History of Backpacks

Backpacks are among the most popular types of bags for many people. They are a staple for working professionals, hikers, travelers, and students. There are many different styles and brands of backpacks available today, just like the Jins & Vico backpack. The idea of strapping your gear or carrying things on your back is older than you can imagine. But the modern student backpack that we know today is quite young. However, in that short amount of time, it had already seen a lot of changes. 

Using a backpack is indeed handy, particularly for those who need to carry a lot of things. Carrying something on your back not only allows you to carry the weight for longer periods, but it also means your hands are free to carry or do other things. Most of us probably grew up carrying backpacks to school, and they have been a staple of adventures ever since. They went from being a needed way to carry things to just as essential of a fashion statement as the shoes that we wear. 

A backpack is also sometimes called a knapsack, schoolbag, bookbag, or back sack. In its simplest form, it is a fabric sack that is carried on one’s back and is secured with two straps over the shoulders. While backpacks are commonly used worldwide, have you ever thought about how they started? Who do you think invented it, and for what purpose? If you have the same questions in mind, read on as we’re giving you more information about the history of backpacks.

Backpack Terminology

The word “backpack” was invented in the 1910s in the United States. Before that, words like “moneybag” and “packsack” were used. The word “rucksack” is German, which is commonly used in the United Kingdom, the United States, and in other Western military forces. In Middle High German, “ruck(e)” means “back,” which led to the Upper German word “ruggsack.”

In modern German, the word “der Rucksack” is mostly used. The word “rucksack” is similar to the word “rygsæk” in Danish. Up until the middle of the 20th century, the word “knapsack” was used for a backpack, which is commonly used in Canada. Backpacks can usually be referred to as “packs,” particularly in outdoor use. However, there are times when they are compared to other bags like duffel bags and saddlebags. With this, context is mostly sufficient for identification. 

The Backpack History

a black backpack on a bench

It is almost profound for modern readers to believe that backpacks were not always connected to the school. Before the 1910s, they were not even called backpacks. Many years before students started adopting the useful bag, it was concurrently made by ancient people who were traveling all over the world. Traveling through hostile terrain, Scandinavian voyagers back then needed to carry their things on their backs. 

Also, indigenous arctic peoples also relied on backpacks to carry their belongings. Both of these cultures gave indispensable inspiration for later designers, whose goal was to create the most practical and effective equipment for mountaineering.

The Invention of Rucksacks

The very first step to the creation of the modern backpack that we know today was taken by a man named Henry Merriam. He presented a design that combined the most common designs of the era, which are the wood frame and the soft canvas rucksack. This design was named a knapsack, and it was patented in 1878.

However, Henry Merriam’s design was imperfect, and it was uncomfortable to use, which were the flaws of the bags of the day. The bags he made were either too soft or too stiff, which both caused back and shoulder pain. With this, he added sheet metal to keep the bag away from the body, hoping to help reduce the strain. 

In 1908, a Norwegian inventor named Ole Bergan had a eureka moment while he was out hunting. He was using a soft sack that was not exactly uncomfortable, but it put a lot of strain on his shoulders. What he did was he bent a piece of juniper wood into a keyhole shape, following the contours of his back. He could then hang the soft bag on his back while keeping a more comfortable design. Later on, it transformed to using light tubular steel, which became popular for the next 25 years. 

In 1920, another outdoorsman named Lloyd Nelson back stateside redesigned the indigenous backpack. Inspired by the sealskin and wood packs used by indigenous people in Alaska, he tried to create his own version of it. However, he was unaware of the advanced ergonomic designs of the Bergans company, he sought to create something similar, but he used a wood frame instead of metal. He called his invention the Trapper Pack. This was the first mass-produced backpack. These were even featured in the first REI catalog back in 1939. 

Wood, leather, canvas, and even light steel implements were popular materials back then. Many designers created intriguing and long-lasting contributions to backpacks through the years between the creation of the Trapper Pack and the birth of academic backpacks

Jerry Cunningham was the first one to add zippers to backpacks. Then, in 1950, Ake Nordin founded Fjallraven when he created a small canvas bag that sat high and tight on the back of the wearer. In 1952, Dick and Nina Kelty made the modern backpacker’s backpack through the use of surplus airplane aluminum to create large and lightweight frames for the gear. 

Backpacks for Students

woman wearing a backpack

The changes we’ve mentioned above were indeed essential and wonderful. However, those were small changes compared to the invention of nylon. Compared to canvas, nylon is a strong material, especially for bags. This material totally revolutionized the backpack industry. Gerry Cunningham, the man who added zippers to the first rucksacks, can be credited with the release of the first nylon backpacks.

In 1967, Cunningham’s Teardrop backpack was released, and this opened the nylon backpack floodgates. After three years, a new company was introduced, and it was called JanSport, which was named partially after Jan Lewis, one of the founder’s girlfriends with great sewing skills. JanSport released the Ski and Hike bag. After a while, they were able to sell the new bag in the University of Washington’s bookstore. Even though there was initial disbelief by the administration, the bags were all sold out. 

The trend of using backpacks started on college campuses, and it eventually spread to younger students. It was quite difficult to believe, but before the birth of the book bag, students had very few options on how they transport their books and other materials for school. Many uses bookstraps, which were belts wrapped around the books. Some use grownup briefcases, particularly those who do not wish to carry their belongings freehand. 

Backpacks from the 1980s to the Present Time

In 1980, a law student from Harvard suggested to L.L. Bean begin selling bags that could be used in carrying heavy books. The company obliged by introducing the Book Pack, which found its way shortly after to the bookstores in Harvard. In 1981, Steve Mann, a high school student, fused technology and backpacks into a wearable computer. It was known as the EyeTap, which was wired to the bag and ran to a head-mounted display. 

In 1989, Michael Eidson, a paramedic, wished there was a way to carry water during a 100-mile bike ride through Texas. To make his wish come true, he made the first CamelBak Hydration pack, which was on the market only a few years later. 

From the 2000s to the late 2000s, backpacks began to be more functional. In addition to that, fashion backpacks also became a popular way to carry daily essentials for a lot of people. During these times, bags in leather, canvas, and other materials are available in the market. Some of the backpacks are even designed by major fashion brands like Gucci and Prada. There were also bags made especially for various professions. For instance, there is the camera bag, which is designed for photographers, featuring multiple compartments for storing cameras and other accessories. 

At the present time, more and more kinds of backpacks are being introduced in the market. They now come in many sizes and shapes. Some are very small while others are perfect for traveling for days. Backpacks are no longer exclusive for travelers and students today. It’s because anyone who wishes to carry a backpack can do so without any judgment. Whether you use it for school or for everyday activities, it still remains one of the most useful types of bags today. 


The history of backpacks is indeed interesting. At the present time, the backpack is ubiquitous. It ranges from designer-label fashion brands to specialized professional equipment. Also, as books give way to tablets and other high-tech gadgets, the backpack is also continuously evolving to incorporate newer materials and other technologies. We can be certain that in the coming years, more and more features are going to be added to the useful backpacks that we know today. We hope this post helped you learn more about the history of backpacks.