Differences Between Backpacks, Rucksacks & Knapsacks

Differences Between Backpacks, Rucksacks & Knapsacks

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If you are reading this article, It's probably because you are wondering what is the difference between backpack and rucksack and why there are so many terms to describe an object you use to carry your daily belongings: backpacks.

And to be honest, your questioning is quite legitimate as there are so many different terms nowadays: traditional rucksack, sackpack, knapsack, daypack or backsack...

This article will help you to find your way through this jungle in order to make the right choice! Let's dive into it.

Vintage Laptop Rucksack
Vintage Laptop Rucksack
Waxed Canvas Backpack
Waxed Canvas Backpack
Roll Top Rucksack
Roll Top Rucksack
Waxed Canvas Backpack
Vintage Backpack

What is a backpack?

Definition: Where was the first backpack invented and how it evolved in time?

A backpack, in its most elementary definition, is a bag made of tissue, organic or synthetic, that is carried on the back using several straps (usually two).

To ensure optimal fit, the backpack can be reinforced with an internal or external frame. This is often the case with large backpacks, which help to distribute the weight more evenly over the human body.

Backpacks are most often appreciated by students, workers and hikers to carry their various everyday objects, more or less imposing. The backpack allows humans to have their hands free while carrying objects over long distances.

Nowadays, backpacks are extremely popular for their diversity, versatility and adaptability. There are indeed all shapes and sizes to meet everyone's needs.

Hikers have large bags (up to 100L), athletes have compartmented bags to sort clean and dirty sports clothes, students have functional leather rucksacks, including compartments for computers, etc... 

Canvas Leather Backpack



The History of Backpacks

The history of the backpack is very rich because it is an essential object for everyday life in many societies and at many times.

With time and technology, backpacks have evolved and their functions have improved. Let's look back at the most significant years in the evolution of the backpack as we know it today:

  • -3300: During archaeological researches in September 1991, remains of a mummy belonging to the 4th BC are discovered at 3200 meters in the Italian Alps. This mummy is Ötzi's. Scientists will also find objects, including remains of what is similar to the ancestor of a leather backpack
  • 1878: In 1877, Henry Merriam filed a patent for the American army to use a metal external structure to facilitate the soldier's work and reduce the load he had to bear on his shoulders. Despite the answer to a major problem, this invention was forgotten because it was considered far too uncomfortable.
  • 1882: In 1882, Poirier, then an engineer at Duluth Pack, was driven by another vision, that of freedom. He then designed a backpack capable of carrying a small canoe. To do this, in addition to the two classic straps, he added a strap that passed over his head to better distribute the weight. The addition of leather straps and buckles is a major element because they are nowadays trendy elements and present on many bags
  • 1938: The use of straps and buckles as the main means of closure lasted until 1938. At that time, Gerry Cunningham designed a backpack with two zipped sections. The purpose was to create an open area that was easy to access while providing security for the objects inside (he was a fan of climbing - did you ever get a carabiner on your head?)
  • 1952: In the middle of the 20th century, mountaineering and trekking began to develop in wealthy areas. Driven by the call of a thriving market, Dick and Nena Kelty designed a parachute canvas backpack with an outer frame, revolutionizing an entire industry. They were the innovators of the time by adding padding on the shoulder straps and belt and using aluminium in the exterior frames. 
  • 1967: That year, the external frames were completed by the arrival of the internal reinforcements, under the impetus of Greg Lowe who understood that bags without reinforcements could not carry heavy loads and that those with external reinforcements were not adapted to technical terrain. He, therefore, designed an internal reinforcement that was both strong and flexible to meet these various constraints. He added the sternal strap to his invention, a detail that is now omnipresent on hiking bags.
  • 1970: The Keltys, driven by a spirit of innovation in the field, developed a new model. This one then had a clip belt buckle, then made of stainless steel.
history backpack rucksack

Backpack vs rucksack: Why a backpack is called a rucksack? 

The impact of History and Culture

The terminology of this object is interesting because of its diversity. Indeed, the backpack is an everyday object that has become almost indispensable today.

For example, do you know someone who doesn't own a backpack? Stop looking, it's almost non-existent.

This omnipresence has therefore impacted the terminology used to designate this article, with the various results being influenced by local history and cultures. The term backpack, for example, was neologized in the United States and became popular at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the past, Americans used the terms "moneybag" and "packsack", terms that are nowadays conceived as regionalisms. Today in the United States, two terms, therefore, prevail: Backpack for large packs and Daypack for lighter, more functional bags used mainly for daily activities

In Europe, culture and history being very different from that of the United States, other terms were used, including one that remains dominant today: "Rucksack". This term comes from German ("Rücken" means "back" and "Sack" means "bag") but uses many sounds from other European languages: Swedish ryggsäck, Danish rygsæk, Dutch rugzak, Afrikaans rugsak, Norwegian ryggsekk, and even Russian рюкзак (rjukzak).

A third term that has long accompanied the two previous ones before gradually falling into oblivion: the word knapsack. Widely used until the middle of the 20th century, its use is now rare, except in Canada where its use is common.

The impact of the environment and context

Terminology varies not only according to the history and culture in which the term was coined, but also according to the context in which it is used.

Indeed, in the outdoor field, the term "packs" is mainly used to refer to travel backpacks, designed to carry trekking, hiking or camping gear over long distances.

Another example of the influence of context on the termination used is found in the US military. Indeed, as we have seen above, the term backpack is dominant in the United States. However, in the US military, the term Rucksack is mainly used to refer to the backpack.

As a result, all bags that look like military backpacks and that are used in harsh environments (have you ever heard of dark tourism?), can now be labelled as rucksacks. As a result, it is now common to refer to a backpack as a rucksack, which has many pockets and is made of sturdy materials (such as wax canvas).

Roll Top Backpack



Backpack vs Knapsack: Why is a backpack called a knapsack? 

One of the most frequently asked questions is "Is a knapsack and a backpack the same thing?". In fact, a knapsack most often describes a backpack, made from durable and weather-resistant materials. It is therefore ideal for adventurers, campers and hikers because it is suitable for the most varied environments.

Its name is unusual today, at least not as common as in the middle of the 19th century. The term comes from the German word knappsack (knapzak in Dutch) "knap" meaning "bite",
 "knappen" meaning "to eat" and "sack" meaning "bag". 

In ancient English, the knapsack was a bag in which soldiers kept their food fresh, which had to be eaten quickly. In the 16th century "knapsack" literally corresponded to an "eating bag" in the language of the time.

The knapsack is, therefore, a solid, durable and relatively small backpack designed to carry day-to-day belongings and to operate in unfriendly and difficult environments, which can put the bag and its components to a severe test.

How big is a knapsack?

When we talk about the size and design of knapsacks, we often compare them to classic backpacks because they are quite similar: only the name changes according to the location.

For example, our Canadian friends tend to use the term knapsack to describe all types of backpacks as a cultural addiction. However, in practice, it is noted that the term knapsack is most often used to define small, light and simple backpacks.

What is a knapsack used for?

Most often, knapsacks are characterized by their simplicity and sobriety. It is not uncommon to find very few pockets, both external and internal on knapsacks. They are therefore extremely popular with users who are not looking for a plethora of pockets: athletes, students, workers.

Indeed, being smaller than traditional backpacks, they are particularly popular for everyday use: students, Sunday outings, short weekends. They are used in particular to carry just what is necessary.

Ladies Canvas Backpack



So, what is the real difference between backpacks, knapsacks and rucksacks?

In the end, the real differences between these three terms come only from the choice of words used to describe a particular bag. Indeed, word choices have been made but are not universal.

When considered as names, a backpack reflects the idea of a functional and voluminous bag, designed to carry many objects over long distances. Traditional Rucksacks tend to design medium-sized bags with several pockets, which is very sturdy and durable - perfect for camping sessions.

On the other hand, the knapsack is perceived as an everyday object, allowing people to easily carry objects during their days, wether it is their lunch or some books.

Well, you know everything! We're not going to lie to each other, it's still pretty fuzzy. Backpacks are used all over the world, which leads to many specializations creating various denominations.

What really counts is knowing the main characteristics of the bag you are buying (size, composition, attributes and weight). After that, it's only a matter of taste!

DSLR Camera Bag
DSLR Camera Bag
Camera Backpack
Camera Backpack
Camera Rucksack
Camera Rucksack
Canvas Camera Bag
Canvas Camera Bag

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Article by


Baptiste is an adventurer with a passion for urban and wilderness exploration and adventure, and a lover of vintage objects with timeless charm. As a Founding member of the Eiken team, he tries to share his passion and expertise for travel and vintage fashion through his articles.

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