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Published on July 26, 2019

school kids wearing backpacks

A Buyer’s Guide for the Best Backpacks

By Beryl Olson, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist, Avera Sacred Heart Hospital

If you are like me, preparing the kids for school is something of a whirlwind. I am excited about all the things they are going to learn, the interactions they are going to have with their friends and the structure that comes with a school day.

For me, as a mom, back to school also means picking up those school supplies. Excitement runs high at our house because it usually involves getting a new back pack. Sometimes kids get started with school and then they realize they need a bigger or better one, too. This is always a family affair with the kids and I heading off on an expedition to find just the right pack. Most times, you can barely contain the enthusiasm as we beeline for the backpack aisle.

There are so many to choose from: Themed backpacks, character backpacks, multi-colored backpacks – they all stare at me from the shelf. The kids start looking at every available pack. This is where I generally stand back and enjoy the scene. What will they choose this year? Will it be an action figure? Or a princess? Or are we just too old for those and now we need a “cooler” backpack that will work at the middle school? After much comparison of all the backpack aisle has to offer, usually the kids settle in with “the one.” Bring on the school year, because we are now ready.

Whatever your backpack choice, there’s much more to it than a fashion statement made on the playground. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), “More than 2,000 backpack-related injuries were treated at hospital emergency rooms, doctor’s offices, and clinics in 2007.” Studies also indicate that approximately 55 percent of students carry a backpack that is heavier than the recommended guidelines. Those stats are really eye openers! They can really change how you feel about the character on your child’s backpack! But don’t worry – there are some simple rules that you can follow to make that pack fit better.

Rules for Picking a Pack

When selecting a pack from that large back pack aisle, AOTA recommends that you consider the following items:

  • Check the shoulder straps. Shoulder straps should be well padded to protect the many blood vessels and nerves that run through the neck and shoulder. Thin, unpadded straps can cause pain, numbness, and tingling to the neck, arms, and hands.
  • For a correct fit, the bottom of the pack should rest in the curve of the lower back. The pack should never be 4 inches or more below the child’s waistline.
  • That backpack aisle probably has packs of every shape and size. Make sure to pick the one that fits your child, even if it doesn’t have the “coolest” character on it.

Rules for Loading a Pack

Now that you have picked the perfect pack, you need to fill the perfect pack. The AOTA recommends that you use the following guidelines:

  • A child’s backpack should never weigh more than 10% of his/her body weight. To determine the weight of the pack, take your child’s current weight x 0.1 on a calculator. This will give you the total number of pounds that the pack should weigh when FULL. So, if your child weighs 100 pounds, his/her backpack should not weigh more than 10 pounds. If your child weighs 60 pounds, his/her backpack should not weigh more than 6 pounds.
  • Load the heaviest items closest to the child’s back. Larger items like textbooks or large workbooks are then in the back of the pack when you are looking at it. If it is possible, secure items so that they won’t slide around in the pack.
  • Only pack what is necessary for the day. Check your child’s pack. Are they carrying items for PE that they won’t need until later in the week? Take those items out.
  • Consider a wheeled pack that can be pulled instead of carried if your child’s pack is consistently heavier than indicated in the formula above.

Wearing a Pack:

You have now picked the perfect pack and loaded the perfect pack. So, how about wearing the perfect pack? The AOTA also has a few tips about that:

  • Always use both straps. This will distribute the weight evenly across the shoulders. Wearing only one strap may look cooler, but it can cause a child to lean to the other side thereby curving the spine and possibly causing pain or discomfort.
  • The shoulder straps should be adjusted so that they are snug to the child’s body. If the pack is too tight, he/she won’t be able to get the straps on. If the pack is too loose, it can pull a child backwards and cause muscle strain. You may need to consider adjusting the fit of the straps depending on the layers of clothing that a child is wearing. What fits nicely in the fall may not fit as well when the winter coats come out.
  • If there is a waist belt on the pack – use it! This will help to further distribute the weight and protect from potential strains.

Whew! That was a whirlwind, but now your student should be all ready – safely ready – for a great year in school. Just remember that the above tips apply to all your babies, even if they are 20 years old and off in college. Pack it light, wear it right. Don’t forget that Sept. 18, is National School Backpack Awareness Day. Occupational Therapists all across the U.S. will be holding backpack awareness events. Check with your school to see if there is an event scheduled.

You can read more information about backpacks online at the AOTA website. We can help if you have further ergonomic questions regarding backpacks, too. Here’s to another great school year!

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