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The External-Frame Pack Is Back

Retro tech meets modern looks in the new Kelty Zyp and Zyro

New external-frame packs from Kelty combine the weight savings and user-friendliness of 21st-century materials with a compact aluminum skeleton. (Photo: Courtesy Kelty)

Backpacks today look nothing like the metal and canvas contraptions of the 1970s. Removable internal supports made of plastic have replaced external frames, and ripstop nylon now reigns supreme. No doubt, packs are pounds lighter and significantly more comfortable thanks to these innovations. But classic designs are classic for a reason: they work.

That’s the logic behind Kelty’s new Zyp and Zyro, a line of modernized external-frame packs on shelves this month that combine the weight savings and user-friendliness of 21st-century materials with a compact steel skeleton. The Zyro comes in 58- and 68-liter versions—54 and 64 liters for women—and is more backpacking oriented, while the Zyp comes in 28, 38, and 48 liters and is designed for fast and light pursuits.

Both packs grew out of a quest to find a way to prevent sweat buildup along the back panels in hot weather. Plenty of brands utilize taut mesh backings to push their packs away from your skin and provide an air channel through which sweat can evaporate and escape, but Kelty’s designers wanted something better. Ultimately, inspiration came from the external-frame packs that the company launched in 1952 at its outset. The metal bars naturally held the pack body at length.

(Photo: Emily Reed)

The Zyp and Zyro sport a refined version of that age-old design. A lightweight steel skeleton adds structure around the perimeter of the pack, with parallel mesh-and-nylon rails strung top to bottom. A padded upper-back panel and hipbelt rest on these rails. Air passes between the metal frame and the rails so your midback can breathe, free of fabric and foam. (The Zyro skips the rails, and places the hip and back panels right on the metal frame.) Quick-release buckles allow you to raise or lower the upper back support for easy torso-length adjustment without having to take off the pack.

I’ve used the 38-liter Zyp fully loaded—albeit in winter, with temperatures too cold to induce serious back sweat—and found it light and incredibly comfortable despite the water, camera, and food I was carrying. The cavernous main compartment opens via a basic cinch top and a vertical side zipper. A large brain pocket, two stretchy mesh pockets, and a water-bottle pocket on each side offer ample exterior storage. (The Zyro, which comes in bigger sizes, has additional bells and whistles like a curved top-zipper opening, a bottom sleeping-bag compartment, and a removable lid.)

At Outside, we spend a lot of time highlighting the newest, most innovative gear, as well as write the occasional ode to some of our favorite, unchanged classics. Rarely do we get to do both at once. And in our opinion, the return of the external-frame pack is worth getting excited about.

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