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Yes, Ultralight External Frame Packs Are a Thing

These four load-haulers are bringing the retro design into the modern era.

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Like oil-burning lanterns and flannel-lined sleeping bags, the external frame backpack was an iconic piece of backpacking gear that most of us were happy to leave behind. After all, a traditional external frame pack weighs north of five pounds and has a tall, wide profile that feels ungainly in tight quarters. As camping and hiking gear has become lighter and better engineered, hauling around an external frame just feels like overkill—especially to gram-counters.

But the ultralight community is nothing if not creative, and a few enterprising brands have reimagined the external frame pack not only as a viable piece of gear, but a lightweight option. From titanium frames to cutting-edge fabrics, modern innovations have helped manufacturers slash weight while still offering the advantages of a classic external frame.

There are a few reasons why these sturdy, aluminum-framed packs were so popular in the first place.For one, external frame packs are great in hot weather, since the frame keeps the body of the pack away from your back. They are often modular and therefore easy to repair—replacing a worn-out hip belt is a matter of loosening some straps rather than breaking out your sewing machine. The sturdy metal frames also make strapping items to the outside of the pack a breeze, and an external frame can make a lot of sense for multisport trips or any other time you need to carry awkward or oversized items. 

But most of all, devoted external frame pack users will tell you that they simply carry weight better than modern internal frame packs. With an internal frame, conventional wisdom dictates that you pack your heaviest gear in the center or bottom of the pack, which reduces the chance of your load shifting and overwhelming the suspension. Due to the strength of external frames, though, these packs shine when the bulk of the weight is at or above your shoulders. This can actually increase weight transfer to your hips and provide a noticeably more comfortable carry, even if you’re only carrying a modest load.

Here are four modern external frame packs that tip the scales at under three pounds. 

Seek Outside Gila
Seek Outside Gila (Photo: courtesy)

Seek Outside Gila

This Colorado-based company began by crafting burly hunting packs, but more recent designs like the 57-liter Gila combine the load-hauling capabilities of an external frame with ultralight sensibilities. The pack is built around a curved aluminum frame that the company says can withstand 300 pounds of vertical load, but in practice is comfortable carrying 35-50 pounds. 

The pack is available in two different materials, Ecopak and Ultra 200, the latter of which is widely considered the most durable lightweight pack fabric currently available. The hip belt, shoulder harness, and lumbar pad are all removable and available to purchase separately if you need replacements. The frame is also extendable—Seek Outside recommends opting for a longer frame if you routinely carry heavy loads, in order to center the weight higher above your shoulders. 

Price: $369
Weight: 3 lbs. (Ultra)
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Vargo ExoTi AR2
Vargo ExoTi AR2 (Photo: courtesy)

Vargo ExoTi AR2

Vargo Outdoors is known for its unconventional designs and titanium gear, and the company’s titanium-framed ExoTi AR2 fits that mold to a tee. Among modern external frame packs, it sports the most traditional design, with a rectangular frame, a 40-liter pack bag that sits high on the frame, and zippered side pouches. The design allows for better weight transfer, as leaves room below the packbag to strap a tent, packraft, or bear canister. The shoulder straps, bag, and hip belt all attach to the frame with Velcro and are removable and replaceable. The AR2 does feature some modern flourishes as well, like hip belt pockets and a large mesh back pocket. 

In addition to the AR2, Vargo offers two other packs built on the same frame. The ExoTi 50 is a similar design with a larger 50L pack bag, while the ExoTi BOG features a removable 40L dry bag that slides into a nylon “cradle” attached to the frame.

Price: $300
Weight: 2 lbs. 12 oz.
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NeoTrekk StackPack
NeoTrekk StackPack (Photo: courtesy)

NeoTrekk StackPack

Consisting of a rectangular pack frame and three barrel-shaped pack bags, the NeoTrekk StackPack is surely one of the most unique trekking packs on the market today. With 66 liters of carrying capacity and a total weight of 2 pounds, 3 ounces, it’s also lighter than most internal frame packs of a similar size. Admittedly, the unconventional design precludes some features that you might expect from a modern pack, like external pockets or a top lid, but there are also plenty of advantages. The aluminum frame is rated to 200 pounds (whether your body is rated to the same amount will vary from person to person. The Kevlar and carbon fiber pack bags are fully waterproof—no liner or cover necessary. The frame itself is adjustable to fit different torso sizes, and can break down entirely to fit in a suitcase for travel. The StackPack also comes with a wide variety of optional accessories that affix to the frame, including a sun umbrella, roller wheels, and a bottom shelf that fits a bear canister. 

Price: $389
Weight: 2 lbs. 10 oz.
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Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra
Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra (Photo: courtesy)

Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra

Of all modern external frame packs, Zpacks’ Arc Haul Ultra bears the least resemblance to traditional designs and functions the most like a standard internal frame pack. It also boasts the most ultralight cred on this list, weighing in at just 19.6 ounces for a 60-liter capacity. The pack’s frame, consisting of curved carbon fiber stays and crossbars, is about as diminutive as an external frame can get, but the shoulder straps, hip belt, and pack body all attach directly to the frame, making it just as modular and adjustable as traditional external frame packs that weigh nearly five times as much. The pack bag is constructed of Ultra 200, which is both waterproof and abrasion-resistant. One caveat: Modern features like hip belt pockets and shoulder pouches are available, but must be purchased separately.

Price: $399
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz. (medium torso and belt)
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From 2022