The 10 Best Internal Frame Backpacks
This wiki has been updated 19 times since it was first published in October of 2016. If you're serious about hiking and camping, you know external frame backpacks just don't cut it anymore. To make your next outing truly comfortable and enjoyable, invest instead in one of these internal models, which offer more support and ergonomic features than their old-school counterparts. This list covers options suitable for all budgets and trips, from short overnighters to longer treks. When users buy our independently chosen editorial recommendations, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. Skip to the best internal frame backpack on Amazon.
Internal Versus External Frame Backpacks
There is no chance of the frame getting caught on anything, since it is fully integrated within the pack itself.
Most of the downsides to external frame backpacks stem from their large size.
As you may have guessed by the name, external frame backpacks have a clearly visible frame on the outside of the pack. Some may consider external frame backpacks as old school or outdated, but this design offers some distinct benefits. It also happens to have some inherent disadvantages.
External frame backpacks usually have a large number of pockets and segregated compartments. This makes it easier to keep your gear organized and quickly accessible. The external frame also provides you with a place to attach gear externally, like hiking poles and hatchets. Because of the way the pack attaches to the frame, it often sits an inch or two off your back, providing a large ventilation channel, helping you to stay cooler. The rigid external frame helps to promote a more upright posture while walking, as well, which can reduce the chances of back pain after a long hike.
Most of the downsides to external frame backpacks stem from their large size. They tend to be bulky, difficult to maneuver when donning and removing, and can easily knock a person off balance if they lean too far to one side or the other. Due to the way they sit a little bit off the body, they drastically change your center of gravity, which takes some getting used to. They also make it difficult to thread your way through tight trails, as the large frame can get caught up on branches and rock outcroppings.
Internal frame backpacks excel in the very areas where external frame models fail. There is no chance of the frame getting caught on anything, since it is fully integrated within the pack itself. They also sit very close to the back, thereby only minimally altering your center of gravity. The form-fitting design practically hugs the body, essentially becoming one with the hiker. Because of this, there is less chance of losing your balance due to the shifting weight. Their slim shape also makes it easier to safely maneuver through tight areas of the trail.
As with external frame backpacks, internal frame backpacks do have some downsides. They tend to have less external organizational pockets, though this isn't true for all models. The lack of a frame also means there is less space to affix external gear. Many manufacturers combat this by adding MOLLE-style straps. The biggest disadvantage to internal frame backpacks is they don't provide as much support or weight distribution as external frame models.
Front-loading Versus Top-loading Designs
Internal frame backpacks come in both front-loading and top-loading designs. Front-loading designs offer a higher degree of security than top-loading models. This is because you can use a padlock to secure the zippers, effectively preventing access. Top-loading designs usually have a simple drawstring and plastic clasps, making it practically impossible to lock them in any manner. The downside to front-loaders is that having zippers adds a failure-prone mechanical opening device to your pack. For this reason top-loading packs are more durable. Front-loading backpacks are easier to pack and unpack, however, since they essentially open just like a suitcase, giving you physical and visual access to almost the entire interior compartment. This means you can quickly retrieve a specific item, no matter where it is in the pack, without having to remove a bunch of extra gear.
Top-loading packs are often slimmer than their front-loading counterparts. This can make them better for smaller people who may have trouble handling a wide, bulky pack. It is also makes them easier to maneuver though tight spaces. Since top-loading packs are long and thin, as opposed to wide and short, they offer better weight distribution. Instead of the majority of the weight sitting on your mid-back, it will be more evenly distributed between the lower, middle, and upper portions. Most top-loading packs also have a skirt that expands upwards to give you more storage capacity. Front-loading packs are limited to the size of their design, as they won't have any manner of expanding their capacity. Neither style of pack is inherently better than they other. It just comes down to a matter of preference.
What Else To Consider When Choosing An Internal Frame Backpack
Capacity is one of the main factors that you must take into account when picking between the different models. Obviously a backpack that is perfect for a short two-day hike won't be as well-suited to a three-week excursion, as the type and amount of gear you will need to bring along will vary greatly. Hiking packs are measured in either cubic inches or liters. The larger the pack, the more it can carry, but the more cumbersome it will be. It is important to note the weight of a pack greatly affects a hiker's endurance. Your best bet is to make a list of all of the gear you plan on bringing along, or even better, lay it all out in front of you to help you better determine how much capacity you need. If you don't have a specific trip in mind, or don't know exactly what gear you are going to bring along, a 4,000-cubic-inch (65L) pack is a good middle of the road size that works well for both short and long trips.
You should also take into account comfort and fit. Most internal frame backpacks have a good degree of adjustability, allowing you to customize the harness to fit your torso length, but it is still important to keep in mind the size of the user when purchasing a pack. As you might imagine, it can be nearly impossible for a slim, 110lb. woman to navigate a hazardous trail with giant 75-liter pack on her back, whereas a 220lb., 6-foot guy might be able to do so with ease. Thick padding on the back panel, shoulder straps, and waist belt can great enhance the comfort a pack offers when it is fully loaded, so these are smart features to look out for. A breathable mesh backing is also a nice touch.
Other features that can make or break a backpack include the number and size of external pockets, options for attaching external gear, overall durability, and level of water-resistance.
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