Since the early 2000’s, frameless backpacks have been my rucksack model of choice for the majority of hiking trips that I have done. While by no means an ideal option for all hikers and all types of journeys (see below in FAQ’s), personally speaking I enjoy using them for the following reasons:
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 an unrolled or folded 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 or external frame backpack.
3. Weight and Durability: Frameless packs are lighter than other models. Generally speaking we’re talking 0.6 kg (21 oz) or less. That said, over the years I have found that the weight saving doesn’t come at the cost of durability. Case in point are the two Mountain Laurel Design Burn packs that I have owned since 2009. Each pack lasted at least 8,000 trail miles (12,874 km). The one caveat to this is if you regularly overload them, in which case the stitching tends to fail quicker than framed backpacks; particularly around the shoulder strap area.
4. Size: People who buy backpacks with large carrying capacities (e.g. 65 litres or more) generally find ways to fill them. You have all that space, it would be a shame to see it go to waste, no? An inherent advantage of frameless packs is that they are generally small. They are not made to carry loads over 10 kg (22 lbs) for extended periods of time. This limitation forces the hiker to pare down their backpacking kit from the outset. With a frameless pack the focus needs to be on carrying the necessities, with superfluous luxuries either left at home or kept to a bare minimum.
5. Cost: Generally speaking, frameless models are cheaper than internal and external framed backpacks.
In regards to weight, how much is too much for a frameless backpack user?
If your base pack weight is more than 5 kg (11 lb) or you regularly expect to carry a total weight of more than 9 or 10 kg (20 – 22 lb), you are better off going with a lightweight internal frame backpack. Why? In short, internal frame packs with a fixed hip belt offer superior load distribution between your shoulders and hips (i.e. they’re more comfortable to use when carrying heavier loads).
Speaking of hip belts, what about the theory that they aren’t necessary for frameless backpacks if your base weight is under 4.5 kg (10 lb)?
Personally I’d disagree, with the following caveat. If the majority of your hiking is done on maintained trails in three season conditions, then yes, you can definitely get by sans hip belt without too many issues. This particularly holds true if you rarely hike for more than four or five days between resupplies (i.e. your total pack weight doesn’t exceed 10 kg / 22 lb). When hiking on such pathways, more often than not I’ll leave my hip belt loose or clip it around the back side of the pack (i.e. the same effect as a “beltless” model).
I never give it the chop, because for a weight penalty of only 1.5 to 3 oz (i.e. the equivalent of one or two Snickers bars), hip belts can make a difference in regards to load distribution, balance and stability, particularly when hiking in challenging, off-trail conditions for extended periods.
What are some Frameless Backpacks you can recommend?
Since the early 2000’s, I’ve extensively used frameless packs from Mountain Laurel Designs, Gossamer Gear and Granite Gear. Another company with a long-term track record of making high quality frameless models is ULA Equipment.