Backpack History – How and When Did They Came Into Being?

Backpack History – How and When Did They Came Into Being?

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backpack history

Well, we all use backpacks. They are convenient and they definitely have more space than a standard handbag. However, surprisingly not many of us are aware of the history of backpacks. When were they invented? Who came up with the idea? How were they invented? Answers to all these questions are quite interesting. You’d be surprised to know the history of backpacks!

Let’s start…


Backpacks are also widely known as rucksacks, knapsacks, packs and packsacks. To define it, one can simply say that it’s a bag to be carried on the back with straps (usually two) that either go over the shoulders or across. However, if we get into the details, we get to know that there are several types of backpacks and what we today know as backpacks were once known as simple sacks for shoulders.

Today, we use backpacks or rucksacks for a variety of purposes; hiking, laptop carrying, travelling and the like. But, in the olden days, backpacks were only used by hunters to carry their equipment and preys. In case the hunter didn’t have space to accommodate a large prey, he would cut it into pieces and distribute it among other hunters. Each hunter would then wrap the meat and carry it in the backpacks. Back in those days backpacks were made of animal skin. There were different types available depending on the types of animal available in a particular area. They were sewn together by intestines of animals that were woven together to form a strong thread like material.

The Term ‘Backpack’…

First off, you must know that the term backpack itself was coined in 1910s in the United States. Before this term was born, other terms such as moneybag and packsack were used to refer to such bags. The other famous word ‘rucksack’ is a German one and is usually used in the USA Army and in the UK. It’s a loanword that literally means ‘der Rucken’ in Germany referring to ‘the human back’.

Backpacks are also simply known as packs. But, since calling them simply ‘packs’ makes it unclear, it’s best to refer to them as ‘backpacks’. Also, people usually mix up bodypacks with backpacks. It should be clearly understood that bodypacks are the ones with pockets and load falling on the front (chest area) and on the back of a person. Whereas backpacks are the ones that only carry the load on the back with no pockets at the front.

Evolution of Backpacks…

We have come a long way from being hunters and barbarians to being civilized human beings. So, things have evolved over the centuries. Similarly, backpacks have become more elite, feature filled and useful. They are no longer used for hunting but their main purpose remains the same; to carry load. It’s interesting to know that back in 50s backpacks weren’t as good and comfortable as they are today. Dick Kelty was the person who came up with the idea of designing lightweight, sturdy and compact backpacks. This one idea of his changed the whole game and the modern backpacks came into existence.

The Story of Invention…

Kelty was an avid hiker. He used to hike the countryside of the Sierras. Of course, it was difficult for him to carry his hiking gear with the old ways or carrying weight and so he wanted to develop something that’s more efficient and capable. So, he started experimenting. Back in those days people used to rely on military surplus stores. The problem was that the gear found at military surplus stores was generally pretty heavy and quite coarsely designed.

In 1951, while hiking, Dick Kelty along with his pal Clay Sherman decided to put the load of the equipment from their shoulders to their hips. In order to do this, they had to skid the ends of their pack boards into the rear pockets of their jeans. This was when both of them realized that this is a much easier and comfortable way of carrying load. Kelty was impressed with this idea and he kept working on it to make things better.

Kelty then came up with the idea of adding a hip belt to the standard wooden frame and worked on it further. This was when Kelty thought of changing the wooden pack design to a more lightweight design by using lighter materials such as aluminum and by changing the rucksacks to nylon. Kelty’s wife came into the game and sewed the rucksacks to fit the frames. This was the start of a revolutionary home based business of backpacks. By 1952, Kelty was able to sell 29 backpacks for $24. But, this wasn’t where Kelty stopped. He kept on amending the design. Later on he added shoulder straps, padded waist and exterior zipper pockets to his packs.

The Final Outcome…

During the 70s, outdoor activities such as hiking became quite popular and more and more people were going for it. This was when Kelty’s backpacks became famous since most hikers of the area and the nearby areas started purchasing them. With time, the backpacks became so popular that others started making them too. Hence, things improved with time and wooden packs were transformed into backpacks as we know them today.