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The backpack has been around since the early 1900s. However, around the 1940s, students started using “bookbags” to carry everything to school. The backpack was still primarily used for hiking and other outdoor activities, but with the mass production of backpacks in the 1980s and 1990s, several new types of backpacks arrived, including brands like Jansport and Vans.

Backpacks haven’t changed so much in design, but they do have more functionality. Today’s backpacks are for students, hikers, festival goers, skaters, officers, fashion trendsetters, and bikers. Here is a look at what is a backpack, as well as the history and evolution of the backpack in greater detail.

What is a Backpack?

Simply speaking, a backpack is a sack that people carry on their backs. It can be called a bookbag, knapsack, rucksack, or sackpack. Most people just simply know it as a backpack.

However, there are actually a number of uses for the backpack that can change its meaning based on functionality.

Types of Backpacks

The style of backpack that you choose largely depends on what you are going to use it for. While students are the majority of backpack owners, many backpacks are made for special professions and hobbies such as law enforcement or hiking.

Student’s Bookbag

This is your standard backpack that has one large containment area and possibly two other smaller pouches. There may be a net for carrying a water bottle or additional storage inside of the front pouch. Some have placements for cards while others may contain pencil and pen holder cloth straps. Sturdy backpacks for children typically have wider straps with cushion and a bit of back support to help offset the weight of books.

Hiking Packs

These are rugged backpacks that are made for trekking through the outdoors. They typically have a lot of pouches and storage, while also attaching to blankets and other accessories that you need to carry on a long hike. These backpacks are made for surviving the wilderness.

Action Sports Backpacks

If you are into skating, skiing, or surfing, then you may have a backpack made for carrying gear. These have lots of attachments to also carry different types of gear. You can recognize these backpacks typically by the colorful brands that make them.

Bike Packs

A bike pack will have a roll top that helps keeps your belongings in tact. You probably carry a set of clothes or towel that you want to keep dry as you traverse the terrain. The large pockets also allow you to carry tools and night-time safety strips so it’s easy to spot you in the dark.

Law Enforcement or Officer Pack

These backpacks are more rectangularly with a large container that has many storage straps and pouches inside. It can be used to carry equipment.

Office Bag

Some backpacks are made to carry laptops and lots of different office utensils. You may have separate pouches for different types of paperwork.


This is a popular backpack that is smaller than a student’s bookbag and a bit more fashionable. The shape is typically rounded and flatter than the average backpack as well.


Smaller backpacks with lots of accessories and trim have become a fashion trend. These backpacks are very small typically and not made to hold much more than a phone and some cash.


These are backpacks designed for carrying water and maybe a few other items. The water is held in the main container with a long straw that you can use to drink from. There are some other pouches on the camelback for carrying cash, cards, phones, and so forth.

What is a Backpack – History of the Backpack

The backpack is a relatively young invention. It was only created in in the 1930s. Backpacks were not always this sophisticated. In the early days, they were only really used by adventurous outdoor types.

Book straps

The book strap was the most popular way to carry books until the 1960s.

This was typically a leather or cloth strap that tied around your books so it could be held with one hand. The first zippered rucksack was used by outdoorsmen. Created by Gerry Outdoors in Boulder, CO, the rucksack evolved into the backpack.

However, in 1967, nylon was used to improve the backpack. Canvas had been used previously, but nylon provided more support and durability. The North Face, Patagonia, and Kelty brands started during the 1960s and continue to be popular backpack brands to this day.

Modern backpacks for schools

The modern backpack for schools came from Marcia Briggs, who was a seamstress. She sold her idea to a small store that originally laughed at the idea of a backpack for students. The first packs sold out and eventually became standard in all university bookstores. Briggs eventually met Ned Kitchel, who worked with L.L. Bean. More room was added to hold jackets. The first L.L. Bean bookbag was sold in 1982 to east coast students.

Eventually, that led to Jansport in 1984. The new backpack had an improved design for skiing and hiking enthusiasts. Backpacks became more spacious during this period and had deeper pockets as well as more storage.

Over the past 20 years, backpacks took many shapes, some with more storage, others with rollers. There were health risks created by the amount of books being held on kids’ backs. There were also security issues as backpacks became the go-to for drug smuggling and other problems.

Backpacks in the 1980s

Nearly every kid in the 1980s had a backpack. They had become a necessity for carrying everything that a student needed. There were new designs with several pockets, pencil holders, and storage for homework that was separate from other areas made for heavier textbooks. L.L. Bean led the way in providing the most pockets in its Deluxe Book Pack. By 1989, backpacks looked like heavy luggage.

Backpacks also evolved into several other shapes, including messenger bags and bookbags with tablets.

How Backpacks Help Students

Backpacks can make it easier to hold all of the school essentials. You can carry papers, notebooks, binders, electronics, school supplies, and of course, textbooks. The zippered pockets and storage helps keep everything in its place. There are also additional straps and netting for holding water bottles or latches for holding keys.

For students, a backpack is the essential item for school. Without a backpack, you may not have what you need for each class. With several courses, multiple textbooks have to be carried to and from school. Even with a locker, you still have to be able to bring books home to complete homework.

There are issues with backpack safety that parents also have to pay attention to for kids.

Right and Wrong Way to Wear Backpacks

With larger backpacks, parents have to worry about kids having issues with backpack problems from wearing backpacks the wrong way and filling up with too many textbooks. Parents have to pay attention to how kids wear backpacks to prevent back and shoulder pain. While it’s easy to sling a backpack over one of your shoulders, this can create more issues later in life.

Kids have to develop good backpack habits in order to prevent these types of issues.

Here are some tips to wearing a backpack so that you don’t develop chronic back pain problems from poor positioning:

  • Both shoulder straps should be worn properly on each shoulder. You should never sling the backpack over one shoulder. This stabilizes the weight on your upper shoulders and back.
  • Pull on the shoulder strap adjustments so that it fits high on your back and rests comfortably.
  • If your backpack is moving a lot as you walk, especially from side to side, then you could get rubbing from shoulder straps. The load is not being held tightly against your back in this situation. Shoulder straps should be adjusted in order to make sure the pack is tight against the back and shoulders.
  • Some backpacks have another strap that goes around the waist or chest. You should use this strap to help balance the weight. This relieves pressure on the shoulders and keeps the weight in tact on your back.

There are also ways that you should not wear a backpack as they cause back, neck, and shoulder pain. You may think that it’s more stylish and easier to carry the backpack on one shoulder, but this places all the pressure on one side of your body. It can develop into poor posture, especially if you have several pounds of books being carried on one shoulder.

Research has also shown that one shoulder carrying can lead to chronic pain in the back, neck, and shoulders. This means that you could strain your muscles and even strain the bones in your upper body. You should take the time to use both straps to prevent these issues.

Wearing a backpack low on your back also causes problems

Even if you don’t think that the backpack is too heavy, you should make sure that the backpack is tightened so that the load is carried on your upper back. Carrying a backpack on your lower back leads to shoulder strain as well. If the straps are too loose, then you may have a sagging backpack that isn’t carrying the weight of the books properly.

Carrying the backpack on your lower back can also lead to forward lean. This places too much strain on your lower back as well. Loose straps can also cause the backpack to sway back and forth. Backpacks should allow you to adjust the tightness of the straps so that it fits on the upper back.

Lighter Backpacks for Children

Studies have been conducted to show how much weight is appropriate for a child’s backpack as well. Children should never carry more than 10% of their weight. When they do, it creates day-in, day-out pressure on their backs. You may need to lighten your child’s backpack if they aren’t wearing it right.

Other Tips for Backpack Safety

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, almost 80 million students in the US carry a bookbag and nearly 55 percent have a backpack that is heavier than it should be. More than 43 million students are doing damage to their bodies from heavy books and electronic devices.

You should look for backpacks that have a few design options to make it better to balance the load.

These include:

  • Wide, padded shoulder straps
  • Wear both straps
  • Padded back
  • Lightweight material
  • Waist strap
  • Multiple compartments

Students should have a lightweight backpack that uses nylon and canvas. Shoulder straps should be padded and have adjustable straps to make sure that it fits tightly to the upper back. The back support needs to also be padded. Waist straps are great options for students who carry a lot of textbooks each day.

The Future of Backpacks

With several styles of backpacks currently, the latest designs have compartments for electronics like tablet windows and smartphone holders. There are also backpacks that provide more compartments to carry water or accessories to help those who are hiking.

The cost of backpacks has gone up for certain historic brands, but there are a number of backpacks that are still under $20. The most important thing to look for in these backpacks is support, storage, and durability.