There are a lot of reasons why we buy the gear we buy. Generally speaking I’ve always believed that we should buy a product based on simple criteria: How well will it work? How functional is it? How long will it last? How well is it made, and usually how much does it cost? If a piece of gear strikes a cord in all of these areas, and hey if it turns out I can get it in a color that I want, well even better. But in the end I find myself firmly in the function over form camp. I’d rather have a piece of gear that will work well, last, and will generally make a trip as comfortable as possible over something that looks good and functions poorly.
Which is why it struck me as odd when I recently was reading a readers question in Backpacker Magazine, wondering why there has been a shift away from external frame backpacks to internal frame backpacks, that the answer pretty simply came back as, “because they are sexier, and who doesn’t what sexier gear?” Part of me had to ponder that for a few minutes before the absurdity of the answer struck me. Not that the answer itself was absurd (for the most part I have nothing but respect for writers at Backpacker) but at the idea that in reality we may have a market that is driven to making a product that is actually less useful to the vast majority of hikers, because the consumer wants something that looks sexier? That is the part that left me a bit confused.
Why an External Frame?
Outside of the basics of fit, feel and load carrying capabilities of a pack, there is of course the age old question of whether an internal or external pack is a better option for us. If you search the web you’ll get hundreds of answers to that question, but here are the basics as I would present them.
The advent of the of internal frame backpack came about because internal frame packs lower the center of gravity on a pack, making it able to be kept close to our backs which makes for easier maneuvering in tight quarters or possible in a scramble situation. The downside to this is that unless we are in those situations internal frame weight distribution cause us to lean forward while hiking compensate for where the weight is. An external frame on the other hand is designed to distribute the weight load primarily to the hips by keeping the weight slightly off of our backs. This benefits us by being able to walk upright under a load of weight. One has to wonder, since the vast majority of hikers spend their time on trails, why would they chose an internal frame pack?
Obviously the outdoor industry has looked into the pro and cons of both of these styles and has decided in favor of the internal frame(possible to its customers detriment). But what about outside of that? I have to think about my brothers combat gear from Afghanistan. It struck me that his military pack was externally framed. The military has been using and continues using external frames for a reason. Millions of dollars have been spent researching what style is better for military use. I have to think that if the military has chosen to continue to use the external frame there has to be good reason.
I must admit that I am a bit prejudiced. I’ve always found the look of external frame backpack to be appealing, but the fact of the matter is that when it came time to buy almost every pack I’ve ever owned, I’ve gone against my sense of looks and bought an internal frame backpack mostly because it dominates the market, and to cut down on extra weight. Sadly most external frames tend to be on the heavier end of the scale due to the weight of the frame itself, most of the external frames on the market come in close to 5 to 7 pounds. I simply assumed that It would not be possible to find a lightweight pack that was best for my back and in a style that I preferred.
Titanium to the Rescue
Vargo is a company that was born out of the lightweight movement in backpacking. I would have to guess that as long as man has carried anything on his back, from our earliest ancestors to today’s Appalachian or Pacific Coast trail through hikers, we would rather have less weight without sacrificing the things we need. Vargo was one of those companies that recognized this need early in the game, and soon after its inception was producing high quality titanium gear to lighten the load of hauling cook stoves, tent stakes, and other essential tools we need in the outdoors. Luckily for the backpacking world, this year Vargo decided to apply its ideal’s of lightweight titanium gear to the backpacking game, introduced its Ti-Arc external frame backpack this spring.
Vargo’s Ti-Arc is an almost perfect blend of the best of both external and internal frame packs. Straight out of the box you notice that its thinner, lighter, titanium frame gives it a much sleeker look and feel then most traditional external frames. On all the external frames that I had tried on previously the frame was bulky and wide. This is one of the reasons that external frames had initially fallen out with people who needed a pack for bushwhacking or scrambling in terrain, a wide exposed frame would often catch on brush or branches, Vargos Ti-Arc keeps that to a minimum with a frame just shy of 14 inches wide, slim enough that there is very little overlap, cutting out on areas that could get caught on branches and bush during off trail hiking. Even with a full load the Ti-Arc feels like it fits like a glove despite the extra breathing space the external frame gives your back.
At 36 liters the Ti-Arc may have less internal storage space then some internal frame packs but that doesn’t mean cutting back on what gear we can take with us on a hike. With an external frame the Vargo Ti-Arc instead allows for greater choices in how we pack our gear, using the frame itself to hang our gear on. On top of being able to use the frame itself, Vargo has also included two mesh water bottle holders and multiple outside pockets, both on the shoulders of the pack as well as two smaller pockets on the belt of the pack to stash gear or maps that we may need to have quick access to. In reality the first time I loaded the pack I actually had to double check that I hadn’t forgotten anything there was so much space left inside the bag.
Weighing in at a mere 2 pounds and 13 ounces the Ti-Arc cuts the weight of most other external frames in half and even by internal frame standards this is a super light pack. Add on to the fact that this includes the weight of a lumbar support bar (which makes a huge difference in general comfort) and you have to wonder why no one had thought of this sooner. Just don’t mistake its lightweight as a lack of robustness. This pack feels bomb proof and its 70 denier ripstop nylon construction gives the bag itself a very rugged feel, shrugging of light drizzle and heavy brush.
In reality the Vargo Ti-Arc probably won’t be a back pack for everyone. If you think hauling a 7 plus pound tent, a four pound or heavier sleeping bag and a cast iron skillet in your pack on a multiple day trek is going light this may not be the pack for you, but if you love really going light, I would highly suggest ditching the internal framed pack that has literally and figuratively been a pain in your neck for the Vargo Ti-Arc. Even when I’ve had this pack at full capacity it has been a pleasure to hike with. If you want to suffer through what could be a pleasant hike with a “sexier” looking pack on, bent under your load, you’re of course more then welcome to. But I have to think of Edward Abbey when I’m wearing my Ti-Arc, “There is this to be said for walking: It’s the one mode of human locomotion by which a man proceeds on his own two feet, upright, erect, as a man should be…..”, with Vargo’s external frame pack you can do just that.
As a side note Vargo has gone even further in lightening a backpackers load with the Ti-Arc CF backpack as well. You can check out both packs as well as purchase them at www.vargooutdoors.com/