Gear Advice: Backpack

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For overnight backpacking, there are two basic types of packs, Internal Frame, and External Frame. The best type of pack depends on a number of things including: Personal preference, budget, and activity.

External frame packs have been around for many years, and usually involve some sort of tubular frame with a nylon pack connected via pins. There is usually a set of shoulder straps, and waist belt. The main advantages and disadvantages of an external frame pack are:


  • Easy to pack bulky gear such as sleeping bags and tents. Sleeping bags can be rolled up and strapped to the bottom on the outside of the pack   
  • Light Weight
  • Lower Cost
  • Many compartments
  • Less stable on uneven trails. This makes them undesirable with skis or snow shoes.
  • Tops tend not to seal tight, and must be covered during rain storms.
  • Items hanging on outside of pack are prone to getting snagged or wet.
  • Limited adjustments make them somewhat harder to fit, and potentially less comfortable on longer hikes.
Internal frame packs became popular in the last 20 years or so, and usually include a nylon bag with plastic sewn in to give it rigidly, and padded shoulder and waist belts.

  • Very stable on uneven trails. If properly fitted, the pack will hug the small of the back, causing the pack to move well with the body. 
  • Tend seal up well making it less likely that things inside will get wet.
  • Very little needs to hang on the outside of the pack.
  • Extremely adjustable, and very comfortable on long hikes if done properly.
  • More difficult to pack, as everything should be inside the pack. This required the use of smaller compressible items such as down sleeping bags.
  • More expensive than external frame packs if you get a good light weight pack.
  • Cheaper packs tend to be rather heavy.
  • Fewer compartments require use of stuff sacks to keep item separated.

Bill’s Choice

My thinking is that for boys under 14 years of age, stick with a low cost external frame pack to see if they develop an interest in backpacking. If they do, wait until they fill out (typically at 14-15 years), then get them a good internal frame pack.

I started my career in 1974 with a Camp Trails external frame pack, and began whishing I could get an internal frame pack when Mountainsmith first started selling them in 1979. Not having an income in those days put those dreams on hold, but in the 2000 timeframe I purchased a Mountainsmith Specter. In subsequent years, I purchased each of my boys the same pack, and we love them. Sam and I used them on a 10 night backpacking trip at Philmont in 2001, and they worked great. The pack won Backpacker Magazine’s pack of the year in 2001. It is light weight, and very comfortable. I doubt I will ever go back to an external frame pack. I have a few cases where buckles broke on the Specter, and a case where one of the internal stays ripped the pack, but Mountainsmith took care of those issues under their lifetime warranty. I do however carry an extra hip buckle, just in case.
One side note, on the Philmont trip, one scout had a Philmont supplied external frame pack. Midway through the trip, the frame broke in half. That really put my repair kit to the test, but with some ingenuity and a couple of iron rods (a long story) we were able to get him to the next re-supply site to replace the pack. That is the only case of catastrophic pack failure (CPF) I have ever encountered.

Packing Tips

I have had requests for tips on packing a backpack properly. While various packs have different configurations that you need to consider, there are some general guild lines that I follow:

  • Heavy items should be low in the pack to avoid it from being top heavy, and thus making it more likely you will fall
  • Items you will need during the hike should be easily accessible
  • Your sleeping bag should be in a waterproof stuff/compression sack or minimally in a plastic garbage bag
  • Clothing should be in a waterproof stuff/compression sack or minimally in a plastic garbage bag
  • Food should be in a heavy duty waterproof sack to avoid spillage inside the pack
  • Small items should be kept in smaller sacks/mesh bags to keep them organized
  • Keep only your large pot, and store the stove inside that pot to conserve space
  • Separate tent poles from tents for better packing options
  • Minimize the number of items that hang on the outside of a pack as they will likely come loose
  • Keep a water bottle easily accessible
  • Keep rain gear easily accessible

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