In English, the species is known by several different names, including saddle-backed, grey, silver-backed, red, and golden jackal.

The black-backed jackal is a fox-like canid with a slender body, long legs and large ears. It is similar to the closely related side-striped jackal and more distantly related golden jackal, though its skull and dentition are more robust and the incisors much sharper. It weighs 6–13 kg (13–29 lb), stands 38–48 cm (15–19 in) at the shoulder and measures 67.3–81.2 cm (26.5–32.0 in) in body length.

The base colour is reddish brown to tan, which is particularly pronounced on the flanks and legs. A black saddle intermixed with silvery hair extends from the shoulders to the base of the tail. A long black stripe extending along the flanks separates the saddle from the rest of the body, and can be used to differentiate individuals. The tail is bushy and tipped with black. The lips, throat, chest and inner surface of the limbs are white. The winter coat is a much deeper reddish brown. Albino specimens occasionally occur. The hair of the face measures 10–15 mm in length, and lengthens to 30–40 mm on the rump. The guard hairs of the back are 60 mm on the shoulder, decreasing to 40 mm at the base of the tail. The hairs of the tail are the longest, measuring 70 mm in length

Image: Ranger JJ van Wyk