Once, backpacks were the exclusive province of hikers, Boy Scouts, and schoolchildren. Now, thanks in large part to arguments that backpacks are better for your back and your posture than shoulder bags or briefcases, backpacks have made significant inroads into the general population. You regularly see them being used by businesspeople, travelers, and cyclists.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with backpacks, or with trying to help your aching back. The problem arises because people who wear backpacks often lack the spatial awareness that should accompany donning a bulky, typically overstuffed item that may jut out a foot or more from their normal back and shoulders. (And that’s not even taking into account items that may be hanging from the rear or sides of backpacks, like Camelbak water bottles, canteens, or food pouches.) This isn’t a big problem with respect to hikers and Boy Scouts, who are out with their backpacks in the great outdoors with all the room in the world around them, but it can pose problems for those of us who encounter backpack-wearing people in small, enclosed spaces — like airplanes, or restrooms, or elevators.
On recent trips I’ve seen countless instances where backpackers have made a quick turn in the aisle of an airplane during the boarding process and clouted seated fellow passengers in the side of the head. I’ve witnessed a collision caused by a backpack-wearing guy retreating from a urinal directly into the path of an approaching user, and a backpacker on an elevator invading the space of other passengers and squeezing them back into the rear wall. And I’ve seen lots of mishaps in the backpack donning and doffing process, where the casual swing of the backpack onto or off of the shoulders causes it to knock into people, books, cellphones, luggage, and even comfort animals.
Backpacks are here to stay, so the most we can hope for is that backpack-wearers develop the necessary spatial awareness and remember that, when they are carrying their backpack, they’ve become human humpback whales with the related, increased space needs. Perhaps the backpack manufacturers of America can sponsor training to help backpackers navigate among the rest of us safely, without doling out head shots and getting dirty looks from people (like me) who don’t like having their personal space casually invaded.