Frame It or Go Frameless? How to Pick the Best Backpack for Thru-Hikes

Struggling between framed & frameless backpacks? We compare capacity, weight, ventilation, durability and top picks like the Zpacks Arc Blast to help you decide.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

My Waymark Gear pack on a Eagle Rock Loop Trail hike
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Are you tired of sifting through endless pages of backpacks , trying to find the perfect one for your thru-hike? Look no further.

The decision between a framed or frameless backpack can make or break your hiking experience. It’s a critical choice that requires thoughtful consideration of your hiking style , gear, and comfort preferences.

In this article, we’ll delve into the pros and cons of both framed and frameless backpacks and provide you with the knowledge needed to make an informed decision.

Whether you are a seasoned hiker or a beginner, you’ll find valuable information to help you choose the perfect thru-hike backpack .

So, strap on your boots or trail runners, and let’s embark on this journey together!

Backpack Basics: Framed vs Frameless

When choosing a hiking backpack, two of the most common types are framed and frameless packs.

The most obvious difference between them is the frame, with framed packs having either an internal or external frame.

They offer higher weight limits and better weight distribution, allowing you to carry the load more comfortably for longer hikes.

Frameless packs are lighter, easier to compress, and have simpler designs with fewer zippers, compartments, and straps.

They also tend to be more affordable than framed packs. However, framed backpacks generally provide better ventilation and a larger carrying capacity.

So depending on your needs, either type of pack could be the perfect choice for your next outdoor adventure.

Weight Capacity: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

When it comes to weight capacity, framed and frameless backpacks differ significantly. Framed packs typically have higher weight limits, allowing you to carry heavier loads over long distances comfortably.

This is due to the frame that distributes the weight evenly across your body for a more comfortable experience.

However, frameless backpacks are often lighter due to their design and materials and are typically limited to a maximum weight capacity of around 20-30 lbs.

Nonetheless, thanks to ultra-lightweight frame designs, some framed backpacks can still be as light or even lighter than their frameless counterparts.

Comfort: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

When it comes to comfort, framed backpacks are the clear favorites. They are designed to distribute weight and provide additional support to the user, allowing them to carry heavier loads more comfortably.

The frame also helps to keep the pack in place, reducing the amount of shifting and movement, which can cause discomfort on long hikes.

The internal frame of a framed backpack is stiff but not completely rigid, so it can provide support without discomfort.

Furthermore, framed backpacks usually have thicker padding on their straps and back panel, providing greater comfort when carrying heavier loads.

On the other hand, frameless backpacks don’t offer the same level of support and comfort as a framed backpack.

They are typically lighter and easier to pack into a small space, but they lack the frame that provides added stability and weight distribution.

Ventilation: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

Ventilation is an important factor when choosing between a framed and frameless backpack.

While frameless packs may have some foam or padding to give them a makeshift frame, they are not as effective at getting your gear off your back and preventing sweat from pooling.

On the other hand, internally framed backpacks have a stiff but not completely rigid frame that allows for ventilation.

This allows you to get your gear off your back without compromising on the weight capacity or comfort of the pack.

Furthermore, the frame makes it easier to distribute weight evenly across your body and helps keep you cool and dry during long hikes.

Carrying Capacity: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

A framed backpack can provide superior carrying capacity compared to a frameless option.

With the frame distributing weight and allowing you to carry more comfortably, a well-designed internal frame backpack can accommodate 30-50+ pounds (14-22 kg) of gear.

Additionally, external frames offer increased durability, allowing a strong hiker with a heavy-duty external frame to carry even more weight.

While a frameless pack may be lighter and easier to pack, it won’t be able to provide the same level of carrying capacity as a framed pack.

Durability: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

When it comes to durability, framed and frameless backpacks, both have their pros and cons.

Framed packs can provide more protection for the items inside, as the frame is a barrier between the backpack and the items. This makes them better for carrying heavier items or more rugged terrain.

However, frameless packs are usually made from a lighter material, making them more resistant to wear and tear.

Additionally, frameless packs often have fewer straps and pockets, so there are fewer stress points when carrying your load.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which type of pack is best for your needs.

Price: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

Regarding price, framed packs tend to be more expensive than frameless ones, though Dyneema and Ultra are balancing the costs.

This is because they are typically made with higher-quality materials, such as aluminum alloy or polycarbonate, which are more expensive than the fabrics used in frameless backpacks.

Additionally, the frame itself adds to the cost of the backpack.

However, there is a wide range of prices for framed and frameless backpacks, so it is possible to find cheaper options in both categories.

Ultimately, the price of a pack will depend on its features and construction quality.

Maintenance: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

Framed backpacks require more maintenance than frameless backpacks due to the added parts and components.

It’s essential to keep an eye on the frame and the straps, as these can become worn over time or break.

Additionally, it’s important to check the internal or external frame for any signs of damage or corrosion.

Frameless packs are generally more durable and require less maintenance, though they should still be checked regularly for wear and tear.

Weight: Framed vs. Frameless Backpacks

When it comes to weight, framed backpacks can be heavier than their frameless counterparts due to the added materials and design elements.

However, this additional weight also comes with a benefit: the frame distributes weight and allows you to carry the load more comfortably.

If you plan on hiking long distances or carrying a lot of gear, a framed backpack may be the better option due to its superior weight capacity.

On the other hand, a frameless backpack is a way to go if you want something lighter.

Top Backpacks for Thru-Hiking

When it comes to thru-hiking, having the right backpack is essential. There are several options available that are specifically designed for thru-hikers.

The Zpacks Arc Blast, Waymark Gear EVLV, Gossamer Gear Mariposa, and HMG Windrider are all popular options for thru-hikers.

Each of these backpacks has unique features that make them suitable for long-distance backpacking.

  • The Zpacks Arc Blast is a lightweight internal frame pack with excellent ventilation and durability.
  • The ULA Ultra Ohm is designed to be versatile, and can be used for a wide range of outdoor activities
  • The Waymark Gear EVLV is a frameless pack with excellent weight capacity and comfort features.
  • The Gossamer Gear Mariposa is lightweight, with excellent ventilation and carrying capacity.
  • The HMG Windrider is an ultralight pack designed for thru-hikers who want to go light but still have enough carrying capacity for their gear.

These packs offer something unique and can be used on any thru-hike you plan on taking.

Zpacks Arc Blast

The Zpacks Arc Blast is an excellent option for thru-hiking, or you can try out their backpack quiz to find the perfect match, as they offer lightweight frames with no bells and whistles.

The frame is super light and a bit complicated but has a high weight capacity and excellent on-trail stability as the frame distributes weight and allows you to carry the load more comfortably.

This backpack is an excellent choice for long treks, as it provides good ventilation and is easy to maintain. In addition, this pack’s price point is quite reasonable compared to other thru-hiking options .

ULA Ultra Ohm

The ULA Ultra Ohm is a popular ultralight backpack for long-distance backpacking, hiking, and camping. Here are some reasons why someone might want to purchase this backpack:

The ULA Ultra Ohm is made from high-quality materials and is designed to be lightweight yet durable, making it ideal for backpackers who want to minimize their weight.

The backpack features an adjustable suspension system that comfortably fits various body types and sizes, which helps to prevent discomfort and injury during long hikes.

With a volume of 46 liters, the ULA Ultra Ohm provides ample storage space for all your backpacking gear, food, and clothing.

Additionally, it features multiple pockets and compartments to help you organize your gear and keep everything easily accessible.

Waymark Gear EVLV

The Waymark Gear EVLV is a great option for thru-hikers looking for a lightweight and comfortable pack.

With a capacity of 20 pounds, it’s perfect for most hikers. It has a fixed hip belt that helps distribute the load evenly and allows for superior carrying comfort.

The EVLV also features adjustable straps and many torso lengths, which can be adjusted to fit almost any body type.

The EVLV packs down small and is amazingly lightweight, making it easy to carry on long trips.

With its durable construction and customizable options, the Waymark Gear EVLV backpack is an intelligent choice for well-geared thru-hikers .

Gossamer Gear Mariposa

The Gossamer Gear Mariposa is a great option for thru-hiking and backpacking.

Its framed design is lightweight and offers excellent ventilation, perfect for those long days in the sun.

It features a removable aluminum stay for extra support and can carry about 20 to 25 pounds of gear, while also having 42 liters of capacity, making it perfect for those long trips.

The Mariposa is well-made and designed to last, so you can rely on it when you’re out in the wilderness.

When it comes to maintenance, the Mariposa is easy to care for, making it a quality choice for those who don’t want to spend too much time taking care of their gear.

All in all, the Gossamer Gear Mariposa is an excellent choice for thru-hiking and backpacking.

HMG 55 Windrider

The HMG Windrider is a great thru-hiking backpack choice for those looking for a hybrid internal frame and frameless pack.

This pack offers a comfortable carrying capacity of up to 20 pounds, and with its removable frame, the pack can be converted from an internal frame to a frameless style.

It has a well-cushioned hip belt and shoulder straps, which provide superior comfort while on the trail.

The 3400 Windrider is made of Dyneema Composite, making it highly durable and perfect for long hikes.

However, the extra weight and internal frame make it heavier than other ultra-light packs, so it’s not the lightest option.


In conclusion, when deciding between a framed and frameless backpack, there are many factors to consider.

Weight capacity, comfort, ventilation, carrying capacity, durability, price, and maintenance should all be considered.

Framed backpacks generally offer more support and are better for carrying heavier loads, but they are usually more expensive than frameless backpacks and require more maintenance.

On the other hand, frameless backpacks are lighter and easier to pack into a small space, but they don’t provide as much support as framed backpacks.

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