Ah, the rucksack / backpack debate. If you’ve tried to nail down the difference between a rucksack and a backpack, you’ve likely found more answers than you bargained for. We’ll do our best to clear it up for you.
Bottom line: a rucksack is actually a kind of backpack.
As the name implies, a backpack is a bag you carry on your back. Although Americans didn't invent the backpack, we did coin the term. In the U.S., we often refer to a child’s schoolbag as a backpack, but in a broader sense, a backpack will be adequate for a day or weekend trip.
A backpack has two shoulder straps -- but on a true backpack, the shoulder straps actually carry very little of the weight. Instead, the load is mainly diverted to padded hip belts. Why hip belts? Worn properly, hip belts transfer the weight of your backpack from your shoulders to your hips, allowing you to carry most of the load with your body’s biggest muscles -- your legs. To be effective, however, the hip belt must be long enough to wrap around the front of your hip bones, not up at your waist.
A rucksack is essentially a large, rugged backpack. The word “rucksack” is derived from the German, “der rücken,” meaning “the back.” A rucksack is often used for camping or hiking and has pockets and belts used for holding a more substantial amount of gear compared to a backpack. Rucksacks will also have hip belts and often chest belts as well. A large rucksack is ideal for anything from an extended hiking and camping adventure to traveling around the world.
As interchangeable as the terms are, one particular distinction we’ve found is that “rucksack” tends to be a term more commonly used in a military application, and rucksacks also tend to have a main entry point at the top which is typically tied or cinched closed.
Both backpacks and rucksacks allow you to carry heavy loads more easily than is possible in a handbag or on the front of your body. It’s really a matter of how much stuff you need to carry and how long you need to carry it.