HIKING BASICS

Internal vs External Frame Backpack: The Key Differences

Close up picture of Teton-Scout-3400
John C. Porter
Written by John C. Porter

A backpack is an indispensable tool of all the outdoor enthusiasts. It helps one pack all the essentials that would be needed in order to have a breathtaking wilderness adventure. But purchasing a wrong backpack could be frustrating and painful to your back. For some decades ago, external frame backpacks have dominated the industry until the emergence of internal frame backpack.

That being said, you have to select carefully between these two packs. In this internal vs external frame backpack guide, we will help you make an informed decision. Essentially, there’s no backpack that can be deemed as the best among these two variances. It all depends on the type of gear to pack, your destination, the duration of your outdoor adventure and a personal taste. It is important to understand all these factors as they will help you choose the right backpack for you.

A man with a backpack looking at the landscape

Firstly, let’s discuss the differences between these outdoor tools starting with the internal frame backpack.

An internal frame backpack

As the name says, an internal frame backpack has a frame internally that helps provide support and rigidity to the bag. These backpacks have recently dominated the market and are prevalently found in many outdoor gear stores. They have replaced the once-popular external frame backpacks as the popular tools for camping, hiking and backpacking activities. However, the external backpacks still have an indispensable value that make them preferred by other outdoor enthusiasts.

The other characteristic of internal frame backpacks is their mobility when put on your back. They can conform to your curvaceous shape because the internal aluminum frames can be molded to conform to any shape. Essentially, there are no external frames to restrict that shape. So with the internal frame backpacks, you will be able to move to any place or climb to any height while strapping them around your shoulders because of their mobility.

Backpackers on a river trail

In terms of the weight, internal backpacks exert much of the weight on the body. There is no weight distribution to the internal frames, but the body. If you are carrying a heavy gear, it will be heavy on your back because of this failure to distribute weight to the pack as does the external frame counterparts. This backpack is particularly designed for lighter gear. It could hurt your back if over-packed beyond its capacity.

Most of the internal frame backpacks may not have enough external pockets for additional storage as does their counterparts. They might have one or two internal compartments for storage. Any attempt to strap your essentials on the bag could obstruct your access to other essentials stored inside. So, if you have the sleeping bag or sleeping pad, you have to make sure that they all fit inside.

Backpackers on a forest trail

When packing these backpacks, you have to avoid placing sharp objects against your back. They could cause soreness and blisters on your back. If you are including the sleeping bag or clothes in the bag, rather put them first against your back before packing other objects.

The other interesting factor about the internal frame backpacks is that the shoulder and waist straps are adjustable. So it’s easy to adjust to any size of the torso or the wait. Anyone can actually carry your backpack by adjusting the straps accordingly. These straps enable the bag to move with you to any desired place in the wilderness.

For more information on what is internal frame backpacks, see our article dealing with this topic.

An external frame backpack

As the name implies, the bag has external frames. These frames could be made of a composite material or an aluminum metal upon which the bag has been strapped. Such bags have always been the preference of outdoor enthusiasts for many years due to their supportive frames before the predominance of the internal frames nowadays. However, that reduction of prevalence doesn’t mean the bags are now rendered useless or worthless. There are actually intriguing benefits about these backpacks.

The obvious benefit is the weight distribution to the frames of the bags. As a result, people can conveniently carry heavy luggage to any place because the frames provide an ample support. Your back will be shielded from any injuries that could result from overweight luggage. This is something that the internal frame backpacks do not have. But carrying the external frames for a long time can also be a drawback.

Hikers with external frame backpacks

The additional storage that is embedded in external frame backpacks is another advantage to take into account. You can attach your gear on the backpack without obstructing access to the inside of the bag. This is achieved by strapping gear onto the frames. Usually, external frame backpacks come with many pockets for ease of storage and access of your valuables. This is also something not provided by the counterparts.

When coming to breathability, external frame backpacks emerge victorious. The frames make it possible for an adequate circulation of air between the bag and your back. As thus, your clothes will not get damp due to over-sweating during the hot days in the wilderness. The frames are keeping the pack away from the torso.

For more guidelines on external frame backpacks, see our very informative link.

Close image of the The Vargo Ti-Arc Backpack

Let’s now compare the core features of these backpacks to enlighten you about the best option of your choosing. We will take into account the comfort, weight, portability, affordability, breathability and other features.

The core features of internal and external frame backpack

Comfort

Among these backpacks, it’s not easy to determine that which one is more comfortable when given their competitive features. Looking at how each pack attaches to your body, the internal frame backpack becomes victorious. It is easy to adjust the bag and fasten it around the waist and on the shoulders. However, carrying loads of weight with these backpacks may lead to the discomfort. In contrast, the external frame backpack wins here with regard to carrying loads of luggage in it.

Happy hiker with an external frame backpack

The downside of internal frame backpacks with comfortability is that the more they rub against your back it is the more body heat is yielded and more sweat produced. That’s an absolute discomfort of having this bag. Apart from this shortcoming, these bags are comfortable to wear.

The external frame backpacks, on the other hand, are comfortable when carrying loads of luggage because the frame positions the bag from the torso. However, their shoulder straps are not as adjustable as their counterparts. As a result, it is uncomfortable to wear them. As already indicated, it isn’t easy to declare the other bag as being more comfortable than the other.

Weight

In terms of weight, the external frame backpacks are heavy and bulky. But their beneficial properties of being solid and rigid shouldn’t be overlooked. They can be heavy and bulky, but excel in carrying heavy gear. So which one is the best? It’s your call to make. Their inconvenience can be apparent when hiking for many weeks in the wilderness because the frames, not the bag, rub against the body. Nonetheless, with weight distribution it is good.

Man with a Teton Explorer 4000 backpack

Internal frame backpacks, on the other side, bring the weight closer to the body. However, they have a poor weight distribution. As a result, your body might end up succumbing to injuries due to heavy loads on your back. The internal frames are not capable of balancing heavy loads. These backpacks are primarily designed to hold portable outdoor gear. You can thus travel to as many places as possible with a portable weight.

Affordability

In case you come across an external frame backpack in your local gear store, please do not hesitate to purchase that because they are now scarce and affordable. These affordable prices could be attributed to the current trends of internal frame backpacks. The internal frame counterparts are relatively expensive.

Teton Sports Escape 4300 Ultralight Internal Frame Backpack near a tent

To wrap up affordability, the external frame backpacks are for the budget-tight outdoor enthusiasts. If you want to spend less, then go for them. But given the features of the internal frame backpack as well, it is a good value for money to consider, although relatively expensive.

Breathability

As we hike in the wilderness, climbing summits, traversing on steep surfaces, we may be susceptible to too much sweat, especially on our back where the backpack rubs against. Because the internal frame backpack rubs against the back frequently, it is void of this feature of breathability. The result of it will be wet clothes at the back.

An external frame backpack is aligned far away from the torso. As a result, it creates ample air circulation and ventilation, and therefore reduces the amount of sweat against our back. The back positions weight in an upright position and, thus, transfer it evenly to the lower body. So there will not be a localized tension that rubs against the back to create more sweat.

Kelty external frame pack

So, if you want more breathability between your back and the backpack, you want to consider the external frame backpack. But this doesn’t mean the internal frame backpacks are worthless. They are still good and you can solve this breathability by constantly lifting it up to let air circulate.

Framing

This is the main difference between these two backpacks. The internal frame backpacks have pre-bent frames, usually aluminum metals, that are inserted into vertical pockets to provide rigidity and support. These frames are bent to conform to the shape of your back. With the external frame backpacks, the frames are visible from the outside in the form of an H shape.

Woman showing the landscape at the camera

They provide rigidity and support from the outside, and can be used to strap other outdoor gear on the pack. The frame helps position the pack away from the body so that huge loads can be supported.

Other features

The other difference is seen in the alignment of the external pockets for additional storage requirements. External frame backpacks usually have many of the pockets whereby you can stuff your valuables and access them with ease during your hiking journey. The internal frame counterparts do not have as many storage pockets as do the external frame models.

All other features are similar to an extent of not being able to declare that which is the best. For instance, durability can be embraced by all the packs regardless of being internal or external frame backpack. It actually depends on the manufacturer that which materials were used in constructing the backpack.

teton-scout-3400 backpack and a landscape in the background

The internal backpack wins competition when coming to the shoulder and waist straps. These straps keep the pack fixed to the body comfortably. They are adjustable, so they can be worn by any person.

On the other hand, the external frame backpacks are not easy to adjust. It therefore makes it challenging for anyone to use your backpack if they are too big or too small compared to your torso. When buying the internal frame backpacks you do not have to worry about the size, but only the capacity.

So which is the best for your wilderness travel?

This is a challenging question to answer, but we will give recommendations either way. If you’re going out for a weekend excursion, we recommend having the external frame backpack. That’s enough time to survive the immobility of the pack. You can pack any gear into the bag without suffering from any load injuries. Furthermore, it will be suitable to have this backpack in very hot conditions because it will let enough air flow between your back and its surface.

If you plan on having an extra gear to be strapped onto the bag, we recommend having the external frame backpack for its ability to old additional gear without obstructing access to the inside of the bag. These bags are usually fitted with extra pockets on the outside. It becomes easy to have your sleeping bag or pad attached.

Group of hikers in the forest

The budget can also be a decision-maker in this regard. The external frame backpacks are cheaper compared to the internal frame backpacks. But they are seldom found in abundance in local gear stores. This is because they are no longer used prevalently since the dominance of the internal frame bags.

Internal frame backpacks, on the other hand, are very mobile. So they can be carried for longer distances and you can spend many days in the wilderness with the bag attached to your back. However, you have to be vigilant about the amount of weight you exert onto the pack. These backpacks perform poorly in weight distribution compared to their counterparts. The advantage of having them is mobility.

Hiker stiiting down and watching the landscape

If you are going to hike during very hot temperatures, it may be a bad choice to have the internal frame backpacks due to the lack of enough ventilation on your back. Your clothes may end up being wet with sweat as a result of the bag rubbing against your back. This implies that you should check the temperature forecast of your desired destination before choosing the right bag.

The internal backpack will not offer you an additional storage bag because they cannot attach with ease any additional gear. Any attempt to attach extra tools on the bag may limit your access to the bag. You will then have to unpack every time you need something. This is the downside of these backpacks. They are also relatively expensive compared to their counterparts. So if you’re running out of budget, these bags could be a strain to your bank balance.

Ruckbug External Frame Backpack

Our final say is that, it depends on the location of your travel, amount of gear to pack and the temperature setting that you will hike in. These backpacks have different uses that may be appealing to different users. For the best types of backpacks, see our article on this to give you more insight.

The table below shows the differences in a nutshell between these two backpacks:

INTERNAL FRAME BACKPACKSEXTERNAL FRAME BACKPACKS
Frames aligned inside to provide supportFrames exposed outside to provide more rigidity and support
Weight of gear exerted directly to the bodyWeight distribution done evenly onto the frames
Expensive in the range $200 to $300Inexpensive less than $200
Mobile and can conform to the shape of your backImmobile due to the design of the frames
Adjustable shoulder straps to fit anyoneThe shoulder straps are not easy to adjust
No enough air circulation because the pack rubs against your backEnough air circulation because the frames keep the pack away from your back
Not easy to attach external gearAllows for the attachment of external gear without limiting access
Portable to travel hundreds of milesNot portable to travel for hundreds of miles due to the frames

Final Thoughts On This Topic

The choice between the internal and the external frame backpacks is not an easy task given their plethora of capabilities. It’s hard to say that one is the best compared to the other. What we are sure of is the physical structure, but their functionalities tell a different story. As emphasized, the choice may be informed by the type of gear to carry, the type of the excursion to take, or even the duration of your outdoor adventure.

Bergen External Pack Frame Mod outside in the forest

Given these differences, you should be in a better position that which pack is more ideal for your travelling needs. Internal frame backpacks are predominantly used today by many enthusiasts due to the comfort and mobility they provide. The external backpacks were only prevalent for many decades ago, but still have a significant role to play.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John C. Porter

John C. Porter

John is passionate about hiking long distances. His record is over 65 miles in one day with backpacking gear. John hiked over 10 thousand miles, tried over 100 hiking shoes and visited 56 countries so far. His favourite hiking route is West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.