Updated May 24, 2017 by Chase Brush

7 Best External Frame Packs
Best High-End
Best Mid-Range
Best Inexpensive
We spent 44 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top choices for this wiki. For serious outdoor adventures, you may want to consider one of these external frame packs. They position the weight high on your back, allowing good load transfer to the hips and a more upright walking posture, and offer a bit more rigidity than internal models. Plus, they work great in hot weather, since the frame keeps the pack suspended away from your back, allowing for lots of airflow. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best external frame pack on Amazon.

7. Outdoor Products Dragonfly

The Outdoor Products Dragonfly is a reasonable entry-level pack that would be well suited to teens. It has a 2,780-cubic-inch capacity, which is on the smaller side, but it still holds enough gear for a three- to four-day excursion, and it's backed by a lifetime guarantee.
  • hip belt feels secure
  • weighs less than 4 lbs when empty
  • strap adjustment hardware is plastic
Brand Outdoor Products
Model 4141U
Weight pending
Rating 3.8 / 5.0

6. Alps OutdoorZ Commander

The Alps OutdoorZ Commander makes a great hunting pack, as it features a rifle holder and webbing loops for lashing additional gear, plus an internal horizontal divider. The dark color blends well into most landscapes, so animals won't see you coming.
  • has a hold-open frame
  • bag and frame can be separated
  • attachment springs are frustrating
Brand ALPS OutdoorZ
Model 3600018
Weight 8.5 pounds
Rating 4.0 / 5.0

5. Kelty Yukon

The Kelty Yukon has a roughly 3,000-cubic-inch capacity and weighs less than five pounds when empty, so you shouldn't feel overburdened when it is fully loaded. It's a good pack for a five-to seven-day adventure, and it has lots of compartments for easy organization.
  • removable dual density foam belt
  • shoulder straps have thick padding
  • may be too wide for some
Brand Kelty
Model Yukon External - SIZ
Weight 16 ounces
Rating 3.8 / 5.0

4. Alps Mountaineering Zion

The Alps Mountaineering Zion is packed with features, yet still manages to remain affordable enough to appeal to the recreational camper who's looking for a reliable pack for their weekend jaunts. It comes in a subdued grey color that won't clash with your surroundings.
  • large lower door for easy loading
  • dedicated sleeping bag compartment
  • lots of room to attach items
Brand ALPS Mountaineering
Model 3500007
Weight 5.2 pounds
Rating 4.3 / 5.0

3. Black Pine Xterno II

The Black Pine Xterno II is a highly durable, high capacity option that is made from tough diamond ripstop. It has a 2000 PU coating, giving it excellent weather resistance, as well as a mat bag section for sleeping gear, so it's perfect for long and extreme treks.
  • very large mesh side pouches
  • good for hot and cold weather
  • some may find it too bulky
Brand The Backside by Black P
Model 20077
Weight 4.1 pounds
Rating 4.5 / 5.0

2. Alps Mountaineering Bryce

If you don't camp often, but want something that should last through a couple of good outings and doesn't cost a lot, the Alps Mountaineering Bryce is a good choice. It has a telescoping frame, well-vented lumbar support, and it's made from durable polyester ripstop.
  • multiple shoulder strap positions
  • compatible with hydration bladders
  • mesh pocket for damp items
Brand ALPS Mountaineering
Model 3400002
Weight 5.8 pounds
Rating 4.5 / 5.0

1. Kelty Tioga

The Kelty Tioga sits right in that sweet spot on your back, so it doesn't feel off balance while you walk. It has a proven design that is coupled with modern adjustability and comfort features, such as customizable suspension and a dual density foam hip belt.
  • large top-load opening
  • conforms to a range of torso lengths
  • mesh back panel keeps you cool
Brand Kelty
Model Trekker External - SIZ
Weight 16 ounces
Rating 4.5 / 5.0

Classic Gear, Modern Take: The External Frame Pack

At first blush, one might be forgiven for thinking the external frame pack is an outdated piece of gear. These backpacks were once ubiquitous among hikers, explorers, soldiers, and anyone else who had to tote large volumes of gear over long distances, but began to be usurped by the internal frame backpack in the years following the development of the first of these packs. George Lowe, founder of the now global Lowepro brand, designed the first internal frame backpack in his own home in the late 1960s, for reference.

While for many people and purposes internal frame hiking packs are indeed the best way to carry gear, the external frame pack remains viable and popular, and for a number of good reasons. The primary reason many people are turning back to external frame backpacks is the ease of adaptability they afford a user.

If you have an internal frame backpack, your pack may have a carrying capacity of anywhere from fifty liters to eighty liters or even more; regardless of how large the storage capacity of these types of bags may be, it is finite. With most external frame packs, however, you can adjust the compartments connected to your pack, adding more storage room when you need it, and removing cargo space you don't need to reduce weight or to allow for the connection of other gear.

Be sure to carefully consider the compartments and attachment points that come with a prospective external frame pack in the context of your preferred outdoor activities. If you are a hunter, you need to make sure your pack will allow you to easily strap on your rifle (or bow), for example. The winter trekker might need the ability to lash on a pair of snowshoes or even to secure cross country skis and poles. On the other hand, the excellent airflow allowed by the design of most external frame backpacks also makes these great choices for use in hot weather. The exposed frame itself offers excellent gear securing options with bungee cords or straps, but do try to find a bag that is already well suited to your needs.

If multiple people will be using the same hiking pack, an external frame pack can be a wise move. Many external frame backpacks feature a telescoping frame design that makes it remarkably easy to raise or lower the main hip straps, reorienting the placement of the entire bag as needed for people of varied height and torso size.

So when trying to pick the right external frame pack, the most important thing you can do is select the straps, padding, and adjustment features that best suit your needs. These elements of the pack cannot be changed, only adjusted; the type and placement of the cargo compartments and attachment types and points can be modified as needed for each given user or for the type of adventure on which you are next to embark.

A Few Words On Proper Gear Loading

The closer you can align the gear on your back with your natural center of gravity, the better you will be able to carry it over long distances, and the less strain and fatigue you will endure. Contrary to popular misconception, this does not mean placing the heaviest items you need to carry low against your torso, but rather means carrying them higher up and close to your center of mass. In fact the lightest gear you have -- including that down stuffed sleeping bag and your microfiber fleece jacket -- should be at the bottom of your pack.

To be precise, with an external frame hiking pack, you should place the majority of your weigh as high as possible in the pack and as close to your shoulders as the pack's design allows. This load placement will allow you to maintain a more upright, natural stance and to compensate for your burden as little as possible as you hike. The more you can walk (and stand) in a natural manner, the more comfortable you will be, and the less other parts of your body will have to endure the strain caused by added pounds of gear. If you put heavy items too low, they will pull you backward, forcing you to dramatically overcompensate by leaning forward and putting undue stress on your back, thighs, and more.

If you need to attach additional gear to your external frame backpack, try to do so on the sides of the pack, rather than to its back. If you can evenly distribute gear on both sides of your pack, then your balance and center of gravity will not be affected (save for the effect of adding even more weight to your overall load, of course).

A Look At Packs From The Past

As noted above, the now familiar internal frame hiking packs have only been around for about a half century. Backpacks in general, on the other hand, and external frame packs in particular, have been used by humans for thousands of years.

One of the oldest known external frame backpacks belonged to the famous mummy known as Otzi, a prehistoric shepherd whose frozen body found in the Alps in the early 1990s. Otzi lived some 5,300 years ago, yet seems to have been carrying gear in a backpack with a design not unlike the modern external frame pack.

Ancient Roman soldiers would carry one of two packs (or to heft both) known as the Scarina and the Loculus. The former would be carried on a stave of wood, the latter slung over the back. The development of an ideal means of carrying of infantry gear would be an ongoing process, with the forerunner of many modern packs not developed until the Civil War era.

The Norwegian Sekk Med Meis backpack came into regular use during the 1800s. This wooden framed pack's name literally translates as the pack with a frame and would help inspire the development of innovative new gear.

Today many people around the world still carry everything from produce to weaponry to building materials on their backs day in and day out, and the majority of those so doing are still using a variety of external frame pack.



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Last updated on May 24, 2017 by Chase Brush

Chase is a freelance journalist with experience working in the areas of politics and public policy. Currently based in Brooklyn, NY, he is also a hopeless itinerant continually awaiting his next Great Escape.


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