How to choose an internal frame backpack.

Jan 30, 2006

The Bottom Line Pick your internal frame backpack carefully.

This is my internal frame backpack buying guide.
Between my wife and I, we own 3 internal frame backpacks. 2 that could last a week in the outback and the other is a day pack (but could be used for overnight usage.) I prefer internal frame to external frame because they allow the user to be more mobile.

What is the difference between an internal frame backpack and an external frame backpack?
An external frame is the older style of the two. The pack is usually hooked on the frame itself. This means that the straps are connected to the frame, not the actual pack. In addition, you can lash on other gear onto the external frame itself. This makes it easier to pack but not very stable if you do a lot of rock climbing/jumping or hiking off the beaten path. You will not win any speed records while wearing an external frame either. But an external frame backpack is generally considered a more comfortable backpack if you are comparing them with equal loads.
An internal frame backpack has the rigid frame structure built into the backpack itself. You will not see the frame. With internal backpacks you will have a little bit more trouble lashing things on the outside of the pack. If you do lash items onto the pack then it will usually make you off balanced. Also, those items lashed on usually flop around which makes it harder to hike. I do not recommend this.
The best thing about an internal frame backpack, versus an external frame, is it is ideal for off trail hiking and climbing. It will not bounce around as much, making it much more stable. I can’t stress this enough, if you like to blaze your own trails then get an internal frame backpack.
The internal frame is more difficult to pack. It is not that putting stuff in is difficult; rather it is how you put stuff in. The gear has to be balanced other wise you will be hiking up the hill diagonally. Depending on the difficulty of trail you change where you place your heaviest objects (see below.)

My friend bought an external frame and I bought an internal frame. So every time we get to a point on the trail that requires us to scramble down a rock or jump off something, I go ahead and jump and proceed to harass my friend as he slowly maneuvers over the same obstacle with his awkward external frame. But he harasses me because his pack is more comfortable and cheaper in price. I of course am kind enough not to remind him of how much of his gear I have. ;)

Do not compare the cubic inches of an external frame to an internal frame. It is like comparing apples to oranges. These are estimates for internal frame backpacks whereas an external frame will be little less that what I posted here. Depending on the gear you bring these numbers will go up or down.
For a one-night trip I recommend 3000 cubic inches for an internal frame.
For a 3-night trip I recommend at least 4000 cubic inches for an internal frame.
For a weeklong trip I recommend at least 6000 cubic inches for an internal frame.

These are merely estimations. If you decide to go the minimalist route then a 3000 cubic inch may be all that you and your fishing pole need. If you want to bring your camping chair, your large Coleman tent, and your propane stove for a 1-2 nighter, then you will definitely need 6000+, or more. And if you brought up that much gear the be prepared for a lot of strange looks from people wondering what you were thinking when you decided to hike with over 100 pounds on your back (and yes I have heard of people doing something stupid like that.)

I’m in the store, now what?
Expect to spend 1-2 hours shopping for the right backpack. Please do not just go in and order whatever looks pretty. Go to a store where you can try on the backpack. Then have it loaded up with sandbags or gear. Walk around the store (looking like an idiot of course) with the pack on and see how comfortable it is for at least 15 minutes. This is the only way to truly make sure you have the right pack for your body.

I want to caution you here. Do not buy a pack just because your best friend says it is the best or most comfortable. I am pretty sure his/her body is different from yours. When my friends and I first bought our backpacks we each found that the packs fit all of us differently. This is even truer for backpacks designed for women.

This is a key issue if you intend to enjoy this hobby. The hip belt has to fit on your waist and the hip belt should support most of the weight. This is the most important part. If the material looks cheap or if it does not fit right then you are going to have a miserable trip. The shoulder straps should be fairly wide and have some padding to them. You need to make sure the straps do not dig into your shoulders. The back should have some sort of design to allow your back to breath. Also make sure the there is some sort of synthetic panel between the backpack and your back so that your gear does not end up poking you in the back.

How to pack it properly
For external frames it does not matter how you pack it. You can pretty much just throw your stuff in any which way, within reason. With an internal frame you have to be careful how you pack it. If you are just walking on trails then I recommend that you pack it top heavy. It seems to me to be the most comfortable for those situations. That means putting my water, stove, and food up top. My sleeping bag and clothes are on the bottom.
If you are planning on going off trail or jumping off rocks than being top heavy is not a good idea. In those circumstances you need to put the heaviest substances in the middle of the pack. This creates more balance so you can keep your footing. Whereas if you hiked top heavy and start jumping off rocks you might end up falling on your back. And yes I have done that.
If you stuff it bottom heavy (and I did it once) it will be too heavy for your waist belt. I found it to be extremely uncomfortable until I rearranged the gear. In addition the bottom center of the pack begins to dig itself into your back when it is bottom heavy.

Is there a difference between a female and male pack?
As every guy knows women have curves. Some more than others. Because of this for most women a standard backpack may not be the best option. First off the shoulder straps are curved to fit the female body. Some models also have an adjustable hip belt that is angled differently.
I recommended to my mother-in-law that she should get the hydration pack designed for females. Well she tried that on as well as the standard strap design and she found that she liked the standard version better because of how her upper body is built (I think she said she had broader shoulders.) This goes to show you that you really need to try on the pack with weight before you buy it from the store. Do not trust every label you read.
If you are interested in a women’s pack keep in mind that some have less capacity then its standard counterpart, do your homework before you go out to buy.

Consider the weight.
This should be obvious but sometimes it isn’t. Some backpacks are ultra lightweight, which is nice, but you need to make sure that these light backpacks are also very supportive. There are few things worse than hiking with the bottom of your pack hitting your rump every time you take a step because it cannot support the weight inside. But you also need to make sure that the backpack is made with quality materials. If you intend on carrying 70-100 pounds of gear than make sure the backpack has a great support system and the seams are well made.

Consider the cost
As a general rule, internal frame backpacks cost more. If you are strapped for cash then I would recommend you try to buy a used external frame until your finances are in a better position to buy the pack of your dreams. The high end Gregory’s and North Face’s are nicccee.

Make sure the back is adjustable.
You need to make sure that the shoulder strap part and the hip belt part are both adjustable. Can you move them up and down? This is because everybody’s upper torso length is different. For example, my upper body is longer than my brothers so if he wanted to use my backpack then he would need to move the shoulder straps down a notch or move the hip belt up a notch.
My backpack’s shoulder strap and hip belt are Velcro’d in place. This makes it easier to undo and move around.

What should you look for in strap design?
The straps should be fairly wide and feel comfortable to the touch. Some straps have grooves in them that allow your shoulders to breath. Just make sure the design does not sacrifice comfort. The shoulder straps should also be padded well. A pure nylon strap without padding is pretty uncomfortable. Keep in mind that a padded strap can act as a sort of shock absorber.

Should I get one with an expandable feature.
The main problem I have with expandable features is they do not have very supportive walls and sometime they mess up your center of gravity. The gear has a tendency to wobble around more because of the lack of support. This makes it much harder to hike because your center of gravity is constantly being altered. It can be a nice feature to have in an emergency but my suggestion is to get a larger backpack without an expandable option rather than a smaller one that can expand.

Are there interchangeable belts?
There are. I do not have them on my packs but it is something you may want to check out if you have the extra cash.

What is that daypack option?
Some backpacks have a daypack option. For mine the very top of the backpack can come off and form a hip belt. I used it once and I will never use it again. It was not that supportive or comfortable. So my advice is do not make your decision based on this feature. If you really want this feature then make sure it is a supportive daypack and not a designer’s afterthought.

What is a load-lifting strap?
A load-lifting strap changes the load weight from your hips to your shoulders and back again. They are very easy to use and the strap is usually located right above and behind your shoulder. This means that you can shift weight to your shoulders from you hips or vice versa. Look for it.

What is a sternum strap
This is the strap that connects your two shoulder straps together. It is designed to disperse the load a little and it keeps your shoulder straps from drifting off of your shoulder.

Make sure there are compression straps.
Be very wary of any internal frame backpack that does not have compression straps. The compression straps cinch the gear closer to your body to keep the gear closer to the center of gravity. These are essential so your backpack is as close to the center of gravity as possible. Try hiking without using those straps and then hike with the straps being tightened. You will see the difference.

Should I buy packs that connect externally to my internal frame backpack?
In a word, no. If you need extra space then buy a bigger backpack. Adding external pockets and gear takes away from the main feature of an internal frame backpack which is its mobility.

Consider renting first.
If you are not sure you would like to backpack then just go out rent a backpack and backpacking stove. This way you will know first hand if this is an activity you want to invest in.

The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to try a whole bunch on. Go to an outdoors store, get their sandbags, and be prepared to spend 2-3 hours in the store. If you invest this time in the store researching each pack yourself then you will be a much happier person when you are on the trail.

Other outdoor guides I have written.
What to look for when buying a family tent
My 3-season tent guide
Why quality gear is worth it.

My backpack reviews
REI Newstar
Northface Terra 40

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