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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University

Bag Lady University is the place to learn about handbag makers from Adrian's, which made Bakelite bags, to Whiting … [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 60s Gerry Backpack Clamshell Pack North Face Sierra Designs Rei KeltyHuge Vtg Supple Cowhide Pebbled Distressed Brown Leather Cargo Pockets BackpackVintage Antique Tan Tooled Leather Floral Distressed Backpack Rucksack Book BagVintage Sierra Designs Backpack Day Pack Tear Drop Northface Rei Kelty JansportVintage Gregory Purple Backpack Day And A Half Pack W/ Pouch + Leather Pulls ExcVtg Jansport Green Canvas/leather Rucksack Backpack Bag Day Pack Camping HikingVtg Wwii Era Ww2 1945 Swiss Army Cowhide Leather Backpack Rucksack Military FurVintage Swiss Army Military Canvas & Leather Backpack 1950s Very Clean AntiqueVintage Vietnam War Us Lightweight Rucksack Complete Trenton TextileKero Vintage Swedish Tan Patina Leather Drawstring Backpack Rucksack Book BagVintage Jansport Black Canvas Suede Leather Bottom Backpack Made In UsaVintage Jansport Red School Sport Backpack Model Tdh9 Backpack Multi-pocketsSwiss Army Mountain Military Waterproof Backpack Rucksack Vintage Rubberized Vintage Jansport Black School Sport Backpack Model Tcx9 Backpack Multi-pocketsVintage Gucci Navy BackpackLisa Frank Vintage Ballerina Bunnies Full Size Backpack Hard To Find! Vintage 90s Denim Backpack Acid Wash Jean Boho School Slouchy Grunge Distressed Jansport Vintage Backpack Blue Ski Leather BottomL@@k! - Vintage American Camper External Frame Backpack Hike, Camp, Hunt - L@@k!Vintage Alpenlite Internal Frame Backpack - Ventura, CaliforniaVtg Large Ili Distressed Black Leather Backpack RucksackAuthentic Vintage Gucci Bamboo Black Leather Mini Drawstring Backpack Vintage Swiss Army Water Resistant Leather Rubberized Mountain BackpackVintage Jansport Leather Canvas Made Usa Backpack Bookbag Bag Pack BlueVintage Jansport Green W/ Leather BackpackVintage Collectible U.s. Military Army Backpack Packboard Frye Leather Handbag Backpack Shoulder Bag Brown Authentic Purse VintageGirls Backpack Vintage Galaxy Uk Flag Candy Colors School Rucksack Bag Free ShipPair Vintage Sierra Designs Summerlite Sleeping Bags - Zip Together Double* Jansport * Green Vintage Suede Book Student Backpack Camping Hiking Day PackVintage Jansport Brown Corduroy Adult Full Size Backpack School Book Bag 18"Vintage Jansport Light Pink School Sport Backpack Bookbag Backpack Multi-pocketsCute Anime Minions Travel Backpack Shoulder Bag Schoolbag Vintage Urban BagThe North Face Vintage Cordura Backpack. This Pack Expands With A Zip.Retro/vtg Made In Italy Invicta Transalp Hiking Mountaineering Backpack Vintage Civil War Dug Pipe, Button, Knife, Enfield,, Knapsack Hooks, Musket CapsVintage Lafuma France Back Pack Knap Sack External Metal FrameVintage Boy Scouts Of America Back Pack & Canteen With Mess Kit Pouch, 4 PiecesBack Pack Ruck Sack Old Lafuma Vintage FranceVintage Tommy Hilfiger Color Block Back Pack With Original Tags Excellent Shape Large Vintage Black & Red Eastpak Backpack Multi-pocket School BookbagVintage Rei Backpack Day Pack Hiking Camping School - BlueVintage Army Od Green Oldgen Rucksack Assault Pack Waist Kidney Padding BeltVintage Vietnam Era Pack Backpack U.s. Military Army Combat Rucksack UsmcNorth Face Vintage Backpack 1990s Grey Nice!