Photo by Justin Helmkamp
What’s The Difference Between Framed and Frameless Packs?
An important consideration when it comes to choosing a backpack, is whether to go with a framed pack or a frameless pack.
The most obvious difference between framed and frameless packs is … the frame. Framed packs have either an internal or external frame to give support and structure to the back panel and the bag. While frameless packs, do not.
Some framed packs come with the option to remove the frame altogether, creating a frameless-style bag, while other frames are designed to stay put. Beyond that, framed and frameless bags have different strengths, weaknesses and trade-offs.
While it ultimately comes down to personal preference, here are a few questions you could ask yourself to narrow down which one best suits your adventure needs.
Question 1 : How Much Weight Do You Plan To Carry?
How much weight you plan to carry in your pack can influence your decision to go framed or frameless.
When it comes to frameless bags, your shoulders are ultimately bearing the weight that’s in your pack. Because of this, you’ll want to consider how much weight will be comfortable to carry, and what will strain your shoulders.
If you plan to go on smaller missions with lighter loads, (sub 20-ish pounds), or longer missions with a dialed ultralight kit and lots of chances to resupply, then a frameless bag might suit your needs and be comfortable to carry.
However, if you plan to have a heavier pack load (25+ pounds), either because your base weight is heavier, or because there are limited resupply options along your trek, you might find it more comfortable to get a framed pack.
That said, there are no hard and fast rules as to which pack style to choose for the weight you are carrying. Some people can handle heavy loads in frameless packs with no issues, and prefer to carry the weight of their packs on their shoulders; while others prefer to transfer weight to their hips, even when their load is light.
Question 2: How Do You Prefer to Carry Weight?
With the help of the adjustment points on your pack, such as the load lifters and hip belt, a good framed pack allows you to transfer the load in your pack from your shoulders to your hips and torso, and back again.
“It's really nice to have a backpack that's capable enough to let you decide how much weight you want to carry where,” says Brandon McIntyre, co-founder, designer and pack maker at Superior Wilderness Designs, “When you're getting sore in one area, you can pull weight from that area and move it somewhere else.”
Many frameless packs come with adjustable load lifters, but with no hip belt, making it hard or impossible to shift weight to your hips. Frameless packs that do have a more traditional hip belt give you more weight-transferring capabilities. However, when you tighten the hip belt, the lack of a back panel structure can cause the torso section of the pack to collapse, putting added strain on your shoulders.
You can mitigate this torso collapse by densely packing the items in your bag in a way that creates a solid, frame-like structure along the inside back panel. This can act as a mock frame to help transfer some of the weight.
For those among us who don’t yet have enough experience to know where we prefer to carry weight, it is often safer to go with a framed pack. This will allow you to shift weight from your shoulders to hips, and back again, to figure out what works best for you.
“If you're curious about going frameless, but don't want to take the leap into buying a frameless pack, you can experiment with a framed pack that has a removable frame,” says Brandon, whose new SWD Movement Pack does just that.
Question 3 : What Activities Do You Plan To Do?
What activities you plan to do with your bag can also influence your choice to go framed or frameless. There are certain adventures that demand extra gear, like packrafting; or longer, remote trips that require carrying several days worth of food; or trekking during times of year when you need more layers and a more robust sleep system. Carrying extra weight might be more fun with a framed bag.
Perhaps you’re into day hiking or fast packing, and have access to lots of resupply points, or simply like to thru-hike with a lighter load. Maybe you want more freedom of movement while wearing your bag. If so, choosing a frameless pack might be the better option for you.
While it’s not always the case, framed packs often come with permanently affixed hip belts. The non-negotiable hip belt and rigid frame structure of the pack can make some people feel too restricted. For those among us who are looking for less rigidity and more freedom of movement, especially in the hips and thighs, a frameless pack might just be the right choice.
Question 4: How Much Money Are You Looking To Spend?
While there are many attributes, like fabric, features and add-ons, that make the following statement largely situational, generally speaking, frameless bags are less expensive than framed packs.
This is because frameless packs are usually less expensive to make. They have fewer components and require less material than framed packs, and they also take less time to manufacture. All this equates to a lower price tag.
While cost is an important factor for many of us, it can also be wise to think beyond the price tag when selecting framed versus frameless. Saving a few extra bucks to get the pack that best suits your needs can pay off in dividends when the trail miles really start to stack up.
Question 5: Are You Worried About The Weight Of Your Pack?
The weight of the pack itself is often slightly heavier with framed bags, versus frameless ones. However, thanks to ultra lightweight frame materials, like aluminum and carbon, framed packs aren’t the heavyweight behomenths they used to be.
“You can get a really good framed backpack in the 25 to 32 ounce range,” explains Brandon, who says the slight weight penalty could be well worth the carrying capability. “I'm all for going as light as you can, but if you're already carrying 25 pounds, is 26 really going to make that much of a difference?”
For some people, that extra bit of frame weight is a fair trade off for the comfort and adjustability it provides. However, if you feel like comfort is a four letter word and you’re looking to cut every possible ounce, considering a frameless pack in an ultralight fabric might be your best bet.
Other Considerations for Framed vs Frameless Packs
Pack Sizing: Framed packs tend to be a bit more particular when it comes to sizing than frameless ones because there is more to consider, like frame height and hip belt placement.
While again, it ultimately comes down to personal preference, people generally want a framed pack with a hip belt that rests along the top, or center of their iliac crest. If you choose a framed bag that is too long, or too short, you might end up with the belt sitting too high or low for your comfort.
With frameless packs, sizing isn’t quite as particular. While some people tend to like the bottom of their frameless bags to sit in the small of their backs, something a bit longer or shorter, can be comfortable and manageable without negatively impacting your experience.
Packability: For anyone who wants to be able to compress the size of their pack down for storage, travel or otherwise, frameless bags tend to be more packable because they have less that keeps them rigid. Framed packs with removable frames and hip belts can also aid in this, noting that then you’d have loose components to keep track of.
Framed vs Frameless Final Thoughts
Brandon McIntyre and Ashley Thick of Superior Wilderness Designs
Weighing out your considerations for a framed or frameless pack can be an important step in choosing the best pack for you to have a great adventure experience.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong choice, because whatever you decide will give you the wisdom that comes from experience. Don’t let paralysis by analysis hold you back from what’s really important.
We can all benefit from Brandon’s parting advice, “Just take the leap, get out there and use something so that you can figure out what works best for you.”
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.
I have frameless DAY packs for weights up to 15 pounds.
And then I have an Osprey EXOS 58 BACKPACK with a frame for loads above 15 pounds. There is no way, even with my 21.5oz. one person Tarptent Notch Li Dyneema tent, supported with my two hiking poles, down 3 season mummy bag and 1 pound insulated air mattress plus 2 liters of water, food, tiny butane stove, canister of fuel, 1st aid kit, potty kit, personal kit, etc. that I’ll be under even 20 pounds for a 6 or 7 day backpack.
IMHO carrying over 15 pounds WITHOUT a frame is torture and bad for your spine. The whole “big deal” of the framed pack revolution introduced by KELTY decades ago was to TRANSFER WEIGHT TO YOUR HIPS via a frame and padded hip belt.
Cutting the slight weight of a modern frame or at least frame stays of aluminum or carbon fiber is foolish when so many excellent framed packs exist to fit any body style from rail to round.
As I see it frameless packs for weights of even 20 pounds belongs to the same SUL cult as cutting straps off hiking poles. It’s about “coolness” v.s. comfort. And about not understanding physics in both cases. Tall titanium mugs is another SUL affectation. They take more fuel than a wider-than-tall anodized aluminum 3 cup pot and plastic cup and overall weight savings is not realized when added fuel is considered.
Experience on the trail is what it takes to fully understand that SOME SUL “affections” are just that and not helpful.
Amy Hatch / GGG
We’d LOVE to … huge fans of SWD and Brandon and Ashley! However, their current lead times mean they’re unable to make inventory for us, at least at the moment. But, crossing fingers, as their capacity grows … And until then, we fully encourage purchasing direct!
So…will you be selling SWD’s packs?
I didn’t see any mention of the fact that many frameless packs have stays or some other stiffening/load transfer device built in. Those, combined with tight packing, make it easy to shift weight from shoulders to hips for a change, or for uphills vs downhills which I regularly do.
I have used packs with external frames. For lots of weight they are good, but they are much heavier than today’s frameless packs.