Backpacks: Today’s Fashion or Fashion Disaster

Today’s school backpacks are an amazing amalgam of fashion and function – with sometimes a dash of technology as many seem to come either prewired for ear phones or with a special place for them.

As our kids move through elementary school and beyond, the look of this bag becomes as important as what is inside – and perhaps even more so. Today’s backpacks remind me of Hermione Granger’s purse – they all seem to hold an endless array of stuff. The thing is that pile of necessary stuff packs on the pounds setting the state for a lifetime of back woes…unless we change the equation starting today!

Backpack’s are one of the leading causes of injury to children with more than 7000 children injured last year due to overloaded backpacks according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Back experts recommend that backpacks weigh no more than 10-15% of a child’s weight but many kids carry at least 20% of their weight. The type of injuries caused by backpacks are more varied than you may realize. The most typical injuries are shoulder and back strain from improper backpack use and overloading. Shoulders and backs are not the only part of the body at risk from backpacks, however. Many children each year actually injure their feet, toes and legs from tripping over heavy backpacks put on the ground to give their owner’s backs a break. Head trauma and lacerations have also been reported from children using their backpacks as impromptu balls. Backpacks indeed put the entire body at risk.

Helping our children not only choose a proper backpack but wear it correctly will dramatically reduce a child’s chance of injury. Leading orthopedic experts agree that most back and shoulder pain in children is avoidable by simply wearing the backpacks correctly and resisting the temptation to sling the back from one shoulder. Additionally, the straps should hold the bag close to the body fairly snugly. Spreading the contents throughout all the compartments will help distribute the weight more evenly in the bag but in the end it’s the overall weight that matters.

Just like with clothes, backpacks are actually sized. Just like we would never have our children wear adult sized shoes, we need to be careful they are not hauling adult size backpacks. In addition to the weight of the actual pack, a fully loaded backpack may end up weighing more than your child!

True outdoor stores such as LL Bean and Eastern Mountain Sports, as well as popular retain stores, have backpack lines designed just for children and teens but similar lines. So, before you pull out your wallet and head for the cash register, check the tag of the backpack to make sure it’s designed for your child’s age.

What features of a backpack should you look for beyond the age specifications on the tag?

  • wide shoulder straps with one for each shoulder so the bag’s weight can distribute evenly over the child’s back and not place too much strain on any one shoulder joint.
  • Padded backs and waist straps to help distribute the load in the bag more evenly.
  • Wheels: while many kids refuse wheeled backpacks these are the best way to avoid strain on the back. However, these are only a good option if your child’s school is on one floor.

Keep in mind that part of the issue is the amount of material our kids need to trek to and from home each day as well as to each class. The school day doesn’t seen to allow kids to return to their lockers easily so many end up lugging a heavily load all day long…and on one shoulder!

Keep in mind that while most backpack injuries are weight and use related, some are due to tripping over packs put on the ground. A few kids a year do break toes and sprain ankles and wrists from tripping over heavy backpacks put on the ground to give their wearer a much needed break. The solution for this is for kids to not only pay more attention to where they are walking but for kids to pay more attention to where they leave their backpacks…at least until we collectively fix the weight problem.

So, as you embark on back-to-school shopping, add backpack fitting to the list and have kids try a few on for size and comfort. In the end, your child will find a backpack that provides the fashion statement they desire with the safety and fit features you know they need.

(Originally published 2008; updated 8/22/2011)