Frameless vs Framed Backpacks: Which to Choose?

Frameless vs Framed Backpacks: Backpacker hiking in a mountainous area during sunset, wearing a framed backpack

In this post, we'll take a look at:

You might have heard about two types of packs: frameless and framed backpacks. But what’s the big deal, and how do you know which one is for you?

In this post, we’re going to settle the age-old frameless vs framed backpacks debate and help you figure out which option is the best fit for your next outdoor adventure.

Frameless Backpacks

Frameless vs. Framed Backpacks: Backpacker wearing a Hyperlite Mountain Gear frameless backpack

Frameless backpacks, as the name suggests, don’t have a frame. The shape of the pack depends on the gear you place inside, offering unique advantages, especially for hikers and backpackers looking to minimize weight and stay nimble on the trails.

Frameless Backpacks – Pros:

  • Ultralight Design: Frameless packs are exceptionally lightweight, usually weighing around 17 oz (500g), making them perfect for those aiming to reduce their load and move swiftly on the trail.
  • Simplicity: These packs often feature a straightforward design with a single large compartment and external mesh pockets. Simplicity means less weight and fewer components that could malfunction.
  • Flexibility: Frameless packs are known for their forgiving fit, making them suitable for those who prefer not to obsess over sizing. This flexibility also makes frameless bags suitable for carry-on use, as long as there are no sharp objects (e.g., tent stakes) inside.

But, it’s not all smooth sailing; it’s crucial to think about their downsides too:

Frameless Backpacks – Cons:

  • Limited Support: Frameless packs provide less weight distribution and support compared to framed counterparts, which can lead to discomfort when carrying heavier loads.
  • Packability: They don’t maintain their shape when empty, making them challenging to pack efficiently. You need to be careful with how you load them to avoid discomfort during your hike.
  • Limited Ventilation: Frameless packs are less breathable and can lead to an uncomfortably hot and sweaty back because the backpack is usually flush against your back.

Remember, frameless packs are best suited for ultralight backpacking scenarios. They may not be the ideal choice if you plan to carry a lot of gear or tackle rugged terrain.

Popular ultralight frameless backpack options include:

Make / ModelWeight oz (g)Size (l)
Zpacks Nero Ultra 38L Backpack10.51 (298g)38
Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 4030.4 (862)40
Zpacks Arc Haul Ultra 50L20.77 (589)50
Granite Gear Virga3 5527.97 (793)55

Framed Backpacks

Frameless vs. Framed Backpacks: Hiker sorting through his heavy framed backpack next to a lake between mountains

Framed backpacks, as the name suggests, incorporate frames made from various materials. For instance, brands like Jack Wolfskin use metal, while eco-conscious brands like Fjällräven opt for wood.

These packs come with their own set of advantages that cater to different backpacking scenarios:

Framed Backpacks – Pros:

  • Enhanced Support: Framed backpacks offer superior weight distribution and support, making them ideal for carrying heavier loads comfortably during extended trips.
  • Larger Capacities: These packs come in larger liter capacities, providing ample space for gear, food, and supplies for longer journeys.
  • Maintained Shape: The frame helps maintain the backpack’s shape, which facilitates easier packing and unpacking. This feature is especially useful for organizing your gear.

However, it’s crucial to be aware of their potential drawbacks as well:

Framed Backpacks – Cons:

  • Heavier: Framed backpacks are generally heavier due to the additional frame components, which can be a disadvantage if you’re striving for an ultralight backpacking experience. In fact, some backpacks can weigh more on their own than a well-assembled ultralight setup.
  • Bulkier: The frame adds extra bulk and size to the pack, making it less streamlined and challenging to maneuver in tight spaces and during climbs.

Popular framed backpack options include:

Make / ModelWeight oz (g)Size (l)
Durston Kakwa 4027.33 (775)40
REI Co-op Traverse 32 Pack40.98 (1162)31-33
Six Moon Designs Swift V Rucksack32.09 (910)50
Exped Lightning 45(1180)45

Frameless vs Framed Backpacks: Which to Choose?

Let’s start with a comparsion table between these two options to quickly what we’ve just covered in the previous sections

FeatureFramelessFramed
WeightUltralight, usually around 17-30 ozDepends on the sturdiness of the frame, anywhere from 20oz to 6.6 lb
Load capacityUp to 20 lbs comfortably25-40+ lbs comfortably
Capacity (size)Smaller capacities, usually <50LLarger capacities, often 50L+
PriceDepends on the product; similarDepends on the product; similar
FlexibilityConforms to body, forgiving fitMore rigid structure; better durability
VentilationLess breathable and can lead to an uncomfortably hot and sweaty backThese packs have ventilation channels that allow air to circulate between the pack and the wearer’s back
PackabilityDifficult to pack efficiently; might require the use of compression strapsMaintains shape for organization
Use CaseDay hikes, ultralight backpackingLonger backpacking or trekking trips
Waterproof OptionsAvailableAvailable

So, which option should you choose?

You should choose a frameless backpack if…

  • You’re looking for the lightest backpack possible.
  • You need a backpack that is simple and not complicated.
  • You’re fine sacrificing some support and comfort for heavier loads.
  • You need the best range of motion.
  • You’re okay with creating an efficient packing system.

You should choose a framed backpack if…

  • You’re okay with the added weight, typically around 17oz (500g) minimum.
  • You want an adjustable backpack that stays comfy, no matter the load.
  • You don’t want to waste time packing meticulously each morning.
  • You like carrying extra gear, maybe even a luxury item like a camping chair.

Final Thoughts

For ultralight backpackers seeking to cut weight and move swiftly, frameless packs offer simplicity, flexibility, and potential carry-on compatibility, especially suited for lighter loads and straightforward hikes.

In contrast, framed backpacks provide superior support and larger capacities, making them ideal for comfortable extended journeys, though they tend to be bulkier and heavier due to their maintained shape for efficient packing.

As enthusiastic advocates of ultralight backpacking, we always opt for the frameless option, given the excellent choices available in the market.

Whatever you choose, embrace your new backpack’s capabilities, setting the stage for a memorable hiking or backpacking adventure.


Interested in a frameless ultralight backpack? Check out our TOP 5 guides that cover the lightest backpacks on the planet.

FAQ

Are frameless backpacks worth it?

Frameless backpacks can be a good choice if you want a lightweight and versatile backpacking experience. They are simple and flexible, making them great for ultralight hikers and those who like to keep things simple. However, if you prefer more support and carrying larger loads, framed backpacks might be a better option for you. So, whether frameless backpacks are worth it depends on your hiking style and needs.

At what weight should I opt for a framed backpack?

You should consider switching to a framed backpack when your gear weight exceeds around 20-25 pounds (9-11 kilograms). Framed backpacks offer better support and weight distribution for heavier loads, enhancing your hiking or backpacking comfort and experience.

How does the lack of a frame affect the comfort of a backpack?

Lack of a frame negatively affects the comfort of a backpack in several key ways. Frames help distribute weight across the hips and back while improving ventilation, stability, and loading efficiency. Without a frame, the pack’s weight is concentrated in the shoulders, leading to strain. The pack also sags, lacks airflow, feels top-heavy, and is harder to load. Ultralight backpackers accept these sacrifices for increased agility, but most prefer framed packs for optimal comfort, support, and carrying capacity. A good hip belt helps partially offset the missing frame.

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