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The Best Backpacks: Internal Frame, External Frame, and Daypack

from Outdoor Equipment Report

What to Look For in a Backpack


Internal Frame Backpacks

Kelty Redwing 50 Internal Frame Pack

Review Excerpts:

... This bag has a good deal of space for clothes, equipment and food. ... I find this bag to be comfortable after the spine support has been bent to fit. ... has room for everything you'd need for a few days. ...

- N. Alice Mahaffey, on Amazon.com

I have logged about 400 miles with this pack during the past 12 months. I use it for day hikes, ... this bag can suffice a 2-3 day trek. ... after more than a year of weekly use [rain, snow, cold, heat] it has the bag is still as good as new. ...

- R. Wetzel, on Amazon.com

... This pack puts the weight right on your hips where it belongs, keeping your arms fresh and spirits high through as many miles as you can put on. I choose it over day packs even on short trips becuase of how well the waist belt works. You will love the pockets on the sides for food, the mesh bags for apples, the camelback storage ability for drinks, the DURABILITY of the bottom (sliding on scree, ice, whatever), ...

- Climb On!, on Amazon.com

TETON Sports Explorer 4000 Internal Frame Backpack (Grey)

Review Excerpts:

Note: Although this is a top-selling backpack but it has its drawbacks. Read the reviews carefully before deciding to purchase this backpack. - OER

I read the earlier review about the sleeping bag pocket being too small, ... If I tried to stuff my winter bag in there, with bivy sack and stuff sack, there's no way it would all fit. ... In my opinion, you don't need to have your sleeping bag available for quick access. ... just throw your sleeping bag in the big compartment... The rest of the pack seems to be quality. ... you won't have any problems getting this backpack to fit ... quickly accessible rain cover which will definitely come in handy

- Curt Daniels, on Amazon.com

... I've grown very fond of this bag. ... This bag is basically my home. ... quite affordable for a bag of its class. There are many convenient pockets and straps. ... effectively waterproof and has the rain-fly thing for heavier rains. ... hardly a scuff on it and not a single tear in any of the fabric ... when adjusted correctly, it IS comfortable. ... Zippers, straps and buckles have busted seams. It started VERY early. ... The seam around the zipper on the bottom where the rain-fly is stored is giving way, and I've used that only a handful of times. ... the seam holding the buckle on the bottom right strap broke, as did the lowest of the four seams connecting that strap to the front mesh pocket area

- B. Dobson, on Amazon.com

... The zippers do not stick, they open and close just fine. ... This is a 4000ci bag and advertised as such... it is what it is. ... if you have a giant, fluffy, 5 lb, -20 degree winter bag, it probably won't fit here. ... it fits most common bags just fine for a 4000ci pack. ... The material seems to be of good, sturdy quality. The straps and buckles are very sturdy also ... This bag has plenty of straps, loops (daisy chains) and pockets to carry everything you need. ... The pack is very comfortable and rests on your hips very well. ... Packed it with 40 lbs and hiked 12 miles in St. Mary's Wilderness,VA. Stayed 2 nights in these remote mountains and it performed fine. ... I tossed and dragged it on the ground and ran it into trees and rocks. It also made a great camp chair and pillow - the back pads are soft and supportive. There were no malfunctions - no complaints. ... This is a great 4000ci pack!

- Cyclist01222, on Amazon.com

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External Frame Backpacks

Large ALICE Field Pack with Frame and Full Outfit LC-1 Green

Review Excerpts:

Note: Although this backpack has good average reviews, quite a few reviewers noted that the "used" bags are in very bad shape. Also, very few reviewers on Amazon report using this pag for hiking. They mostly use it as a "bug-out bag" for emergency preparedness. - OER

... after initial inspection was flawless no tears or seams incomplete ... i have taken this pack out with 62 lbs in the bag for a 15 mile hike no problems ... i would suggest this to any one looking to have the ability to carry heavy where a internal frame will not ...

- robert, on Amazon.com

... I walked the Neusiok Trail 21 miles in Eastern NC with the new LG ALICE pack, and it did not disappoint. It carried all my gear, and several things I did not need! ...

- Lee Austin, on Amazon.com

... The frame was a mess, and had rivets that are about to pop off. ... The shoulder straps were in such poor condition that they started to rip under the load. ...

- Eric, on Amazon.com

Kelty Trekker External Frame Pack

Review Excerpts:

... A good pack, good value, and very adjustable. ... higher weights go beyond what that internal frame design could control comfortably. Now I bought the Kelty Trekker 65 and that fixed the problem. ... I like the compartments and organization of the Kelty Trekker ...

- D. Lewis, on Amazon.com

This is a great pack! ... it is simply a matter a making the pack lighter, without sacrificing quality. This is a very light, and well built pack.

- G. Carlson, on Amazon.com

This backpack is just perfect for my needs. It is the right size for camping for three days and has just the right amount of compartments for carrying those little items that you need to get to without unpacking the entire pack.

- 2kidsmom, on Amazon.com

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Daypacks

5.11 Rush 24 Back Pack

Review Excerpts:

... this is just about the perfect pack for me. ... on camping trips and canoeing trips as my only bag. I've had it covered in dust, mud, heavily rained on, and it's been thru the desert. ... the stiff (but comfy) layer that's inserted along the back is SO great, ... it's bombproof tough ... not even a stitch loose on mine after a year of hard use and countless abuse. It washes well too.

- solocanoe, on Amazon.com

... This is a tough, high quality pack, as others describe. But it didn't float my boat. ... At 6'2", I found it not fitting well, riding a couple inches higher than was comfortable. ... for a day-hike pack at about 15-20 lbs, it wasn't workable. ... In general, the pockets didn't really match my gear, either being too big or too small. ... three grommet holes in the bottom & back "to drain water" are only three entrances for bugs, sand, dirt, and water when the back is set down. ...

- Archimedes Tritium, on Amazon.com

... I am very impressed with the quality and workmanship. ... When the actual Rush 24 arrived I was like.. oh my this is huge. ... by far the largest frameless pack I've worn. ... this can carry everything I would need for a 24 hour camping trip including tent, sleeping bag etc. That is not a complaint, just an observation. ... The Rush 24 is now my GET HOME bag in my car. It is a great size for such an application, bug out, get home, 72 hours, etc. All the pockets and such make organization easy (shelter, fire, water, food, etc.)

- GearGuy, on Amazon.com

High Sierra Loop Backpack, Pacific/Charcoal/Black

Review Excerpts:

... all the compartments that FIT my need TO THE TEE! ... a little slot for kleenex right on my strap! ... fits for DAY HIKE PERFECTLY ... And comfortable. ...

- Alys Anderson, on Amazon.com

nothing bad i can say about it. I bought it for vacation this summer, I've been testing it out on camping trips and it's awesome. ...

- Joel H., on Amazon.com

... I could carry everything I would need during our day treks away from the campsite. ... it has two side compartments for water bottles ... all of the other compartments and pockets inside came in very handy ... I love it and would buy it again if given the option.

- Teresa, on Amazon.com

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What to Look For in a Backpack

Backpacks can be grouped into about five categories:

We're not going to talk about the first category, other than to say that they exist and that you shouldn't be surprised to see them when you're looking for a backpack. Just move on to the real backpacks.

"Real backpacks" are generally classified by size, as will be described in more detail below. They may also be classified by construction type, as in internal frame versus external frame, but these distinctions are secondary.

Bear in mind that there are no generally agreed upon definitions of types of backpacks, so you will find some overlap, some different classifications, etc. The size classifications here, and their definitions in terms of cubic inch capacity, etc. may be regarded as arbitrary. Other sources will have other definitions, which are equally arbitrary. This description will help you get started, but there really is no formal definition of what's an "expedition backpack" and what's a "daypack," etc.

One feature you may see in any backpack is "hydration compatible." This means it is designed to carry a water bottle or bladder with a drinking hose attached, so you can drink without stopping, fumbling in the pack for your water bottle, etc. Sometimes these come in sets, with a pack and "hydration system" specifically designed for each other, and sometimes the pack is simply designed to accommodate a variety of "hydration systems." This may not be an important feature for you at all if, like many hikers, you prefer to stop for a drink.

Expedition Backpacks

Expedition backpacks are large, with a capacity of more than about 5,000 cubic inches. They should be rugged, and flexible in terms of how you can store things and how you can arrange the straps. Virtually all have two main shoulder straps and a waistband. Many also have a sternum strap that holds the two shoulder straps in place in front. An expedition backpack always has a frame, whether internal or external. It usually has two main compartments and a number of smaller pockets on the sides and outside (the "front," although it's actually the back, as you're wearing it). Most also have attachment points where you can tie or strap on bulky items that don't fit inside. Some will also have special attachment points designed to accept optional pouches - even a complete attachable daypack - but only those from the same manufacturer, of course.

An expedition backpack must have a good set of adjustments to set the width of the shoulder straps and the width and height of the shoulder and waist straps. Generally, you'll make these adjustments once, then leave them. You may find, of course, that you don't like the settings you originally chose, but by and large, these adjustments are set once.

In addition, of course, you must also be able to adjust the length and tension on both the shoulder and waist straps. These you will adjust every season, to allow for more or fewer layers of clothing, but it is also important to be able to adjust them as you hike. On a long hike with a heavy load, you will want to loosen the shoulder straps once in a while to shift more weight onto your hips (via the waistband), and later tighten them to shift weight back to your shoulders. This flexibility goes a long way to relieving fatigue, and it is a very important feature for an expedition backpack to have.

An expedition backpack must also be light and strong. Lighter materials are often less strong and durable than heavier materials, but you will pay extra for materials that are both light and strong. Read the reviews carefully for the users' experience with the strength and durability, and make sure you're not paying a premium for light weight in a pack that doesn't hold up on the trail.

The choice of frame - internal vs. external - is largely a matter of personal preference. However, external frame backpacks usually have more flexible adjustment options, and better strength to weight ratios. Serious hikers who go out on the trail for a week or more at a time tend to prefer external frames, so you will see more external frame backpacks in the large-capacity expedition backpack category than in the smaller-capacity categories.

Weekender Backpacks

Weekend backpacks are smaller than expedition backpacks, with a capacity between about 2,000 and 5,000 cubic inches. Otherwise, what you want in a weekend backpack is nearly identical to what you want in an expedition backpack, and for pretty much the same reasons.

Because they are designed for lighter loads, weekend backpacks tend to be internal frame designs rather than having external frames. As described above, this is largely a matter of personal preference, but be aware that internal frame backpacks have less adjustability in the height and width of the shoulder and waist straps. Try the backpack on, with some weight in it, before you decide it's the right size for you. If it's too long, too short, too narrow, or too wide, and can't be adjusted, choose another backpack.

Exernal frame backpacks usually have lumbar bands to hold the pack away from your back. This is good. A couple of inches of air space prevents a lot of sweating.

Internal frame backpacks often have no good way of maintaining this airspace between you and the pack. Look for some kind of design feature to overcome this traditional weakness in an internal frame backpack, and check the reviewers' comments to make sure it really works.

You may see a backpack in this size range that does not have a waistband. Avoid it. If you are planning to carry more than about 20 pounds of gear on your back all day, you will need that waistband.

Daypacks

Daypacks are small, holding less than about 2,000 cubic inches, often less than half that. Larger daypacks may have an internal frame, but generally they have no frame at all. Likewise, they usually don't have either a waistband or a sternum strap, but the larger ones might.

Frameless daypacks often have adjustable "compression straps" on the sides. This is a good feature that helps to keep the pack in its proper place on your back when empty. If you're not carrying much, tighten the compression straps to keep the pack vertical on your back instead of allowing it to bunch up like ... well, like an empty bag!

Daypacks usually consist of only one main compartment with a number of smaller pockets and pouches on the sides and "front." They usually have some external attachment points for bulky gear, but most people don't use these much and most reviewers don't mention them.

Light weight is less essential in a daypack than in a framed pack, so many reviewers don't even mention it. That's okay. You won't be carrying it for so long at a time, and you won't be carrying so much total weight.

For those same reasons, daypacks are usually far less adjustable than other packs. You will need to adjust the shoulder straps with the seasons, to allow for more or fewer layers of clothing, but it is not so important to be able to adjust the straps while hiking.

Like any backpack, you will want your daypack to be made of durable material, to be water resistant, and to have convenient access to the contents - meaning good, reliable zippers and/or buckles.

There are some small packs with nontraditional designs, such as fanny packs, belly packs, lumbar packs, and single-strap slings. Read the reviews carefully, and carefully consider how much weight you intend to carry. For most general-purpose hiking, you will be much better off with a conventional backpack with two shoulder straps.

Specialty Backpacks

Some backpacks are designed to carry one thing only, and those are generally beyond the scope of this article. Just be aware that if you want a backpack to carry your camera, your snowboard, or your rock-climbing gear, they exist, and you will need to talk to people in the relatively small community who use them in order to decide which one is best for you.

However, there is one specialty that has become quite commonplace: The "hydration pack." Unlike a general-purpose backpack that accommodates a "hydration system," the dedicated "hydration pack" is designed to hold your water bottles or bladders and not much else.

There is a certain logic to this. On most day hikes, the heaviest article you carry is your drinking water, especially in hot and/or arid conditions. However, you should keep in mind that if you need to carry any other bulky items - an extra jacket, a pair of crampons, etc. - a hydration pack might not have room for them. Also, a hydration pack that allows you to take a drink without stopping might be depriving you of your best excuse to stop and rest.

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