Frame vs Frameless Backpacks

Farpoint and Fairview Trek

When it comes to choosing a travel backpack there’s a number of things to consider and a lot of jargon to wade through. 

Instead of taking a deep dive into the complete anatomy of a backpack, today we’ll be focussing on just one aspect: frames.


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Backpack Frames Explained

Backpacks with frames distribute the weight of your gear across your entire body. They hold their shape even when empty, making them much easier to pack. The frame can also act as a way of protecting your gear from being crushed or squashed. 

There are two types of backpack frames: internal and external.

You’ve probably seen those old external frame backpacks — they’re all over the classic travel movies

Kelty Trekker 65 Backpack, Garnet Red

Essentially, external frame backpacks are made up of a large exposed frame. Attached to this are backpack straps on one side and a ton of compartments, pockets and pouches on the other. 

But for all intents and purposes, external frame backpacks are a thing of the past. 

Modern backpack frames are a little more innocuous than their predecessors. Today’s backpacks feature internal frames which means they’re hidden inside the material of the bag. While you’ll rarely see the actual framework, it’s obvious to those with a keen eye. The frame gives the bag a rigid structure, meaning it holds its shape even when empty. 

Osprey Exos 38 Men's Backpacking Backpack, Blaze Black, Large

External frame backpacks are still available but since internal frames became the industry standard, they’ve become less popular. More R&D (research and development) money is poured into internal frames which means their rate of development has been astounding. Conversely, external frame packs haven’t changed much in the last few decades. 

Then there’s the frameless pack. 

Much more common on hiking trails than anywhere else, the frameless pack has become the go-to bag for those wanting to keep their pack weight as low as possible. 

We’ve not seen a huge boom of frameless packs in the travel space but with airline luggage restrictions getting stricter each year, and one bag travel becoming more popular, it’s only a matter of time before travellers flock to these lightweight alternatives. 

Granite Gear Virga 2 Backpack - Tiger/Moonmist 52L Regular


Pros and Cons of Backpacks With Frames


Internal and external frame backpacks have their own nuances but for today, we’re focussing on framed packs in general. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a travel backpack with an external frame unless you’re travelling to the 1980s. 


Pros

Ventilation 

A framed pack will often sit a little further away from your body than a frameless model. This extra space allows air to flow to your back, reducing the build-up of sweat and making for a more comfortable carry in warm weather. 

Carry Capacity 

Framed backpacks are built to carry more weight than their frameless friends. They distribute weight more effectively across your whole body, rather than relying on your shoulders and back. 

Larger Capacity 

Because they can carry more weight, framed packs are available in much larger capacities than frameless packs. 

Gregory Mountain Products Denali 100 Liter Alpine Backpack Basalt Black, Large

Maintains Shape 

The frame helps keep your backpack’s shape. This is especially useful when packing or unpacking but it can make the bag harder to store when not in use.

Massive Range of Bags Available 

There’s a huge variety in the shape, size and styles of backpacks with frames. Whether you want a small daypack or a massive expedition bag, you’ll find an option to suit you. 

Suspension Systems 

Thanks to being more rigid, framed backpacks can be built with suspension systems. These are commonly seen in hiking packs from brands like Osprey. They’re generally made of breathable mesh and keep the bag well off your bag for maximum carrying comfort. 


Cons

Heavier 

Modern materials are relatively lightweight but having a frame in your backpack adds weight. Frameless packs are almost always significantly lighter than backpacks with frames. 

Bulkier 

As with weight, the extra materials required to build the frame adds extra bulk and size to your pack. 

More Expensive 

Again, extra materials, as well as the R&D, add cost to your bag.


Pros and Cons of Frameless Packs

Pros

Cheaper 

Unless you’re opting for a frameless pack made of exotic materials such as Dynema or X-Pac, it will always be cheaper than a framed bag.

Lighter 

Less material means a lighter bag. This is especially true if you do opt for the aforementioned exotic materials. Some frameless packs weigh less than 300g! 

WUHUAROU Outdoor Camping Travel Backpack Hiking Rucksack 26L 38L Ultralight Frameless Trekking Packs (Color : Orange, Size : 38l)

More Forgiving Fit 

There is generally more adjustability in a frameless pack. This means you don’t need to worry about measuring your torso as accurately. 

Simple Design 

Frameless packs tend to feature a single large compartment with a mesh exterior pocket. This simplicity means there’s less material, less stitching and often no zips. This adds up to massive weight saving. It also means that there’s less to go wrong with the bags. 

Easy to Store 

Because they have much less structure, frameless packs can be stored much more easily than bags with frames. They can be compressed, folded or rolled into small spaces. 

Smaller 

Frameless packs tend to be smaller. This means they’re more streamlined and prevent you from packing too much! 


Cons

More challenging to pack 

Frameless packs don’t hold their shape when empty and don’t stand up which makes packing them a chore. They’re also worn right against your back so need to be packed with nothing hard or sharp pressing against the back panel. Trust me, you’ll know it if you pack a frameless bag wrong!

Less Supportive 

Frameless packs don’t distribute the weight of your gear as well as framed bags. This can lead to them becoming uncomfortable and, if not packed correctly, can result in a painful back and shoulders. 


Final Thoughts On Frame vs Frameless Backpacks

Frameless backpacks are much more common for hikers than travellers. The weight saving and simple designs are much more relevant to long days trekking through the hills than travelling from hostel to hostel. 

But with the rise of one bag travel and with airlines constantly restricting your hand luggage allowance, it’s only a matter of time before ultralight frameless packs emerge on the travel scene. 

Whichever you choose, make sure you understand the pros and cons of each. Frameless packs have huge advantages but can take some getting used to. Backpacks with frames are easier to use and are more common but weigh more and tend to take up a lot more space!

Tim Ashdown | Gear Specialist

After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since then, he has travelled Southeast Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and backpacked South America. His first book, From Paralysis to Santiago, chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident and will be released later this year.

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