Backpack Types

In a few weeks I’m going to be hosting an “Intro to Backpacking” Seminar at Harriman State Park.  I’m hosting this event via the Meetup Group “Hudson Valley Hikers.”   I’ve asked potential attendees to email me questions about backpacking.  Some of them are pretty good and I’ll be sharing the answers via a series of posts called “Ask CampingJay.” This post will discuss backpack types

Backpack Types

Lind Asks: “Awesome! Ques. -should I purchase a backpack with an external frame or an internal frame? Also, is an external frame the same as a tension-mesh suspension design? ”

Backpack Types: Frameless or Minimalist Frame

Great questions! Ultralight backpackers these days are moving towards frameless packs that use sit pads or sleeping pads to provide rigidity and load transfer to the hips. I try to steer everyone toward this kind of design because it saves 1.5-2 lbs before you even put anything in it. These packs can support 20-30 lbs, which is excellent if your base gear weight is only 10-12.  These packs follow the UL Backpacking Multiuse principle by using your sleeping pad to provide support.  These packs are simple, usually with just one large internal pocket and a few smaller external pockets. The idea is that most of your gear just gets stored and carried during the day and only comes out at night; thus doesn’t need to be organized. Some pack makers offer a removable wire frame that can be added to a frameless pack to increase load capacity by a few pounds.  Almost all packs in this category are flexible and move with your body. Example: Gossamer Gear Gorilla

Gossamer Gear Gorilla with hip belt, sit-light pad, and removable stay.
The Gossamer Gear Gorilla requires some assembly on arrival. The pack includes a sit-light pad and a removable stay. You must order a hip belt separately.

Backpack Types: Internal Frames

The largest market segment today is for packs with stiff, molded internal frames, usually with some sort of trampoline style back breathing system. These Cadillac packs tend to be heavy, usually weighing over 3.5 lbs empty. They are generally very durable and come with a lot of features that make them easy to sell to beginners. I’ve seen advertisements that you can carry as much as 45 lbs with these packs, but I’m not sure why anyone would want to do that.  Perhaps the biggest selling point of these packs is that they mold to your back and hips and feel very comfortable in the store. On the trail, however, the stiff frames start to dig into your flesh and the excess weight eats up calories.  Many of these packs do come with excellent organizational features, which may make them ideal for adventure travel. Example: REI Flash 65

Backpack Types: External Frames

External frame packs are largely considered dinosaurs, but they do serve certain niches very well. These packs can support tremendous loads, sometimes exceeding 100 lbs. This makes them ideal for porters carrying supplies to base camps or mountain huts or for trail crews carrying heavy equipment. They are also popular amongst hunters who carry a lot of equipment and/or game.  The external frame pack has survived the evolving market place by offering tremendous versatility.  The price of this versatility is weight. External frame packs can weigh 5-7 lbs or more. Example: Seek Outside Uniweep Fortress

My dad’s old external frame backpack, loaded up and ready to go.

Backpack Types: Tension Mesh

The tension-mesh design is sort of a very light version of the external frame pack. The traditional external frame pack carries most of the weight above your shoulders, while the new tension mesh packs carry it lower. These packs have load carrying characteristics similar to the internal frame pack, but they’re much lighter.  Example: Zpacks Arc Blast

Backpack Buying Advice

When shopping for a pack, look for simplicity. Avoid things like excess zippers, straps, and loops. The pack should carry its load close to your body’s center of gravity, which is why I avoid “trampoline” suspensions. Putting the load over your shoulders or in the small of your back will help avoid torqueing and hip pain. Don’t buy a pack that is too large. 45 liters should be fine for trips up to 4 days. People who buy larger packs tend to find extra stuff to carry. Look for usable water bottle holders and a large stretchy mesh back pocket – these are features I would never go without.

Types of Packs
Backpack Comparison Chart