How the backpack changed our lives

Can you imagine a world without backpacks? From its rudimentary beginnings to its becoming a lifestyle statement, this is the story of the backpack

Words Aninda Sardar

The backpack truly did change my life when I met a 70-year-old American gentleman on a trek back from the source of the Ganga many many years ago. I was still in my teens and not carrying one. He was, and that made an impression. Here was a piece of luggage that would let me travel while being utterly self-reliant. No need for red clad porters at the station (for those were the days when train travel was popular) or bulky metal trolleys at the airport. Just pack, haul on your back and walk. The backpack wasn’t just a convenient way of carrying things around, it was a whole new attitude.


Mankind has been hauling stuff on its back since forever
To be fair to humankind and its ability to innovate, the Ancients of frigid polar regions have been hauling stuff around on their backs for millennia altogether. With the hands kept free to hold other things like axes and sticks needed to traverse icy and snowy terrains, it was a no brainer that the shoulder was the best place to keep your stuff when you’re moving. But you wouldn’t really call them backpacks.

You wouldn’t recognise the first ever proper backpack if we showed you one
The very first backpack was actually designed by a man named Henry Merriam back in 1878. It was basically a canvas rucksack stretched over a wooden frame. A far cry from the sophisticated pre-curved designs we see today. The contraption was far from flawless and was uncomfortable on most days, often causing backaches for the user. One thing though was clear from the start, that this was a super practical way of carrying things around and potential was tremendous. And so, the backpack kept evolving.


The backpack’s proving ground was a terrible war
One of the principal use of backpacks of course came with World War I when soldiers started carrying their basic kit around in squarish canvas knapsacks. This evolved a bit more and by the Second World War, they were carrying a more sophisticated form of the knapsack. But it wasn’t the standard Army equipment around the world that it is today.


When backpacks came of age
The real game changer happened when in 1967 Gerry Outdoors invented the first real nylon backpack. Light yet strong and spacious, it was an immediate hit. Interestingly, JanSport, the world’s largest maker of backpacks came into existence around the same time and also created its own nylon daypack around this time. While who came made it first maybe a matter of debate, what is beyond argument is its practicality.


The arrival of the laptop backpack
Initially the backpack remained an academic phenomenon, the choice of millions of students around the world. But the game changed yet again with the inclusion of a cushioned laptop sleeve inside the main compartment of a backpack. Suddenly, millions of workers around the world dependent on their laptops had access to a bag that could be carried on their shoulders while leaving their hands free. Super convenient. As a result, out went the sling bag that was the order of the day and in came the backpack. So much so, that most companies will now give you a branded backpack with their laptops!


Backpacking, when a bag became a way of life 
Travellers around the world also prefer a backpack since a typical backpack will carry more things than an average sling bag of the same size while also being super convenient. The fact that over time they have become more and more comfortable has only helped matters. Not to mention the fact that they’ve also gained style. These days you can find backpacks in every shape, size, colour and style. From the massive ones that mountaineers carry to the daypacks that students and most people carry to the more stylish vintage looking leather or canvas backpacks, this bag is everywhere.


Is the future in the bag then?
But if you thought that the backpack has reached the zenith of innovation, think again. The next generation of backpacks can be anything you want them to be – theft proof, convertible into sling bags or strolleys, with integrated water bottles and even charging ports for your mobile phone. Clearly there’s no limit for this one.