I was flicking through some gear sites yesterday, and I noticed that some of them advertise 'rucksacks,' not backpacks.
Now what made this interesting was that one leading brand, Berghaus, has several different backpack options, but some of them are called rucksacks while others are given the title backpack.
This got me wondering: what is the difference between a backpack and a rucksack? So, I did a little investigation and thought I'd write up a short post on it.
Now, that is a big word to start a paragraph on isn't it, but the first place to start was to look at the source of the words. From what I can find, Rucksack is derived from Germany. 'Rucken' meaning back in German and 'Sack' meaning bag. So, a bag for your back effectively.
If we look at Backpack, well there isn't a whole lot of difference now is there, except it is in English, it is obviously a sack (pack), bag, for your back too. The word backpack seemed to originate in the US.
US and UK, are there Differences?
I was curious to see if there were any differences and from what I can ascertain, in terms of how the words are used, not very much really. It seems that many people use the two terms interchangeably.
Broadly speaking, when looking at hiking gear providers in the US, the term backpack seems more commonly used. However, as mentioned in the comments below, it seems the US military may use the term rucksack quite a bit. I don't know anything about military backpacks or equipment, but it makes sense that they would need very functional backpacks / rucksacks.
I saw one mention that a rucksack is a mid-sized pack used for multi-day camping hikes of up to a week, and a backpack is different in terms of size and use in that it is bigger than a rucksack and is used for very long treks and trips into the wilderness - so, for weeks to months. I couldn't find much to corroborate that though. On looking around, there seem to be equally large options, some referenced as a rucksack and others as a backpack.
The UK also seems to lean towards the use of the term backpack as opposed to a rucksack. However, in terms of hiking gear, it did seem that rucksack could be more commonly found in the UK than in the US.
Let's take a more in-depth look at each below:
Again, it is a bag that you carry on your back, hence the name. Backpacks typically have two shoulder straps, and you will find that these adjustable straps really don't help carry any of the weight of the backpack. The weight is instead placed on hip belts. Not all backpacks have these straps, however. You will find that on most children's schoolbags (backpacks) they do not have padded hip belts at all.
The hip belts are how we transfer the weight of the bag from our shoulders to our hips so we can use our legs to help us carry the weight. For this to work, the backpack needs to have a hip belt that is long enough to wrap around the bones of the hip and not just around the waist.
Rucksacks are often considered a larger variety of backpack. They are more often used for longer trips like when we go camping or hiking. Rucksacks also have more pockets, and the belts are designed to hold a much more substantial amount of weight when compared to a backpack.
In addition to the hip belts you can find on backpacks, you will also find a chest strap on rucksacks. You will also find that rucksacks typically only have one main area for entry at the top of the bag. It doesn’t typically come with a zippered closure either. Instead, rucksacks are often either tied shut at the top or cinched closed.
So, there you have it. It seems that in terms of backpacking or hiking, there isn't really a whole lot of difference in how people use the two terms backpack and rucksack. In the US, it seems that the term backpack may be more commonly used in terms of hiking gear. However, the term rucksack is also well known.
In the UK, it also seems it is a different word for the same thing. The only mention of a difference I came across in the UK was that a rucksack is a smaller version of a large backpack used for shorter hikes and backpacking trips. However, as mentioned, I couldn't really confirm that in any viable way, so I won't take it as Gospel.
All in all, it seems that in terms of usage, many people use the terms backpack and rucksack interchangeably. All the differences mentioned above may not even be the same across the board either. For example, while rucksacks may not have a zippered closure all the time, most backpacks do. If not, can they really be considered backpacks? Confusing, I know.
All you really need to know that either is acceptable for a day trip, weekend trip, trip to the store or a walk on campus. It's the added bells and whistles you should pay more attention to when choosing the best backpack / rucksack for your needs.
Now, I hope I have got this right, and my research is correct. If not, please feel free to correct me in the comments below. I'd be interested to hear any thoughts.