External frame backpacks (EFBs), some say, are a thing of the past, an outdated technology that has gone the way of the telegram, ankle weights, and the fax machine.
But not us.
We’re here to tell you no, you are not crazy for wanting to pick up the best external frame backpack.
The fact is, many outdoor gear companies still produce high quality EFBs and, with improvements in outdoor technology, they’re now better and cheaper than ever.
But first, when choosing an EFB, you’ll want to think about what you’re going to use it for.
Some EFBs are marketed for camping, like the Kelty Trekker. This backpack is on the small side for EFBs and its great construction will last for years.
The ALPS OutdoorZ Commander is intended for hunting. It has a large interior and several external pockets and straps for a rifle, scopes and whatever else you want to bring along.
At 90 liters, the Kelty Tioga has the greatest volume of any pack (although the APS Commander comes close). It’s pretty much a larger version of the Trekker and has a great construction.
The Eberlestock F1 Mainframe Pack could also be a great option for hunting. It does not actually come with a pack, but dozens of different containers, such as meat buckets, dry bags, or standard nylon packs, can be attached to it.
The ALPS Mountaineering Zion is a cheaper hiking EFB. It will get you going without breaking the bank, although with lower price comes lower quality.
Don’t have much time to read?
Then check out this small comparison table that we’ve put up below.
We hope you’ll find it useful!
Top 5 External Frame Bags Reviews
Dick Kelty is credited with inventing the frame backpack in the first place. His design was originally external, using recycled aluminum from decommissioned WWII planes for the metal and old parachutes for the fabric. The company that sparked the revolution in backpacks is still making some of the best packs available today.
This Kelty Trekker (Click here for good price!) is intended primarily for camping. It has several external pockets and has a volume of 3950 cubic inches, or roughly 65 liters. It’s a really comfortable carry, with padded shoulder straps and a waist belt that can be removed if it’s not your thing.
At 4 lbs, 14 oz., this is one of the lighter packs out there. The frame, in addition, is adjustable, so this pack will fit anyone of any height.
Other cool features include a sleeve for a camelback, ice axe loops, and mesh pockets for water bottles. The hold open bar at the top of the frame keeps the pack open while you load it. On top of that, it comes with a lifetime warranty that protects against manufacturing defects.
Backpackers praise this pack for its adjustability. While it is one of the pricier EFBs, it is significantly cheaper than internal frame backpacks of a similar quality. Some report some squeaking from the frame, which will happen at some point with all EFBs until you tighten them up again.
The Trekker also does not have side compression straps. This isn’t huge, but compression straps do help if you have any free room in your pack to get things right and tight and make it easier to carry.
Overall, the Trekker is a great pack, and one of the best EFBs out there.
Things we like:
lots of pockets
Things we don’t like:
a little on the small side, unless that’s your thing
it only comes in red
no compression straps
Eberlestock F1 Mainframe Pack
The cammo design of the Eberlestock F1 Mainframe Pack (Click here for good price!) might just tip you off that this is a hunting pack. Eberlestock is primarily a hunting company and this pack was designed to haul your gear along with whatever game you bag.
The frame is made out of Intex II aluminum, a compound that keeps the pack relatively lightweight, but will stay strong enough for whatever you have to haul out.
This pack weighs less than the Trekker—only 4 lbs, 5 oz. Like the Trekker, the frame is also adjustable.
The coolest aspect to the F1 Mainframe is that it can be combined with over 100 other Eberlestock products. You can zip in different packs, dry bags, or just keep it as the bare-bones frame for whatever you need.
The downside is that this does not come with any kind of compartment, you have to buy those extra. For those looking to simply get out and go, you might want to look elsewhere.
If you’re a hunter, however, with specific needs and tastes, chances are you’ll be able to match the right pack with this frame and see some great success.
Testimonials regarding this pack are overwhelmingly positive. Hunters love this pack for its adjustable, yet compact frame that won’t easily catch on brush or low hanging branches, especially when you’re sneaking up on some prey.
The shoulder and waist straps are also incredibly comfortable. Compared to other hunting frames, it is very lightweight.
Things we like:
very adjustable and comfortable
super customizable (with other Eberlestock products)
Things we didn’t like:
doesn’t come with a backpack
From the inventors of the framed backpack, we have another EFB for you to consider. This one runs at a similar price to the Trekker, and it is identical in several categories. Both have an array of pockets on the side to divide up gear and make for easy access.
Besides an adjustable aluminum frames suitable for most torso sizes, the Tioga (Click here for good price!) also has an internal sleeve for a water bladder and additional pockets for water bottles.
Compared to the Trekker, the Tioga is notably larger. At 5500 cubic inches or 90 liters, that’s 150% the capacity of the Trekker.
Because of that extra size, it’s almost one pound heavier as well. If you’re looking to head out longer or carry more stuff, the Tioga is likely a better choice for you.
Backpackers are overwhelmingly positive concerning this EFB. People love the large capacity, classic design, and solid frame.
One of the only negative qualities about this pack is that, in its newer design, the attachments of the pack to the frame are pretty tricky, and it can take awhile to adjust, so when you’re first starting out, it may be a pain to find the right fit.
Also like the Trekker, it does not have side compression straps, so unless you fill the pack completely, you won’t be able to get a great, condensed load on your back.
Things we like:
classic, much-loved design
Things we didn’t like:
somewhat difficult to adjust
no compression straps
ALPS Mountaineering Zion
The ALPS Mountaineering Zion (Click here for good price!) is intended more for the hiking and trekking side of outdoors activities. At 3900 cubic inches (about 65 liters) this pack is the same size as the Kelty Trekker.
Much like the Trekker, it is top loading, has a ton of different pockets, including one for a water bladder and one for your sleeping bag, and has well padded, adjustable shoulder and hip straps. It also weighs about the same—roughly 4 lbs, 15 oz. It also has no compression straps and an adjustable frame.
Unfortunately, the ALPS Zion falls short of the Trekker in several areas. Users report the hold open bar is quite flimsy and is prone to bending. Backpackers tend to agree that this pack is good for narrow-shouldered trekkers.
The mesh webbing along the lumbar region, furthermore, is prone to stretching and ripping. ALPS will certainly repair this feature, but that does not promise it won’t rip again. Other hikers have reported that the zippers will commonly catch.
The ALPS Zion is, however, much cheaper than the Trekker. If you’re on a lower budget and the pack fits you fine, this might be the EFB for you.
What we like:
all the standard features
good option for narrow shoulders
What we don’t like:
generally poor construction, especially so regarding lumbar mesh, hold open bar, and zippers
no compression straps
ALPS OutdoorZ Commander
Also by the ALPS, this OutdoorZ Commander (Click here for good price!) is the company’s take on a hunting EFB.
At this point, you’re familiar with an EFB’s standard features, and the Commander has them all: top loading, lots of different pockets, adjustable frame for different torsos, hold open bar, and a sleeve for water.
This pack excels in several areas. For one, it is super light. At only 2 lbs, 3 oz., this is twice as light as any other pack reviewed in this article. It also has a special holder for a rifle and scopes.
Despite all its sweet pockets, this pack even has compression straps. You can also fully remove the pack from the frame and use the frame for hauling whatever it is you killed and will soon be eating. At 5200 cubic inches or 85 liters, the Commander is nearly as big as the Ketly Tioga.
While this pack is far superior to the Zion, some hunters report that the poor construction of ALPS still plagues this model. Pockets have ripped, seams come undone, etc. Most, however, have nothing but good things to say about this pack.
Considering all its positive qualities along with its price, this might be the best buy in this whole article.
What we like
pack is removable
What we don’t like
Some quality issues regarding zippers and seams
Why you should choose an external frame backpack
good outside frame bagAs you have seen, not all EFBs are created equally.
Different models are made for different types of activities and serve different purpose.
But one of the greatest advantages of an EFB is its versatility.
The external frame allows you lash on whatever you’d want to carry. This could be an axe, a meat bucket, gear for trail maintenance, your rifle, a portable stove, or a sweet rack of antlers you found.
Beyond the ability of being able to carry anything you can strap to your pack, EFBs also offer the unique advantage of easy access.
In top-loading packs, you will have to completely unpack everything to get to the bottom of your pack. With EFBs, you merely need to unlash it from the side.
The frame also helps carry any weight you can shoulder. Many internal frame packs simply do not match up under heavier loads. They will sag, the internal frame will bend out of shape, or even snap and break your pack.
EFBs are also significantly cooler than internals. With a metal frame propping the pack off your body, you get a lot more airflow on hot days.
Cost, Quality, and Construction
Another great aspect of EFBs is that they are easier to manufacture than internal frame backpacks. This means that their cost is significantly lower, they generally have a greater durability, and the quality of their construction is superior.
What material should the frame be?
The external frames of the packs mentioned in this article are all some form of aluminum. The metal is known for its high strength to weight ratio. It is nearly one third the density of steel, yet just as strong. It will also remain free of rust.
The metal does oxidize, but it tends to form a thin layer of highly dense material that protects against further corrosion.
If you are able to get enough use out of your EFB that the pack breaks, the aluminum frame is easily recyclable.
If you come across a pack that is not made out of aluminum, you should do some research before you buy. Certain metals like steel are prone to bending, and other composite materials are weaker and can snap easily.
When it comes to the fabric, denser is better. Most fabric in outdoor gear is rated in terms of denier. This unit measures the linear density of the fabric’s fibers. It is calculated by measuring the mass in grams over 9000 meters of fabric. Silk is roughly one denier, or 1D. The Kelty packs have a rating of 600D. In terms of fabric, that’s pretty tough.
Most fabrics will also be made of fibers woven in a ripstop pattern. Denser fibers are woven through the fabric in a crosshatch pattern. As the name suggests, this will usually keep ripping to a minimum, even after the fabric is punctured.
One of the downsides of EFBs is you can only adjust their frame in terms of height. For it to sit comfortably on your back, you’re going to want the vertical sides of the frame to extend down from somewhere around your shoulder blades.
Both the Kelty Trekker and the ALPS Zion are great for thinner people, while the Tioga is slightly wider. If you can’t try on the pack before you purchase it, make sure to get the measurement of its dimensions and compare that to your own body.
Now you have the rundown of the top five EFBs, you have to consider exactly what you’ll be using it for.
Weighing the factors of cost and diversity of use, we have to recommend the ALPS OutdoorZ Commander.
This pack is one of the best hunting backpacks, and it has everything we hope to find in an EFB: adjustable frame and straps, a variety of pockets, a hold open bar, lightweight construction, and compression straps.
One thing that worries us, however, is quality of the pack. While only a few backpackers and hunters reported issues with pack, some did.
If budget is less of an issue for you, and you want a pack that you know is going to last forever, the Kelty Tioga is a better option, and it’s not even much more expensive than the Commander.
There it is, may your frames remain ever-sturdy.