Backpacking checklists need to be very comprehensive to ensure that you have packed everything you might need while on the trail. You need food, water, utensils, perhaps a stove and several other things, if you want to have a comfortable trip. However, the most important thing while out hiking is the backpack itself.
You need something which is strong, roomy, comfortable to wear and also lightweight. These are not the only considerations, though. Regular backpackers will know that there are two main types of backpacks – internal and external frame ones.
Both have their own merits and demerits. Here we will talk about internal vs external frame backpack, and discuss how they both differ.
Backpack Requirements and Things to Keep in Mind
There is nothing particularly wrong with any one type of backpack; they both just have different properties and uses. Therefore, when you are heading out for your backpacking trip, consider what your exact requirements are and then choose a backpack accordingly. Do your research – you do not want to go on your trail while carrying the wrong backpack.
Let’s talk, first, about what general points you need to keep in mind when purchasing a backpack.
- Capacity and Weight: How many things do you need to carry? Are you just going for a day-to-night trip or will you be spending several days on the trail? You need more stuff if you will be hiking for many days, and thus need to choose a backpack with sufficient storage capacity. Most backpacks have their capacity mentioned in cubic centimeters or inches.
- Comfort: Your backpack needs to rest comfortably on your back, with the shoulder and waist straps adjusted properly. Both internal and external frame backpacks have their own pros and cons in terms of comfort, and we will discuss them shortly.
- Mobility: Are you going on a straight, even path or will you be hiking in the wild, with rough terrain and climbs and falls? This is a very important question to consider before choosing your backpack.
- Compactness: Backpack compactness is another important consideration. Do you want a compact backpack which can easily fit inside the trunk of a car? Consider the overall size and weight of the backpack, too, before buying it.
What are Internal and External Frame Backpacks?
First, let’s understand the difference between the two types of backpacks, and then we can discuss their pros and cons.
- Internal Frame Backpacks:The suspension system is present inside the bag, and mostly in the form of aluminium stays. These backpacks have a lot of capacity inside, and are quite roomy.
- External Frame Backpacks: As the name suggests, these types of backpacks have a suspension system made of a rigid frame which is present outside the bag. The frame is mostly constructed out of aluminium.
Properties of Internal Frame Backpacks
Internal frame backpacks have their own set of specific properties, which make them different from external frame ones:
- Position: An internal frame backpack lies close to the back. As a result, it does not shift your center of gravity very much. These bags lie snug against the back and move around very little when you move. The straps on these bags can be adjusted to suit your comfort. They can be tightened and loosened, to ensure that the backpack rests properly against your back. Shoulder straps can be adjusted so people of all heights can wear the backpack with ease.
- Capacity: These packs have a lot of internal space. You can pack all of your stuff inside. Most of these bags allow access from the top, although some new ones do have front access, which makes it easier to pack your stuff. There is usually one big main compartment, with a few small side pockets. Most of the things are meant to be carried in the main compartment.
- Mobility: Internal frame backpacks allow a greater deal of mobility than external frame ones. Because the backpack lies next to your back, it does not hamper your motion or bump across your back when you make rapid movements.
Here’s what you get when you have internal frame backpacks.
- You can move around very easily while you are wearing this kind of backpack. This means that you should definitely go for an internal frame backpack if you will be traveling on a rough terrain with many up and down trails. If, for example, you plan to hike in rocky or mountainous terrain, you should go for this type of backpack.
- The backpack lets you store a lot of stuff inside, which works well if you are hiking in a region where there are bushes or branches which may snag your stuff if it is held outside.
- These bags are compact in size. This means that if you plan to reach your destination by car, you can easily fit this backpack in the trunk. It can even fit in the overhead compartment of an airplane.
- The support system of an internal frame backpack is mostly made of aluminium rods, which can be bent and shaped according to your preference. This means that if the bag feels uncomfortable across your back, you can bend the aluminium stays to match the curvature of your back, and hence feel more comfortable.
- They are ideal for tight and small trails where you need to maneuver with care.
Just like with pretty much everything in life, internal frame backpacks come with their own set of disadvantages:
- As mentioned before, internal frame backpacks lie very close to the back. As a result, they allow very little air to pass between your back and the pack, and hence they can make you feel quite hot. If you are backpacking in warm weather, it is very likely that you will sweat a lot. This means that you might get uncomfortable and may even have to stop to cool down. Some new internal frame backpacks come with ventilation channels, or nylon mesh at the back, which is meant to wick sweat away and make you feel cool and relaxed.
- If you are used to hanging things from your backpack, this backpack design is not the best one for you. It does not have many places for you to hang stuff from, and so you have to carry everything inside the bag. This might be a problem if you want to carry things which cannot be packed inside the backpack, like a rifle, or a large tent.
- The backpack rests in such a way that weight is carried lower on the back, which means that you have to bend forward a little to feel properly balanced and comfortable. Therefore, for straight trails, this may not be the perfect option.
- Usually, backpacks of this style have only a single big compartment, which means that if you need something that you have packed at the bottom of the pack, it can be quite a hassle to take it out. Some backpacks do come with small side pockets, but the main compartment is single and only has access from the top. Therefore, you have to pack very carefully. Thus, this type of backpack should not be your ideal choice if you may need to pack and unpack your things very often on your trip.
- They are not ideal for carrying very heavy and bulky objects, like sleeping bags.
- They are pricier than external frame backpacks.
Check out our piece on the top internal frame backpack to give you more choices.
Properties of External Frame Backpacks
Now let’s discuss the specific properties of external frame backpacks, which may be better suited to your needs:
- Frame: These backpacks have a rigid aluminium frame, which cannot be bent.
- Weight Transfer: These backpacks are designed in such a way that they transfer weight to your upper back. This lets you walk straight, with a proper upright posture. The pack is held slightly away from the back and does not hug it.
- Weight: They are heavier than internal frame backpacks.
- Compartments: These backpacks normally have more than one compartment. There are many zippered pockets for storing different stuff.
- Attachment Points: External frame backpacks have several attachment points from which you can hang different objects.
You can attach sleeping bags, bear canisters and even tents with these attachment points.
This means that these bags let you carry a large amount of weight; and a lot of stuff which cannot fit inside the bag can be hung from it outside.
External frame backpacks have the following advantages:
- You can carry your tent and sleeping bag with this backpack. This means that if you plan to go for longer hikes and need to carry a lot of stuff, you should get this backpack.
- It divides the weight evenly and hence lets you walk straight. You do not have to bend forward to feel like the weight is properly distributed.
- These backpacks are not hugging your back, which means that they allow air to pass between the pack and your back. As a result, you will not sweat quite so much and thus these bags are a good idea for hiking in hot weather.
- The backpacks have a lot of compartments, which makes it easy to store different types of stuff and keep your things organized. Packing the backpack is thus easier, and so is unpacking it.
On the flip side, this type of backpack frame too, have its disadvantages.
- These kinds of backpacks will move and bump across your back if you move about too much. As a result, they are not ideal for uneven terrain where you may need to climb or jump.
- They are bulky and thus can be cumbersome to carry. If you plan to travel by car, or by plane, it can be difficult to fit the backpack in the designated space.
- These bags do not feel very stable and you run the risk of falling down if you do not walk upright, or make a hasty jump.
- In the wild, where there are a lot of branches, the stuff you are hanging off the bag might get snagged and stuck. The backpack itself is difficult to maneuver through tight spaces and small trails.
- External frame backpacks are heavier and thus more difficult to carry than internal frame ones.
For tips on how to choose the best external frame backpack for your trip, check out our earlier article on this topic.
Which to Use
Now that we have discussed the properties and pros and cons of both types of backpacks, let’s get down to the important question – which backpack should you use and why?
There is no simple answer to this question. Which type of backpack you end up using depends entirely on your needs, the amount of stuff you are carrying, the type of trail you will be hiking on, how many days you will be hiking and of course, your own preference. That being said, it is also important to note that internal frame backpacks are all the rage these days, with most backpackers opting for this option.
If you need to decide which type of backpack to carry, consider this brief suggestion. If you plan to hike in definite, marked ground where the trail is straight and even and there will be no jutting branches, you can consider using an external frame backpack.
You should also go for this type of backpack if you want to carry a lot of heavy stuff which will be difficult to carry inside the pack, and may need to pack and unpack things quite often.
However, if you want to go hiking somewhere where you will have to move about a lot and may need to climb and jump, you should go for an internal frame backpack as it lets you move more easily. This type of backpack is also ideal for the wild, where you may need to maneuver through tight spaces and thus need a more compact backpack.
The Right Backpack can Make all the Difference
If you go on a hiking trip and your backpack is not comfortable or does not suit your needs, your whole trip will be ruined. Therefore, before setting out on the trail, always consider your needs and requirements and choose a backpack accordingly.
If you are a regular hiker who goes on hiking trips quite often, it won’t hurt to purchase both types of backpacks and use them as and when required. After all, having a perfect backpack is essential for a great hiking trip, so you should definitely invest in a good one.
Do read our review of the top backpack to give you more choices for your gear.
Which type of backpack do you usually use, and what are your opinions about it? Leave a comment and let us know!
Daniel is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.