(Updated for 2012) — My favorite external frame pack, the Coleman Exponent Bozeman X60 External-Frame Pack, fell out of the top selections on Amazon for 2012. I’d still recommend it, since I’ve owned one for several years and it’s showing no signs of wearing out. To me the Exponent is roomy and lightweight, though ultralight backpackers will definitely shake their heads at the excess ounces. I carry extra gear on most trips and the Exponent does that well. The main bag has two compartment with independent access to each. The lower one carries my stove and my food and my toiletries, the things I might need quick access to and which weigh the most. The upper one holds clothing, rain gear, tent and the other more bulky items I carry. External pockets are great for maps, compass, the GPS that might work if you remember to play with it, and the notebook and pen for that occasional brilliant thought.
The Exponent offers plenty of pocket space and tie-on points. I usually place my bedroll under the pack and lashed to the bottom of the frame, which has plenty of space for that, and lash my sleeping pad to the load loops on the top of the pack’s flap. That gives me clear access to all compartments and pockets without unloading or untying gear. The total capacity of the Exponent isn’t the largest you’ll find, but the narrower style keeps the load’s center of balance closer to your back, meaning you stand up straighter when you walk and see more of the world around you than just the ground at your feet.
I did have doubts about the Exponent since it’s made in China and the fabric and frame are a lot lighter than the old pack I bought from REI in 72 and eventually wore completely out. The Exponent has held up to everything I’ve done to it so far, and hasn’t deteriorated from weather or sunlight — the water resistance is still intact, the lining is in one piece, and there are no tears in the bag. The seams and rigging have held up to my occasional overloading of the system. There have been times when I expected rivets and loops to start popping when I lifted the bag off the ground or out of the car, and I haven’t tried to be easy on it. I’d rather that gear breaks at home than two days down the trail. At this point I’d have to say that they do pretty good work in China. There are some amazingly good packs available now for very reasonable prices, a big improvement over selections in the 70’s, when even REI sold packs that came apart on your first trip out. After tying mine back together I used it for years, but the frame was canted slightly to the right, bent slightly trapezoidal. Today’s packs have better welds and stronger aluminum tubing.
Of the others good packs in the lineup, I’d highly recommend the Kelty Trekker External Frame Pack. Larger people may as well carry larger backpacks, since they’ll probably be expected to carry more load for the party, and the Kelty Trekker carries 3950 cubic inches of gear. The Trekker comes in medium and small sizes to fit different body sizes. Total pack weight is 4 pounds 14 ounces, not at all bad for a high-capacity external frame pack.
The Kelty Cache Hauler Pack holds a little less than the Trekker but has the added advantage of easy removal from the frame itself. Hunters and hermits will find the Kelty Cache practical, since the frame includes a load shelf and will carry nearly anything you can strap to it. Load limit is more how much you can carry than how much the frame can carry. One of the more difficult things to do when packing a heavy load is to get started. You can slip into the pack harness while it’s sitting on the ground, but you might not be able to stand up without some help. In Korea, the people who carry the heavy loads in the mountains use an A-frame pack that tips up to standing height, so after that blissful meal break beside the trail you can step under the load instead of doing the dying cockroach impression. I don’t know of any high tech packs with this feature, but for a wilderness enthusiast with practical skills it’s a good trick to keep in mind. Maybe with a couple of poles lashed to the frame you can carry a bigger piece of moose and save a trip.
So far I haven’t found any pack or any combination of hip belt and shoulder straps that totally prevents the pack from working itself down so far that it hangs from your shoulders or cuts off blood flow to your legs. If you carry more than 35 pounds you’ll have to do frequent readjusting to prevent all that from happening. One of the things I like about the Coleman Exponent is the many different ways to tweak the rigging, shifting load to different places as I tire and get sore. Fancier packs with form fitting hip belts also slip when you get past that magic 35 pound level. The Coleman Exponent adjusts in many different parts of the rig and turns out to be very comfortable. Not being locked into one configuration really helps.
If you get a pack that seems uncomfortable on the trail and won’t quite stay put, don’t automatically conclude you’ve made a poor choice. Much of that is just life as a backpacker. You get used to it.