History of Backpacking

Backpackers on the trail.

The history of backpacking as a recreation dates back to the early 1900s. While an exact date is difficult to ascertain, a historical perspective would be incomplete without a few major developments of note - namely, the invention of the pack board and the 1968 passing of the National Scenic Trail Act. These developments, combined with further innovations in hiking and camping gear, have helped advance backpacking into what it is today.

What Backpacking Is

Backpacking combines hiking and camping into one. To fit the definition, a backpacker needs to spend at least one night in the out-of-doors and can only use what is in his/her backpack. If these requirements are not met, then it's most likely a day hike or camping trip.

When It Began

Many would say that the history of backpacking began in 1920 with Lloyd F. Nelson's invention of the camping backpack. As the story goes, in an effort to make his carrying "pack" more comfortable, Nelson fashioned a rigid pack board, which not only gave structure to the backpack, but also made it easier to carry over long hauls.

Prior to Mr. Nelson's invention, the backpack (also known as knapsack or rucksack) was simply a loose sack with shoulder straps. The pack board created a division between the contents of the bag and the carrier's back. In addition, it distributed weight more evenly across the shoulders. To this day, the design remains relatively the same.

Trekking the Trails

When talking about backpacking, it's important to note the impact the National Scenic Trail Act had on hiking, walking and outdoor exploration in general. The Act, proposed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, encouraged individuals to rediscover the outdoors and whenever possible, to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds them.

While Mr. Nelson's invention made backpacks more comfortable, the National Scenic Trail Act made trails more accessible. By establishing these trails, the invitation was made for outdoor enthusiasts to explore the roads less taken, as well as those known and cherished, like the Appalachian Trail.

The Impact

Considering the popularity of both hiking and camping today, it's safe to say that the National Scenic Trail Act was successful in what it set out to do. Backpacking benefited from the Act as well, providing independent hikers with well-defined trails to follow (and return to). With all that you need on your back, you can truly go anywhere.

Adding to the History of Backpacking

From the seminal pack board to Greg Lowe's 1967 design of the internal frame - the evolution of backpacking gear is far from over. Nearly 100 years after the term "backpack" was coined, manufacturers continue to find ways to improve, lighten, and customize conventional equipment and clothing.

A sign of the times, backpacking today is more streamlined, with light and ultra-light backpacking the current trends. Even with conventional backpacking though, most everything has gotten lighter. These innovations have not only made backpacking easier for pros, but also more attractive to novices:

Options in Backpacking
Then Now
Frames wooden aluminum tubing
Backpack material heavy canvas waterproof nylon
Cookware steel titanium
Clothing bulky wool quick-dry synthetics
Stoves petroleum/wood alcohol/butane

What's Next?

While it may not be easy to pinpoint when backpacking splintered off from hiking to follow its own trail, we can see how the activity may have come be. The question now is: What's next? As we become more eco-conscious as a society, the chances are good that a self-reliant recreation like backpacking is only going to grow.

As it does, the principles of programs like Leave No Trace will become even more important to learn and abide by. The idea of backpacking is to get back to the land and appreciate natural beauty - not disrupt it. Remember: Leave only footprints, take only memories.

A Timeline: Backpacking

A typical backpacker's pack.
  • 1910: The term "backpack" is coined.
  • 1920: Lloyd F. Nelson creates the sturdy pack board for backpacks.
  • 1930s: Backpacks continue to be made with external wooden frames.
  • 1940s: In post-World War II, people have more time for leisure; the travel trailer and camping grow in popularity.
  • 1950s: A military design introduces a lighter, aluminum-alloy frame.
  • 1960s: The lighter metal frame catches on with outdoor enthusiasts.
  • 1967: Greg Lowe invents the internal-frame backpack, which distributes "pack" weight across the hips.
  • 1968: The National Trails System (NTS) is created.
  • 1970s: Lighter-weight nylon backpacks become standard.
  • 1990: The program Leave No Trace is developed.
  • 2000s: Innovations in shelter, sleeping bags, and cookware continue - making them lighter and easier to pack and carry by individuals.
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History of Backpacking