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Our Thoughts On Load Lifters

TOM BIHN Wild Limpet Backpack (early 1980's)
A design of Tom's from the early-mid 1980s that had load lifters: the Wild Limpet. In use, Tom found that the load lifters didn't do much for this pack (except distorting the shape of it) because it didn't have a frame.

Load lifters are somewhat ubiquitous on large internal frame and external frame packs and, on those packs, can be useful; their application or utility on smaller packs is, in our opinion, of dubious merit.

From a guide to backpacks:
“Load Lifters - Part of the shoulder strap and is used to lift the pack's weight off the shoulders.”

There’s something akin to a “sky hook” in this concept of how load lifter straps function: how, exactly, does the load get “lifted”? Where’s that weight going? Who, if not the wearer, is lifting this weight? Who, if not the doer, is performing the action? Does free will exist? We digress.

With a large capacity external or internal frame pack, there can be some advantage gained by cinching the top of the load closer in, towards the user’s shoulders, and thus closer to your center of gravity, and some folks swear by load lifters on the big packs they carry.

With an entirely frameless pack, there’s nothing rigid for the top end of the “load lifter” to pull against, and when you tighten these straps you end up simply distorting the soft, unstructured top portion of the pack, distending it over your shoulders to no avail. That applies to packs like the Synik, Guide's Pack, and Synapse as well, where the internal frame ends roughly where the padded shoulder straps attach and does not continue any higher up (as a frame/frame sheet typically would in a larger pack intended primarily for extended backcountry use).

Our backpacks have a shorter internal frame because they're fairly small daypacks: if we added “load lifter” straps to our daypacks, they wouldn’t really help “lift” any weight – it'd just distort the soft top of the pack and would do little or nothing to keep the pack’s weight closer to your center of gravity. On the other hand, if we made the internal frames used with our packs longer (taller), extending it higher than the top of the shoulder strap attachment point, it would, in our opinion, start it down a path of becoming a backpacking pack, rather than the travel, EDC, and day-hiking packs we intend them to be.

We're open to your experiences, thoughts, and feedback; post here in the comments or send a note to


TB Crew

We're the TOM BIHN crew: we design bags, make bags, ship bags, and answer questions about bags. Oh, and we collaborate on blog posts, too.

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  • TB Crew

    @Alan Thanks for sharing your experience with us Alan. It’s different than ours, and that’s when things get interesting. :) With the packs you have: are they designed with the shoulder strap take off point lower on the bag than there would be if there were no load lifters? We have observed that generally this is the case with any pack that has load lifters and, when putting on a bag like that, the top might feel like it’s falling away from you, and tightening the load lifter straps improves that. Either way, we’ve taken note here and will use this as a way to test our own perceptions as well.

  • Craig Coombs

    What really does make a difference, even with small, frameless, day packs is a chest trap. I’ve added 1/2" wide chest straps to the smallest Matador Pack and it really adds to the comfort on shoulders (top and front) when scrambling around. Their smallest pack compresses down to the size of a tennis ball during transport. We used them on day hikes in the Andes. Again, chest straps made a BIG difference. I’d love to see what TB could do in a compressible day pack.

  • TB Crew

    @Sarah Jane Keen observations – we’ll pass on to Tom and Nik.

  • Sarah Jane

    I’ve noticed that load lifters help on packs that lack compression/cinch straps but make less difference on packs with compression. For instance, I have a 40L REI pack that I use for long trips and the load lifters on that bag help enormously; I’m short (4’11") and the pack long, the load lifters definitely influence my total footpirnt. But on a different, 25L pack I have good compressions straps and the back is also a bit shorter and I have no need for load lifters, they would only make it harder to unpack that bag. Load lifters need a broader top/opening portion if you are going to access things easily without having to reset the whole support system every time you take it off.

  • Alan

    I think load lifters do help on smaller packs, even if the packs are frameless. I say that only because I have a couple of packs in that category. A couple of these packs have just a piece of foam in the back, so not truly a soft pack. When I first got these packs I questioned if they were gimmicks. But in the field I found they do make a difference in how the pack feels. Note, the difference is not nearly as noticeable as with a large internal frame or external frame pack. The difference is subtle, but I don’t think I am imagining the change in how the pack feels on my back.

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