External Frame Backpacks
- Aluminum tubular frames provide support which allows lighter fabric and overall lighter pack weight than internal frame packs
- Frame keeps pack away from back, allowing more comfortable air flow
- Highly adjustable for an individual fit
- Frame allows for carrying majority of weight on hips and legs and off of the shoulders
- Frame allows pack to stand and compartments allow for the ability to keep items organized – a frustration for many hikers
- Costs about half as much as an internal frame pack
- Frame is wider and higher than a person and can hit protuberances on the trail which could be a dangerous problem if it topples the hiker.
- Frame is really too awkward and large to fit inside a tent, so if there is bad weather, a cover or some way to protect it while outside is necessary.
- If not adjusted properly for the trail conditions, the pack could be wobbly and make the hiker unstable. It is important to have a high quality pack that can be adjusted properly for the trail conditions.
Internal Frame Backpacks
- The internal aluminum-stay system allows for a very secure, close-fitting pack ideal for hiking cross-country over rugged terrain or in an area with protuberances that could make hiking dangerous.
- Heavy-duty material can stand up to rugged treatment
- Narrow profile does not interfere with arm movement
- High quality packs are fairly adjustable but still must be purchased within a person’s “size”
- Empty, the pack is basically flat and can be brought inside tent and out of bad weather
- Fitted properly, an internal pack does not wobble or move at all and is very secure on the trail
- Because the pack’s material has to play some of role in the support of the pack, it must be heavier weight than that of an external frame pack. This makes the pack itself heavier.
- It sits almost directly on your back and does not allow much air flow making the pack quite hot against the body.
- Much harder to organize than an external frame pack since it is basically a “sack” that everything is thrown in together. Use stuff sacks for organization.
- Not as adjustable; make sure you buy proper size!
- Usually about twice the cost of an external frame pack.
Resist getting a travel backpack for backpacking purposes. These are the packs that you can zip the shoulder and belt straps away when traveling on an airplane but take them out to strap the pack on your back for the walk to your hotel. They are wonderful packs when you are gallivanting around the globe – but not when you are carrying tents, sleeping bags, kitchen gear, etc. for miles on end. These packs are not constructed for trail use and will become very uncomfortable after a very short while.
Fitting Your Backpack
Once you’ve chosen the perfect backpack, don’t stop there and just shoulder the thing on and take off. To make the backpack work like it’s supposed to, you must fit the pack to your body. This is one reason I always recommend that you only buy backpacks from a good outdoor store that knows how to fit them properly. Take advantage of the salesperson’s expertise.
If ordering one out of a catalog or online, you need to be more aware of your requirements. You cannot try on different styles and models to compare their comfort or quality. Be very choosy; this is an investment that should last you for many, many years. And women, be sure to check out packs made specifically for you. They are usually made with narrower shoulders, smaller hip belts, and are shorter in the back length.
Here are some key fitting tips:
- The majority of the weight should be on your hips, not your shoulders
- The shoulder straps should be wide enough to not cut into your neck but not so wide that they slip off your shoulders
- The shoulder straps should have lift straps along the top that allow you to adjust the padded strap to sit lightly on your shoulders. If the pack fits correctly, these lift straps will rise from your shoulders at about a 45° angle from the shoulder strap to where they attach to the pack.
- The sternum straps should connect a couple inches below your collarbones where they won’t choke you or be to low to be useful.
- The hip belt should sit on the upper curve of your hip just below your actual waistline. It should also be tightened down quite snuggly. This is extremely important for the comfort of the pack and the way it carries! (When I assist people in tightening their belts, they are always surprised that I tighten it as much as I do. But once they start walking, they can really feel the difference in the comfort of the pack. It just takes a few minutes to get used to.)
- It’s very important to keep the majority of the weight off the shoulders, especially for women. A woman’s strength is in her lower, not upper body. Trying to carry that weight on her shoulders could easily destroy any desire to ever backpack again!
How you pack your gear is important to your comfort as well. Because of the differences in body builds and strengths, this can vary quite a bit between men and women. Also the type of pack you have will dictate much of where things actually will fit inside. Below are some tips that may help you in deciding what suits you best. No matter what or how you carry your gear, the important thing is to keep the weight as low as possible. Ideally, you should not carry more than one-third of your body weight.
There are different thoughts for where to place the heavier items. I find that for hiking Grand Canyon, people generally feel more secure and comfortable with the heavier items, such as tents, sleeping bags, food for camp, and cooking gear packed towards the bottom of the pack. No matter where you place the weight, be sure it sits closest to your body. You do not want heavy items hanging off the back of your pack while you’re walking; they have a tendency to make you feel like you are falling backwards. This is not a comfortable feeling near Grand Canyon drop-offs!
If you have an internal frame pack with a separate bottom compartment, put your sleeping bag into that part. I take my sleeping bag out of its stuff sack and simply stuff it into that compartment. Depending on what sleeping bag I use (i.e. a winter or summer bag), I can usually pack my tent in the same space. With an external pack, I like to stuff the sleeping bag into the bottom compartment. I then place the tent on the bottom of the pack and strap it to the frame.
The sleeping pad can be strapped to the top of the either type of pack. When you pack your food and kitchen gear near the bottom, be sure to keep the food you will require while hiking accessible. Your clothing and any additional items can be placed in the remaining area.
One of the things that seem to frustrate most of the people I’ve worked with is their inability to find things in their packs. If you organize things logically, you will have an easier time finding stuff. For example, place your stove, lighter or matches, fuel, and dishes all together in a stuff sack. Put all your clothing into another, and your personal hygiene into another. It will help even further if you use different colors for individual purposes. You will be surprised at how much more pleasant backpacking is if you’re not spending more time than necessary searching for things.