People have been carrying things on their back since forever. From babies and game to shelter and building supplies, we’ve always found a way to use our backs to haul heavier things, keeping our hands free. The earliest evidence we have of a backpack dates to the Copper Age (3500 to 2300 BC.) In 1991, a very well-preserved Neolithic mummy was found in the ice in the Ötztal Alps on the Austrian–Italian border. Named Ötz, the Iceman’s possessions and clothing were also preserved and recovered. One of his items was a primitive backpack.
A solid history of the backpack is hard to nail down, but we do know the evolution of the modern backpack.
Major Milestones in the History of the Backpack:
1910: The term “backpack” was coined.
1924: Trapper Nelson invents an external frame backpack based on an Inuit design.
1938: Gerry Outdoors makes the first backpack with a zipper.
1952: Nena and Dick Kelty create the first aluminum-frame backpack made of parachute, a contoured frame, padded shoulder straps and a waist belt.
1967: Gerry Outdoors and JanSport (the largest backpack manufacturer in the world) release a lightweight nylon backpack
1980s: Campus stores stock JanSport to appeal to student hikers and other students catch on. Backpacks quickly become a staple for carrying books and school supplies.
Now: Backpacks are a $2.7 billion industry.
Types of Backpacks:
There are many different types of backpacks—military packs, hiking backpacks, mini backpacks, hydration packs, bags made just for your laptop, there are even backpacks made to carry your dog and kid. Heck, even backpacks for your kid and dog to wear! However, there are three main styles of backpack—frameless, external frame and internal frame.
A frameless backpack is exactly that—it is without a frame. These types of backpacks are good for students and every day carry.
Hikers, backpackers and international or extended (minimalistic) travel will need a backpack with a frame in order to hold all their gear, provide even weight distribution and be comfortable to wear walking long distances.
The first of these—like the Kelty backpack—is the external frame. These backpacks have the frame on the outside of the pack. External-frame backpacks are generally made of aluminum or other lightweight metal reinforced with plastic netting and straps. There is usually a pad between you and the pack for ventilation. Extremal frame backpacks are better suited for well-established trails and heavier loads. They allow you to attach gear on the outside of the pack and offer different pockets for better organization. External frame backpacks have fallen mostly out of favor now, but you can still find one that suits your needs if you prefer that style.
Internal-frame backpacks have the frame inside the fabric. These backpacks fit much snugger to the body and are compact. Loads tend to shift less in an internal-frame backpack, making them good for climbing and trekking in lesser-traveled paths. Internal-frame backpacks are top-down loaded and offer a more natural position.
Both external- and internal-frame backpacks have their pros and cons. Internal-frame backpacks are more compact, offer a wider range of adjustability for people of different heights and allow a wider range of motion. External-frame backpacks are usually less expensive, help you maintain a better upright posture and offer better ventilation.
When choosing a backpack, it is of the utmost importance to pick a good fit. A good pack is designed to distribute the weight in your hips and legs with the shoulder straps acting as stabilizers. Adjustable suspension and harness systems will help customize your fit better. Before purchasing a backpack, it is smart to shop around and try them on. A backpack needs to fit your torso correctly, so you stay safe and comfortable.
When shopping for a new backpack, use, size, comfort and durability are all important considerations. For a professional on their everyday commute, a padded electronic-specific, frameless backpack is probably best, while someone traveling around Europe on a budget or hiking the Appalachian Trail will certainly want a framed backpack. Backpacks are measured in volume—either cubic inches or liters. This is how much room the pack has to store your stuff. Many lovers of the outdoors will have more than one backpack. After all, with many different styles and types, we can’t find one that rules them all.
Best Travel Backpack
Made specifically for a quicker and painless pass through TSA, the SwissGear 1900 ScanSmart laptop backpack incorporates technology which securely lays your 17-inch laptop flat allowing it to safely move through airport security scanners without having to remove it. Additionally, a separate integrated pocket protects your tablet. Multiple pockets organize your stuff easily. There are even built-in file holders. Zippered pockets on the outside of the pack keep your essentials like a wallet, passport and tickets easily accessible. Constructed of weather-resistant 1200D ballistic polyester, this Swiss Gear backpack is durable and has contoured padded shoulder straps and adjustable side compression straps, making it comfortable for business professionals, frequent travelers and commuters. Price: $79.99
Dimensions: 18.5” x 13.5” x 9” Laptop compartment: 17” x 12.5” x 2.5,” Volume: 33.3 liters, Weight: 3 lbs.
- Padded media pocket with headphone cord port
- Top handle
- Reflective shoulder straps
- Sunglasses holder
- Convenient and innovative ScanSmart technology
Best Hiking Backpack
Everything about the Osprey Atmos AG 65 is made for comfort and versatility. The special anti-gravity suspension systems truly make it feel like you’re carrying less weight and the mesh back panel provides plenty of ventilation. To fit a wide range of hikers, Osprey has added an adjustable harness and “Fit-on-the-Fly’ hip belt for a customized, secure and contoured fit for many different sized bodies. A structural load-lifter bar transfers the weight of your gear evenly, providing ultimate comfort. The main pocket is constructed of 100Dx630D nylon, while the bottom is 420HD nylon packcloth. A removable lid protects your stuff in bad weather. Mesh pockets on the outside make it quick to grab raingear, water bottles, maps and snacks. An internal separate hydration compartment accommodates a three-liter hydration bladder. Price: $202.75
Small: 32.28″ x 15.35″ x 16.14,” Volume: 62 liters, Weight: 4.48 lbs.
Medium: 34.25″ x 15.35″ x 16.14,” Volume: 65 liters, Weight: 4.56 lbs.
Large: 36.22″ x 15.35″ x 16.14,” Volume: 68 liters, Weight: 4.64 lbs.
- Super comfortable anti-gravity suspension system
- Carries up to a week’s worth of gear
- Adjustable frame and multiple size options
- Incredible durability
- Mesh back increases ventilation
Note: This is a backpacking pack made for men. For correct sizing, please visit Osprey’s website.
Best Cooler Backpack
Obviously not the only backpack you need, but certainly the most fun backpack you’ll have! This one is perfect for a day at the lake, beach, park or the pool. This Columbia backpack cooler will hold up to 30 cans—depending on how much ice you also put in. The ThermaCool insulated main compartment is leak proof and easy to clean. Padded, adjustable backpack straps make carrying your heavy load more comfortable and gear straps hold your towel, frisbee and other cool stuff. Price: $59.99
Dimensions: 11.5” x 9.5” x 17”
- Keeps drinks cold all day with ice
- Easy to clean
- Multiple external pockets for safe storage of keys, ID, etc.
- Comfortable shoulder straps
- Price compared to other brands
Best Bug-Out Bag
While bug-out bags need to hold at least three days’ worth of supplies, it’s better if they hold 10 days. This 12 Survivors backpack has a 65-liter volume, plus an extendable collar for all your survival and essential emergency supplies. Made of water-resistant 840D Hex ripstop nylon, this 12 Survivors hiking backpack has fully adjustable shoulder, sternum and load-lifting straps, and a complete torso adjustable system for the ultimate in weight distribution, fit and comfort. An integrated waterproof rainfly keeps your gear dry. Included is a hydration pouch and integrated safety whistle. Price: $35.00
Dimensions: 14.5″ x 12″ x 25,” Volume: 65 liters, Weight: 5 lbs.
- Convertible main compartment
- Lightweight material
- Thoughtful, multiple pockets keep things highly organized
- Adjustable support system
Best Tactical Backpack
Made with operators in mind, the Condor 3-day assault pack works not only for military but for hunters and recreational shooters, as well. Ready to go, the Condor backpack in official Multi-Cam camo is extremely durable and has a heavy-duty drag handle. Adjustable and padded shoulder straps, along with a padded removable waistband make the backpack comfortable to carry and the MOLLE-compatible webbing on the front allows for extra attachment of pouches. Multiple compartments allow you to organize your gear properly. It has a 50-liter capacity. Price: $159.95
Overall Dimensions: 22″ x 17″ x 11,” Main compartment: 22″ x 12″ x 8″
- Multiple pockets for organization
- Withstands rough use and extreme conditions
- Hydration bladder compatible
Best Dog Backpack
Mountainsmith was one of the first in the industry to create a backpack for dogs. Now, with over 30 year’s experience, they make some of the best in the business in collaboration with a real veterinarian. Mountainsmith dog packs are well-thought out and comfortable. It has a 4-point adjustable harness system with an independently adjustable back harness, extra-padded adjustable belly strap and EVA foam. There are two zippered pockets, mesh panels and a top handle. Available in small, medium and large. Price: $69.95
Small: 9.5″ x 8.25″ x 2.25,” Volume: 3 liters, Weight: 16 ounces
Medium: 12.25″ x 8.25″ x 3,” Volume: 5 liters, Weight: 19.2 ounces
Large: 13.5″ x 9″ x 3.25,” Volume: 9 liters, Weight: 22.4 ounces
- Balances well
- Does not slip
- Doesn’t rub
- Smart design
- Distributes weight evenly
Best Day Hike Backpack
For day hikes, climbs, trail running, ski races, short mountaineering trips or every day carry, Deuter’s Speed Lite 16 ultralight daypack holds the essentials and provides an ergonomic, lightweight fit. This is Deuter’s lightest backpack in their lineup, weighing only 13 ounces empty. It has a 16-liter capacity with an extra hydration bladder-compatible compartment. The Speed Lite does have a flexible Delrin internal frame, adjustable shoulder and chest straps and a padded mesh back which encourages ventilation. Mesh side pockets stretch to hold a water bottle. As a bonus, the backpack is reflective and includes lifesaving tips. Price: $87.99
Dimensions: 45cm x 25cm x 16cm, Volume: 16 liters, Weight: 370 grams
- Enough room for water and a compact first aid kit
- Comfortable design
- Secured, zippered top pocket fits cell phone
- Adjustable chest strap
Best Water-Resistant Backpack
Take note, Pacific Northwest, this is our favorite student and everyday carry backpack for incremental weather. Made of tough, water-resistant material, this Under Armour backpack can take a beating. Inside is a separate laptop sleeve which holds up to a 15” laptop or tablet. There is a grip handle at the top, two water bottle pockets on the outside and the shoulder straps are padded and adjustable. It has a 34-liter capacity with MOLLE-style webbing on the outside and two D rings for attachments. Price: $65.00
Dimensions: 19” x 13” x 10,” Volume: 34 liters
- Plenty of room for organizing all your stuff
- Comfortable carrying a heavier load
Best Everyday Carry Backpack
Patagonia’s classic medium-sized backpack is perfect for commuters, weekend travelers, students and everyday carry. With a 28-liter capacity, the Refugio has a padded laptop sleeve which accommodates 15” laptops and a separate tablet pocket. Multiple other pockets of various sizes hold cords, phones, pens, tickets, keys and other important items. Shoulder straps are adjustable, as well as the sternum strap to distribute weight evenly when your load is a little heavier. It is constructed of 630D nylon with a recycled polyester lining and finished with water-repellent coating. Price: $118.00
Dimensions: 19” x12” x8,” Volume: 28 liters, Weight: 1 lbs. 7.5 ounces empty
- Compression straps adjustable for variable load weights
- Good organizational design
- Comfortable for everyday carry
- Made of recycled materials
Best Hunting Backpack
Designed for deer hunters, the APLS OutdoorZ Pursuit hunting backpack is available in either Realtree Edge or Mossy Oak Country camo and has an integrated secure bow pocket with lashing straps. The pack has two large pockets and a side mesh pocket. A padded waist belt makes carrying your gear more comfortable. A blaze orange rain fly is included. Keep your arrows and game calls organized and secure in the shelf pocket, while a heavy-duty D-ring on the outside allows you to hang your backpack in your stand. The Pursuit backpack has a 44-liter capacity and weighs 4 lbs. 1 ounce. Price: $74.99
Volume: 44 liters, Weight: 4 lbs. 13 ounces
- Separate quiver holder
- Blaze orange rain cover
- Hydration pocket with drinking tube port
- Lashing system and secure bow or rifle storage
- Excellent organizational system for essential hunting gear
Backpacks serve multiple purposes, the one you take on a weekend hike is not the same one you take to work on Monday. Whichever one…or ones…you choose, make sure it holds all your stuff and fits properly!