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Is It Ever OK to Carry a Backpack Using Just One Strap?

Here's my problem: I don't want to hurt myself, but having a rolling backpack isn't cool, and I don't want a backpack with two straps. Any tips?
- Matteo*

There's no getting around the truth: If you're going to carry a lot of stuff, two-strap packs or rollers are the safest options. Backpacks are designed for people to carry with both straps, not one.

If you want to go single-shouldered, you're going to have to make some compromises:

  • Think small. If you want to use a messenger bag or a bag with just one strap, find one that you can't overload. Choose a bag with lots of pockets that's super light when empty. Use side pockets and other ways to distribute weight across the pack. When you don't dump everything into the main pocket, the weight will be more balanced.
    The plus: Less stuff = less hassle. You'll be more organized. No digging around to find your phone, pen, or water bottle.
  • Pack like the pros. Take a tip from pilots or hikers: Only carry what you know you'll need. Make frequent locker trips to drop off heavy textbooks or large items. If you want to go one-shouldered, you'll need to use your locker more — even if it's far away.
    The plus: You'll get a mini-workout going back and forth to your locker.
  • Learn to let go. Get rid of some of your stuff. OK, a lot of your stuff. Your bag shouldn't be a dumping ground, so don't let extra stuff hang out there for weeks, building up and adding to the weight. Clean out your backpack every night and put in only what you need for the next day.
    The plus: You're more likely to remember everything you need if you go through and reorganize your pack each night. And when you carry less stuff, it will be easier to find the next day.
  • Mix it up. Switch shoulders frequently, even if your pack is light. If you find you're struggling with the pack (or knocking out bystanders!) when you switch shoulders, it means your pack is too heavy. As with too much weightlifting, you'll injure yourself.
    The plus: Your light-pack lift and switch can double as a core workout. Engage your abs as you move the pack from shoulder to shoulder (again, this only works if the pack is a manageable weight. If it's too heavy, you'll hurt yourself).
  • Channel your inner geek. Whenever you're on your own or with good friends, go two-shouldered.
    The plus: Your crush may mistake you for a math genius and ask for private tutoring.
  • Plan ahead. Spread your homework out over the course of the week so you carry different books home on different days. Don't carry all your books home on the weekend.
    The plus: You'll fine-tune your planning and organization skills — and that might even pay off with better grades.
    The added plus: If you're not cramming all your projects into the weekend, you'll have weekend time for that date that came out of the math tutoring thing.
  • Listen to your body. Neck sore? Arm tingling? That's your body saying you're carrying too much and using one side more than the other. It doesn't matter if you're a football player, cartoonist, or concert pianist, you need your muscles and nerves to work well.
    The plus: You shouldn't feel bent over and creaky like your grandparents. There's plenty of time for that later.

The bottom line: If you're not organized enough for all this hassle, you need to find a decent-looking backpack — and use both straps.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014

*Names have been changed to protect user privacy.