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Internal vs. external frame packs

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Our troop and crew are excited about our upcoming Philmont trek next summer. We have scheduled some shakedowns and are starting to review equipment choices. Some of the fellows are planning to upgrade their backpacks and the discussion of internal vs. external frames, and internal capacity, has been quite animated.


What do you folks recommend, and why?

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Hello, Trevorum. I've used both types extensively and here are my thoughts...


1. Internal-frame packs look much more "high-tech" than those old-time external-frame packs. When it comes to style, internal-frame wins every time.


2. The internal-frame packs generally consist of a single large pocket, accessible from the top, while the external-frame packs generally have numerous pockets, accessible from the top, sides, and rear of the pack ("rear" meaning the side opposite the shoulder straps). So the internal-frame can carry much larger items, but numerous stuff-sacks are necessary if the hiker is going to keep his or her gear in some semblance of order. (This also means that the heaviest objects in the pack tend to migrate downward over the miles.)


3. Internal-frame packs are usually narrower in width, to allow the hiker's arms a larger range of movement. For climbing and cross-country skiing, where the arms swing far back, this is quite important. External-frames still allow rearward arm movement, but not as much.


4. External-frame packs are great for clipping, lashing, and strapping gear onto the frame. The internal-frame packs (at least the older ones) don't have so many tie-down points, and the points they have may not efficiently transfer the load to the frame. I'd much rather lash that wet and muddy towel or boots to the outside of my external-frame pack than put them in a stuff sack inside my internal-frame.


5. The internal-frame packs have lighter frames that tend to not have cross-pieces, and therefore the hiker can flex his or her shoulders more than an external-frame will allow.


My practice is to go with the internal-frame when I'm mountaineering or skiing and with the external-frame when I'm on the trail. The design of the internal-frame packs received a lot of attention a few years ago, and in the last couple of years the external-frame packs seem to have caught up. Overall, I'd have to say the difference between the two types of packs is much less significant than the difference betwenn a well-fitted and a poorly fitted pack.


There's a ton of information in the book "The Complete Walker" (4th ed.) by Colin Fletcher and Chip Rawlins that might be helpful. Also, rei.com may be helpful.


I hope you have an awesome season getting ready for Philmont!


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I was an external frame holdout. My pack had serviced me well for 30+ years and well over 300 miles. But after years of kidding about my "antique", I finally traded it in on a new internal frame (Kelty Redcloud). I gotta admit, I'm pretty attached to my new pack. It fits like a dream and is much easier to hike with. I can easily fit everything I need for a weekend excursion with tons of room to spare. I'm sure I could handle a Philmont load in it as well.


The down side I've always heard is that internal frames don't allow as much air circulation between the body and the pack. Since I'm a "sweater", I thought that would be a problem for me. But it has not been, at least not yet.

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I'm with Student. The couple of times I've gone skiing/packing, I've used an internal frame and its suited me well, but my personal preference is for external frames. My experience has been that they are more stable, have better compartmentalization ( whoo long word! ) and better tie down capability.


I've had my 1980 model Jansport for all this time, and save for one hungry squirrel who chewed a hole in one of my pockets, its in great shape and serves me well!



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I'm old school. Go with the external for Philmont. I've got a Gregory external that I used at the ranch two years ago and it's great. At Philmont you will sweat and having the airflow in the back makes life a little easier. I put a tent, thermarest and sleeping gear lashed to the outside and had tons of room on the inside. Don't forget that you will also be hauling food and crew gear at philmont so make sure you have some extra room.




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I have to agree with Purcelce on this. I use both designs but this usually means external for the summer or for dry regions...and internal for winter or wet trips. One complaint I have is that it is tough to find the external pack without the frame. Result: I have a bunch of good frames left over from years of worn-out packs. Such a waste.

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I'm old school, too. Have used both, but keep coming back to external frame because I like the feel and the clanking/creaking is music to my ears. (Kinda like the delightful taste of iodine water that means I must be backpacking!) I also sweat a lot and like the extra ventilation. Of course, most of my backpacking is on trails, so extra stability and narrower sides arent much of a consideration. However, on a really challenging 10-day trek in the Wind River Range last year that was almost totally off-trail in snow, I was glad I went with NOLS advice and used their gargantuan internal frame.


For scouts at Philmont, theres really not that much of a performance issue. External frame might mean less time trying to get organized and internal might mean a little better stability when rock-hopping rugged portions of trail. Mostly its just a matter of preference.


One difference nobody has mentioned is cost. In general, you can get more pack for less money with external. The experts at REI told me 8 years ago that internals were the clear wave of the future and I wouldnt be able to find an external frame for sale in 3 years. The experts were clearly wrong. Im not sure whether their prediction was based on superior performance or superior marketing (and profit margin), but I have my suspicions.


(Sorry couldnt resist.)


Whichever pack you pick, youre going to have a GREAT time, and pack selection wont have nearly as much of an influence as physical preparation and team building before you get there. (Forgot to add boots. Spend lots of time in those boots to get your feet ready!)





(This message has been edited by Mike F)

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That was good advice, Mike.

I just remembered also, that if you use an external (and I learned this from personal experience), you may be tempted to just hang stuff from the top posts of the frame. If it's lightweight (whistle on laniard) then no problem but do that with a full canteen and the constantly shifting weight is really annoying. Also, around these parts the height of the pack (regardless of design) especially if it extends above one's head is important because of the need to duck low hanging tree limbs and deadfalls. After a few miles, it gets tiresome to continue to have that pack catch on stuff or to have to duck EXTRA low to clear that log.

But the best packing I have done (not extended trips like Mike mentioned, though) was out of a large daypack. Packing very lightly and taking the absolute minimum. Have to pick the weather carefully though. Have a great trip!

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Hey Trevorum!

Ya want logic or emotion?

Having both types, I can say that the internal frames are generally lighter "per cubic inch" of volumn than the external frames. (but you gotta be careful some "internals" use such heavy cloth it negates that asset) If your pack starts out lighter...you either end up lighter (with the same gear) or you can pack a little more gear...Do a lot of research, look at and 'feel' many many packs- try them on loaded! Newer internal frame packs are really incredible, many have great air flow systems, numerous daisy chain /lashing points for "hanging" extra "stuff" and if you have the dollars you can cut some serious weight out of the pack itself...and that means a "better" trek!


emotion- I love my old external...I use it almost exclusively now...(stopped doing long distance treks after a bout of Lung "C" slowed me down- so its not a big deal)...but I just know that if I had to...I could lash a volkswagon to that darn frame and haul it out...go figure...



On your old frames...Kelty and others (if you know the 'make' of the pack... will remake pack sacks, if they still have the older patterns...


I use an old cheaper frame at the beach...chairs, tarp and a small cooler get "bungied" to it, allowing "Free" hands to carry important stuff - fishing gear!


And last you can use old frames to show how we used to do it "in the good old days"...after we "discontinued" using the "bedroll-pack and shoulder haversack" (and gaiters or spats).


We used old G.I. pack frames, -taking a heavy duty G.I. rubber and canvas poncho (try small canvas tarp?); we placed our clothes and gear in the middle, folded the corners/edges over (making a "bag") and lashed the "bag" (mouth of bag against or "down on the frame")

with a diamond hitch using old hemp rope...and saddled up!


What a change! Heck, next someone will tell me we don't have to wear leather work boots!


anarchist(This message has been edited by anarchist)(This message has been edited by anarchist)

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You guys have me itching to get out there again! Work prevented me from getting in a major trip this summer for the first time in years and I'm going into withdrawal!


Packsaddle - I'd like to try your "minimalist" approach some time. It seems like every time I get out, I'm either going with scouts or buddies without much experience, so I feel compelled to carry a ton of "just in case" stuff.


Anarchist - I may pull my tattered old canvas Camper pack off the frame and diamond-lash my old poncho onto the frame on our next weekend backpacking trip! That'll flip out the guys with their $200 packs!


Happy trails!



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I used external frame packs for 30 years but ten years ago decided to switch to internal after reading in The Complete Walker that Colin Fletcher had switched. The most interesting part of his account was that he (perhaps the most famous backpacking author in the world) relied on the expertise of a knowledgeable salesperson for advice in selecting and fitting the internal pack to his body.


I still have four external packs that I loan out to Scouts. For ten years I have intended to use one of my external packs for old-times sake, but have never gotten around to it. As I get older, I like the balance of my internal pack.


The internal-frame packs generally consist of a single large pocket, accessible from the top, while the external-frame packs generally have numerous pockets, accessible from the top, sides, and rear of the pack


My internal pack is also accessible from the top, sides, and rear of the pack. It also has a zippered partition that can be used to divide the bottom 1/3 of the pack from the top. I don't use it, but whether or not you engage this partition, the bottom of the pack can be accessed from the back through a zipper. I carry my group first aid kit in this area.


Most internal packs also have an additional top pocket that can be accessed without opening the main pack.


I also purchased optional side pockets, and front pockets that attach to the front of the shoulder straps.


The side pockets are large enough to fit two 1-quart bottles of white gas plus a couple of Whisper-Lite stoves in one outside pocket, and a quart of water plus my mess kit, etc. in the other. They are designed not interfere with your elbows as you hike.


The small front pockets seemed like a great idea for holding a compass, knife, notebook, camera, etc. because they are easily accessible while walking. I don't really use them however, because once you make camp, you end up removing these things from the pockets. I prefer a fishing or backpacking vest for these things plus my "ten essentials." A vest can be worn while hiking if you arrange the pockets to fit over the waist belt and around the shoulder harness.


This also means that the heaviest objects in the pack tend to migrate downward over the miles.


This hasn't been my experience. Internal packs have a bunch of compression straps that are all tightened before you start hiking. This turns the contents of the pack into the "frame" of the pack, so the contents are pretty tightly compressed together. By the way, this is probably the reason for the optional zippered partition, so that the heaviest objects are placed at the bottom of the upper partition, one-third from the bottom, creating the best balance.




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Kudu, I've seen a lot of internals that have the bottom pocket used as a place for a sleeping bag too. I wish mine had that in it. Typically, I attach my sleeping bag on top of the main pack underneath the top pocket that is detachable. Another feature of internals is a lot of them have detachable tops that convert into waist packs.


I keep items such as rope, first aid supplies, rain gear, and a survival blanket in the top pockets. I keep my main first aid kit, my knife, a Mini-Mag, and a whistle on my body myself, and not on the pack.

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