The Backpack: History, Origins, Designs & FAQ

History and origins

It seems probable that humans have been carrying objects on their backs for almost as long as they have been walking on two legs. Our ancestors may have got the idea from watching animals carry their young or they may have discovered that much heavier objects can be borne on the back than carried in the arms.

Carrying something on your back not only means that you can carry weight for longer periods, it also, crucially, means that your hands are free, to carry a spear, climb a tree or swipe your credit card. Of course, in order to free your hands, you need some form of backpack to do the holding for you.

Evidence for early backpacks is scarce, perhaps because the materials from which they were made are those prone to decay. The earliest possible contender dates from 3300BC. The mummified remains of Otzi the Iceman were found in the Alps in 1991 by two Italian tourists, amongst the extraordinary collection of artefacts are the remains of what may well constitute the world’s oldest backpack: a U shaped hazel rod, two metres in length and two wooden boards about forty centimetres in length. It is suggested that these components were tied together by string and used to support a hide bag, thus creating a framed backpack. Wooden framed backpacks, used for carrying firewood, have a long tradition in the Alps.

The word ‘backpack’ doesn’t start to appear in print until around 1910 but ‘Knapsack’, from the German word knapp, meaning food, has been in use since 1603. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, ‘rucksack’, from the German for 'back', was the preferred usage. In 1874 the American, Colonel Henry C Merriam designed a backpack for use by the infantry which was the forerunner of today’s small, frameless backpacks. Sekk med meis – ‘bag with a frame’ were in common use in Norway in the Nineteenth Century and in 1909, Ole F Bergans patented a canvas rucksack with a curved metal frame that effectively transferred some of the weight borne by the shoulders, to the hips. In 1938, Gerry Cunningham designed the first zippered backpack and in 1952 Dick Kelty created an aluminium framed backpack and thus, by the sixties the two technical innovations which would determine the design of the modern backpack were in place.

Initially, the backpack had been primarily used for military purposes, but the first half of the Twentieth Century saw a rise in the popularity of the backpack for recreational uses such as hiking. In 1967 internal frame backpacks and small nylon backpacks hit the American market and were adopted by students as a way of carrying their books, which had previously been carried using a strap. As ‘back to school’ became an established annual sales opportunity so the backpack evolved to cater for a student’s desire to express identity and affiliation through their choice of backpack.

The sixties also saw the advent of the ‘backpacker’, a traveller whose choice of luggage denoted an ideological stance as well as a practical choice for rough and ready travelling.

Today the backpack is ubiquitous, ranging from designer label fashion brands to specialized professional equipment and as books give way to tablets so too is the backpack evolving to incorporate new materials and evolving solar panel technology. 

Specific to purpose – backpack design

The widespread popularity of the backpack has resulted in a diversity of product so that every nuance of potential usage is now catered for.

Frameless Backpacks

The simplest and cheapest of all backpack designs, at its most basic this is a main pocket attached to shoulder straps. Onto this basic design are added extra pockets and straps, but the frameless backpack is necessarily small for otherwise the weight becomes uncomfortable.

External Frame Backpacks

Essentially a modern variant of the Native American Indian ‘pack board’, an external frame creates a rigid vertical structure which ensures that the carrier stands upright rather than bending to accommodate a heavy load. This ensures that heavy loads can be carried without discomfort to the back. Some weight is borne by the shoulders, but the majority of the weight is carried on the hips. Since the sixties, frames have been constructed using lightweight metal alloys but in recent years, inflexible lightweight plastics have become popular. The carry sack is kept away from the user’s back by means of straps and netting. This allows for friction free carrying and ventilation. The protruding frame allows for additional items to be strapped to the top and the bottom. With some designs the carry sack can be removed entirely to allow for other objects to be strapped to the frame.

Internal Frame Backpacks

By far the most popular large backpack design on the market, the internal frame allows for maximum carrying capacity and can be reduced in size when not full, consequently it is the backpacker’s bag of choice. The design of the bag allows for a close fit to the wearer’s back, this means that the bag is much more secure than an external frame bag, but it also means that there is a lack of ventilation.

Sports Packs Backpacks

There is now a wide range of specialised backpacks designed to meet the requirements of specific sporting activities. These backpacks tend to be small, body hugging designs which use compression straps to minimise movement. Hydration packs allow for water to be carried in comfort and are often fitted with a drinking tube so that rehydration can take place on the move.

A bag for all seasons: a bag for all reasons

Initially developed for military use, the backpack has become the pre-eminent luggage-ware design of the twenty first century and is gradually replacing a range of traditional carrying receptacles. School students no longer strain one side of their body by carrying satchels, they use backpacks. Business men are abandoning their briefcases in favour of a smart leather backpack which enables them to cycle to work. Mothers with babies find that a changing bag backpack is far more convenient than the conventional design. Women are ditching their handbags for chic designer backpacks. Carrying a laptop, carrying a camera, whatever your needs there’s a backpack design for you and when the next technological must have arrives, there’ll be a backpack for that.

FAQs

How should you wear a backpack?

Wearing your backpack incorrectly will lead to neck, shoulder or back pain. Any heavy pack will become uncomfortable after a long period of time but by wearing a backpack correctly you should be able to minimise any discomfort. Always ensure that your shoulder straps, chest straps and waist straps are correctly adjusted: your bag shouldn’t sway as you walk and should ride high on your shoulders. If you sense chafing or discomfort take the time to get those adjustments right.

How do you clean a backpack?

How dirty your backpack gets will depend on the kind of use to which you put it. Backpacks used for outdoor activity or extensive travelling can be protected using a backpack cover and liner, which will serve to keep your backpack clean both inside and out, however there will come a time when you really do need to give it a good wash. First, check the label so that you know about any specific do’s and don’ts. Then make sure that you have completely emptied the pack, unzip all zips, remove the frame and remove as many straps as you can. If you are going to machine wash, place the backpack in a laundry bag or pillow case, use a gentle detergent and a cold wash. If your backpack is too big for your machine you can hand wash it in a bathtub, using a scrubbing brush or toothbrush to work away at stains. Always dry your backpack naturally, never use a tumble dryer. If your backpack is made from leather, it can be cleaned using a mild solution of gentle hand wash applied with a lint free cloth and towel dried. Alternatively, there are leather cleaning products available commercially.

How should you pack a backpack?

If you are backpacking or hiking you are going to need to carry a lot of equipment and how you pack your backpack is something that needs careful thought. Over the course of a trip you will refine your packing, but it makes sense to start off with a well packed pack. The best way to start is to create a checklist of essential and inessential items, that way you can ensure that nothing important gets left behind. A packed backpack should be firm, without any gaps or sagging, it should also allow you easy access to those items which you are going to need most frequently. At the bottom of the bag need to go those things which you won’t need until you reach your camp or your hotel, such as a sleeping bag or change of footwear. The centre of the pack should be used to house heavier items, this is the most comfortable position in which to carry them. Food and cooking equipment should go here. At the top of the pack are things that you may need during the day, you don’t want to have to repack your entire bag to get to your waterproof. Side pockets are ideal for easy access items such as glasses, sunscreen and insect repellent, but be aware, if you’re urban backpacking, that they are also easy access for thieves.

How much weight can I carry in my backpack?

The answer to this question partly depends on factors such as the duration of the journey, the terrain and the weather conditions but as a general guide, a hiking backpack should not weigh more than 20% of your body weight and a daysack, 10%. Students who use light nylon backpacks to carry their books often wear them too low slung and carry too much weight.

What is backpack litreage?

Backpack litreage is the measure by which the carrying capacity of a pack is established. It is a measure of maximum volume which includes the capacity of side pockets as well as the main carrying sack. Daysack capacities range from 20-35 litres and frameless backpacks from 40-70 litres, expedition packs can contain as much as 110 litres.

Alternatives to the backpack

Backpack vs Satchel or Messenger bag

You’ll find devotees on both side of this argument. A backpack is the ultimate handsfree bag, so if you’re cycling or pushing a push chair this has got to be a big bonus. What people like about the Messenger bag is the ease with which you can swing it round from carrying it on your back to your side, this makes it quicker to access than a backpack and if you are concerned about what someone might be doing behind your back it’s easy to get your hands on it before someone else does.

Backpack vs Duffel Bag

Going away for the weekend? A backpack will carry more than you need, and a daysack might be just too small, a duffel bag will be heavier to carry but it wins out on style and is probably more appropriate in terms of capacity.

Backpack vs Handbag

A designer handback is not so much about carrying things as it is a statement of affluence and though there are plenty of gorgeous designer backpacks they haven’t yet achieved the cache of a fabulously expensive handbag. 

Backpack vs Sling Bag

A sling bag is a bag in which one end of the body strap is attached to the top of the bag and one end to the bottom, they come in a variety of sizes and materials. The sling bag is an informal, inexpensive bag which is easy to access and light to carry but you probably wouldn’t want to entrust your laptop to it or use it for your daily commute, you’ll be wanting your backpack for that.

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