I spent the late 1990s and early 2000s outfitting people for their next big adventure. Packs, tents, stoves, clothes, canoes — you name it — I was the guy in a little camping store in the center of Connecticut getting folks dialed in. And during that time, I saw an intense and rapid shift away from external frame backpacks and toward internal frame packs.
Internal frame packs are touted as lighter and more streamlined. It’s why they’re so popular and have been so widely adopted by the outdoor industry. They’ve become almost ubiquitous in the last 3 decades. And external frame backpacks, by contrast, have fallen by the wayside for hiking and backpacking.
I’ve been using internal frame packs since the late 1990s. But they’ve forced us to pack differently, lighter. Some folks like that kind of kink. But then there are others (like me) who don’t mind the extra weight and rigidity.
I spent a summer using the Commander Lite Pack + External Frame Backpack. And this pack thoroughly convinced me that external frame packs have just as much functional purpose in the backcountry as their internally framed counterparts.
In short: There’s no denying that internal frame packs streamline backpacking. However, the Commander Lite from ALPS OutdoorZ makes a strong argument in favor of external frame packs. I didn’t have to worry about compressing anything down or leaving anything at home with the Commander Lite. Yes, this pack, fully loaded, was a couple of pounds heavier than my internal frame pack. But, it was less bulky and moved with me better. This pack allowed me to keep all of my creature comforts on me and, as a result, I had a couple of the best nights of sleep I’d had in the woods in a long time.
- Frame Specifications
- Size 31” H x 15.5” W
- Weight 4 lbs., 11 oz.
- Torso range 17-23”
- Waist belt range 31-53”
- Price $150
- Pack Specifications
- Capacity 47 L / 2,850 cu. in.
- Weight 1 lb., 14 oz.
- Price $100
- Combined Specifications:
- Weight 6 lbs., 11 oz.
- Price $250
- Being able to use the frame and pack separately
- Strapping the tent to the outside to open up room inside
- Hefty, functional hip belt with pockets
- Lid closure could eventually fail
- It’s hard to use the side pockets when the pack is full
Commander Lite Pack + External Frame Backpack: Review
The Commander Lite from ALPS is a modular combination of the Commander Lite Frame ($150) and the Commander Lite Pack Bag ($100). The aluminum Commander Lite frame weighs 4 pounds, 11 ounces. It’s designed to fit torsos from 17 to 23 inches. The Commander Lite Pack Bag is 47 L and weighs 1 pound, 14 ounces. Together, with the frame, the system weighs in at 6 pounds, 1 ounce.
For a frame of reference, that’s almost 2 full pounds heavier than the heaviest packs on GearJunkie’s list of the Best Backpacking Backpacks of 2023.
The shape of the frame is designed to help increase body articulation without sacrificing real estate for your gear. The frame includes a hip belt and lashing panels. Those make it ideal for a minimalist approach to hunting and hauling. The hip belt is big and thick with multiple adjustment points. It’s also got a pouch on each side for a headlamp, cellphone, trail beverage, etc.
Additionally, the frame features something common to external frame packs: a mesh back panel for increased ventilation. This is something internal frame packs struggled to accomplish for years. But in an external frame backpack, it’s a natural feature due to the design of the frame itself.
The main compartment of the actual pack is one large cavity with a water reservoir sleeve and a full-length zipper. That allows the pack to be laid down and opened like a duffel bag.
There are also two large stretch pockets on either side, of considerable size. These are great for water bottles, a rain jacket, or even trekking poles. Additionally, there is a long pocket that runs down the length of the pack on the left-hand side. That could be used for general storage, an outer layer, etc. It’s large enough to fit a 3L water reservoir.
There’s also a variety of lashing points and straps. And the pack’s pocket lid is perfect for smaller things like a first-aid kit, maps, a compass, a journal, etc.
Materials and Assembly
The Commander Lite is DWR treated and made from 420D ripstop. Additionally, all the zippers are waterproof. If it gets a little too wet out there, the pack comes with a waterproof rain cover that stores in the bottom of the pack. But remember, that won’t cover anything you have lashed to the pack’s frame.
The two pieces of that frame come together using steel clevis and cotter pins, which get me wicked nostalgic. They make for easy assembly and disassembly if you do decide to use the frame on its own for hauling gear, meat, or children to and fro.
A Dwindling Design
Kelty and ALPS are the only two well-known backpacking brands still making external frame packs in 2023. Anything else out there is aimed at hunters who have adopted external frame packs because they’re easy to carry meat trophies out of the woods on. This is why a lot of modern external frame packs have a little shelf that folds out on the bottom of the frame. It’s literally called a “meat shelf.”
Speaking from experience, meat shelves will also hold a log of beer. (Though, I doubt that keeps these frames within the parameters of the factory warranty.)
Kelty currently offers only one external frame pack, the Trekker, which is down from at least three models in the last couple of years. Earlier this year, ALPS discontinued its Red Rocks and Zion packs, aimed at the outdoor crowd, due to dwindling sales. The Commander Lite is part of ALPS OutdoorZ which is ALPS Brands’ hunting line.
Keeping in mind that this pack was designed to do a lot of different things that would essentially meld the outdoor world with the hunting world, there was a lot going on with this pack from the get-go. The best way for me to get a grasp of what I was dealing with was by taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together. It was awesome.
Internal frame packs are designed to carry your stuff to your destination and then be left behind. With a pack like the Commander Lite, you can leave the pack at camp and take the frame with you for further adventures.
For example, the frame has a removable fabric sling attached to it. This is in place of the metal meat shelf most hunting-oriented external frame packs include. Using this sling and the frame only, one could haul wood back to camp with ease. And I don’t mean an armful. I’m talking about carrying back a full night’s worth of wood.
There’s also a generous amount of extra straps designed to be pinned to the frame. They can be used with just the frame, or you can use them to lash all sorts of extras and luxury items to the frame and turn a regular camping trip into a glamping extravaganza.
For someone like me who isn’t as concerned with weight as with comfort, my imagination was spiking with all of the possibilities.
Packing the Pack
The pack itself is designed to focus on the softer things. You can throw your clothes, food, cooking gear, and teddy bear inside and lash your tent and sleeping bag outside.
Back when these types of packs were all the rage, sleeping bags were huge, so they couldn’t easily fit inside the backpacking pack. But here, in the future, everything packs down smaller. This is a beneficial byproduct of the internal frame pack indoctrination.
I stuffed my Sierra Designs Backcountry Bed inside the Commander Lite pack and just lashed my Eureka El Capitan 3+ Outfitter to the outside. That way, I was still relatively stable on the trail and opened up more space inside the pack for other gear.
Be warned though, the more stuff you lash to the outside, the more momentum you create when you turn — you’re a lot less streamlined. I think by keeping it to a tent or bedroll lashed on the outside, you can maintain your center of balance and gravity best.
In the Field
From May to August, I used this pack on an overnight trip down to the Connecticut River, brought it to the beach with my kids, and went on multiple smaller trips with it. As an added bonus, the Commander Lite Pack came in handy while doing trail work, too. Removing the pack and using the frame let me focus on work without having to deal with carrying everything.
Hiking and backpacking with this pack was a breeze. The pack frame was narrower than my shoulders, so I wasn’t getting hung up on tree branches or anything. Without the top loop of the frame, which would have been behind my head, I was able to look around and articulate with ease, something that’s otherwise a common complaint with external frame packs.
The hip belt on the Commander Lite is old school and ample. It took a lot of strain off of my shoulders — like a hip belt is supposed to. The forward draw system for tightening the belt is a welcome feature on any pack I use. I feel that it gets a better grip on your waist.
I usually don’t even bother with the pockets on a hip belt. But as these pockets were each the size of a fanny pack, I filled them with PROBARs, a headlamp, a small notebook, and Nuun tabs to keep my head in the game.
Unpacking at my destinations was easy because I didn’t have to move or remove any bulky items to get to food or my clothing. Strapping the tent to the outside not only distributed the weight better but also allows the pack to carry more evenly. It also frees up all that internal space that would have pushed me into a larger internal frame backpacking pack.
Using the Frame Alone
When it came down to putting in some work on the trails around the cabin, I was able to easily remove the pack from the frame (2 minutes, tops!) and load the sling up with firewood to bring back to camp. I was able to make fewer trips back and forth and carry more while still having my hands free.
Being that I am a bigger guy, I would also see no problem in strapping a log of beer to the Commander Lite frame and hiking the party to some really remote locations. I won’t go as far as to say I would pre-pump the keg and run the hose down the shoulder strap for easy access on the hike in, but, well, I wouldn’t put it past me either.
Areas for Improvement
There are a couple of pain points with the Commander Lite + Pack Combo that show up when the pack itself is fully loaded. The one that concerns me the most is the way the lid lashes down. Instead of a plastic clip, ALPS opted to use a piece of durable fabric and a metal hook. When the pack is fully loaded, there is considerable strain on the fabric from the hook. I feel like this might wear out over time and leave you with a pack that won’t properly close.
The other concern has to do with the side pockets. When the pack is fully loaded, you can still use them, but not all the usable space that they provide. I doubt you would have an issue with any soft goods like rain jackets, gloves, etc. But getting a 32-ounce Klean Kanteen in and out of the pocket was a bear.
I don’t think either of these things are deal-breakers, but they’re worth taking note of if you’re considering this pack.
Commander Lite + Pack External Frame Backpack: Conclusion
Out of all of the benefits that the Commander Lite external frame backpack provided me, from better organization to better load distribution, it’s the fact that I was able to carry more and do more, with less volume that was most important.
Too often we get caught up on pack weights and it’s created a bit of a condition in some backpackers. We’ve all heard the stories about people leaving their tents at home, sleeping under their rainfly, and drilling holes in their toothbrushes to keep weight down. That’s clearly not my approach. I would recommend that it’s not yours, either, if you aren’t into it. Pack for you, for your adventure.
By strapping my tent to the outside of my pack, I was able to put a couple of things inside that I might have had to leave at home if I was using my internal frame pack. And overall, yes, this pack is smaller. At 47 L, it isn’t meant for extended backcountry backpacking adventures. So, the Commander Lite might weigh more than a standard internal frame pack of equal size. But it’s going to be less bulky and better organized.
Backpacking, camping — all of it — is supposed to be about letting go and getting a little lost so you can find yourself. For the life of me, I have never understood why people would sacrifice comfort so they could save a pound or two out on the trail.