Zen Backpacks









Second to your hiking boots, the most important pieces of equipment for backpacking is the backpack.  It's what we carry all of our gear in and it's what's on our backs for the entire trip.  Therefore, it's very important that we select one that can carry everything we need, can survive the journey and is comfortable.


Backpack Frame Types

Backpack Features


Travel Packs

Backpack Fabrics and Construction

Backpack Security

Backpack Zippers


Backpack Frame Types

Backpacks come in a few different flavors:

External Frame Backpacks

These are the classic backpacks of old.  They have a sturdy frame capable of carrying large loads comfortably and the packs are easy to modify or remove allowing for many carrying options.


Internal Frame Backpacks

Plastic, aluminum, fiberglass or other structural support is mounted directly into the back allowing for a closer fitting pack that should conform to the backpacker's back.  These tend to be more stable than external frame packs where shifting of loads may be dangerous, such as with mountaineering.  These packs can be surprisingly heavy and may not be capable of carrying the loads an external frame backpack can.  Some feel that internal frame packs much more comfortable than external frame packs, but this quite debatable.


Frameless Backpacks/Rucksacks

 These backpacks may simply be a formless ruck or can be quite complex in construction.  Many are designed to use a sleeping pad to give sufficient structural support to allow for comfortable backpacking with light loads.  These packs tend to be extremely light and are generally considered unsuitable for anything greater than 30 pounds or so.


Backpacking.net - Backpack Comparison Matrix Sorted by Manufacturer

BackpackGearTest - Packs

Backpackinglight.com - Internal Frame Backpack Review Summary

Trailspace.com - Backpacks

REI - How to Choose a Backpack


External Frames

Kelty Trekker 3900 ST

Kelty Trekker 3900 ST


External frame backpacks have a rigid frame generally made of aluminum tubing, but can also be made of steel, wood or plastic.  These are the classic packs of days old and where the pack of choice for backpackers and mountaineers prior to the introduction of the internal frame packs in the late 1970s.  The external frame allows for much greater loads than an internal frame pack and carries the load more squarely on the backpacker's hips.

Outdoor Products Saturn External Frame PackOutdoor Products External Frame Pack

Outdoor Products Saturn External Frame Pack

Advantages of External Framed Backpacks:


Camp Trails Freighter Frame

Camp Trails Freighter Frame


Disadvantages of External Framed Backpacks:


Norrøna Sport Recon Pack 125l

Norrøna Sport Recon Pack 125l


Popular external Framed Backpacks include:



US Military ALICE Pack Frame

US Military ALICE Pack Frame



Internal Frame Backpacks

The most popular and most common type of packs these days.  Like a unibody automobile design, they integrate their framework inside the pack in the from of aluminum, fiberglass or plastic stays (flat bars 1" x 1/8"), tubes or sheets.  The internal frames are often removable and can be shaped or adjusted to conform to your back.  These internal frame systems can be quite complicated and highly engineered or quite simple in design.


Mountainsmith Ghost

Mountainsmith Ghost


Advantages of Internal Framed Backpacks:


Disadvantages of Internal Framed Backpacks:


Eagle Creek Grand Voyage 90L

Eagle Creek Grand Voyage 90L


A subcategory of internal frame packs are Travel Packs.  These packs are intended for international and urban travelers who need a pack that can be easily checked in at airports, packed on top of busses, carried on trains, etc and are intended to be used more in hotels and hostels than in the backcountry.  They often are designed more like luggage than than pack and often include stowable suspension, large zippered main compartments, lockable zippers, detachable daypacks and sometimes even wheels.  Almost all of these packs incorporate an internal frame to accommodate the loads they are designed to carry while avoiding the pitfalls of external frames that often get damaged and/or caught up in the airport luggage shuffle.



Popular Internal Framed Backpacks include:


Popular Travel Packs include:



Frameless Backpacks

Ultralight options for those planning to only carry the minimal equipment in temperate environments.  They tend to be a bag made of ultra-lightweight material such as silnylon with flimsy shoulder straps attached to them.  More sophisticated version have built in pockets and hipbelts.


Equinox Katahdin Frameless Backpack

Equinox Katahdin Frameless Backpack


Advantages of Frameless Backpacks:


Disadvantages of Frameless Backpacks:



Popular Frameless Backpacks include:



Backpack Features


A big part of the pack are the features that it comes with.  Each feature may prove to be useful for certain backpackers, but my be a superfluous addition that only adds weight and complexity to your pack.


Suspension system:

This includes your shoulder straps and other straps and buckles that pull everything together.  Each suspension system is slightly different as are each backpacker's back and shoulders.



A good hipbelt is an important feature.  With a good frame, it can transfer almost all of the weight of a pack to your hips - sparring your shoulders a back.  These can often be upgraded or interchanged for different sized backpackers.


Lumbar pad.

An option on some internals and externals.


Some internal frame packs have a sheet of plastic sew into the back so that objects in your pack don't poke you in the back.


Extendable/spindrift collar: A nylon skirt with a drawstring closure that allows the main compartment to hold extra gear.


Detachable pocket:

Many internal framed packs have a removable top that converts to a fanny pack or daypack.  This allows you to ditch your pack at base camp for a day hike or cache your pack and just carry the raw essentials for a technical section such as up to a peak or to explore a cave.

Water-bottle holders:

Most external framed backpacks have pockets on the outside of their packs for water bottles and hydration systems.  Internals tend not to have outside pockes, but several have elasticized mesh pockets on the side for small water bottles or food


Hydration pockets:

hydration systems such as Camelbacks and other types are "in fashion" and many of the the more expensive packs will incorporate a special pocket for these a an opening for the tube.

Extras and attachments:

Lash points - single, multiple or daisy chained allow of tying down extra equipment to the outside of packs.  This can be very useful for climbers and those wanting to all on extra gear such as snow shoes, skis, extra pockets, etc.

ice-axe loops - very useful if you are using ice axes for part of your travels.  Drop the handle thought the loop, flip up the axe and secure it to your pack.

crampon patches - extra protective patches on the outside of the pack to either hold down sharp metal objects that would otherwise cut your pack or its straps.

Shovel pocket - for a shovel

Loading options:

"Top-loaders" Most internal frame and frameless packs tend to have a single opening at the top that allows you to stack and stuff your gear like a military duffle bag.

"Panel-loaders" Most external frame packs tend to have both an opening at the top and a "U" shaped zippered opening at the bottom with a zippered in panel inside your pack to separate your sleeping bag from the rest of the pack. 

"Side Loaders"  A few packs brave an extra zipper along the side of their packs.  This allows for better access to their gear than a single top opening, but adds a weak spot in the pack with the potential of a major failure should the zipper fail during an extended journey.


External frame bottom shelf - protects the pack when you set it on the ground al well as provides a tie down point for sleeping bags and sometimes of carrying heavy bulky items (firewood, game, generator, etc.) with the pack removed.


External frame top extension - allows for stacking and tying down equipment to the top of your pack.  Also adds points to grab onto low hanging trees that a backpacker may venture under.



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