In Awe of the External Frame Backpack User

Some still bang around the backcountry with external-frame backpacks, and that’s awesome.


I see them every single time I’m on a long-distance backcountry trip. The guys—and they always seem to be guys—using full-sized external frame backpacks that they probably bought way back in 1975. You’ve seen them too, right? With calves like bowling balls atop massive leather boots, they haul great loads with backpacks the size of queen-sized bed frames. Sleeping bags, water bottles, coffee kettles, and tents dangling from the frame. I swear, I’ve even seen these dudes tote entire cords of wood tied to their packs. It’s like they’ve hiked themselves straight out of the 1970s.

Why do they do it? It’s always been a mystery to me. Why don’t they upgrade to newer, more sensible equipment like internal frame packs?

I asked one of them once. Guy named Jim Murray. Ran into him on a trail a few days into a trip deep into the Emigrant Wilderness. I’d watched him while I squatted next to a stream filtering water. When I first spotted him, I assumed he was a bear as he picked his way off-trail down a talus-covered slope of a mountain. This bear/man elegantly navigated a dicey route, and once he got to the bottom, he disappeared into a boulder field. A few miles later, I had stopped for a snack, and here he came, steaming up behind me on the trail.

He paused next to me to catch his breath and say hello. I looked at his pack, which appeared to be about 30 years old. I couldn’t see a logo on it anywhere. Then I looked at mine, filthy but less than two seasons old, an ultralight model that weighed less than one of Murray’s boots. I asked Murray what the deal was with his pack. “This is what we used when I was a Boy Scout,” he told me. “I grew up with these, they work, and I’ve had this one for, well, I’m not sure how long, but there’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Sure,” I said, “but it’s gotta weigh about 7 or 8 pounds.”

“When I was a young man,” Murray laughed, “we bragged about how heavy our packs were—not how light.”

How weird is that?

Murray was leading a group of guys in their 20s, he said, and he’d left a couple hours before them to give himself a head start. Murray had chosen a route he figured would be a shortcut over a cleft between two peaks; he spent most weekends in the Emigrant Wilderness and could draw a topo of the place from memory. He had decades of backcountry experience, the confidence to pick his own random off-trail routes, and the hiking fitness to leave kids half his age in his dust.

But he also sported a backpack and camping equipment so old that you’d be hard-pressed to find any of it, even in Army/Navy surplus stores.

There are compelling arguments for using external packs even today, by the way. They concentrate pack weights vertically, and much higher above your back than internal frame packs do, which seems to stack the weight on your hips. Properly fitted, they can carry huge weights comfortably. They also keep the pack off your back, increasing ventilation. Hunters love them because you can strap meat to the outside of the pack easily. All this comes with tradeoffs in stability, weight, and sheer size, but still, I used one for a couple years when I first started out.

As I watched Murray and his massive pack swing away down the trail I felt the weirdest combination of shame, pity, and envy. While I sure as hell didn’t want to switch packs with him, I respected the kind of trust and companionship he’d built with his gear. I couldn’t imagine my pack lasting for a couple decades, and, even if it would, I’d have already replaced it many times over as new technologies emerged to make packs lighter and more technical. The robust toughness and aged patina of the metal, canvas, and leather of Murray’s pack, ever so briefly held an enormous appeal that my impersonal and flashy nylons, polyester, and lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber couldn’t quite match. But then I hoisted my pack, which weighed easily less than half of Murray’s kit, and I shed any nostalgia for yesteryear’s gear.

People like Murray who use and use and use their gear until it’s in tatters, even though better, lighter, more efficient versions have been made and improved upon for many seasons, show that there’s not really a right way to camp. Are you comfortable with that external pack? Great. Are you (like me) obsessed with gear and eagerly anticipate making things lighter and more efficient (within reason)? Perfect. As long as you’re outside safely you’re really doing it right.

Plus, there is something pretty cool about flying the face of trends and just using what you like. Even if it’s heavy and as uncomfortable as hell. I’m certainly not going to to do it, but I’m glad Murray is.

Murray smoked me all the way back to the trailhead, by the way. The 20-somethings he was hiking with too. He laughed about how my light pack didn’t make me faster. Then his new truck wouldn’t start and he asked me for help. There’s a metaphor there staring me right in the face. I just haven’t figured it out yet.

Inspired to try an external frame? Jim Murray approved packs below

Kelty has been making external frame packs longer than just about anyone. Their updated(ish) Trekker 65 is an affordable way to indulge your nostalgia. $180 • BUY

The Seek Outside Divide 4500 is a new-fangled external pack geared toward the ultralight hiker who still needs to carry a ton of weight. The pack weighs about two-and-a-half pounds, but will handle loads up to 100 pounds. $349 • BUY

Hunters have long valued external frame with their plentiful lash points outside the pack for…obvious reasons. The ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Freighter is an inexpensive way to give externals a go. Sure, it has places to stow a rifle, but that doesn’t mean that’s what you gotta keep in there. $130 • BUY

Remember Dana Designs? They used to make the best high-capacity external frame packs on the market. They sold the biz in the ’90s but now they’re back as Mystery Ranch. They don’t really make traditional external frame packs anymore, but they still make some of the finest expedition packs in the world, like the 5,000 cubic inch Terraplane. Built to haul ridiculous loads in ridiculous comfort. $400 • BUY

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Showing 10 comments
  • Kyle B.
    Reply

    Honestly, if I were to go on a multi-day trek, I would consider using an external frame pack rather than my internal frame one. They have more space to carry things on the outside of the pack, especially cylindrical objects like your sleeping pad and bag. Something like a Jansport can’t be beat for sheer carrying capacity, especially with the addition of a few compression straps or bungee cords. If you’re the one guy that ends up with the stove or carrying all the water, you’ll want something built to handle the load. Plus, since everyone thinks they’re old news, they can be found for cheap.

  • jim
    Reply

    what a great article! i started out with an old campmor external frame pack. true they shift around a bit but if you are on trail most of the time it shouldn’t matter. also very true about the ventilation! that’s my biggest gripe with new packs.

  • Jon Canuck
    Reply

    Years ago, my cheap (very well-travelled) external frame pack was busted by an airport baggage handler. I repaired the frame with a metal tent peg and duck tape.

    Subsequently, I needed a large pack. A group of us planned a week-long trek into the Gr Canyon. A friend loaned me his (very) large external frame pack, so I could try it out (perhaps I’d purchase a similar pack later). At the trailhead, last minute, we were jamming things in packs. Mine was the pack with extra capacity for lumpy items that wouldn’t fit in others’ packs — I ended up with a very heavy load (and a lesson). Someone in the group tagged my pack a Swiss Army Folding House.

    Buying stuff to keep up with the Joneses (or the trendies) will strengthen the economy and make America Great Again. Hmmm, maybe it will strengthen China again.

    In my 70s now, so my 1976 Lowe Alpine pack (internal frame) serves as a bombproof duffle-bag that can be thrown into a snow cat or heli.

  • Dan Kuhlman
    Reply

    I loved my Kelty SuperTioga, and this article made me yearn to take it out for another spin this year!
    Thanks!

  • Laurie
    Reply

    I still use my Antelope pack, small company from Cupertino CA before it was silicon….. Btw not a dude.

  • doug moore
    Reply

    Kelty external for me – I think it’s 23 years old at this point. So comfy. Why would I want use anything else on a longer trip? On my second set of straps and belt. I get crap for it every group trip.

  • The Seeker
    Reply

    Make your wallet heavier…bought one of these at a thrift store, $10.

  • tom
    Reply

    I’ve been backpacking with my backpack since 1992. her name is Hualapai, and frankly she has an internal frame. that is, a skeleton. she’s a wild burro I adopted from the burro (pun intended!) of land management here in Arizona. I tamed and trained her in to a pack burro, or backpacker xtraordinaire! not only does she carry the bulk of any load, she’s quite a good companion on the trail. I get by carrying a mountainsmith lumbar pack and maybe a hydration pack and really appreciate only having to haul a (very) few pounds of gear!

  • Dean Whinery
    Reply

    Still using my Kelty, purchased at the Kelty store in San Fernando Valley in the ’60s, to replace a Bear Paw that had seen better days, from the Bavarian Alps to the PCT. Don’t recall the Kelty model designation. My daughter refused to use it 15 years ago at Philmont Scout Ranch in NM because it was “old and dirty”…they loaned her one that was much newer, but a lot dirtier.

  • Ron Rico
    Reply

    I just left my 20s behind a few days ago I love my kelty super tioga. I got it off Craigslist about a year ago and my internal frame just sits around now. I love being able to carry whatever I want and being comfortable with the weight. I am thinking about having a go at building a zpacks style pack but a little tougher. I live in Florida and the back ventilation is really nice.

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