History of backpacks

history of backpacks

Ah, backpacks! Who hasn't had a love-hate relationship with these trusty, yet sometimes cumbersome companions? Remember the first day of school, with that shiny new backpack feeling like a suit of armor against the schoolyard's challenges? I sure do.

Backpacks, known for their utility in carrying various items, have a long history that spans centuries. Originally, backpacks were used more for survival than convenience, crafted from natural materials like animal skins and later evolving into canvas and other fabrics that led to the widespread use of backpacks not just for outdoor activities but also for everyday use by students and professionals.

Each phase in their evolution reflects changes in human culture and technology, illustrating how our personal and collective histories are tied to these practical accessories. let’s dive in and explore the history of backpacks!

When were backpacks invented

The earliest recorded form of a backpack can be traced back to around 3300 BC, held by Ötzi the Iceman. This ancient backpack, found with Ötzi's remarkably preserved remains in the Alps, demonstrates that even prehistoric humans utilized backpack-like structures to carry supplies and equipment.

Ötzi the Iceman backpack

Moving toward the development of the modern backpack, the first significant advancement came with Henry Merriam in 1878. Merriam patented a military knapsack that featured an external metal frame designed to distribute weight more effectively. This design was a precursor to more sophisticated backpacks, blending functionality with comfort and marking a pivotal step

Who invented the backpack

Ötzi the Iceman (3300 BC)

The earliest forms of backpacks were invented by prehistoric humans. Dating back over 5,000 years, Ötzi the Iceman, a prehistoric man, had a frame backpack made of wood and animal skins. His backpack represents one of the earliest known examples of a pack designed to assist in carrying loads.

These early packs were essential for survival, allowing people to transport essential items while keeping their hands free for other tasks. The design and complexity of backpacks have evolved considerably from these ancient beginnings to the sophisticated products available today.

The invention of the modern backpack cannot be attributed to a single individual, as it evolved over centuries through various improvements and innovations.

Henry Merriam (1878)

The invention of the first backpack in its more modern form is often attributed to Henry Merriam, who patented a military knapsack with a metal frame in 1878. This design was specifically for the U.S. Army and aimed to improve the distribution of weight, although it proved to be uncomfortable and was not widely adopted. Thus, while Merriam's design was one of the earliest patented, it wasn't successful in widespread use.

first modern backpack

Camille Poirier (1882)

Camille Poirier significantly innovated backpack design by creating a pack that enhanced durability and functionality for rugged outdoor activities. His 1882 patent introduced a specialized canvas pack that could endure the harsh conditions of the northern American wilderness.

This bag, later known as the Duluth Pack, was made from heavy-duty canvas and featured several distinctive elements. One of its most notable features was its envelope-like design, which allowed it to lay flat or expand depending on the load. It also included multiple straps and buckles that enabled users to secure their gear tightly, which was essential for minimizing movement and noise during transport.

Another important aspect of Poirier's design was the inclusion of a tumpline—a strap that went over the top of the head, which helped distribute the weight of the load more evenly across the body, rather than just the shoulders. This was particularly useful for carrying heavy loads over long distances and rough terrain, as it reduced fatigue and increased comfort.

Camille Poirier backpack

Ole F. Bergans (1909)

Bergans, a Norwegian, made significant improvements by designing a rucksack with a curved metal frame that fit better to the human body and helped distribute weight more effectively.

After returning from a hunting trip with sore shoulders caused by his uncomfortable pack, Bergans was motivated to create a more ergonomic solution. He initially used a piece of juniper wood, which he bent to mimic the contours of the human back, and attached a soft cloth bag to it. This design greatly improved comfort by distributing the load more evenly across the wearer’s back.

Recognizing the potential for further improvement, Bergans later replaced the wooden frame with one made of lightweight tubular steel. This innovation not only maintained the ergonomic benefits of his original design but also enhanced the durability and overall functionality of the pack. His design was patented and became widely popular for its advanced comfort and utility, setting a new standard for backpack design.

Lloyd F. Nelson (1922)

Nelson designed the Trapper Nelson backpack, inspired by the indigenous packs he observed in Alaska. These traditional packs were designed to carry heavy loads comfortably over long distances, an essential feature given the rugged terrain. His design featured a wooden frame and was one of the first mass-produced backpacks.

Building upon this inspiration, Nelson developed a backpack with a sturdy wood frame that used canvas bands to attach a fabric bag. His design allowed for easy detachment and reattachment of the bag, increasing versatility and practicality. This feature was particularly innovative because it allowed users to quickly adapt their pack configurations based on their immediate needs without having to unpack or repack their gear.

Nelson's Trapper Pack was one of the first backpacks to be mass-produced, and it marked a significant leap forward in backpack design by blending practicality with comfort. It became widely popular among hikers, explorers, and even the Boy Scouts of America, serving as a precursor to modern external frame backpacks. His design was featured in the first ever REI catalog in 1939, which helped popularize it among outdoor enthusiasts.

Trapper Nelson backpack

Gerry Cunningham (1938)

He introduced the first zippered backpack, which was more practical for hikers and climbers. His later innovations included the use of lightweight, durable nylon that further revolutionized backpack design.

The introduction of zippers allowed for easier access to the contents of the backpack, which was especially beneficial during climbing or hiking when quick and easy access to equipment could be crucial. This change also made the backpacks more secure, as zippers provided a better seal against the elements than buckles or ties, reducing the risk of items falling out or being damaged by weather.

Cunningham's backpack was lighter and more streamlined compared to its predecessors, focusing on simplicity and efficiency, which resonated well with the outdoor community. His emphasis on lightweight and functional design continued to influence the development of backpacks, paving the way for the use of even more durable and advanced materials like nylon in the 1960s.

Cunningham’s impact on the backpack industry is significant because his innovations directly addressed the needs of outdoor enthusiasts. By improving the practical aspects of backpacks, he helped transform them from mere storage solutions into essential tools for adventure, contributing to the broader acceptance and use of backpacks in a variety of settings, not just limited to outdoor pursuits.

Gerry Cunningham backpack

Åke Nordin (1950)

Ake Nordin, a Swedish adventurer and entrepreneur, made significant contributions to the development of outdoor gear, particularly in the design of backpacks using a strong wooden frame designed to hold the pack away from the back, allowing for better airflow and reducing the discomfort caused by the pack sticking to the wearer’s back.

Nordin's innovation didn't stop with the frame; he also designed the bag itself to be more user-friendly. He incorporated durable fabrics and improved the overall design to enhance accessibility and ease of use. His designs eventually led to the founding of Fjällräven in 1960, a company that has become well-known for its high-quality outdoor equipment. One of Nordin's early innovations was the introduction of aluminum frames, which replaced the wooden ones to reduce weight and increase durability.

Ake Nordin backpack


Dick and Nena Kelty (1952)

They are often credited with inventing the first modern backpack using surplus materials from World War II. Their design included aluminum frames and parachute fabric, which were significant improvements in comfort and functionality for backpackers​.

This choice of materials significantly reduced the weight of the backpack while increasing its durability and weather resistance, a critical factor for hiking and mountaineering.

One of the key innovations introduced by the Keltys was the external frame design. This design provided better load distribution across the body, which allowed hikers to carry heavier loads with greater ease. The frame was designed to hold the pack away from the body, improving air circulation and making long treks more comfortable. Additionally, they introduced padded shoulder straps and waist belts, which were revolutionary at the time. These features helped to distribute the weight more evenly, reducing the strain on any single point of the body, particularly the shoulders and lower back.

Dick and Nena Kelty also focused on making their backpacks user-friendly. They were among the first to sell their backpacks directly to consumers, engaging with the hiking community to get feedback and continuously improve their designs. This legacy of innovation and quality continues to influence backpack design and outdoor gear to this day.

kelty backpack

Greg Lowe (1967)

American mountaineer and the founder of Lowe Alpine, he revolutionized backpack design by introducing the internal frame backpack in 1967. This innovation marked a significant shift in how backpacks were constructed and their functionality in outdoor activities, especially mountaineering and hiking.

Greg Lowe sought to develop a backpack that would be more integrated with the body’s movements, offering greater stability and comfort. The internal frame backpack he designed featured a frame built into the backpack itself, rather than being a separate structure around which the bag was constructed. This allowed the pack to maintain a slimmer profile and move more naturally with the wearer's body.

One of the key advantages of Lowe's internal frame backpack was its ability to evenly distribute weight closer to the wearer's center of gravity. This design reduced the load's leverage effect, enhancing balance and reducing the strain on the wearer's back and shoulders, making it ideal for carrying heavy loads over uneven terrain.

Greg Lowe backpack

Deuter (1984)

Over the years, Deuter has introduced several key features that have greatly influenced the design and functionality of modern backpacks. One of Deuter's notable innovations is the Aircomfort system, introduced in 1984. This system was revolutionary as it featured a mesh back panel that creates a space between the backpack and the wearer's back. This design allows for excellent air circulation, significantly reducing perspiration and increasing comfort during long hikes or activities.

mesh panel backpack Deutel

Additionally, Deuter has been a pioneer in developing the Vari-Quick system, an adjustable back length feature that allows the backpack to be quickly and easily adjusted to fit different torso lengths. This customization enhances load distribution and comfort, making Deuter backpacks more versatile and suitable for users of various sizes.

Micheal Eidson (1989)

Michael Eidson, an emergency medical technician and competitive cyclist, invented the hydration backpack in 1989, a development that significantly impacted endurance sports and outdoor activities. His innovation stemmed from the need to stay hydrated during long cycling races, especially in environments where stopping to drink water was impractical.

During a race, Eidson filled an IV bag with water, slipped it into a white tube sock, and then stuffed this assembly into the back of his bike jersey. He ran the tubing over his shoulder and secured it with a clothespin. This makeshift system allowed him to drink fluids without stopping, providing a continuous hydration method that was both innovative and effective.

This initial concept evolved into what is now known as the CamelBak, a company Eidson would later establish. The CamelBak hydration system features a reservoir, or "bladder," which is filled with water and carried in a specially designed pack on the back. A long hose connected to the reservoir allows the user to drink hands-free, and these packs are now designed with various capacities and features to suit different activities and user needs.

Eidson's creation revolutionized the way athletes and outdoor adventurers stay hydrated, promoting better performance and safety.

hydration backpack

Today's backpack

The history of backpacks is a fascinating journey of innovation and adaptation, spanning millennia and encompassing various cultures and needs. From ancient rudimentary backpacks used by early humans to the sophisticated designs we see today, backpacks have evolved to meet the demands of different environments and activities.

Throughout history, inventors and adventurers have continually pushed the boundaries of backpack design, introducing features that enhance comfort, functionality, and durability. Innovations such as internal frames, adjustable straps, specialized compartments, and hydration systems have revolutionized the way we carry gear and supplies, enabling us to explore and engage in outdoor activities with greater ease and efficiency.

The enduring popularity and utility of backpacks speak to their timeless appeal and indispensable role in our lives. Whether hiking through rugged terrain, commuting to work, or traveling the world, backpacks remain essential companions, embodying the spirit of adventure, exploration, and practicality. As we look to the future, it's certain that the history of backpacks will continue to inspire further innovation, ensuring that these versatile and indispensable tools remain integral to our lives for generations to come.

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