The earliest backpacks (also called rucksacks, packsacks, or knapsacks), date beyond recorded history, as humans have long devised bags with shoulder straps to help them transport personal belongings. But the first widespread backpack use can be traced to 19th-century Norway and the “sekk med meis,” literally meaning “bag with a frame,” which was an animal-skin rucksack mounted on a narrow wooden frame.
Following the Civil War, the American military experimented with various designs for its existing shoulder bags, called haversacks, to improve carrying capacity and weight distribution. In 1886, the American Colonel Henry C. Merriam secured the first framed-backpack patent for his military knapsack with a rear hip strap that helped transfer weight from the shoulders.
The basic rucksack, or single pouch with a large flap covering the opening, was updated by the Norwegian Ole F. Bergans in 1909, when he secured a canvas bag to a triangular metal frame with a woven hip band. During the 1910s, the U.S. Army upgraded its pack design to a style made from olive-colored canvas that included a variety of pockets and straps to hold food rations, shovels, and other equipment. A more versatile backpack, called the “Trapper Nelson,” was invented by Lloyd F. Nelson in 1922, and modified a Native-American-style bag by mounting a tall, central pouch of leather on a rectangular wood frame.
Backpacks made for recreational camping were forever altered with the invention of nylon in 1935, a lightweight and waterproof material originally used for military parachutes. In 1938, a Coloradan named Gerry Cunningham came up with the first compartmentalized daypack, which was designed to support its load high and close to the back for comfortable long-distance hiking. Cunningham would expand this line through the 1970s under the name Controlled Weight Distribution or CWD. Other innovative backpack designers like Roy and Alice Holubar, who were also based in Colorado, started adapting nylon into their designs during the late 1940s. Jack Stevenson of the Warmlite company was the first to develop a fully hip-supported backpack for overnight camping in 1958.
Asher (known as Dick) and Nena Kelty were inspired by these camping packs in the early 1950s, when they began manufacturing nylon packs in their garage that incorporated zippered pockets, hip belts, and aluminum frames. Within a few years, the Kelty’s venture was successful enough that the couple quit their day jobs to focus on camping gear full-time, and in 1963, Kelty packs were carried by the first American team to trek up the West Ridge of Mt. Everest. In the late 1960s, influenced by Warmlite’s designs, the Kelty company increased the support of its packs by adding padding to the hip belt, and eventually included a snap-release waist buckle in 1970.
In 1966, after a stint with Gerry Mountaineering, Dale and Julie Johnson founded the Frostline company in Boulder, Colorado, to make customizable backpack kits. During an era of DIY self-sufficiency, the Frostline company grew quickly by appealing to ordinary people who could assemble these bags at home using their own sewing machines. By the 1970s, a slew of companies were catering to a growing crowd of outdoorsy folk with a variety of lightweight daypacks, including Alpenlite, Cannondale, Caribou Mountaineering, EMS (Eastern Mountain Sports), JanSport, REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.), Rivendell, Sierra Designs, Ski Hut, and Trailwise.
As the daily book load for children in American public schools increased throughout the 20th century, companies adopted small rucksacks of plain leather, which were sometimes pri...
JanSport, one of the first manufacturers to see the potential for school backpacks, soon became the industry leader. In Europe, the Swedish brand Fjällräven created a simple, square-shaped backpack called the “Kånken” in 1978, which has recently seen a revival in popularity across the globe. Manufacturers like Yowell and McCory added jam-proof, nylon coil zippers and reinforced their backpacks with vinyl and leather to make them even more appealing to students.
After receiving a letter from a Harvard Law student requesting better bags for campus use, L.L. Bean launched its famous square-edged “Book Pack” in 1982. During the 1970s and '80s, other companies recognized the value of character licensing for children’s backpacks and began plastering their nylon bags with images of popular cartoon characters like Superman, Snoopy, and Mickey Mouse.