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What is a Rucksack? Rucksack vs. Backpack vs. Knapsack

Lidia Bertesteanu |

When it comes to bags we carry on our backs, the differences between backpacks, rucksacks, and knapsacks may elude you, as people use the terms interchangeably. However, such differences exist, albeit discrete. So, what is a rucksack, and does it sport some unique features? Today, we will solve the endless debate regarding rucksack vs. backpack vs. knapsack and give you a better idea about these products. Spoiler alert: a rucksack is a backpack with some twists. Before we begin, you need to understand these items' names stem from the cultural differences between countries and continents. So let's break things down, shall we?

What is a Backpack?


We will start with the omnipresent backpack, as it is an item present all over the world. We would go as far as saying that there is a backpack in every home – at least in those with kids, young working people, and sporty adults.

The simplest definition of a backpack is the following: a pack we carry on our tote bags, featuring two shoulder straps, and sporting enough interior space to hold our items for a day or even a weekend trip.

While Americans did not invent the backpack, they did coin the term. "Backpack" is a popular label that we all use to describe other types of "pack carried on the back," such as kids' schoolbags, book bags, even drawstring bags, etc.

In case you have heard the word "daypack" used instead of "backpack," you should know that daypacks are also backpacks but with smaller sizes and capacities. For instance, if the average backpack has around 50 liters or more, the daypack has about 30-40 liters. For more information on choosing the right backpack depending on your needs, check out this guide!

To conclude, when you think about a backpack, you consider those average-sized bags people wear for school, tech backpacks to take to work, weekend backpacks you pack when you plan a two-day trip, or sports backpacks you pack for a full day of hiking, etc.

Backpacks' Critical Features

Here are the most crucial features of backpacks that differentiate them from rucksacks and knapsacks:

  • Term use: United States of America
  • Term origin: United States of America
  • Size: Medium to large sizes – capacity of 50 liters and above;
  • Straps: Two adjustable shoulder straps; the ideal, true-to-form backpacks also feature hip belts that transfer the weight from your shoulders to your hips for more comfort.
  • Uses: daily life, school, work, short trips, short hikes, shopping, etc.
  • Design: rectangular/square shape, a wide variety of colors, a wide variety of materials (canvas, polypropylene, leather, a combination of fabrics, etc.), laptop sleeves, headphones exit ports, dedicated compartments for tablets, e-books, and other gadgets, etc.

What is a Rucksack?

The significant difference between backpacks and rucksacks is their size/capacity and looks. Rucksacks are larger and feature more compartments and pockets to carry significantly heavier loads. They also feature hip belts and chest belts to help wearers carry them for the long run without stressing their backs. In essence, the answer to the "what is a rucksack" question is this: a rucksack is a more rugged, larger backpack built for outdoor endurance.

The term "rucksack" comes from German, and it means a sack you carry on your back. Now the word is the American equivalent of "backpack" in Europe. Countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, and even Russia use the word "rucksack" to describe a sizeable and resilient bag people carry on their backs for daily use or travel.

In the United States, the rucksack is a bag worn by the U.S. military, hikers, campers, globetrotters, etc.

Rucksacks' Critical Features

When used correctly, the term rucksack describes a bag sporting the following features:

  • Term use: Europe, the U.S. military;
  • Term origin: Germany;
  • Size: Large – capacity over 60 liters;
  • Straps: Two adjustable shoulder straps, hip belts, chest belts;
  • Uses: traveling on long distances, camping, hiking, trekking, military applications, etc.
  • Design: square/rectangular shape, a central entry point at the top of the pack, multiple pockets and compartments (dedicated to carrying sleeping tote bag, water bottles/pouches, tent, etc.), a wide variety of materials (waxed canvas, technical fabrics, polypropylene, combinations, etc.), camo prints/natural colors/vivid color combinations, etc.

What is a Knapsack?

Now that we learned what is a rucksack, we have to understand what a knapsack is. The rucksack vs. backpack vs. knapsack debate relies on the term's history and use when it comes to the latter. A knapsack is a smaller backpack, but people use this term mostly in Canada to refer to what Americans call backpacks or daypacks. The primary difference lies in the size of this item.

The German origin word of knapsack means "small bag," so it is the preferred item of people who do not need to carry many heavy objects during the day or those who want to achieve a demure, low-profile urban look.

Knapsacks' Critical Features

It is now time for us to see what features make a knapsack:

  • Term use: Canada;
  • Term origin: Germany;
  • Size: Small – capacity under 30 liters;
  • Straps: One or two without any additional belts;
  • Uses: Daily use, handy for small items, schoolbag, day bag;
  • Design: Triangular shape (some refer to it as a sling pack), but also square/rectangular shape, mostly natural colors but also vivid color combinations, usually featuring a main compartment and some exterior pockets, etc.

We live in a world where manufacturers use the terms backpack and rucksack interchangeably, so it may be hard for you to understand which, especially when you shop for such bags online and cannot see and check them in person. To make things easier for you, we have created a guide on picking the backpacks' right size when you shop online. It will give you a starting point to make an educated choice.

Types of Backpacks, Rucksacks, and Knapsacks to Consider

Now that we have got you covered on the "Rucksack vs. Backpack vs. Knapsack" front, it's time to look at the different types of bags that these three categories can come in. You'll notice that some of these types overlap with the overall product category, as it is fairly normal for this to happen. 

So, without further ado, for those of you who want to become true aficionados, here are a few different types of backpacks, rucksacks, and knapsacks.

Basic Daypack

If you want something as basic as it gets and that you can repair yourself, then you can't go wrong with a basic daypack.

As a general rule of thumb, a basic daypack has a front-loading main compartment, a large front pocket, a pair of shoulder straps and a grab handle. Apart from these things, they don't have much else to look at. They're as basic as they can be, which is why their name is what it is.

Furthermore, if you're the type of person who likes the simple things, then you'll truly like having a basic daypack for the simple fact that you'll know where everything is. You literally have maximum four compartments, so losing something inside the bag is next to impossible.

Anti-Theft Backpack/Rucksack/Knapsack

Now this is where things get a bit tricky. These anti-theft bags look just like a regular daypack but feature some nifty tricks that the naked eye won't usually catch at a glance. 

Hidden zipper pullers, cut-proof fabrics, and locks on the zipper pullers are just a few of the things that prevent potential thieves from getting your precious laptop and other things you might be carrying. Some higher-end anti-theft packs also feature RFID-blocking fabrics to prevent electronic theft, such as a hacker attempting to wirelessly steal your bank card information.

Laptop-Oriented Backpack

Well, you'd argue that you can carry a laptop in just about any type of backpack, right? Well, yes, but you would be missing the point.

Apart from having a sleeve for your laptop, they also come with several compartments that are helpful for carrying such a device. Yes, laptop backpacks are most commonly everyday packs, but you can find even some hiking and backpacking backpacks with laptop sleeves.

With that said, laptop backpacks come in different shapes and sizes, as they are made for laptops of different dimensions. More specifically, you'll find backpacks made for 11-inch, 13-inch, 15.6-inch (by far the most common dimension), 17-inch, or even 19-inch laptops in a few particular cases.

Furthermore, you should seek out a model that has padding on the sleeve to protect it from spills, falls, and other potential dangers. 

Duffel Rucksacks

Just as their name suggests, these are duffel bags with straps that allow you to carry them exactly like a rucksack. And, much like a rucksack, these things can get pretty big. 

They're excellent for travelers because they allow you to carry them either on your back or by hand, and you can easily switch between the two carrying modes in case one of the becomes uncomfortable. This aspect is especially important for long rides or long queues at the subway, bus, or other similar places.

Basically, if you've got a lot of stuff to carry and you don't want to bother with a full-sized trolley, then this is the next best thing.

Hydration Backpacks

Small and lightweight, these backpacks are only meant to carry few items and perform one crucial goal when you're out and about: quenching your thirst. Only a few of these backpacks will include additional pockets for much anything else, so the other bright side of getting a hydration backpack is that you won't lose any stuff inside it.

Furthermore, the best part about these hydration backpacks is that they can offer you water completely hands-free. With that said, they are perfect for a quick hike or for riding your bike. As a result, you'll be and feel much safer in traffic than ever before. 

TSA-Friendly Backpacks

Our fellow Americans, you've read that correct. This type of backpacks is just awesome if you love traveling by plane a lot. "But how can a backpack be friendly towards the guys who like to perform cavity checks a little more often than necessary?" you might ask...

No, it won't bribe them. However, they do feature TSA-friendly laptop compartments. Let us explain. Basically, you can unzip the laptop compartment to lie flat on the on the scanner, so that you don’t have to take out your computer when you are going through TSA checkpoints.

Anyone who has ever had to dealt with TSA agents can already imagine all of the precious time that you can save with such a feature. The time-efficient traveler definitely needs a TSA-friendly backpack in their life, as it will save them a lot of stress and precious minutes that they can use to stay more relaxed when waiting for their flight.

Wheeled Backpacks

Well, since we were speaking about trolley bags earlier, we might as well mention them, right? Wheeled backpacks are basically that, more or less. You have the organizational genius of a backpack with the added convenience of a trolley on wheels.

What more could you want? Oh, yeah, you can't exactly carry it on your back. Still, it's much better than dealing with a regular trolley that isn't nearly as organized as a backpack would be, right? Anyway, you can expect these to have a capacity ranging anywhere from 40 all the way up to 150 liters, so you can probably already imagine just how much stuff you can carry.

Biking Gear Backpacks

Are you used to riding your bike often but the climate where you live isn't all that hot? Well, you can forget hydration backpacks and opt for biking gear backpacks instead.

Generally, they're designed for people who need to store and organize their gear except for the hydration bladder. You can find a lot of these backpacks to have an attachment point for a helmet, and LED lights in the front. You'll also note that apart from the main compartment, they also have a compartment that's specially made for all your cycling gear and tools.

However, they'll barely be able to carry more than your cycling gear, as most of these backpacks come with a capacity between 10 and 30 liters. However, the good part is that they are extremely lightweight and small, so you can cycle with them on your back with ease, as you won't feel anything dragging you down.

Framed Hiking Backpacks

Do you like hiking and you're not afraid to carry a little extra weight so you can have all of your equipment in one place? Then a framed hiking backpack might be just what you need. 

One of the main advantages of these backpacks is that they feature a frame that allows them to stand up even if they are completely empty. As such, you'll have a much easier time filling them up with all of your items before a trip. Incidentally, the frame also helps you keep your balance on uneven terrain, so that's an even better benefit if you're serious about trekking and hiking.

Frameless Hiking Backpacks

The one thing that frameless hiking backpacks have over the framed ones is... well, the fact that they're frameless, which means that they are far more lightweight. Most of these weigh around 1.5 pounds, so you'll barely feel it on your back when your trekking or hiking.

They are a great choice for smaller loads, since the load itself is what dictates the shape and fit of the pack. Do be warned, however, that these packs can also become quite cumbersome when loaded to the max. You want to balance the frameless pack and the gear you're carrying, otherwise you'll be very uncomfortable.

Rucksack vs. Backpack vs. Knapsack: Bottom Line

What is a rucksack? Do you currently own one, or do you just differently sized backpacks to cover all your needs? Now that we learned together the similarities and differences between backpacks, rucksacks, and knapsacks, it is time for you to share your thoughts. Do you use a daypack for a weekend trip? Is your tech backpack the same one you take when you travel for short times and distances? Do you have a specialized rucksack for camping, hiking, and vacations abroad?