Last Updated on 02/02/2022
Benefits of Frame Vs Frameless Backpack for a Thru-Hike
Buying a backpack is one of the most important decisions for a hiker and a big part of this is deciding between a frame vs frameless backpack. A framed backpack has better ventilation and a larger carrying capacity. A frameless backpack will be lighter, easier to pack into a small space, and are usually cheaper.
Your backpack is one of the most important purchasing decisions you will make. Along with hiking boots, the right backpack is going to make or break a trek. It will determine how much equipment you can carry and the comfort of it will impact how far and fast you can walk.
It’s important to find a pack that fits you comfortably, even when it’s full of all your gear. One of the most important features of a backpack is whether or not it has a frame. If you’re not sure what a backpack frame is, or whether you need one, read on to find out.
Different Types of Backpack Frames
Framed backpacks have been around for as long as, well, backpacks. The framework gives the pack a rigid and comfortable feel which keeps it in place on your back. This means that no matter what weight you are carrying, it will be distributed evenly across the right areas of your back to help prevent injury and discomfort.
Historically these frames were made from wood or heavy metal, which were sturdy, but not altogether great to carry. Modern frames are made from lighter materials like aluminum or plastic. These frames can be either internal or external and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Internal Frame Backpack
Internal frames are, nowadays, far more common than the traditional external frames. The internal frames are sleeker than the old external frame, so you can move far easier around the mountain. These are particularly good in tight trails or technical situations where an external frame can be cumbersome.
External Frame Backpacks
The large, usually metal frame of an external rucksack is immediately recognizable and may feel a little like seeing a relic on the trail. These might not be particularly common anymore, but they still have their place. The external frame spreads a load of a backpack better than an internal frame and you can also attach gear to the frame itself, giving you more pack space.
A frameless backpack has no internal or external rigidity or structure. They may have a foam insert or padding which gives them some shape, but generally, they are just a material backpack. They are incredibly lightweight and perfect for smaller loads.
Benefits of Framed Backpacks
There are pros and cons on both sides of the frame vs frameless backpack debate. Here are some of the benefits of framed backpacks:
Because the structure and comfort of a frameless backpack depend on how you pack, you have to be really careful not to have things poking into your back. With a framed backpack, the structure is already in place. You know that every time you put that backpack on, you’re getting the same high level of comfort as you got the first time you tried it in the store.
Backpacks with a frame will usually have far greater ventilation than those without. The framework lifts the main bulk of the backpack slightly off your back, giving air the space to move around and wick away sweat.
External frames offer the greatest ventilation as they usually create a visible space between the pack and your body. Internal framed backpacks will usually have a foam panel against your back which creates airflow. Because the framework keeps the backpack rigid, this system works more effectively than it would on an unframed pack.
Carry More Weight
This is probably the key point in the frame vs frameless backpack comparison. The framework spreads the load more effectively around your back and puts the right distribution of weight through the hip belt and your shoulders. This allows you to carry more weight without feeling as though you are overloaded.
Carry More Volume
Because they can carry more weight, it follows that you can carry more volume too. If you’re heading out on a trek and want to take more than just the essentials, a framed backpack will give you more space to fill. The size, shape, and design of a backpack also influence the volume it can carry as well as your own physical limitations.
Keep Their Shape
An overloaded frameless backpack will feel bulky, press against your back uncomfortably, and can feel as though it is pulling you left, right or backward. A framed backpack keeps its shape, even when it’s fully loaded. This means that you aren’t pulled in different directions just because your pack is slightly heavier on one side.
Downsides of Framed Backpacks
As well as the benefits, here are some of the downsides to framed backpacks vs frameless:
Adding a frame to a backpack, no matter what lightweight materials you make it from, is always going to add some weight to it. External framed backpacks are the heaviest option, but internal frames still add noticeable weight to the backpack. This may be counterbalanced by their ability to spread the load more effectively, but you should still consider whether you need to carry the extra weight.
Frames are a form of technology in the backpack. Technology, not to mention the extra materials involved in the construction, means extra cost. Most top-end rucksacks, in terms of costs at least, have some form of framework.
Cannot be Folded
This might not appear to be too much of an issue at first. After all, your backpack goes on you, you don’t need to fold it up, right? Well, it all depends on your chosen trek.
Sure, a lot of treks are purely walking based and your backpack is always on you. However, if you want to travel with a bigger pack, then trek while you’re away, it’s helpful to have a pack that folds down small. This is also useful if you are planning a combined trip, such as canoeing or kayaking and walking, where you need to pack your rucksack away while on the water.
Benefits of Frameless Backpacks
The benefits of frameless backpacks are different from framed backpacks which will appeal to a different group of people, here they are:
The key benefit of a frameless backpack is how much lighter it is. If you’re the sort of fast-and-light advocate who trims down their toothbrush and weighs out their oats, you will know that every ounce counts. Without a frame in your backpack, you can go as light as you like without feeling the weight on your back.
Without a frame, the bag is just the material. Some bags have a foam insert or similar for your back, but others are just a few hundred grams of fabric. Of course, to go really light, you have to have lightweight equipment, too, which brings us to our next point.
Great for Smaller Loads Up to 25lbs
Lightweight backpacks suit light loads. If you regularly load your backpack with less than 25 lbs. of equipment, frameless backpacks will give you the fast and light feel you are looking for.
If you overload a frameless backpack, chances are you’re going to have an uncomfortable walk. Pack it light, though, and you will get maximum movement and freedom to explore the hills without hauling all the bulk.
This is a bit of a generalization, but usually, frameless backpacks are cheaper than those with frames. There are exceptions to this rule, usually the ultra-light or ultra-technical, but largely, if you want a cheaper option, frameless is the way to go.
Easy to Pack Down if Needed – Good for Travel
These lightweight, low-profile rucksacks tend to fold down really small and fit easily into larger backpacks. There are a few reasons you might want this. Firstly, if you’re traveling long-distance and want to hike while you’re away, having a backpack that folds into your hold luggage is always helpful.
Sometimes, the best mountains and treks are accessed from a basecamp. Hiking in on a trail, carrying a large, framed backpack is fine, but you might want to set up a basecamp and walk the hills from there. Packing a lightweight backpack in lets you enjoy the full freedom of the hills, without your heavy pack when you don’t need it.
Frameless backpacks have fewer parts, which means less chance that something is going to break. A broken frame can render your backpack almost useless, causing it to sit uncomfortably on your back. A bent or broken frame can also easily tear through the fabric of your backpack.
Without a frame, no matter how you bend and fold your backpack, you’ll struggle to break it. Remember, though, that this doesn’t make it indestructible.
Downsides of Frameless Backpacks
The downsides of frameless backpacks will mean that they aren’t suitable for everyone but if these don’t bother you then go ahead.
Frameless backpacks tend to come in smaller, more compact sizes than their framed counterparts. This lower capacity is fine because they are only really suited to up to around 25 lbs. of equipment, as we said earlier. These are suited to lightweight packing, rather than comfort camping trips.
Without a frame or back system, the backpack tends to sit flat against your back with no room for air circulation. Some backpacks have a foam insert or an airflow system, but the really lightweight ones forego these. If you’re carrying a light enough pack, you may not be concerned by this, but long days with a sweaty back are far from comfortable.
Weight isn’t Distributed as Effectively
You have to think a bit more when you pack a frameless backpack. Without a frame to spread the load, you rely solely on your ability to pack your bag evenly, both top to bottom and side to side. Getting this wrong can lead to extra pressure on one shoulder, or hip, which will rub and wear as you walk.
Can Lose Their Shape
As well as distributing the weight evenly, packing your bag properly avoids it losing its shape and becoming uncomfortable. A badly packed frameless backpack can dig into your back in certain spots, and pull uncomfortably in different directions. Packing your bag properly is an art form that has to be practiced and perfected before you step out onto the trail.
Who Should Use a Frameless Backpack?
So, frame vs frameless backpack then. Now that we know the ins and outs of both, who should choose either?
Frameless backpacks are the domain of the lightweight hiker, looking to cover long distances with minimal fuss. Sound familiar? Thru-hikers on long trails benefit from the lightweight design of a minimalist backpack, especially modern frameless backpacks that still feature hip belts.
In general, lightweight backpackers can use frameless backpacks without any issue. It does limit the amount of gear you can carry and you have to focus on buying lightweight equipment. If you’ve ever suffered under the weight of an overloaded backpack, rather than enjoying the scenery around you, this might not be a bad thing.
Day hikers, too, rarely need a framework on their backpacks. On a day hike, you rarely carry more than 25 lbs. of equipment, even on the longest days, and the frame is unnecessary.
Who Should Use a Framed Backpack?
If you’re not used to carrying heavy loads, or know that you prioritize camping comfort, then a framed backpack is probably the choice for you. The extra weight will be spread around your back, thanks to the system, but you do still have to carry it with you.
Framed backpacks suit campers, or those setting up a base camp to then walk on from. Frames now come in extremely lightweight options, but they still tend to be heavier, larger, and slightly more expensive than frameless backpacks.