Introduction: Stylish Duct Tape Backpack

About: I'm a writer, maker, and educator who's on a mission to better the world through hands-on engineering projects. Check out my work:

This Duct Tape Backpack is durable, inexpensive, and best of all, custom-crafted. You can create any number of pockets, pouches, secret compartments, and other features. This backpack is also super easy to fix and redesign. Bruise the surface? Patch it up with tape! Need more space? Stick on another pocket! These steps will lead you through the basic construction, but it’s up to you to outfit your pack with personalized features and make it your own.

For 18 months I used this design as my daily backpack to carry a water bottle, laptop, hoodie, and a few small items. I brought it to and from work, then travelled around my region with it during the summer. It held up remarkably well, and I only stopped using it because I got a larger computer that couldn't fit in the laptop pocket.

When I first started this project, I started my ideas from scratch because it was challenging to find a backpack pattern or robust guide that I could use for inspiration. If you'd like to see my unsuccessful designs, read on to the final steps.

Beauty photos by Kaile Akiyama. Thanks, sister!

Step 1: A Note About the Illustrations

This Instructable is a full & updated excerpt from my book Duct Tape Engineer. When I was planning this book with my editor, we decided to illustrate the project steps because it's difficult to see when gray duct tape has been applied on top of more gray duct tape in photos (e.g. compare picture 1 and 2). Illustrations with blue coloring indicate newly applied tape. Yellow indicates the accent color of tape used in this project. I teamed up with Ali Akiyama to create the illustrations. Thanks Ali!

Bonus! Unlike the book, here I've included some photos that were used as references for the final illustrations. These were never intended to be published, so please excuse the less-than-professional quality. Hopefully these images will provide additional clarity.

Step 2: Gather Tools and Materials

Tools and Materials

I've provided Amazon links for reference, but most of the materials are cheaper if bought in a brick-and-mortar store.

Material Substitutions

  • Brown paper: paper bag, newspaper, or sheets of paper taped together
  • Craft upholstery foam: any soft cushiony material
  • Webbing, buckles, strap adjusters: the shoulder straps can be made solely from strips of layered tape, but they won’t be adjustable

Material Notes

  • I recommend using a rotary cutter when working with duct tape. Scissors get gummed up pretty quickly, and it's easier to create clean, straight cuts than using a box cutter.

When you make a purchase through these links, I may earn an affiliate commission at zero cost to you.

Step 3: Create and Test a Paper Template

Creating and assembling a paper a template allows you to easily find and fix mistakes before investing in creating a large sheet of duct tape. You can customize the dimensions to create a custom size, or click on the first picture to get a close-up of the dimensions I used.

Lay the brown paper on your work surface and tape it in place. Draw and then cut out your backpack template according to the size you want (picture 1 and 2).

Use blue tape to assemble the template (picture 3). Evaluate your to test your design and decide if it needs adjustments.

Step 4: Create a Duct Tape Sheet

Creating a large sheet that you can then cut into smaller pieces minimizes imperfections and gives your projects a clean, uniform finish. In my opinion, it also makes building a large project more enjoyable: Once the sheet is done, you can focus on assembling your creation quickly.

In this step I'll show you how to make a generic 12x12" sheet, but you can create a sheet of any size. If you use the pattern from the previous step, you'll need a duct tape sheet that's about 20x44".

Choose a nonstick surface for your work area, like a clean piece of plywood, a folding table, or vinyl flooring.

Overlap pieces of tape directly onto the work surface. Each new piece of tape should cover half the width of the previous piece (picture 1). Keep the tape taut as you lay it down and use your free hand to smooth it into place. Press down on each piece to remove air bubbles and to ensure that the tape adheres completely.

Pull up the sheet, starting with the initial layer (picture 2). Note: If you start with the top layer, you may accidentally split the sheet in half.

Flip the sheet over, hold it in place with very small pieces of tape so it doesn’t shift, and finish the reverse side in the same way as the first (picture 3). Work slowly and deliberately: It’s difficult to adjust a long piece of tape once the two adhesive surfaces are stuck together. If a mistake does occur, smooth it out as best as you can, and consider applying another layer of tape to cover the imperfections.

Trim the uneven edges with a rotary tool (picture 4). If you're working on a surface you care about, protect it before cutting off the excess.

You’re finished! Take a moment to bask in the satisfaction of creating a fine sheet of duct tape. It really is quite gratifying to behold.

Step 5: Cut Out the Duct Tape Sheet

Trace your template onto the duct-tape sheet with a permanent marker (picture 1), then cut out the design with a rotary cutter (picture 2).

Step 6: Create a Large Interior Pocket

Create an 11" x 12" (28 x 30.5 cm) sheet of duct tape in your contrasting color. Apply tape on three sides of the sheet, leaving one of the 11" (28 cm) sides exposed. Center the strips of tape along the edges (picture 1). Note the square openings left at the lower corners: They will make the tape folding easier in the next step.

Fold the bottom piece of tape up. Fold the side pieces of tape in. Stick them to the bottom piece of tape at the lower corners to create an adhesive edge along three sides (picture 2 and 3).

Flip the pocket sheet over and apply it adhesive-side down. Make sure the open end is toward the backpack’s flap. Press on the tape in place to secure it. Further secure the pocket by applying a strip of tape around the outside edges (picture 4).

If you want your pocket to fit something thicker than a tablet, then make sure to push the sides of the pocket slightly toward the middle of the pack to create a bulge.

Step 7: Add Padding to the Back

Cut a 12" (30.5 cm) square of foam sheeting. Flip the open backpack over to the pocket from the previous step is facing down.

Center the foam square near the backpack’s flap. Secure the foam sheet with a strip of duct tape along the top and bottom edges.

Further secure the foam sheet with layers of overlapping tape. Trim off the excess tape (picture 1 and 2). You’re ready to assemble your backpack.

Step 8: Start Assembling

Cut out eight 4x1" (10x2.5cm). Fold in one side of the backpack, and begin attaching the curved edge from the inside of the backpack with a strip of tape as shown (picture 1).

Bend the backpack to follow the curved edge. Secure it with another small piece of tape. Continue until the entire curved section is secured. Make sure you press the tape firmly into the corner (picture 2, left).

Fold in the other side piece. This piece forms a right angle with the bottom of the backpack. Attach it in place with a short piece of duct tape. Again, make sure the tape is pressed into the corner (picture 2, right).

Repeat on the other side of the backpack.

Stand the backpack up. Temporarily hold the seams on the sides together with five small strips of tape on the outside (picture 3).

Step 9: Finish Assembly

Starting on the inside of the pack, join the first seam with a single long piece of tape (picture 1).

Fold the tape over the top edge and then down along the seam on the outside. Remove the temporary pieces of tape as you close the seam on the outside.

Continue applying tape all the way around the underside of the pack and up the other side, then back inside the backpack's inner seam. As before, remove the temporary pieces of tape as you apply the tape on the inside (picture 2).

Square up the backpack and fold it flat like a paper bag. Fold back the flap closure and trim the top opening of the backpack to even the edge (picture 3).

The assembly is finished!

Step 10: Reinforce the Flap

The flap needs to be reinforced to prevent it from flopping and bending when the pack is closed. Start by cutting a piece of cardboard that is about 1/2" (1.3 cm) smaller than the flap. Make sure that the corrugations run across the flap as shown (picture 1).

Firmly apply overlapping layers of tape, perpendicular to the corrugations in the cardboard. Allow the tape to run off of the flap outline. Trim away the excess tape off of the edges (picture 2).

Step 11: Give the Backpack a Shape

Square up the backpack again and fold in the sides like a paper grocery bag. Line up the edges of the top opening. Hold the flap down with two pieces of tape (picture 1).

Place a cutting board or another flat object over the top half of the backpack. Place about 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) of heavy objects on top. Leave the weights in place for at least 2 hours. (You can accelerate the process by using heavier objects, or by sitting on the cutting board as you read through the rest of this Instructable!)

When you remove the weights, the backpack will fold neatly and naturally at the top.

Step 12: Make the Shoulder Straps

Begin creating the shoulder straps by cutting two 15" x 2 1/2 (38 x 6.5 cm) pieces of 1/2" (1.3 cm) thick foam (picture 1).

Center and wrap a single length of your contrasting color of duct tape around each strip of foam. At one end, create a flexible extension by allowing the two ends of the duct tape to overlap and adhere for a length of about 4" (10 cm) (picture 2).

Cover the edges of the straps with your main color of duct tape. Apply a length of tape along one front edge, about 1" (2.5 cm) in from the edge, wrapping it from front to back. Do the same along the short bottom edge. Trim off the excess tape (picture 3).

Step 13: Attach the Shoulder Straps

When attaching the straps in the next steps, use a crosshatch taping technique. Applying layers of tape perpendicularly over each other prevents peeling.

Arrange the straps about 5" (12.5 cm) apart along the top back edge of the backpack. Fold the flexible 4" (10 cm) tape extensions over the top of the backpack flap. Cover the extensions with overlapping layers of tape, running across the flap (picture 1).

Reinforce the straps. Cut twelve 6" (15 cm) strips of your main color of duct tape. Lift a strap and apply a verticle strip that connects the strap to the back of the backpack (not pictured). Repeat with two additional strips in the same place (adding 3 layers of tape will prevent it from ripping over time).

Apply the remaining four 6" pieces of tape from the top of the flap to the back of the back of the backpack (picture 2, indicator 1). This will prevent the previous pieces from peeling up.

Next, apply three long strips of tape perpendicularly across the last pieces (picture 2, indicator 2). Again, this prevents the previously applied tape from peeling away.

Apply overlapping layers of tape across the top of the backpack, covering the vertical strips that were applied as shown in picture 2, indicator 1 (picture 3).

Step 14: Attach the Buckles

Cut a 6" (15 cm) strip of the nylon webbing. Position the webbing as shown over the end of the shoulder strap. Check the instructions on the strap adjuster’s packaging to make sure it’s oriented correctly (picture 1).

Hot glue the webbing onto the shoulder strap, then wrap two overlapping layers of duct tape over the webbing and around the strap (picture 2). The hot glue is essential for preventing the webbing from slipping out from under the tape over time. Press down on the tape until you can see the texture of the webbing.

Repeat steps 1 and 2 for the second shoulder strap (picture 3).

(Optional) Cut the corners off the strap to round them, then hot glue the seam together.

Step 15: Attach the Bottom Straps

Lay two 30" (76 cm) lengths of webbing over the bottom of the backpack at a 45-degree angle. The straps should hang off the back corners of the backpack. Use two small pieces of tape to temporarily hold the straps in place. Use a small amount of hot glue to prevent the webbing from slipping.

Apply overlapping layers of tape to completely cover the bottom of the backpack. To make sure the webbing is secure, place one hand inside the backpack and the other hand on the outside. Then, from both sides, press the duct tape onto the webbing (picture 1).

Press two 6" (15 cm) pieces of tape onto the webbing to connect it to the bottom of the backpack. Repeat on the other side of the webbing (picture 2).

Tightly wrap another layer of tape around the webbing to secure the previous two pieces (also in picture 2).

Weave the end of the webbing through a strap adjuster as shown. Fold back 2" (5 cm) at the end of the webbing and wrap it with tape. This will prevent the webbing from fraying (picture 3). The straps are done!

Step 16: Attach the Flap Closure

Cut a 6" (15 cm) length of webbing and loop it through the open end of the socket buckle piece. Fold the webbing in half and center the ends over the outside and insideof the flap. Apply overlapping layers of tape to hold it in place. Press down hard to secure the webbing (picture 1).

Cut a 12" (30.5 cm) length of webbing. Loop it through the other buckle piece. Center the free end of the webbing on the bottom of the backpack. Apply two long vertical pieces of tape to secure the webbing in place, then apply overlapping layers of horizontal tape over those. In this illustration, the first three pieces of long vertical tape have been applied (picture 2).

Step 17: Make Little Pockets

The size, position, and number of pockets are one of the most customizable parts of this project. Here is one way to add two small pockets to the outside:

Cut two 3" x 5" (7.5 x 12.5 cm) rectangles from another duct tape sheet. Just like the large interior pocket, apply tape to three edges of the rectangles. Fold the tape in to expose the adhesive sides (picture 1).

Stick the pockets in place. Then, with one hand inside the backpack and one hand outside, press from both sides to firmly secure the pocket in place.

Secure the outside edges of the pockets with overlapping layers of tape, leaving the top open (picture 2).

Cut two semicircular pocket flaps from the duct tape sheet. In this example, these are 3" (7.5 cm) wide and 2 1/2" (6.5 cm) deep. Position a flap above a pocket. Tape the top and underside of the flap to create a hinge. Use adhesive Velcro dots to keep the pockets closed (picture 3).

In this example, these pockets are perfect for storing keys, cash, cards, and other small things that need to be accessed quickly without opening up the main pack.

Step 18: Example Pocket Variation

Sometimes you need a little more pocket room inside the backpack for bulky items. To create a 3D pocket, start by cutting a wide T-shape from a duct tape sheet (picture 1). The size of the bottom corners will determine the depth of the pocket.

Fold and tape the corners together to create a box-like shape (picture 2).

Apply tape along the inside edge of the sides and bottom of the pocket. Fold the tape inward so that the adhesive side is exposed (picture 3).

Attach the pocket inside the backpack. Apply tape along the outside perimeter of the pocket, leaving the top open. Use Velcro dots to create a closure for the pocket if desired.

Step 19: Create a Carrying Handle

Create the handle strap: Layer two 18" (46cm) pieces of duct tape on top of one another, then fold in half to create a thick band.

Tape the handle strap to the shoulder straps (picture 1, indicator 1). Make sure to pop up the center, and leave about 2" hanging out past the sides of the backpack.

Wrap another piece of tape around the top of the shoulder strap to prevent the first piece from peeling away (picture 1, indicator 2).

Fold the ends of the strap toward the middle of the pack, then apply more tape over the ends (picture 3). This folding technique prevents the handle strap from slipping out of place over time.

Congratulations - the backpack is complete! Well, for now. What will you do next to improve your design?

Step 20: Bonus: 1st Unsuccessful Design

Like most projects, my first design didn't work well.

I learned that designing a backpack is like designing a sewing pattern. I had never done that, so instead I tried to use a more familiar geometric assembly technique, which resulted in a brick-shaped bag with a shoebox lid. Yeah, not the most stylish form. It was ugly, boxy, and colorless.

However, it could perfectly fit two boxes of cereal inside.

Step 21: Bonus: 2nd and 3rd Unsuccessful Designs

My next design used the paper bag folding technique and yellow accent that carried through to the final design. My editor agreed that the grey/yellow color combination helped elevate the design aesthetic, but there were still a lot of flaws in the backpack's functionality.

The bottom of the bag was flat and had square corners, which worked fine but the form was still somewhat boxy. This was later improved by adding a curve to the pattern.

At this point in the process, I was still committed to making the backpack nearly 100% out of duct tape, but this was problematic:

  • The flap closure wasn't yet reinforced with cardboard, so it would warp and crumple.
  • Duct tape stretches, so it was extremely difficult to create adjustable straps that didn't loosen over time. At the same time - and paradoxically - it was very difficult to loosen or tighten the straps because duct tape has a rubbery texture.

Step 22: Bonus: 4th Unsuccessful Designs

This style was improved with the rounded bottom corners to make it look a bit more stylish, and I reinforced the flap with a piece of foam core so it would hold its shape. However, the straps were still not working well. It was at this point that I convinced myself (and my editor) that the design needed to have a couple of non-duct tape materials to make it practical to use.

Step 23: Conclusion

One final prototype - this time using the webbing, strap adjusters, and buckles - ended up becoming the final design for the book. It looks good, it's as functional as any store-bought backpack, and of course, it's made almost entirely out of duct tape!

Thanks for reading this far! This project was more challenging than usual to develop because my sense of style and design is just a notch above terrible. However, my editor kept pushing on it and giving feedback until eventually it shaped up into the project that was chosen to be on the cover of the book!

If you build your own duct tape backpack, please share a photo and any suggestions that you have to improve this design. Cheers, and happy taping!

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