The Evolution of the Modern Backpack

Shawn Forno

“Man has been carrying stuff on his back forever. A backpack is nothing new.” – Nena Kelty

Backpacks are so useful, so sublimely functional, that most of us assume they’ve been around forever. We picture hunter gatherers with some kind of hybrid Jansport/papoose and it makes sense—a bag on your load bearing back is such an obvious idea that it doesn’t 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 backpack.

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 backpack—known as the Otzi Backpack—has been found as early as 3300 BC. However the concept of the modern backpack—including some of the backpacks most basic features—is shockingly modern.

Sekk Med Meis – 1880s

Backpack

Norwegian for “bag with a frame,” this backpack is essentially a wooden frame to which a sack was tied. It’s fairly simple—one compartment—and features no major weight distribution features, but it marks the true beginning of a revolution in personal goods and travel transport that’s 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 wasn’t 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 today—providing 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.

backpackIn the early 20th century the U.S. Army designed and commissioned a military backpack to improve on previous models, like the “Soldier’s 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 wasn’t great.

The WWI Haversack came with a four-page instruction manual.

The main compartment of the pack isn’t 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 didn’t have external pockets or pouches, and some of the most essential items—like the bayonet—could only be reached with the help of another person. Forget zippers and clasps, this bag doesn’t even have stitches to hold it closed, and if you needed something in a hurry—like a sword or bullets—you needed someone to have your back. Literally.

But WWI historian Harlan Glenn, notes the main drawback of the design:

“They didn’t think much about the soldiers’ mobility. It’s like a huge lead weight on his back.”

The weight—70 pounds—rested entirely on the shoulders. The hip belt was actually detachable. That fundamental design flaw—poor weight distribution—would 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 history.

No backpack could have prepared them for the horrors of WWI, but the M1910 Haversack was particularly ill-suited to the task.

Trapper Nelson Backpack – 1922

Backpack
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 didn’t hike for pleasure back in the day.

Kelty Backpack – 1952

backpack

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 didn’t 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:

  1. Weight Matters
  2. Durable Materials are Key
  3. 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t typically the case. I have a feeling the bastards that designed the M1910 Haversack weren’t 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 didn’t provide much weight bearing ability. It wasn’t until the late 1960s—after climbing Mount Everest—that Kelty backpacks included a padded hip belt to distribute most of the weight away from the shoulders to the much more equipped hip.

It’s staggering to think that the hip belt of all things—something backpackers today take as a given—one of the most modern backpack features, but just goes to show that modern backpacks are younger than you think.

TL;DR

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 World”—all without hip belts to carry the load.

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 haven’t always been this awesome.

Image: Douglas Scortegagna (flickr)