Backpacks can be divided into several categories. I will consider two, small packs and large packs. Small packs are generally for a single days use, and large packs are generally for multiple days use. Small packs are designed to carry less weight than large packs. For really small packs or loads, no frame is necessary. For larger packs or loads, some kind of frame makes the pack and the load much more comfortable. For really large packs or loads some kind of sturdy frame is pretty much a necessity. Exactly where the lines are drawn in these different categories is a matter of taste, comfort, and personal preference. Many small packs come with some padding on the side against your back. I don't consider padding to constitute a frame of any kind, as it doesn't have any significant stiffness. When I put a big load in my Voyager pack, sometimes the foam bends into a quite uncomfortable shape against my back. On the other extreme is a large, external frame backpack. The frames are generally welded aluminum and quite strong. The pack actually hangs from the frame. Don't laugh at external frame packs, Mt. Everest was first climbed using external frame packs.
Some companies such as GoLite and WildThings have packs with basically no frames. Some say you should only carry 15 lbs or so. That is great unless you run into some kind of problem, and they you are likely unprepared. Some say you should carefully pack your pack so that stiff things are vertically oriented in order to give the pack structural support. I suppose in theory this could work. However, if you look at the stays of an internal frame pack, they usually are gently curved, and not straight. I don't own any gear that has the a curve similar to the pack stays. You can carry 50 or 60 lbs in a pack without any frame, it is just not going to be very comfortable. I have decided that it is a good idea for me to have some kind of frame if I am carrying more than 15 or 20 lbs. If I am carrying more than 50 lbs, I want a pretty sturdy frame to transfer the weight, rather than using my backbone for the purpose.
Packs are made out of various materials. Clearly the heavier the material is, all other things being equal, the more durable the material will be. In my experience, packs wear out from abrasion. Often when wearing a daypack, I will go through a narrow passageway with rocks on either side. This will cause abrasion on the pack and me. I heal, but the pack doesn't. The easiest way I know to abrade a pack is to put something inside the pack which pokes against the exterior fabric of the pack. A shovel edge is ideal. Then when the pack rubs against something, all the force is concentrated on the fabric against the shovel edge. If you put padding on the inside of the pack, next to the exterior fabric, you will greatly reduce abrasion damage.
Some packs are made of very light weight silicone coated nylon (1.1 to 1.9 oz per square yard). This stuff is pretty waterproof and pretty abrasion resistant for its weight. It isn't nearly as abrasion resistant as 500 or 1000 denier nylon. Spectra (also known as dyneema) which is ultra high weight polyethylene is very slippery and very abrasion resistant. You can get fabric that weighs 4 oz per square yard that is more abrasion resistant than 1000 denier nylon which weighs 3 times as much. Spectra is also very costly, and needs to be sewn slowly and carefully as it has a low melting point. Very few packs are made out of spectra. Some packs claim to be made out of spectra but are really made out of nylon with spectra ripstop (also known as Spectrum). This is better than plain nylon, but nowhere near as good as pure spectra. Spectra is almost always pure white, though it can be dyed light gray. If it isn't white, or light gray, is isn't spectra. My McHale and Kelty Cloud 6500 are made of spectra. My polar circus is made out of Spectrum.
Recently some packs are being made of Dimension Polyant (a brand name) fabrics which are generally 5 layer laminates of nylon, Dacron, and plastic film. They are very waterproof, and pretty abrasion resistant for their weight. The fabrics include VX-51, VX-42, VX-21, and VX-07. My Mountainsmith Phantom is made of VX-21.
I just found some psycho light packs. No frames of course. If ultra-light is for you, you might consider them. A 3200ci pack weighs 122 grams! See ZPacks.com for more details. They also have some very interesting lightweight accessories.
I have been in the market for a durable daypack for a while. My TNF Voyager wore out a few years ago. I tried a Mountainsmith Phantom pack, which is quite user friendly. Unfortunately, after using it two or three times, I noticed some things that needed repairing. Mountainsmith did quite a good repairing the pack, but I began to question its long term durability. In my mind, a durable pack is either made out of something like 1000 denier Cordura nylon, or pure 100% spectra/dyneema depending on brand. The only companies making spectra packs that I know of are McHale, GoLite, WildThings, CiloGear and Kelty. The GoLite and WildThings packs have at most some foam for a frame, but I have decided I want more than just foam for a frame for a daypack. Some will disagree, but I think some frame helps transfer the load and is more comfortable. I don't need steel rods, but I want something more than a piece of foam. The Mountainsmith Phantom has an excellent, light weight frame. That left McHale, CiloGear and Kelty. Kelty makes big packs, previously the Cloud 5250 for $800. CiloGear's packs look quite nice and are $575-$650 depending on size. McHale's packs are great, and very expensive. I was able to find several slightly used Kelty spectra packs for a great price. For the cloud 6500, I removed the 3 optional pockets and plan on compressing the pack down to daypack size.
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