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The Evolution of the Modern Backpack

by Shawn Forno
Backpacks are so useful, so sublimely functional, that most of us assume theyve been
around forever. We picture hunter gatherers with some kind of hybrid Jansport/papoose
and it makes sensea bag on your load bearing back is such an obvious idea that it
doesnt even feel invented. It must be ancient. Timeless even. But just like
the Acheulean hand axe and the wheel, someone had to create and design the
The only difference between backpacks and Stone Age tools is that backpacks are
only about 130 years old.
History Nerd Note: This is by no means a comprehensive look at all backpacks.
Many cultures have employed sacks, baskets, and bags carried on their backs for
centuries, and evidence of a functional backpackknown as the Otzi Backpackhas
been found as early as 3300 BC. However the concept of the modern backpack
including some of the backpacks most basic featuresis shockingly modern.

Sekk Med Meis 1880s

Norwegian for bag with a frame, this backpack is essentially a wooden frame to which
a sack was tied. Its fairly simpleone compartmentand features no major weight
distribution features, but it marks the true beginning of a revolution in personal goods
and travel transport thats going on today.
As much as the Norwegian backpack kicked off modern backpack design, it was an
isolated creation without much larger adoption beyond the occasional woodsman.
Strangely, it wasnt until the turn of the century and the global militarization of World War

I that backpacks were forced to serve the function we use them for todayproviding a
way for one person to carry everything they need.
And, the first backpacks faced a tougher challenge than a trek through Thailand. They
had to keep soldiers alive in a war unlike anything that had come before.

The M1910 Haversack 1910

At the beginning of the first World War there started a process, which continues right up
to the present day, which tries to make the soldier able to carry with him the gear he
needs, not only to function in battle, but to sustain himself with food or water for a
prolonged period of time. Raymond Callahan, University of Delaware.

In the early 20th century the U.S. Army designed and commissioned a military backpack
to improve on previous models, like the Soldiers Trunk, used during the US Civil War.
They decided that no soldier should carry more than one-third of his body weight
[roughly 70 pounds] in gear and equipment. The result was the M1910 pack. It wasnt
The WWI Haversack came with a four-page instruction manual.
The main compartment of the pack isnt an enclosed space but rather a rectangular
canvas roll that a soldier would fold closed and then secure with a series of straps.
Opening the bag for a single item meant unfurling the entire thing. It didnt have external
pockets or pouches, and some of the most essential itemslike the bayonetcould only
be reached with the help of another person. Forget zippers and clasps, this bag doesnt
even have stitches to hold it closed, and if you needed something in a hurrylike a
sword or bulletsyou needed someone to have your back. Literally.

But WWI historian Harlan Glenn, notes the main drawback of the design:
They didnt think much about the soldiers mobility. Its like a huge lead weight on his
The weight70 poundsrested entirely on the shoulders. The hip belt was actually
detachable. That fundamental design flawpoor weight distributionwould doom
millions of soldiers to exhaustion on long marches, numb limbs from poor strap design,
and fatigue that lead to their death in many cases.
During WWI foot soldiers were asked to routinely march 25 miles (often much farther),
fight for months without relief, and subsist on nothing more than stale biscuits and
cigarettes for weeks. Not to mention fighting through poison gas, barbed wire, trench
warfare, machine guns, tanks, modern artillery, and more horrors than any soldier in
No backpack could have prepared them for the horrors of WWI, but the M1910
Haversackwas particularly ill-suited to the task.

Trapper Nelson Backpack 1922

Designed by Lloyd F Nelson, this detachable frame hiking backpack might look like
the Norwegian designs of the previous century, but it developed independently.
The same rigid frame spreads some of the weight out along the back, but again we see
no effort to include a hip belt. More than 90% of the weight rests on the shoulders.
No wonder people didnt hike for pleasure back in the day.

Kelty Backpack 1952

Most carry nerds agree that modern backpacks can trace their lineage directly to
the 1952 Kelty Backpack. The lightweight durable materials (almost exclusively sourced
from the abundance of army surplus in the 1950s) gave backpacks a rugged functional
aesthetic while providing the functionality we crave for adventures season after season.
And, we owe it all to two people.
The husband and wife duo of Dick and Nena Kelty began making bags in their
California home (represent!) in the early 1950s. Dick welded each aluminum frame by
hand while Nena stitched together the drab green material of the bag from leftover WWII
parachute pack fabric. She even used wool carpeting for shoulder strap padding.
They sold a total of 29 Kelty Backpacks in 1952.
Even though it didnt fly off the non-existent shelves in 1952 (they caught on soon
afterwards) the unassuming Kelty backpack signaled a paradigm shift in backpack
design by prioritizing two fundamental modern concepts:

Weight Matters
Durable Materials are Key
User Experience is Important

Lightweight Frame
Kelty prioritized a lightweight aluminum frame that ran the entire length of the bag. This
created enough structure and support but didnt bog down the wearer like previous
military backpacks. It was such a breakthrough that it became the backpack Americans
would use on their first summit of Mount Everest in 1963.

Durable Materials
The end of WWII meant that military-grade fittings, fasteners, and canvas flooded the
civilian market. And that stuff was, literally, battle tested. The Kelty backpack came along
at the perfect time to be both high quality and affordable.

User Experience
The Kelty backpack was designed by someone that actually used it. That wasnt typically
the case. I have a feeling the bastards that designed the M1910 Haversack werent
wearing one in the French trenches. Features like padded shoulder straps and external
zippered pockets for easy access to commonly used items are just a few of the
improvements the Keltys made that set themselves apart from previous backpacks.

One Notable Exclusion: The Hip Belt

Seriously. The original model featured a small hip strap to tighten the bag to your body,
but it didnt provide much weight bearing ability. It wasnt until the late 1960safter
climbing Mount Everestthat Kelty backpacks included a padded hip belt to distribute
most of the weight away from the shoulders to the much more equipped hip.
Its staggering to think that the hip belt of all thingssomething backpackers
today take as a givenone of the most modern backpack features, but just goes
to show that modern backpacks are younger than you think.

WWI soldiers fought, and died, with 70 pound backpacks. Hikers explored, and mapped,
National Parks in ungainly frame packs. And, climbers summited the Roof of the
Worldall without hip belts to carry the load.

Hip Belts are from the 1960s

Backpacks first appeared in major use during WWI

Backpack history is hilarious

Next time you strap on your backpack be thankful for the zippered pockets, easy access
flaps, waterproof material, lightweight frame or structure, and your sweet, sweet, laptop
sleeve, because, despite what you think, backpacks havent always been this awesome.