What Is the Difference Between a Knapsack and a Backpack?

  • October 16, 2020
  • / By Keith Terrell
hitchhiking with a knapsack

Backpacks and knapsacks are popular for a reason. They’re convenient and great for a wide range of use. But, did you know that though often interchanged, these actually mean different things?

The difference between backpacks and knapsacks are that backpacks are bags made from either synthetic or organic tissue equipped with straps (typically two) — allowing them to be carried on the back. Knapsack is a type of backpack often made of canvas, nylon or leather. 

hitchhiking with a knapsack

There are other types of backpacks like rucksacks and packsacks. However, in this particular article, we’re narrowing it down to the previous two we’ve mentioned. 

The term backpack itself was first introduced in the 1910s. Originating from America, the word refers to a cloth sack with two straps going over the shoulders. Because this type of bag is carried on the back, it offers convenience to its users in different ways:

  • It frees up the user’s front and side spaces, allowing them to move more comfortably or carry other stuff with their hands and arms.
  • It can distribute the weight more evenly to the user’s body
  • It helps its users carry more items for longer period of times

Though backpacks generally feature the two shoulder straps mentioned above, some are equipped with the so-called hip belt. With this extra feature, the backpack can better transfer the weight of the items it carries — from your upper extremities to your legs. However, industry experts take note that the hip belt should have the appropriate length for it to be more effective. Proper wearing is also just as important. 

Students and hikers commonly benefit from backpacks. While students use them to securely store their gadgets, books, and other documents, hikers utilize them to carry their gear as they ascend and descend from a mountain. 

Because backpacks are known to be multi-functional, there are some office workers who prefer these bags for everyday use. People who are avid travellers or those that simply love to go on adventures also prefer backpacks over any other type of bags.

Nowadays, manufacturers also ensure that their backpacks are waterproof. This makes their products ideal to use especially during the rainy season. These bags don’t only protect your belongings, you can also use them to somehow shelter your head from the outpour.

Typically, this type of bag has a squarish form. And it can fall in any of the following categories:

Frameless

As how its name implies, frameless backpacks have no aluminium frames whatsoever. It’s the most basic backpack type — with only the shoulder strap distributing the weight.

Internal frame

Many internal frame backpacks are equipped with either one or two aluminium bars located inside. This design helps retain your balance and keep your neutral posture intact.

External frame

Commonly used by hikers and campers, this backpack features an aluminium or composite frame on the outside. Besides providing rigid support, the frame space also allows additional storage for tents or sleeping bags.

Bodypack

This type of backpack features at least one more pocket suspended on the chest of the user. Manufacturers designed bodypacks to ensure almost-equal loads are carried in the back and the front of the user.

What is a Knapsack?

As stated, knapsacks are a type of backpack. They look almost identical — giving virtually the same function. However, knapsacks are generally smaller in size. But just the same, they’re still durable.

While many knapsacks are made of canvas or leather, the recent times saw the rise of nylon because of their more effective weather-resistant capabilities.

Nowadays, you won’t probably hear many people using the term “knapsack.” It’s almost considered obsolete as the term “backpack” becomes an all-encompassing word that people in America use to describe any bag with two shoulder straps and is suitable for carrying. In other countries like Canada, however, “knapsack” is a more popular word used to describe bags Americans refer to as backpacks. If you go to the UK, you’ll find that the generic term for this type of bag is “rucksack.” 

Nonetheless, it’s noteworthy to know that the word itself is German. “Knap” means “to bite” while “sack” means “bag.” In context, the term embodies the strength of the bag. 

man with knapsack and phone

Knapsacks also differ from backpacks in a sense that the former tend to have fewer pockets. Therefore, they are more suitable for people who only carry a few things. For instance, people heading to the gym typically use knapsacks to fit their gym clothes and water instead of backpacks (which may look too overwhelming for their situation).

Knapsack vs. Backpack: What’s Right for You?

If you’re torn between buying a backpack or a knapsack, we’ve compiled five things you need to take into account.

Lifestyle

First and foremost, you have to consider your lifestyle. If you’re looking for a versatile bag, backpacks in general should be your go-to choice. 

But as mentioned, they come in different types — as well as sizes and designs. Therefore, you have to carefully choose which one would be most fit for the lifestyle that you have. If you’re more of a thrill seeker, investing in heavy-duty backpacks is a smart choice. But if you’re more of an office person with only a laptop and a few other things to carry, then a knapsack will do. 

Bear in mind that your bag says a lot about your personality and lifestyle. So make sure to choose something that suits your routine and style preference. 

Capacity

In relation to the bullet above, you also have to consider capacity when buying a bag. 

Knowing your lifestyle means you can assess if you’re the type of person who needs to carry a lot of things or just a few essentials. Purchasing a bag is much like a personal investment — you would want to buy something that is durable and functional at a cost-effective price.

Fit

To maximize comfort, you have to make sure that the backpack or knapsack you’ll choose has the right fit. If your bag has the proper size, the weight will be distributed more evenly. 

Furthermore, having a too-huge backpack can look unproportional to your body. The only exception would be if you really need to pack many things — like when you travel or when you go camping. For these situations, take note that you have to choose framed backpacks to help your body support the weight of the items you carry for longer periods of time.

Features 

Again, depending on your lifestyle and your preference, you should choose a bag with the features you need. 

For example, if you’re a student or an office worker, you might want to have a bag with a laptop sleeve in it. For the jet setters, having a backpack with lots of compartments and easily accessible pockets can be very beneficial. For the adventurer, a bag with secure side water bottle pockets would be appropriate. 

Additionally, an important feature for people who carry many items is having an adjustable hip belt.

Budget 

Backpacks and knapsacks are available in different sizes, styles, and designs. Of course, the more features your bag has, the pricier it can be. But as mentioned, you have to think about buying a bag as an investment. The price can be justified if the bag is durable and is capable of effectively carrying your belongings without giving you inconvenience.

Conclusion

Backpacks and knapsacks are both functional bags to provide convenience — thanks to their shoulder-strap design. While backpacks is a broader term for such a bag, knapsacks are a type of backpack that are generally smaller in size with fewer pockets. Both can also be made from weatherproof materials like nylon to further give protection to your belongings. 

For you to be able to buy the right backpack or knapsack for you, you have to take note of your lifestyle. The bag you’ll choose should be able to accommodate the belongings that you need for your normal routine or frequently done activities. For instance, if you’re an avid hiker, you should invest in a backpack that has the right capacity and size for you. 

While functionality and durability are important factors you have to consider, you shouldn’t discount the aesthetics of your bag. Whichever bag you choose, it should be something that fits not only your body and lifestyle but your personality as well.