Why Choose a Frameless Backpack?

MLD Burn Larrapinta

MLD Burn | Larapinta Trail | Northern Territory | Australia, 2010

When it comes to backpacks, since 2007 my preference has been for frameless models.

The reasons are as follows:

1.  Simplicity Frameless packs generally have simpler designs. Less zippers, less compartments, less straps, less that can break, rip or go wrong.

2.  Fit: With frameless backpacks it is the load itself which provides the structure.

With your sleeping mat acting as a makeshift frame sheet, ideally a frameless pack should mould to the contours of your back. In order for that to happen, particular attention must be paid to the manner in which your pack is filled.

A heavy load packed indiscriminately into a frameless model, will be a lot more uncomfortable than it would be in a more forgiving internal frame backpack.

3.  Weight:  Frameless packs are lighter, but not at the cost of durability. The one caveat to this point is if you consistently overload them, in which case they will eventually breakdown as a result of excessive strain.

Case in point are the two MLD Burn packs that I have owned since 2009. Each pack has lasted at least 9,000 trail miles (14,484 km)…………the second one is still going strong.

MLD Exodus:Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit: Peru

Cam Honan & MLD Exodus | Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit | Peru, 2014

4.  Size:  It’s a funny thing, but people who buy a pack with a large carrying capacity (e.g. 65 litres or more), generally find ways to fill it. You have all that space, it would be a shame to see it go to waste, no?

An advantage of frameless packs is that they are generally small. They are not made to carry loads over 11 kg (24.3 lbs) for extended periods of time. This limitation forces the hiker to pare down their backpacking kit.

With a frameless pack the focus is on carrying the necessities, with superfluous luxuries either left at home or kept to a bare minimum.

5.  Cleanliness: Easier to wash and keep clean. I tend to throw mine in a front-loading washing machine every few thousand miles or so.

6.  Cost: Generally speaking, frameless packs are cheaper.

NOTE: If your base pack weight (i.e. total weight not including perishables) is more than 6 kg (13.2 lb), you are probably better off with an internal frame pack.


Why Choose a Frameless Backpack? — 11 Comments

  1. I too use a MLD frameless pack. Bigger than yours. I see a lot of small packs out there with all sorts of gear tied to the outside. Ridgerest, etc. I prefer everything on the inside so it doesn’t rattle around. Maybe not bear spray:)

    • I agree. It’s always preferable to have your big ticket items on the inside, rather than the outside of your pack. This particularly holds true when hiking off-trail.

  2. Great post, and I agree with it all! I’m curious, with your low weights & frameless pack, do you use hip belts? I prefer a frameless pack (I use the GG Kumo), and I immediately clipped the webbing for the hip belts. I’ve always found that with limited weight, and most importantly, no frame, the hip belts really don’t have any load bearing capabilities. Plus, I feel that the backpack flows a bit better on your back when it’s not clamped on to you. Just curious your take on this. Thanks!

    • Hi Steven,

      Thanks for your message and the kind words. Personally I tend to leave the hip belt on. I find that it helps with stability on steep descents in technical terrain (e.g. scree slopes, boulder fields). This especially holds true if I’m carrying 5 days food or more and my pack is relatively heavy.

      When hiking on the flat, uphill and/or on well maintained trails, I usually leave the hip belt loose or unbuckled.



  3. Have you ever thought about putting pockets on your hipbelt of the Burn? there’s a not so famous hiker out there with pockets all over the burn. you could even keep you air mattress pump in one!!!!

    Are those plastic bags in the back pocket of the picture on Facebook. Don’t recall those in the gear list. 🙂

    • Yes, I seem to recall that hiker with the 6 hip pockets and the air mattress pump. If memory serves he also had a custom-made cuben fiber space suit. What was his name again?

  4. Hi Cam,
    When you hiked the PCT, how did the Burn handle a bear canister during the Sierra? Did you fit a canister inside (a small one I assume), or did you strap it on top? Thanks!

    • Hi Oscar…….You can fit a small canister in the Burn, but it is an extremely tight fit…….it certainly isn’t comfortable that’s for sure………Cam

  5. In order to put the other point of view out there, frameless……and internal frame for that matter aren’t for everybody. Packs, like footwear, are very personal choices and what is perfect for one person, is absolute torture for another. Frameless/Internal frame packs are torture to me. External frame packs are, for my taste, much preferable. The reasons are:
    1) Loading: With an external frame pack, you can screw it into your hips, and take all the load off of your shoulders and back, to where the shoulder straps are mainly there to keep it from falling backwards…..not to carry load. Perhaps this is a personal issue, but I have a problem with things pulling down on my shoulders….big time issues. External frame packs solve this problem.
    2) Breathability/coolness: External frame packs, when they are screwed into your hips and standing straight up from there, can be carried to where they do not touch your back. This is WAY way way cooler…..in addition it keeps your back from getting sweaty (at least not disproportionately sweatier than the rest of you)
    3) Weight: With the advent of some creative products by Vargo and LuxuryLite using carbon fiber and titanium for frames and cuben and sailcloth for the pack, you can now get an external frame pack that is competitive in the sub 2 pound weight category.
    4) Packability: While this may not be the big issue for everybody, but I live “in” Yosemite, so most of my hiking historically has been here, which means bear canisters. External frame packs are superior for carrying a bear canister. Lashing it to the frame is a no brainer and doesn’t take up pack space. Also the innovative design with the LuxuryLite where it is basically “stuff sacks” attached to the carbon fiber frame, makes compartmentalizing and minimizing stuff sacks transparent…..also you can put different size “packing tubes” on the frame to customize your pack to your specific trip.

    I’m sure there are other advantages that aren’t occurring to me right now, but those are some of the big hitters and why I own a LuxuryLite.

    Rand 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Rand.

      Some good points. I agree that there is not one pack that is ideal for all hikers.

      Personally speaking, I’m not a fan of external frame packs. Too many limitations…..they aren’t as stable in off-trail conditions; the larger profile means it’s tougher to squeeze through tight gaps and; the frame is prone to damage if traveling by public transport in developing countries.



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