Backpack vs Rucksack: what’s the difference?

We take a look at the main features and differences between a backpack and a rucksack to help you chose what’s right for you

Backpack vs rucksack
(Image credit: Getty)

What’s the difference between a backpack and a rucksack? Well, there are quite a few differences actually, both in style and in functionality. We’ve broken down some of the major differences between the two, but just to clear things up, a rucksack is technically a type of backpack, with a slightly different purpose…

Have we piqued your interest? Read on to find out more, then, when you've finished, check out the guides to the best backpacks and best hiking rucksacks.

Backpack vs Rucksack: Style

So a backpack is, as it says on the tin, a bag that you carry on your back. When we think of a backpack we think of what kids use to carry their books to school, but backpacks have also become a very popular choice of bag for work and leisure too. 

Styles vary, but essentially a backpack features two straps that are great for carrying a heavy load, making them the perfect choice for commuters, especially cyclists. Backpacks can be found in all sorts of materials from leather to canvas and come with a range of different fastenings from zippers to poppers, Velcro or clips.

A rucksack, however, has a very distinct design. They are kind of like a rugged style backpack. The name “rucksack” comes from the German word “der rucken”, which means “the back”. You’ll often find rucksacks used for camping or hiking as they’re made from durable and weatherproof materials. Rucksacks also typically have a drawstring or tie closure which is similar to military-style rucksacks.

Backpack vs Rucksack: Functionality

Both a backpack and a rucksack provide an easy way to carry heavy items, more so than any other type of bag such as a handbag or a messenger bag where the load is concentrated on one side. A rucksack tends to be top loading, and has more space for large equipment such as hiking or fishing gear, so you may find that a rucksack is a good option for travelling or camping. 

A backpack, on the other hand, can still have ample space but often comes with more compartments for carrying everyday items. Most backpacks these days come with a laptop sleeve to protect your tech, and multiple pockets for smaller belongings such as your keys and phone. This is what makes a backpack a good choice for an office worker or student. 

Backpack vs Rucksack: The Verdict

As rucksacks are often top-loading, and come with a trickier fastening, this makes them more spacious but more of an inconvenience to find things in, so we’d suggest a rucksack is ideal for long trips and carrying heavier items. For daily use, it would seem a backpack is far more convenient, with easy access via a zip closure and clear compartments to quickly locate your things. 

While the terms backpack and rucksack are generally interchangeable, a quick google search of both will bring up two distinct styles of bag. Backpacks offer much more versatility in terms of their design and style with sporty, smart and casual options, whereas a search for rucksacks tends to bring up the rugged-style which is much more geared towards adventure and travel. The Osprey Talon is a good example of what a rucksack typically looks like. 

And as the term is interchangeable, so is how you choose to use a backpack or a rucksack. Some prefer the look and feel of a rucksack, and it is possible to get hybrid-styles that look like a rucksack but also have the features of a backpack, so it’s entirely up to you which style you prefer. Both offer a comfortable and convenient way to carry your belongings on both long and short journeys. 

Now, with your new-found luggage knowledge, check out the best backpacks and best hiking rucksacks available to buy today. If you're travelling further afield, you might want the best suitcase or best carry-on luggage.

Sarah-Jane Butcher

Sarah-Jane is an experienced writer who has created reviews and buying guides for a number of publications including TechRadar,, Real Homes and TheRadar. She's a pro at finding the best products on the market and presenting them for your viewing pleasure.