3 Types of Backpacks to Meet Your Gear Loadout Needs

Kelty Redwing Gear Loadout

When you are selecting a backpack to serve as your Bug Out Bag, INCH bag, or maybe just for a pack to carry with you to the park.  It is important to understand the types of backpacks that are available on the market today and how each of the bag parts can provide you with additional benefit for your method of use.  Just as in mechanics, there is the “right tool for the right job”, with backpacks, there is the “right pack for your trek”.  Without this information during your bag selection process, you may find yourself in a really uncomfortable situation.

This article is part two of a three part bag selection series. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out part one where we looked at the 9 factors in choosing a pack to make sure you have all the information relative to finding what pack fit your mission, environment, and personal needs the best.

Types of Packs

All packs can basically be summed up into three main design types based their support structure.

  • Frameless Packs
  • External Frame Packs
  • Internal Frame Packs

Frameless Packs

Frameless backpacks are basically a bag with shoulder straps.  Think of the typical backpack we carried to grade school with our lunchbox and 20lbs of books inside.  They provide no rigid support structure for the back and all of the weight in the pack is carried on the shoulders.  The shoulder muscle groups aren’t capable of carrying as much weight as the muscle groups associated with hip carry.  This is why frameless packs are ok for carrying heavy loads for short periods of time, but are by no means the best solution for the long term.

Frameless packs are dependent on the gear being carried and the loadout of the gear to provide support for the back.  Any rigid items not packed correctly can protrude (due to lack of a frame) and make contact with the back causing discomfort during carry.  In addition, because of the lack of frame, it also makes it more difficult to balance the load.

You can find frameless packs that have a foam insert along the back of the pack such as the Osprey Daylite or Osprey Daylite Plus.  This provides some padding on the spine to Osprey Daylite at Workincrease comfort.  Many of the foam inserts also have cut outs to increase airflow and ventilation.  This foam structure helps provide some bag structure and can provide a little leeway with rigid items and touching the back, as mentioned above.

This type of pack is usually cheaper and lighter weight, but provides significantly less support.  Because of this it is advantageous to look for frameless packs that include a waist, sternum, and compression straps when possible.

Some options, like the Osprey mentioned above, come with a removable waist belt to allow for the removal of the waist strap when not in use.  This can be advantageous for day users who find waist belts more of an irritation during short treks, but want the pack to be functional and more stable for longer trips.

Some long distance hikers prefer this type of bag due to the weight savings, while others prefer the little extra weight of an internal frame that brings more support and stability.  The weight, support needs, and balance between the two, are a consideration you will have to take into account when selecting your bag.external-frame

External Frame Packs

External frame packs are an older technology and becoming more and more difficult to find. Most are being replaced by internal frame packs.  External frame packs are still available and provide the most rigid support structure of all other types of packs.  They are useful for carrying irregular or large objects where the external frame can serve as a tie down point.  They have a larger profile, are heavier, and more susceptible to snags since the frame is external to the pack.  Unless you have one lying around or you have a really special circumstance, we recommend you look at internal frame packs.

Internal Frame Packs

The majority of backpackers carry an internal frame pack.  They provide the right balance of pack weight with the support preferred for longer distances.  Internal frame packs incorporate a rigid suspension system inside the main body of the kelty redwing 44-1pack.  This allows the bag to maintain a low profile as opposed to external frame packs and minimize snags since the frame is built into the bag.

There are a number of different designs incorporating a number of different materials such as aluminum stays, carbon fiber, or rigid plastic frames.  They are designed to contour the spine and provide rigidity to keep the loadout from directly impacting the back.  Most incorporate padded shoulder straps with a sternum strap and padded waist belt to stabilize the load and improve the balance of the carrier with uneven terrain.

This type of pack is better with heavier loads as it distributes the weight of the load to the hips and takes weight off the neck and shoulders.  This slows the rate of fatigue for the carrier by shifting the load to larger muscle groups around the hips and off sensitive ones around the neck.

At Talon Survival, we use and recommend Internal Frame packs the majority of the time when the method of use involves moderate to heavier loads or longer travel distances (over 5 miles).  We use the Kelty Redwing 44 and Kelty Women’s Redwing 40 as our Bug Out Bag and are very happy with its performance and feature set.  It provides 44 liters (and 40 liters respectively) of storage space, features a plastic frame with aluminum stays, and weighs just over 2.5 lbs.

For the average user, Internal Frame packs provide the best bag weight to carry weight ratio while still providing good back support and a low profile.

Bag Parts

There are a number of parts to a bag which provide different capabilities.  Typically, the more features described below that are included, the better weight distribution and long term comfort you are able to obtain.


Frames are found with internal and external frame pack types.  Internal frames are usually composed of metal stays or rods, which are connected or directly molded into the back panel.  As mentioned above, these add a little weight but allow for more weight distributions options and improve fatigue and balance. In external frame packs, the frame is usually composed of a metal tube frame surrounding the external of the pack.

Obviously frameless packs do not have a frame.  If a frameless pack is all you can find or afford, you can use a semi-rigid pad such as a sit pad or a sleeping pad against the back fabric panel to give your back some padding.  It will never be the same as a rigid frame, but is better than raw gear on the back.


Back Panel

osprey daylite- back panel

The foam back panel shown here with air venting can provide additional protection and air flow in a frameless packs

On internal frame packs, the back panel is connected to the metal frame to provide support throughout the lumbar facing side of the pack.  This protects your back from gear protrusions and usually provides some type of air vent pockets to allow air flow which limits perspiration.

Some frameless packs include a foam back panel to provide back protection and allow for air flow, however, due to limited lumbar rigidity, most of the weight is still carried on the shoulders, even with frameless packs that have a waist belt.

Compression Straps

Compression straps are a must have.  They are straps found on the sides of the main gear pocket(s) which allow you to secure your gear loadout and keep it from shifting.  This helps you to balance the weight of your gear when your pack isn’t completely full and also keeps it from making noise.  Less noise improves your security in a survival situation as it limits the ability of others to hear you coming.

Shoulder Straps

I don’t think you can have a backpack without a shoulder strap.  This allows you to secure the pack to your shoulders and carry it.  Try to avoid backpacks that have only one strap as they do not balance the load evenly and can cause uneven muscle use and fatigue to the neck and shoulders.  When a waist strap is not available, all of the weight of the pack and the load are carried with the shoulder straps.  The more padding in the shoulder strap, the more comfortable you will be over longer periods of time.

For The Ladies: Ladies may need a thinner strap to be comfortable, as wider straps (designed for males) can dig in to the neck and cause pain or chafing.  Many women specific packs such as the Kelty Women’s Redwing 40 provide slightly thinner shoulder straps, shorter torso length, and other ergonomic designs to meet a woman’s figure and be more comfortable.

Hip Belt / Waist Strap

kelty redwing waist strapAlways look for a backpack that includes a hip belt.  Why? Because on framed packs, a hip belt transfers up to 90% of the weight in your bag from your shoulders to your hips, greatly minimizing fatigue.  In all cases (both framed and frameless packs) it helps to minimize bag movement at faster paces and can improve balance by helping to eliminate weight shift.  More padding on the hip belt can help to provide more comfort and further eliminate fatigue. And if you don’t want to use it for short trips?  You can strap it down, or even remove it completely on some models.

For the Ladies: Many women specific bags also contour their hip belts specific to the female contour which can be more comfortable than unisex or male pack designs.

Sternum Strap

The purpose of the sternum strap is to pull the shoulder straps closer together and keeps them from sliding to the edges of your shoulder with repetitive movement.  This helps to relieve stress from your back and shoulders and improves stability.  Many packs like the Osprey Daylite allow for these to be adjusted up and down along the shoulder strap to meet different chest sizes. Adjust them until they fit comfortably in the middle of the chest.

Load Lifter Strap

Load lifter straps connect the top of the pack with the top of the shoulder strap.  They allow you to stop the pack from leaning away from your back when adjusted correctly.  These straps should be at a 45 angle away from the body and toward the pack.   This will help to take additional weight off your shoulders.

Hip Belt Stabilizer

These straps connect the bottom sides of the pack to the hip belt and help to compress the hip belt to stabilize the load.  They also minimize vertical movement of the bag.  This can also help provide more balance and comfort with minor adjustments during carry.

We are currently working on part three the final article of this three part series on pack selection.  Be sure to check it out when it releases in a few days.  If you would like this article sent directly to your email, sign up for your Talon Communique newsletter on the right side of the screen or by clicking here.

Bag Parts Diagram

Bag Parts Diagram

Other Articles You May Be Interested In

Pack Selection Series – Part One: 9 Vital Factors In Choosing A Pack For Your Gear

Pack Selection Series – Part Three: 15 Important Features To Consider When Selecting Your Backpack

Bug Out Bag Checklist

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