External-Frame Backpacks


In this column last month, I covered two major companies, Kelty and JanSport, who will introduce retro-style, external-frame backpacks in 2011. The article pitched external-frame packs as throwbacks — bulky, exposed and skeletal products that were left behind two decades ago by anyone serious about carrying loads in the great outdoors.

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External-frame packs from Mountainsmith, High Sierra, Coleman, Outdoor Products and JanSport

But the external-frame lives on, and it’s not just for the retro crowd. A new entry in the category, High Sierra’s External Frame pack series, includes the classic exposed-frame look but with modern touches like hydration-reservoir sleeves and eco-minded PVC-free construction.

One pack in the High Sierra line, the Foxhound 50, has a top-load main compartment, contoured straps, and a mesh panel to let air flow between your back and the pack load. There is a removable media pocket on the front to store a GPS unit or an iPhone. It costs $110.

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High Sierra Foxhound 50

High Sierra is hardly the only company in the external game. In addition to their retro lines, Kelty and JanSport sell modern external-frame models. Other companies that sell externals include ALPS Mountaineering, Mountainsmith, Coleman, Texsport, Cabela’s, and Outdoor Products.

ALPS, a small company in rural Missouri, offers two external models. The Red Rock, a 2,000-cubic-inch model, costs $89.99.

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Outdoor Products’ Dragonfly Youth Pack

Budget brand Outdoor Products has a couple packs in the category, including the bargain Dragonfly External Frame Youth Pack. It costs as little as $39.99 on web retailers like Campmor.com and features a plastic-composite frame.

Coleman’s Bozeman X 60 has water repellency and a slick, modern look with silicone-treated nylon in a diamond rip-stop pattern. It costs about $150. There is an adjustable torso pin-and-ring system for positioning the frame and pack on your back.

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Coleman Bozeman X 60

The Youth Scout model from Mountainsmith is made for kids. It costs $109, weighs about 4 pounds when empty, and is marketed as offering a “supportive external frame that provides a comfortable backpacking experience for kids.” Its frame is made with 6061 aluminum and it has a “sleeping bag sling,” which looks like a small hammock hanging on the bottom of the pack.

Why go external? Cheaper price is a good place to start. To be sure, you can find deals on internal-frame packs. But at retail, external-frame packs are often cheaper than comparably-sized internals.

continued on next page. . .

Posted by Canyon Ram - 09/21/2010 12:57 PM

You can often tell when someone began backpacking as a hobby. Old Baby Boomers still tote their Kelty External and Privetta hiking boots! The externals have a place—-desert hiking and Grand Canyon. Air flow is better, trails open so the pack does not have to conform to the body, better balance when carrying lots of water. I still have my old Kelty and chose it over my newer internal frame when I go to Grand Canyon.

Posted by Dennis Hill - 09/22/2010 10:47 AM

As an avid kayaker, I can say that an excellent back pack is a must have. I love the external framed back packs.

Dennis Hill

Posted by Brimstone - 09/24/2010 12:49 PM

Well…external frames have been in service with the Army and Marine Corps continuously since WWII. They are folks who know as much about carrying stuff as anybody. The Army has a multi-million dollar test organization called “Soldier Systems Command” with a staff of scientists and testers who constantly develop equipment, including packs. The military dabbled with internal frames in the 80’s and 90’s. I personally was issued a Lowe system (“CFP 90”); the general verdict among my peers was that the lack of support (2 internals stays) made it carry like a sack of potatoes when loaded with military scale weight. That flex might be good for ski-mountaineering but not for carrying heavy stuff a long way. The back-hugging narrow tubular profile made it hot and difficult to get to stuff inside. I modified mine with a plastic Coleman “Ram-X” external frame…a modification done by certain specialty sewing shops around Ft. Bragg for discriminating members of certain units to the then standard-issue ALICE pack. The plastic external frame is, I believe, the best all-round for heavy loads, stiff enough for good weight stabilization and transfer but flexible enough for weight shift i.e. when you step in a hole at night and lose your balance, or have to run across rough terrain. Much harder to break than aluminum.

I was also issued a Gregory designed, Bianchi manufactured “SPEAR” internal frame ruck system. Again this was generally hated. It had many modular pieces making it probably the most complex ruck system ever manufactured (and most expensive), very heavy (empty) and had a tangle of long straps that made it look like green spaghetti.

The current Army/Marine issue is similar to the ALICE/RAM-X set up with an external plastic frame and (very) modular bag. Called the “MOLLE”. I think it is great.

Posted by Brimstone - 09/24/2010 12:52 PM

…Most backpackers today, with modern, lightweight gear, don’t need an external frame. Unless you’re hiking across the Mojave or carrying out a quartered Elk your pack weight ‘should’ be less than 30 lbs/person. Even a well-sewn frameless pack can handle this- Gregory showed this 30 years ago with his ‘Day-and-a-Half’ pack. Kifaru makes very good frameless packs that can handle more weight than most can carry.

Frankly I don’t carry stuff through the woods for fun anymore. Spent way too much time doing that already and I don’t like to miss too much HBO. But you all have fun.

Posted by Dave - 09/24/2010 03:47 PM

Hey, I’ve been using a Jansport D2 for 20 years or more, and it still works great. On a side note, I don’t have my Vasque leather hiking boots anymore (maybe 2-3 lbs each), because one day my wife decide they were ‘too heavy’, and threw them to my dogs to be chew toys….

Posted by nate - 10/26/2010 02:06 PM

I use a mix of internal and external frame packs. Nothing feels better on my back than my Camp Trails Omega – I’ve taken 80 pound loads and didn’t gripe at all. Although with that backpack I tend to overpack, so I still pull my older D-3 out of the closet, I’ve only had to replace the shoulder straps, free of charge with the JS warranty, and its still a great pack when I want comfort over minimalism. My externals aren’t for every trail, and my backpacking friends used to make fun of me until they’d hike a few miles with it, and then I’d get mad when they wouldn’t give it back :P

Posted by BigDave - 03/18/2011 10:14 PM

I am not ashamed to admit I got my start with an internal frame pack, and over all these years, hiking in hot, humid environments I reach for my late 1980s Coleman Peak 1 RamX external frame pack and will continue to do so without shame for as long as I can. I tried an internal frame pack and hated it. Kept me off balance and my back all sweaty, no thanks! Maybe it lacks ultra modern features, but it does do its job supremely well… And provides a comfortable hiking / backpacking experience for me!

Posted by John Ladd - 04/04/2011 11:17 PM

Starting a 9-day hike Wednesgay in the Grand Canyon – Tanner to Beamer, to Escalante (route), Tonto, Grandview with a newly-acquired MOLLE II external frame pack (mentioned in an earlier posting). In some training hikes, I am VERY happy with it. It really distributes weight well. But with a vew of the modular modifications — 2 sustainment pouches, radio pack and fanny pack (worn in front) — it is about 10 lbs empty. Allows the heaviest part of the load to be packed high and close to the pack with LOTS of room for the bulky, less heavy gear in more outlying locations.

Posted by Barteez - 08/27/2012 02:08 PM

Hey, I’ve been using a Jansport D2 for 20 years or more, and it still works great. On a side note, I don’t have my Vasque leather hiking boots anymore (maybe 2-3 lbs each), because one day my wife decide they were ‘too heavy’, and threw them to my dogs to be chew toys. biznespedia

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