External Frame Backpack Benefits & Guide

An external frame backpack is almost synonymous with hikers, backpackers, and a lot of other travelers who pack lightly. Are they still in style? Are they still practical? What purpose do they serve? If you are unfamiliar with an external frame backpack or if you’re just wondering if they are still the best option, then your answers can be found here.

What is an External Frame Backpack?

Two backpacks in mountains valley

You most likely have seen or owned one of these backpacks in your lifetime. An external frame backpack is categorized as a backpack with a frame (usually aluminum) on the outside. The rigid design poses a few benefits.

For one thing, they are sturdier backpacks for those who need to carry heavy loads. The aluminum frame will help distribute the weight among the shoulders and throughout the body.

Some of the external frame backpacks you see on the market can also feature a belt that fastens around your midsection to help with load transfer.

Backpacks with external frames are also excellent for attachments. The aluminum frame is a good place to hook your water bottles onto for easy access and even sleeping bags.

Have They Become Obsolete?

External frame backpacks used to be everywhere. Even for a weekend hike or a short camping trip, they were in abundance. However, they seem to have gradually diminished due to the appearance of internal frame backpacks.

An internal frame backpack is just the opposite – the frame sits on the inside. They are also less bulky and are lighter than the external framed backpacks. What also induced the popularity of an internal frame backpack is the improvement of hiking gear.

Just as our phones have become more compact over the years, so has the equipment we use during our hikes. This also eliminates the need for a bulky backpack to distribute the weight. However, a lot of seasoned hikers are used to external frame backpacks and stick with them.

Benefits of an External Frame Backpack

Hike in the Patagonian mountains, Argentina

Most external frames can be removed from the actual backpack, which gives them a higher degree of versatility. As said, having an external frame also adds more utility to the backpack as it allows you to attach additional add-ons. Having the attachments hanging outside of the backpack also gives you easy access in a pinch. You can just reach your hand around and grab your water bottle when you’re feeling thirsty or your cell phone when you need it, which could sit in an outer compartment.

Since they are the more “outdated” version, they are also much more affordable than the internal frames. The construction of an internal frame backpack also makes it easier to wear. Since it sits away from your body and hiking is a strenuous activity, it also improves the sweating situation.

The satchel lifts off your body to let more airflow through. It also gives you a better posture as it extends from your waist through your spine.

External frame backpacks also have a lot of side, front, and back pockets, as well as hidden pockets; this leaves room to carry even more items. A benefit of this is you can easily sort through your gear by keeping them in set places.

Drawbacks of External Frame Backpacks

They aren’t as “one-size-fits-all” as internal frame backpacks are. The shoulder straps can be more difficult to adjust; therefore, there are limits to their height accommodation.

Another significant and obvious drawback is the size. They are often much larger and more cumbersome than the internal frame backpacks.

Maintenance and Utility

A woman hiking and looking off at the mountains.

Are external frame backpacks practical if they are bulkier? They are very durable and made with tough materials, which also tie into how long they last. Since they are so tough, you can pack it full of items you need for your trip and not have to worry about damaging the backpack.

They are easy to use, and they make it effortless to organize your equipment. They are set up with different compartments and pockets for different items. They even feature many pockets on the exterior for easy access.

Since you take these backpacks on arduous journeys in all types of weather, it’s more than likely that it will get dirty. So how do you clean your external backpack frame? It can be done with soapy water dipped into with a rag, cloth, or sponge.

How to Pack Your External Frame Backpack

Backpacking items

It helps you organize your belongings, but having so many pockets and compartments can be overwhelming. How do you even start? There is an art to packing, as some expert tidy-uppers will tell you even when it comes to suitcases.

Let’s start with organization. Before you even think about filling your backpack, you need first to sort through and separate everything on the outside.

If you’re going on a long outdoor adventure, how you pack is important in terms of weight distribution. If you place all the heavier items on top or to one side, it will surely weigh you down.

So the first step is to separate your items by weight. Group the heavier items in one pile. Group the mid-range items in another, and then put lightweight items in one more.

You would ideally place your backpack on the bottom; it acts as a cushion and can help your backpack keep its shape better. It’s also most likely the last thing you need at the end of the day, which gives you a better chance of removing everything on top first.

After that, start loading in the more cumbersome and heavier items, then medium then lightweight. As you’re packing, you can try wearing your backpack, too, just to see how the weight feels.

After that, you can look at the outer compartments and items you need quick access to like a knife, lighter, or your water bottle. Things that you need on-hand should go in the outer compartments.

Try not to keep fragile items in these pockets since they don’t sustain more impact than they would if they were safely tucked inside.

The last thing you would do is to keep the camping necessities at the top of your pack. The purpose of this is to keep all you need to set up camp waiting for you right at the top. It’s basically for convenience purposes, saving you the trouble of having to empty the entire contents to get what you need.

It’s important to consistently try the backpack on while you are packing to see if your weight distribution is optimized. Too much weight sitting at the bottom will make your backpack that much heavier. Instead, line the backpack with the heavier items. Make sure some of them are laying against your back.

No matter how well you pack, your back can get heavy after a few hours, so remember to give yourself breaks in between!

When it comes time to head home, do the same thing! The key is even weight distribution. When you are heading home, there’s less of a need to pay attention to what items you will need first and pack them in order, so just focus on weight distribution.


External frame backpacks are still very much useful as they offer some benefits that internal frame backpacks do not. If you’re used to carrying one with you and find no issues or have no complaints, then, by all means, stick with it!

They are great organizers and are a cheaper option compared with internal frame backpacks. They also leave a little bit of room between the satchel and your back, which means you won’t feel as restricted. It’ll also help keep you a little bit cooler.

They are also much more useful when you want to keep things easily accessible and easy to grab in times of emergencies. Even with the appearance of internal frame backpacks, there is still a place for the external options.

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