- Simplicity: Frameless packs generally have simpler designs. Less zippers, less compartments, less straps, less that can break, rip or go wrong.
- Fit: With frameless packs it is the load itself which provides the structure. With a foam 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 (see below). A heavy load packed indiscriminately into a frameless model, will be a lot more uncomfortable than it would be in a more forgiving internal or external frame backpack.
- 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.
- Cost: As an added bonus, frameless packs are cheaper!
EXTERNAL FRAME PACKS
- Pro’s: Cheaper than internal frame models; great ventilation; good for carrying heavy loads on nice, even trails; make for a good conversation starter with other backpackers (eg. “What are you carrying that for?”).
- Con’s: Heavy; not as stable in off-trail conditions; larger profile means it’s tougher to squeeze through tight gaps; the frame is prone to damage if travelling by public transport.
- Unless you have a thing for antiques, I wouldn’t recommend external frame packs…….too many limitations.
INTERNAL FRAME PACKS
- Pro’s: A closer fit means more stability when traversing uneven or rugged terrain; greater inner storage space means you have less strapped on to the outside of your pack, thus less chance of snagging gear on branches, bushes etc.
- Con’s: No ventilation between hiker’s back and pack; fancier, larger models tend to be on the expensive side; heavier than frameless packs.
- Large capacity (ie. packs that weigh over 2kg) internal frame packs can be deceptive. When you try one on in your local camping store, filled to the brim with 20kg of tents and sleeping bags, you may think to yourself, “Wow, this feels incredibly comfortable.” Don’t be fooled. After a long day on the trail, I guarantee you that twenty kilos will feel heavy no matter what you are carrying it in. Save your money, cut down your base weight (see Going Light) and invest in a smaller, lighter pack.
- Pro’s: Simple; lightweight; ideal for smaller loads; inexpensive.
- Con’s: Minimum support if packed indiscriminately; uncomfortable if carrying heavy loads for extended periods.
- Weigh less than 0.7kg (1.54lbs).
- Basically a sack with shoulder straps. Most models have side pockets, but not all have compression straps and hipbelts. Personally speaking I like to have both, as they provide a superior level of comfort and stability over a wider range of pack weights.
- An unrolled or folded sleeping mat can provide a makeshift framesheet.
- Well constructed frameless models are fine to carry heavier loads for shorter periods (eg. the first couple of days of a long stretch without resupply), however will breakdown if constantly overloaded.
- I don’t recommend frameless packs made of silnylon/spinnaker or cuban fibre. These waterproof fabrics are ideal for lightweight shelters, but are not durable enough for extended use as backpacks.
- Since 2009, my frameless pack of choice has been the MLD Burn (see photo at top).
HOW MUCH CAPACITY DO I NEED?
- Heavy backpacks are designed to carry heavy loads.
- Packs sporting a high tech suspension system, metal stays, a thickly padded hipbelt and a 80-90 litre capacity generally weigh in the vicinity of 2.5 to 3.5kg. That’s a lot of weight. I carried one of these puppies for many years. My knees hurt just thinking about it.
- Unless you are planning a career as a high altitude porter , carrying gear for a family of four or heading off into the wilds for a three week trip with no resupply, then such heavy packs are overkill. There is simply no need to have a pack this heavy.
- If you have a moderately light base weight of around 8-9kg (very achievable for most backpackers), than a pack with a 65-70 litre capacity should be sufficient. If filled correctly, this will provide enough space for essential equipment plus at least four or five days food.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY OF FILLING MY PACK?
- If you are using a frameless pack, begin by inserting your foam mat into your backpack (either in cylinder form or flat against the back).
- Waterproof your pack by lining it with a garbage bag.
- Bottom: I place my bivy sack and a few clothing items (e.g. extra socks, rain pants, thermal underwear) I will not need during the day at the bottom of the pack. Alternatively, you could use your sleeping bag. Such items are generally not excessively heavy, but their bulk provides a base upon which you can put weightier items such as food and water.
- Middle: Heavier items such as food, shelter (depends on the type) and water (if you happen to be carrying more than a couple of litres) should be packed close to your back in the medium to upper regions of your pack. This holds true no matter what the weight of your pack. Lighter items such as clothes and/or sleeping bag should be utilised to fill the outer sections.
- Top: At the top of your pack, put your snacks, wind shirt and any other items you think you may need during the day.
DO I NEED A PACKCOVER?
- In a word, no. Packcovers have a tendency to get caught on branches and can sag in wet weather if not properly sized for your pack. Instead of a pack cover, try lining the inside of your backpack with a garbage bag. It’s lighter, more affordable and does exactly the same job. The only time I will cover the outside of my pack is if I am wearing a poncho tarp.
- Compartments: Useful for travel packs, not so great for hiking purposes. The more zippers and seams your pack has the more likely it is to leak in heavy rain.
- Side Pockets: Handy for water bottles, maps, gloves, beanie, etc.
- Compression Straps: Over the course of a multi-day backpacking trip, the volume and weight of your pack’s consumable items (eg. food & fuel) will decrease significantly. That being the case, compression straps are useful for keeping your pack’s centre of gravity closer to your back once your pack begins to empty.
- Extension Collar: I am not a fan of big extension collars. If your pack always seems to be towering over your head then chances are you need a bigger pack. The problems with “maxing” out a large extension collar are as follows: 1. They limit freedom of head movement and place undue strain on the neck; 2. Impede balance when traversing uneven or overgrown terrain, and; 3. The top-heavy nature of the load results in the hiker leaning unnaturally forward, which in turn places extra pressure on the lower back.
- Mark Verber’s Recommended Outdoor Gear has a comprehensive overview of anything and everything pertaining to backpacks. This guy definitely knows his outdoor gear. Highly recommended reading.