The Aether 60
The Aether 60

What happened to external-fre backpacks?

Everything I've ever read or experienced says external fre backpacks are more forgiving to pack, better for trail hiking and cheaper than internal fre packs. I understand internals have advantages on rough terrain, but given all the benefits of external fres, why do they seem to be going extinct? I missing something? Chuck Pittstown, NJ

The Aether 60

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Aw, Chuck. I think you’re sort of living in the past. I still have a foot there myself, but it’s coming out fast.

The Aether 60 The Aether 60

Of course, I cut my backpacking teeth on external frame packs—Kelty, JanSport, all the big names. And I still own something of an artifact—a Dana Terraframe ($300, more or less, when new). That pack is a truly weird combination of a Dana Designs Astralplane (Dana’s large, still-hard-to-beat internal-frame pack) with a Dana Gleason-designed external-frame chassis. Really a great pack. Got a 70-pound load? This is the pack for you.

External-frame packs, as a rule, also tend to ventilate a little better. The hard frame does a bit better job of holding the pack frame off your back. They’re also better at really big loads because they more easily manage the weight transfer from back to hips. And external-frame packs typically have a lot more nooks and crannies for stuffing odds and ends.

All of which mattered, sort of, until about five years ago. That’s when internal-frame packs got so good, and the loads people carried so light, that the advantages of external frame packs began to diminish. As I write this, for instance, I am packed for an overnight climb of Mount Shuksan (9,127 feet), a glaciated, fairly cold peak in North Cascades National Park. I’ve been rained off twice, but I am optimistic this time.

Anyway, there was a time when my overnight pack for Shuksan—tent, sleeping bag, a few pieces of rock/ice protection, clothes, stove, etc.—tipped the scales at 45 pounds—before water, food, and beer (hey, it can be a hot hike!) has been added. Now, my pre-food/water/beer pack is just over 20 pounds. I could go up Rainier with this thing, easily and comfortably. Sleeping bag (MontBell Down Hugger #3; 1 lbs, 7 oz; $279) and tent (Black Diamond Lighthouse; 3 pounds; $430) are in the same small stuff sack.

So do I need an eight-pound, external-frame pack for that? Heck no. My Osprey Aether 60 ($229, under four pounds) is fine. Feels like a big day pack.

So, yeah, external-frames are going extinct. Part of that was due to marketing. Internal-frame makers convinced buyers that external-frame models were uncool, out of date, and primitive. But now the facts speak for themselves. Internal-frame packs are so light and comfortable, with such good packability, and the loads they carry so feathery, that you just don’t need a metal-frame behemoth.

Find your perfect (internal-frame) pack by perusing our annual Summer Buyer’s Guide.

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