The Difference Between Internal and External Frame Packs

by Thomas Sorheim | Last Updated: May 6, 2020
Two girls hiking with internal and external frame backpacks

Over the last few decades, many modifications to bags and backpack designs have been made. They all use to have the same structure and were made from similar materials. But, with the increasing demand for backpacks and bags in various styles to accommodate different lifestyles, they have since then changed for us to now have a few different choices.

Two of the most popular options for backpacking and hiking are the internal and external frame backpacks. Each of these types of backpacks has different pros and cons when it comes to using them for hiking. To help you choose which one you should invest in for your next trip, here is a detailed explanation of the difference between internal and external frame packs and a list of their strengths and weaknesses.

Internal Frame Packs

Pros

Internal frame backpacks are built to sit right up against your body. This design keeps your bag to be closer to your body’s natural position while standing upright. You can adjust the straps and the bag to fit your frame, and this prevents the bag from swinging or moving while it is on your back. These factors can be a huge advantage when it comes to doing activities that cause you to move in irregular positions.

To put this in perspective, try to think that you are hiking on an uneven path. You will need to run and climb the road, and with that, it will cause the insides of your backpack to shift whenever you move. But, if you are using an internal frame backpack, all of your belongings will be tucked away, and the bag will stay upright instead of falling off your shoulder or moving from side to side.

Another advantage of internal frame backpacks is that they have vast amounts of space within them, allowing you to carry more items on your trips. So, if you would go on a hike or a camping trip that requires you to bring all of your needed gear, the internal frame backpack will have enough space to accommodate those irregular and larger shaped items and equipment.

In addition, the shoulder straps on internal frame backpacks are simple to adjust, which makes it easier to fit any type of body frame and people of various heights. They are also very compact, which means it will be a lot easier to pack them in the trunks of your car or when you have to check in your luggage for your plane ride.

Lastly, internal frame backpacks are designed to have two aluminum stays, which are long bars that are entirely flat and located against the back of the bag; these will provide you with extra support when you need it. The stays can bend to shape your back or can be changed to accommodate whatever it is you are packing into the backpack.

Cons

Just because internal frame backpacks are meant to be better, doesn’t mean that they will be a perfect match for everyone. Here are some of the drawbacks that we have noted from people who do not like internal frame backpacks.

First, internal frame backpacks make your back sweat more because they have a very tight fit, which means they can get uncomfortable in high temperatures for extended hikes. They also tend to run higher in price than external frame backpacks. Likewise, they end up distributing the weight lower than other pack designs, which means you will be transferring the weight onto your lower body and back instead of your upper back and shoulders.

Additionally, it is also complicated to strap items to the outer part of the internal frame backpacks and have them fit comfortably. They also do not usually come with the option to store your smaller items in easy-to-grab compartments like other backpacks. This means that you will have to reach inside the bag every time you need to get an object in the bag.

External Frame Packs

Pros

External frame backpacks fit so that they rest farther away from a person’s torso. This can help increase ventilation and reduce the heat on your back. The weight is distributed at a higher position, which means you would use your upper back and shoulders to help support the weight. These factors are excellent for people who want a backpack for walking trails, camping, and hiking.

They also tend to run cheaper than internal frame backpacks and are easier to strap gear to the frame or the outside of the pack. This gives you more flexibility when packing your gear and improves your ability just to grab and go with any of your items. This means that you won’t have to always open the pack up to get access to other things because you can attach them to the straps on the outside.

Most of the external frame backpacks come designed with many side pockets; this makes it easier for you to pack and access smaller items without digging in the pack. The shoulder straps are difficult to adjust, but they accommodate people with smaller physiques.

Cons

External frame backpacks often are harder to adjust when it comes to changing the straps to your liking. They are designed to be big and have more space than the internal frame bags, but this makes it more challenging to store it away if you need to travel to your destination.

Which is Better?

So, which is better among the two? What is the difference between internal and external frame packs? The answer is that both of these backpacks serve a specific function and you should decide based on the activities you will be doing. If you will be hiking on rough terrain that requires you to move more often, and you do not want your gear to go flying, then an internal pack is better for you. If you plan to go camping or hiking on a trail pathway, then we will suggest the external frame pack instead. That is because this will give you more compartments and you will quickly be able to access your gear.