Evolution of the Backpack

For as long as humans have used tools, we’ve needed something to carry them, from a simple basket of woven leaves to gather foraged berries, to quivers to quivers for holding hunting arrows. Backpacks are such a common feature in our daily lives that we rarely consider them as part of a process of invention.

Aside from baskets and cloth bags, people often didn’t need something like a backpack because people didn’t travel too far without the help of animals. Early backpacks were uncomfortable, and often impractical for the needs of earlier people’s needs. So how did the humble backpack come to be, and how has it changed to adapt to our ultra-modern lifestyles? Bestbackpack.com states “backpacks are not just a fashion accessory but an essential item” Let’s find out where it all started.

Ancient Times

It’s difficult to determine what the first designs were, we can assume they were made from natural materials like plants and leather that would have decomposed very quickly after being discarded. The oldest artifact was discovered alongside the oldest mummy ever found 5,500-year-old Otzi from the Italian Alps. When Otzi was found he had what we would now call a rucksack/backpack, made from leather and wood. The first known (although debated) backpack known to us, preserved in a mummified state by glacial ice.

Sarcina – Roman Marching Pack

War, the unfortunate birthplace of some of our greatest and worst inventions, including the atom bomb and the internet. Governments always want to be one step ahead in innovation. Roman General Marius famously made his men carry their belongings, leading to them being called “Marius’ Mules”. Roman soldiers would wrap their belonging to the end of a pole in satchels or nets and sling it over a shoulder, hobo style.

The bindle had a resurgence during the American Civil War due to a shortage of other options at the time that led to its hobo resurgence.

External Frame backpacks

These practical backpacks, as the name suggests, were basically a frame that attaches to both the body and to a bag. Early designs of these, like Otzi’s, would have been quite painful as the wood or metal would pressure into the back, hips, and shoulders. It provided a means for hunters, fishermen, and travelers to take what was needed on a trip.
Made from whatever materials were most easily available, leather and cotton for Europeans and Americans, or seal skin for Innuits. Following the World Wars, innovators began using parachute material to make strong, lightweight bags rather than their heavier counterparts. While external frames have lost popularity in recent years, they remained a staple in the backpack world as late as the 1960s.

Two Major Innovations

It wasn’t until 1938 that Gerry Cunningham replaced the standard buckle and strap design of backpacks to the revolutionary zipper system. Modern readers might associate zippers with awkwardly squeezing a bag shut while the zipper tears open, or having it inexplicably catch on the fabric, but before zippers were introduced, backpacks were significantly heavier and had fewer access points to sort through belongings, making them more “stuff sacks”.

One of the world’s best-known backpack brands, Fjällräven, was founded after Ake Nordin came home unnecessarily tired in 1950 after a day’s hiking. He then designed a frame that lessens the burden of gravity by keeping the pack close to the body and high on the back. It might not sound amazing, but it was revolutionary and Fjällräven’s success for the last 70 years proves it.

Internal Frame

Surprisingly, the internal frame design only emerged in 1967. Its creator, Greg Lowe is credited with kickstarting a backpack revolution with this design, and since then backpacks have morphed into what we see them as today, particularly for backpackers.

It was the first bag that sat comfortably on the hips by allowing the internal frame to flex to the shape of the wearer’s body while being stiff enough in the vertical frame to support the weight of the pack to the hips and off the shoulders.

backpack designers were soon unstoppable, Lowe Alpine embraced the internal frame and was the first to customize it for women’s smaller body size, then made their backpacks adjustable to suit all different heights and body types. The progress on frames allowed manufacturers to focus on comfort, it wasn’t long before Deuter developed a mesh backing to create ventilation between the wearers back and the fabric, now an industry standard and a common essential for any traveler or outdoors enthusiast.

Bike Messenger Bags

These earlier models led to the phenomenally wide range of backpacks we now have that are each tailored to specific tasks: ice climbing? Check. Desert marathons? Check. But most seen right now is the bike messenger bag.

These fall into two categories, one is much trendier, a simple single strap that wraps over the chest and back to fit the contours of the body without a frame. It has a large main pouch to maximize the space, and smaller pockets to reach essentials quickly. The second one stands out as a throwback to the functional early days of backpacks. Quite simply, it’s a giant, rigid box with thin shoulder straps hooking it to the body. It’s made to carry other large boxes like pizza or takeaway food in an insulated lining to keep food hot or cold depending on the order.

Smart backpack

Backpack manufacturers will always respond to how we’re living, and the most obvious change these days is how plugged in we are. Now we can plug directly into our backpacks. Having a laptop pouch in a backpack is now fairly standard, the newest innovation is integrated battery packs and USB.

It’s hard to imagine where future backpack designs will take us, recycled materials are getting popular, mini backpacks have made a surge in the fashion world, and throwbacks to other eras can be expected, but with the increasing interest in the outdoors and travel we’re sure to see innovators responding to a myriad of challenges with some great new tweaks and alterations.

Ranbeer Maver is a Computer Science undergraduate. He's a geek who embraces any new consumer technology with inhuman enthusiasm.