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Why I Still Carry an External-Frame Pack

There's more to my pack than old-school chic.

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There were a dozen northbound Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers—most looked to be in their 20s—dilly-dallying at the first natural water source they had encountered since leaving the Mexican border two weeks prior. From a quarter-mile away, I could hear their excited, collegial chatter. When I approached, walking the other direction, conversation ceased mid-sentence and jaws dropped. Their facial expressions indicated they thought an apparition had just rounded the bend. Maybe a ghost from the area’s gold-mining past.

I was on a 10-mile dayhike, test-driving a brand-new pack, getting a feel for its plethora of adjustments and its weight distribution. What caught the gobsmacked attention of the CDT hikers, though, was that the pack was an external-frame Kelty Tioga, which I had gleefully purchased online a week prior. I learned later that none of them had ever seen an external-frame pack in the wild. “I’ve heard about them,” a woman from New Jersey timidly confessed, in a tone usually reserved for tales of alien abductions. Several got up and ran their fingers along the shiny, exposed metal.

These thru-hikers—all of whom carried ultraminimalist packs—were the first people besides my wife to lay eyes upon my new Tioga. They seemed inclined to bring me up to technological snuff, to let me know that there had been significant design advancements since the days of Colin Fletcher, breakthroughs that liberated backpackers from the unwieldy constraints of what was clearly primitive technology. They seemed to suspect that perhaps I had spent the previous three decades in prison, or maybe meditating in an ice cave in Bhutan.

At one time, the Kelty Tioga represented the apex of backpack engineering. These days, with the backcountry—and the pages of this magazine—dominated by internal frames and fancy ultralight gear, external-frame packs are considered more worthy of a museum than the wilderness.

Alas, when I was first cutting my backpacking teeth in the 1970s, I could not afford a Tioga, which cost, if memory serves, about $120. I had to settle for a bright-red, $49 REI Expedition Cruiser, which was about 11 feet tall and could hold a mid-sized sedan in its cavernous interior. It was not a bad pack, but it was certainly several notches below the Kelty of my dreams.

Sadly, it was stolen—fully loaded—from the front porch of a bar in downtown Huntington, West Virginia. Given that I intended to hike the entire Appalachian Trail the next summer, a new pack was in order. In a gear shop in Chicago, I was lured by an enthusiastic salesperson to purchase one of the first internal-frame packs to hit the mainstream market: an Eagle Creek Saker II with a capacity of 4,300 cubic inches. Until that point, the only packs that did not have a visible frame were rucksacks sold in Army-Navy surplus stores.

I carried the Saker II with me all the way from Katahdin to Springer, but I never quite got used to the way it rested upon my back. Though there was ample padding, there were still many instances when a hurried packing job in the predawn light resulted in a wayward cook kit or fuel canister jabbing an unsuspecting kidney. Worse, it felt like dead weight hanging from my shoulders, especially if loaded for a weeklong stretch. From this experience, I concluded that internal-frame packs had not been perfected.

So when gear-procurement opportunity next knocked, I sold my Saker II and purchased the one, short-lived external-frame model that Lowe Alpine ever made. It was constructed with some flexible composite material, not metal, making it almost seem like it had an internal frame.

A few other external-frame packs came my way over the years, but I was ultimately swept away by the prevailing current and have since been using a frameless GoLite Jam pack. Admittedly, given my advancing age, having a pack that weighs less than a can of Sierra Nevada has its physiological advantages. But it’s only good for ultralight loads—I’m sure those CDT thru-hikers would have admired it—and I don’t count grams on every trip. Sure, I’ve upgraded to a tent that weighs 2 pounds sopping wet. And my stove is smaller than my thumb. But sometimes I splurge on a change of clothes and camp footwear. Living in the desert, I carry ample water. I tote reading material, a camp chair, a notebook, and a camera. And a flask.

And I am not the only one. A high percentage of people I pass on the trail pack like I do—with some creature comforts—especially if they are taking children into the woods. Maybe you can argue that they ought to carry less, but, as a person accurately described as old-school, I argue that hikers ought to carry exactly what they want, and, if that means more gear, then external-frame packs are the best option. They distribute weight better, are easier to pack, have plenty of side pockets, myriad places to tie loose items, and they have far better ventilation. Plus, there is the retro-cool factor—like driving a Camaro you’ve wanted since high school.

So I recently started thinking about the missed opportunity of yore—that Kelty Tioga I passed up. On a whim, I decided to see if, by some miracle of a chance, there were any used Tiogas in need of a good home. I was astounded to learn they were still available—new!—online. I could not pull my credit card out fast enough.

On my 10-mile test drive, the Tioga confirmed what I always knew deep down: I flat-out prefer external-frame packs. I hope that, once the gram consciousness that now almost theocratically defines the backcountry loosens up a bit, more people will realize that external-frame packs are worth their weight in reading material and vodka. And perhaps more companies will start making them again, and maybe you’ll see one in a future edition of this magazine’s Gear Guide.

In the meantime, I will proudly carry my new Tioga with me, despite (or because of) all the stunned glances I get on the trail. 

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