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History of the Backpack

BY Buffalo Jackson Insight
BY Amanda Uher

From the earliest knapsacks to today’s highly functional (and even fashionable) backpacks, the history of the backpack traces a gritty journey of creativity and problem-solving.

Humble Beginnings

Before we had anything resembling today’s backpacking gear, we had, well, whatever worked. People have been hauling things on their backs since the beginning of time. The methods varied depending on the load, the terrain, and the resources available. Some loads could be carried in a simple cloth sack attached to shoulder straps. No structure or frame needed. Others required more stability and involved wood frames and ropes. These resourceful beginnings laid the foundation upon which many would later refine and improve.

Patents, Packs, and Progress

The first to officially move toward the modern backpack was Henry Merriam. In 1878, Merriam was issued a patent for his Knapsack: a pack which used an external sheet-metal frame. The knapsack was invented for use by the US Army. Instead of shoulder straps, the metal frame held the pack away from the soldier’s body. Merriam believed this setup would disperse the load more evenly and free up the soldier from the burden of straps and fasteners. Unfortunately, the pack was extremely uncomfortable and quickly fell out of use.


Next, we meet Ole Bergan, a Norwegian inventor. In 1908, Bergan returned from a hunting trip with sore shoulders and a determination to make his pack more comfortable. He bent a piece of juniper wood to follow the contours of his back, creating an ergonomic design for hanging his soft cloth bag. Later, Bergan replaced the wood frame with light tubular steel, and this version of the backpack remained popular - and patented - for 25 years.


Meanwhile, in 1920, an outdoorsman named Lloyd Nelson took a stab at redesigning his pack after visiting Alaska. The wood and sealskin packs used by the indigenous people in the area provided all the inspiration he needed. Nelson designed a wood frame pack with canvas bands, and used steel pins to attach a cloth bag. This way, users could detach the bag with ease. Nelson’s revolutionary “Trapper Pack” was one of the first ever mass-produced backpacks.


In 1938, Gerry Cunningham introduced the first backpack with zippered closures. Until then, packs had only used buckles and straps. Remember, at this point in the history of the backpack its primary use was for hiking, camping, and climbing. As a frequent rock climber, Cunningham’s introduction of the zippered backpack fell right in line with the needs of the outdoorsman: keeping his load as light as possible and its contents easily accessible.


A little over a decade later, in 1950, Åke Nordin (founder of Fjällräven) returned home from a mountain trek, weary from carrying his gear low and away from his back. Unwilling to deal with his current pack any longer, he used his mother’s sewing machine to make a small canvas bag worn high and close to his back. The soft pack was kept in place by leather straps fastened to a wood frame.


Around the same time, in 1952, Dick and Nina Kelty used leftover materials from WWII and revolutionized backpacks forever. Large, lightweight frames were crafted from surplus airplane aluminum, and parachute material was sewn into soft packs. The couple introduced contoured frames, padded shoulder straps, and waist straps, propelling us toward the modern backpacks we carry today.


The first internal frame backpack came out of Greg Lowe’s garage in 1967. Lowe recognized that external frame packs weren’t balanced well for rough terrain, but unstructured packs weren’t stable enough for large loads. So, he created a pack flexible enough to contour to the user’s back, but stiff enough to handle the load -- even transferring the weight to the hip-belt. He then added side compression straps and a sternum strap, topping off this practically modern-day pack.

Gerry Outdoors + JanSport

At the same time that Lowe was developing internal frame packs and sternum straps, Gerry Cunningham was back at it as well -- this time, with the first lightweight, nylon daypack. Gerry Outdoors released their “Teardrop” backpack in 1967. Three years later, JanSport released their own lightweight nylon daypack, the “Ski and Hike” bag. Outdoor enthusiasts loved the small, lightweight packs -- and they weren’t the only ones.

Backpacks: Not Just for Backpacking Anymore

JanSport managed to get their daypacks into the student sporting goods store at the University of Washington. The backpacks were sold with hikers in mind—but students began using them to carry their books around campus. Before that, students young and old would carry their books clutched to their chest or tied with a strap. Backpacks were for backpacking. Right? Not anymore. The trend caught on and spread like wildfire. Before long, companies far and wide began tailoring backpacks to the needs of students.

Today’s Backpacks

Today’s backpacks generally fall into one of two categories: outdoor or academic. Some even manage to blur that line and work well for both. Whether it’s a large duffle backpack for a weekend away, a traditional rucksack for a day on the trail, or a laptop backpack for a meeting at the office, Buffalo Jackson is proud to be part of continuing the journey. The history of the backpack reveals a tale of grit, resourcefulness, and creativity-- much like the people who carry them.


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