What Is the Best External Frame Backpack?

Troy De Ville

What is the best external frame backpack

With the recent trend of getting your base weight down as low as possible people often neglect the tried-and-true external frame backpack. Since you have already decided on going with an external frame, I’ll skip over the comparisons of internal vs external frames and compare the best external frame backpacks on the market.

When looking for the best external frame backpack, you’ll want to keep in mind your “must-have” features. Can you have it all? Maybe, but if you’re like most people you’ll have to find a balance with the most critical features, cost, and availability.

We’ll look over all the features of each pack along with specifications of each recommended  external frame backpack

If you’d like to dive deeper into hiking backpacks after reading this, you can find our Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Right Hiking Backpack here.

Best Features of an External Frame Hiking Backpack

There’s a lot of reasons to choose this type of backpack, but one of the biggest reasons is strength. Not only for the heavy load they can carry but also the longevity of the pack itself.

As the pack is set down for a rest, they sit on the bottom of the frame. The frame takes most of the weight, and they are less likely to get rips and tears on the bottom of the bag.

External frames are cooler on your back. They ride differently than an internal with some space between you and the backpack. This is great for hiking in hot weather and generally being more comfortable all year around.

Along with all the great features, they are also more cost-effective when compared to internal frames. Looking at the same build quality and size, an external will be sufficiently cheaper.

The reason for this might not only be the more straight forward manufacturing process, but also demand. You benefit from these hiking backpacks being less popular. 

External frame backpacks are simple and straightforward. Most people don’t need a ton of little compartments, bells and whistles while mountaineering. These are straightforward backpacks that shine in a few things.

Which Is Better Internal or External Frame Backpack

I already mentioned you ended up on this page because you are interested in external frames, I just wanted to highlight a few reasons on why they’re a great choice.

External frame backpacks have more space to carry things on the outside of the pack, especially cylindrical gear like your sleeping pad

 The areas that they lack in are more than made up by the amount of gear you can carry. It’s a simple fact that they can take a ton of weight that internals backpacks can’t. They do this by transferring more weight on your hips than an internal pack, making the heavy load more manageable. 

Let’s Get Into the Best External Frame Backpacks

Vargo Exoti AR2

This backpack is on the pricier side of our list, but it’s well worth it. It has a titanium alloy external frame that can take a heavy load—all while being lightweight. You can think of this as a modern backpack with an old school look. All while using great materials and being lightweight. Check for availability of the Vergo Exoti AR2 on Amazon here.

– 2 lbs. 12 oz (1.25 kg)
– 46 liters
– Ultralight titanium alloy external frame

Vargo Exoti AR2 Backpack
Vargo Exoti AR2 Backpack is lightweight with a titanium frame


Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic External Frame Backpack

This backpack is for heavy load hauling. They have great brand recognition among hikers, and this pack is highly recommended by external frame enthusiasts. The frame is made out of aluminum that provides excellent stability and support.

The pack also has an internal compartment for your sleeping bag; you’ll see this feature is not that common on our list. Check for availability of the Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic External Frame Backpack on Amazon here.

 – 5 lbs. 9 oz (2.52 kg)
– 90 liters
– lightweight aluminum external frame
– Large capacity

Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic External Frame Backpack
The Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic is a large backpack at 90 liters, making it an excellent choice for multi-day hikes

ALPS Mountaineering Red Rock External Frame Pack

I’ve recommended this one in the past as a great way of getting into external frames. This backpack is smaller than the two mentioned above but also lighter than the Kelty Tioga. I think it strikes the right balance between cost, features, size, and weight.

Given its smaller size, the pack still has plenty of features. The frame is telescoping so it’s designed to fit torso ranges from 13 to 18 inches. As you can tell from the pictures, you’ll be able to carry all your extras inside the external pockets. Do note that the material is not waterproof though. Check for availability of the ALPS Mountaineering Red Rock External Frame Backpack on Amazon here.

 – 3 lbs. 9 oz (1.61 kg)
– 34 liters
– Telescoping frame
– Great fit for someone with a shorter frame


ALPS Mountaineering Red Rock External Frame Pack, 34 Liters

Vargo Exoti 50 Backpack

Another external frame from Vargo Exoti but this one is a little different. They took the best from both internal and external framed backpacks and combined them. You get the ride and comfort from an external with the load transfer on your hips as you’d expect.

With the design of their load-lifting compression strap, it keeps the load high and tight for a more stable carry like an internal.   Check for availability of the Vargo Exoti 50 External Frame Backpack on Amazon here.

– 2 lbs. 7 oz (1.10 kg)
– 50 liters
– Ultralight titanium alloy external frame

Vargo Exoti 50 Backpack
Vargo Exoti 50 is an external frame that stable to carry like an internal

ALPS OutdoorZ Commander

This is another big boy in the group; it’s massive at 86 liters. With all the extra space, it comes at the cost of weight (7lbs, 5oz) but don’t let that deter you from a great bag. The bag is easily detachable from the frame, so if you want to attach other bags or carry something out of the field, it will be easy.

The backpack itself can be purchased separately from the frame. Different bags can be attached for other needs, like packing a large game animal from the field. Check for availability of the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander External Frame Backpack on Amazon here.

– 7 lbs. 5 oz (3.30 kg)
– 86 liters
– Drop-in rifle pocket with hydration pocket


ALPS OutdoorZ Commander + Pack Bag
The ALPS OutdoorZ Commander is one of the largest we have on our list at 86 liters


ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite

This backpack is strictly for packing out game. It’s the same frame as the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander above just with a different bag. Both bags are easily interchangeable, so this pack pulls double duty.

Instead of having to buy two backpacks, these will work great for all your needs. If you already have the ALPS commander frame, this bag can be purchased separately. Check for availability of the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite on Amazon here.

– 4 lbs. 11 oz (2.12 kg)
– Fully adjustable to a torso range of 17” – 23”
– Includes three extension lashing straps for extra capacity

ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite hunting backpack
The ALPS OutdoorZ Commander Lite is interchangeable with the commander hiking backpack so that you can use the frame for hiking and hunting

Kelty Yukon 48L

If you’re on a budget check this pack out, you’ll get a lot for your money with this. The Kelty Yukon will be perfect for young adults or someone with a smaller frame because it’s not too big at 48 liters.

Do note that the description says the top lid converts to sling pack, but this one does not. Even without that, it’s a fantastic backpack with a classic look. Check for availability of the Kelty Yukon 48L on Amazon here.

– 5 lbs. 1 oz (2.29 kg)
– 48 liters
– Drop-in rifle pocket with hydration pocket

Kelty Yukon 48L
The Kelty Yukon 48L is perfect you a young adult or someone with a smaller frame

How Much Does an External Frame Backpack Cost?

The average price as of right now is $185. The two Vargo Exoti backpacks are the most expensive while being the best backpacks out of the group.  I’ve recommended ALPS Mountaineering before including their hiking tents, and I’ll continue to do so. For entry to mid-level, I think their Red Rock external frame pack is the best for the money. The only problem it is a bit small at 34 liters.

If I’m going to carry an external frame, I’m not too worried about the weight. No matter how light of an external frame pack I buy, it’s going to be heavy when compared to other backpack offerings. For that reason, the Kelty Tioga 5500 Classic external frame backpack is exciting. It’s ample (90 liters), massive and is cheaper than the average backpack on our list.

2 thoughts on “What Is the Best External Frame Backpack?”

  1. I just wanted to add a note about Kelty quality and durability. I bought a Kelty D3 in 1973 and beat the hell out of it for about 30 years, at which time I replaced it with a KeltyTioga and gave the D3 to my son, who still uses it and he hasn’t broken it yet. Next year that pack will be 50 years old and it’s still in use.


Leave a Comment