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Thoughts on internal frame backpacks?

I'm a backpacker - I own five internal frame backpacks of various sizes. I just returned from ten days carrying one in Europe, and I'm not sure I would again, for several reasons.

1) It makes you especially conspicuous, which means every scam artist looks at you like fresh meat (until you loudly and angrily say "No!" right in their face).

2) The odd shape of the space makes folding clothes and keeping them unwrinkled more difficult.

3) Most don't have double zippers, meaning you can't lock them. That makes me nervous whenever I'm standing still in public - it would be so easy for a pickpocket to open up a pocket without me noticing.

4) They're too tall for carry-on on smaller planes, and some gate check and security personnel won't let you past even if it will fit in the overhead.

5) Easier to carry, but leaves your back very sweaty, even with a raised mesh backpanel.

At the same time, it was easy for me to walk across Amsterdam, get around airport check-in, and keep myself organized using a backpack. Anyone else have any thoughts on using an internal frame backpack?

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
4352 posts

Interesting question. It's been decades, many decades, since I used an external frame pack. The only people I know still using external frames are hunters who use the frame to haul dead animals.

The starting point is internal frames look cooler than external frame packs. The end point is a body width or narrower internal frame pack interferes less with skiing, climbing or trekking motions. And frame parts have padding between the frame and body. Flexible internal frames are also more compliant with body motion.

Try an Internet search on "external vs internal frame packs".

One hit: http://www.backpacker.com/gear/experts/ask-kristin/why-internal-frame-backpacks/

The benefits of external frames are thus: They position the weight high on your back, allowing good vertical load transfer to the hips and a more upright walking posture. (With an internal frame, have you ever found yourself leaning forward while you hike to counterbalance the load on your back? You don’t have to do that with externals.) They also work great in hot weather, because the frame keeps the pack suspended away from your back, allowing lots of airflow between you and your pack. And, they tend to be very affordable.
The downsides to externals are that, because they carry the weight high and away from your back, they don’t have the best stability. So, you run the risk of feeling tippy and off- balance during scrambling maneuvers or when climbing or descending dicey terrain. The packbags also tent to be big and square-ish (not compact and streamlined like internals), so if you find yourself in a bushwhacking situation, you’ll likely get hung up on branches and brush.
For those reasons, externals are best suited for hiking on established trails. In the last 10 or so years, packmakers have clearly focused their attention on internal frame packs. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a new or innovative external.

Posted by Jonathan OP
Lawrence, KS
30 posts

Edgar, I appreciate the response. I'm sold on internal frames for backpacking 9like I said, I own 5 of them), but I'm not sure how I feel about them as traditional tourism luggage. How do folks feel about an internal frame backpack versus a roll-aboard bag or a convertible suitcase/backpack?

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
4352 posts

I use a Rick Steves "Classic Carry-on" basic bag that's close to max legal carry-on size and with no wheels compressible to fit sizing frames. I carry a very light weight Patagonia Lightweight Travel Pack (no frame/no padding) for day use.

I also have a GoLite Peak no-frame but padded narrow pack that sort of matches the "personal" item carry-on size. The GoLite is useful for day use base camp touring or luggage transfer supported trips. The GoLite's suspension system is better (more stable) than the Patagonia.

Posted by Lee
Lakewood, Colorado
16871 posts

It seems like "frames" (internal or external) are a fix for overpacking. I don't think we're hiking all day in the High Sierras, with tent, sleeping bag, food, and cooking gear. You don't need a frame for 10-15# of clothes.

Posted by Lola
Seattle, WA
9742 posts

My husband and I are backpackers (US meaning) too and love our internal frame packs ( Gregory super light for him, Mountainsmith for me). But we would never think of using them as luggage for a Europe trip. They do not work as well as a rectangular space for packing clothes, and all the extra straps on the outside are a nuisance ---can't use them to hold anything as it might get ripped off. And they take up too much space if worn on public transport.

My husband thought he might like a luggage backpack and bought the RS one ( the dedicated backpack, not the convertible with both wheels and straps). He tried it on one US trip and hated it---with no frame, it did not carry the weight well at all and hurt his back and shoulders. The soft sides collapsed when compressed into spaces like the overhead bin on the plane and his clothes were all wrinkled. Plus he said he felt "like a goof" wearing it. We gave it away after that trip.

Now he uses a lightweight Osprey roller bag for every trip and is very happy with that. I have several different roller bags, some convertibles with backpack straps, some without. One I use for US road trips only ( it is heavy). I alternate among the others for Europe. In the last five trips to Europe I have never pulled out the straps to carry the bag as a backpack.

Posted by Jonathan OP
Lawrence, KS
30 posts

Lola,
That's brilliant! I wish I had thought of Osprey luggage. I love their backpacks. I might just exchange that pack for one of their suitcases.

Posted by Jill
Boulder, CO
1352 posts

We have both Rick steves back packs and osprey porter backpacks (with internal frames). I've been struggling trying to decide which one to use on upcoming trip in December. The osprey is much more comfortable to carry, has a daypack that zips on which is very handy while on public transportation and I had no issues with packing - using packing cubes. The big downside is that it isn't technically carry on size. We were able to carry on for trip in 2012, but not sure we'd get away with it now. The only thing the RS bag has going for it over the osprey is that it could be carried on (at least on the way there). I plan on buying several Xmas presents while in Germany.

Posted by jkc
Massachusetts
715 posts

Ryan,

I use an Osprey Porter which allows the straps and hip belt to be zipped away so it can be carried more like luggage, or take the strap out and use it like a backpack when needed. I love it. Although it is not designed to be taken on a back packing excursion, it works fine if you have a couple of mile to cover to get from one place to another. It is also carry on size and fits perfectly in overhead bins.

Posted by Cindy H
San Jose
681 posts

I have plenty of internal frame backpacks which I use for... backpacking and mountaineering. I'm carrying my bedding, tent, food, cookware with me so my pack is heavier. I need an internal frame. That's especially true when I'm going over uneven terrain and I won't want to be tipped off balance.
For regular travel it is over kill. If you need an internal frame for a regular trip then you are doing something seriously wrong and your pack is way, way, way too heavy. If you pack correctly your bag is light enough where you don't need any frame at all.
I don't like the Osprey products as they are stiff, heavy, and hard to compress. I think they look too much like backpacks. That's me and my personal tastes.
Another great product is the MEI Voyageur which looks like regular luggage. It has a removable frame. It has hidden straps, and with a shoulder strap like the Op/Tech SOS you can wear it over the shoulder like a regular bag. I think that it is more backpack-like than other products but still looks amazingly like regular luggage.
http://www.meivoyageur.com/
Personally, I prefer the LL Bean Quickload Convertible which is only 2.2 pounds. Great for airlines with weight restrictions. It does not have any internal frame, which is where it gets its weight savings.
http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/51615?page=quickload-travel-pack

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
4352 posts

...traditional tourism luggage....

Form should follow function and the "best" luggage will dependent on how and where you travel. The "best" bag for base camp type travel where the bag can be dropped will be different from a hut to hut/inn to inn travel where your bag is with you from morning to night.

If you base camp and just need to move your bag from airport/train/bus to lodging every couple of days or week it almost doesn't matter what you have. A wheelie bag can be appropriate if you base camp and stairs and rough terrain are only occasional obstacles. And carrying a back pack of duffle bag isn't a problem either if you only do it every couple of days and are reasonably fit and physically capable.

If you are carrying your bag all day as you travel from point to point, a good suspension system with hip belt makes for more comfortable travel. And if you are in a petty crime area, I'd be more concerned about having hands unencumbered than locking zippers. (Keep your valuables at the bottom of your pack). You want to be able to grab the pickpocket's hand before his/her hand extracts your wallet. Regardless of type of pack, be prepared to check your bag in museums and glassware shops.

Posted by gone
2081 posts

Ryan,

If an internal/external frame pack gives you a warm an fuzzy feeling then go for it and dont worry about the other stuff. Note the drawback of using one.

I dont have an external/internal frame pack but its a backpack type bag that i bought for my first solo trip to Europe 3 years ago. its been going strong with no issues so far. I only use it 1 month or so per year so its not getting abused or used a lot by any means.

to me and for what i need/use, its suits its just find. I will carry it as backpack as soon as i step off the train/plane/bus and i havent had any issues with someone trying to open any pocket. I will say that there aren't any pockets easily accessible on the outside and i usually use my compression straps just to keep them from catching on things so that may probably help with wondering hands. I dont lock my pack at all since there is nothing i cant do without. Also, if i wanted in a pack, no lock would stop me, knives are easily available anywhere and i would use that. What i also like about it is that it has a large flap opening so i dont have to root from the top down to get whats at the bottom.

again, do what you like and have fun

happy trails.

Posted by Eileen
Texan in CA
4329 posts

My internal frame camping backpack goes on camping trips, but...

...my go-to European travel bag is an internal frame backpack from Eagle Creek. After I pass on, there will be multi-step trials to see who earns the right to inherit it. I've used it for 16 years, and it's dedicated to overseas travel only.

It's rectangular in shape, so no problems there. While I do own a RS Convertible bag, it's a bit too saggy for me unless packed full (usually not a problem for me!), and I really miss the good padded hip belt and especially the sternum straps - those, with the good hip belt, make a huge difference in where and how your bag rides. It prevents it from swinging and from messing up your center of balance. Internal and external cinch straps are important (and I use packing cubes, FWIW). With that baby on and packed full, I can run after many a train without worry that I'll get thrown off-balance. Don't ask how I know this ;-) I can also not worry about getting off-balance while climbing up many flights of stairs. You and your bag are One when worn properly; you'll forget you're wearing it, no matter how much weight you're carrying. Seriously. I've never had a problem with taking it on the airplane (do you really think I'm checking My Baby?!? Over my dead carcass!), since the dimensions are the same as every other carry-on bag - and without wheels.

As for being a theft target, every other person is wearing some sort of backpack; I look waaaay more aware of my surroundings than many others do and that's what makes someone else the target. All of my zippers can be locked.

As for sweating, that's not hard for me to do in any case (sigh). Backpacks do make me more sweaty, and I HATE that, but to a lesser extent so does pulling - and often lifting - a roller bag. While someone might make a go at my rolling bag, they aren't gonna get that backpack off of me LOL! Plus, I really like the hands-free nature of backpacks, so I'll wear them as long as I possibly can. One's posture is better with a good backpack worn correctly than with a bag that must be pulled, so less chance of injury. My bag only weighs a few pounds, even with those sturdy metal buckles, and it weighs half of what my (lightweight) roller bags weigh.

I've toyed with using a roller bag for European travel to avoid the sweaty back, but I just can't ignore the convenience of my backpack...yet...but I have started using rolling bags for domestic air travel. Yep, RS Bags; how'd ya guess?

[If you'd like to be considered for the Last Will and Testament Trials to win my backpack upon my demise, please send me a PM; I'll be sure my Future Attorney has your info ;-) ]

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
28988 posts

Ryan,

Although I'm over 60, I also prefer to use a Backpack for European travel. I own two internal frame packs, one older Eagle Creek Continental Journey and one Osprey Waypoint. Both are panel loading, have detachable daypacks, stowable harness for air travel and both have zippers which can be locked. Although the Eagle Creek is smaller, that's the one I tend to prefer as it's really comfortable.

I've also just returned from a trip in Europe, which was a month this time with a fair amount of moving around. Although the main pack is typically only used for short distances from the station to the hotel, there were times when I carried it for longer periods, and the EC pack was fantastic!

I use different luggage products for domestic travel with shorter trips (carry-on only when possible), and currently my preferred kit is the Tom Bihn Tri-Star (which can also be used as a Backpack). I've also been looking at the TB Aeronaut series for possible use on future European trips, but haven't made a decision yet.

A few thoughts on each of the points you mentioned above.....

  1. I've never found that having a Backpack made me any more susceptible to scam artists than any other type of luggage. I've travelled many times in stations and other locations which are frequented by scammers, and not once over many years have I been approached by scammers when I've been wearing the pack. That's not to say it doesn't happen, but just that it's never happened to me. I have been approached numerous times without the pack, and so far no problems in getting the scammers to move along. When I tell them to "take a hike" (or something to that effect), they seem to get the message.
  2. My panel load packs are mostly a rectangular shape, so I've never had any problem with fitting clothes in. I tend to use a lot of "travel friendly" Tilley clothing and sometimes roll it to make it fit. I'm not too concerned about wrinkles as they usually fall out after wearing the item a short time.
  3. As mentioned my packs all have lockable zippers, and these are always locked when in transit through stations or where ever. Zippers are only capable of providing a limited amount of security, but they're fairly effective at preventing "opportunistic theft".
  4. Given the increasingly tight regulations for carry-on luggage, I always check my large pack and take the daypack as carry-on. So far I haven't had a problem with that approach. On really small aircraft such as the Dash 8 which have very tiny overhead bins, the daypack usually goes in the under seat location.
  5. I've never really noticed a problem with being overly "sweaty" while wearing the pack. It's usually only on my back for short periods, and most if the time it resides on the luggage rack in the train or in my hotel. The mesh back seems to work well in my experience.
Posted by Adam
Boston
3781 posts

The problem really is that all the internal-frame packs you can get these days (afak) are too big.

Eagle Creek used to make one that was only 21 x 14 x 8. Rick used to recommend it as a smaller alternative to his bag for smaller people. It was a "convertable" bag—the straps zipped away making it a suitcase.

I am not a smaller person but this is still my basic bag. The internal frame makes it super comfortable, though it does add a little bulk and weight.

To bad there isn't an equivalent around today--or is there?

Posted by Edgar
Medford, OR, USA
4352 posts

As Adam notes: The problem really is that all the internal-frame packs you can get these days (afak) are too big.

The driving pack fit dimension for a pack suspension system, frame or no frame, internal or external is torso length. (Torso length is measured from the neck C7 to hip top of iliac crest). Most North American men are too tall for small packs that meet carry-on size limits. If the pack is too short, the hip belt becomes useless as a load carrying component.

The choice becomes a choice between an airline compliant pack that is shoulder supported and a pack with an effective load carrying suspension system that exceeds carry-on length. If you keep your load under 10 kg you probably don't need a framed pack with hip belt unless you are doing something technical like climbing or skiing, or doing long distance trekking.