History of Backpacking

Updated July 20, 2021
woman backpacking above a lake

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 Trails System Act. These developments, combined with further innovations in hiking and camping gear, helped advance backpacking into what it is today.

What Is Backpacking?

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 their backpack. If these requirements are not met, then it's most likely a day hike or camping trip.

When Backpacking First 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.

Peter Kaufmann Grindelwaldgletscher 1920

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.

Making Hiking Accessible and Trekking the Trails

When talking about backpacking, it's important to note the impact the National Trails System Act had on hiking, walking, and outdoor exploration in general. The Act, proposed by President Lyndon B. 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 Trails System 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, such as the Appalachian Trail.

The Impact of the National Trails System Act

Considering the popularity of both hiking and camping today, it's safe to say that the National Trails System 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.

Hiking in tundra vintage photo

Adding to the History of Backpacking with Innovation

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. Similarly, the items that people carry in their packs have changed over time as new developments lead to lighter weight, more compact gear. Such things as lambswool, floorless tents, and bibles used to be seen as necessary items to carry with you on your backpacking adventures. Nowadays, water filtration systems and locator beacons take up space in people's packs. Technological advancements and manufacturing innovations have led to significant changes in the way that people prepare for backpacking in comparison to how they used to prepare.

woman backpacks in northern Italy

A sign of the times, backpacking today has also become 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 or composite
Backpack material heavy canvas waterproof nylon
Cookware steel titanium
Clothing bulky wool quick-dry synthetics
Stoves petroleum/wood alcohol/butane/propane

What's Next for the Backpacking World

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 to be. The question now is: What's next? As we become more eco-conscious and sustainably minded 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, which focus on creating as little human imprint on the natural landscape as possible, 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

  • 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: 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 to present: Innovations in shelter, sleeping bags, and cookware continue - making them lighter and easier to pack and carry by individuals.

These Backpacks Were Made for Hiking

Humans began as nomadic creatures before settling into conventional civilizations, but backpacking has given people a feeling for this traveling lifestyle that they've lost. Backpacking hasn't been tarnished by modern conveniences and remains an authentic, nature-driven pursuit. As backpacking technology continues to develop, so too can the lengths and qualities of the trips that people will be able to take; maybe someday everyone will have a backpacking pack of their own.

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