Backpacks come in all sizes, colors, fabrics, and shapes and help kids of all ages express their own personal sense of style. And when used properly, they're incredibly handy.
Many backpacks come with multiple compartments that help students stay organized while they tote their books and papers from home to school and back again. Compared with shoulder bags, messenger bags, or purses, backpacks are better because strong muscles — the back and the abdominal muscles — support the weight of the packs.
When worn correctly, the weight in a backpack is evenly distributed across the body, and shoulder and neck injuries are less common than if someone carried a briefcase or purse.
As practical as backpacks are, though, they can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain if they're too heavy or are used incorrectly.
Here's how to help kids find — and use — the right backpack.
Problems Backpacks Can Pose
Many things can lead to back pain — like playing sports or exercising a lot, poor posture while sitting, and long periods of inactivity. But some kids have backaches because they're lugging around their entire locker's worth of books, school supplies, and personal items all day long.
Doctors and physical therapists recommend that kids carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in their packs. But many carry a lot more than that. When a heavy backpack is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight's force can pull a child backward. To compensate, the child might bend forward at the hips or arch the back. This can make the spine compress unnaturally, leading to shoulder, neck, and back pain.
Kids who wear their backpacks over just one shoulder — as many do, because they think it looks better or just feels easier — may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. They might develop lower and upper back pain and strain their shoulders and neck.
Improper backpack use can also lead to bad posture. Girls and younger kids may be especially at risk for backpack-related injuries because they're smaller and may carry loads that are heavier in proportion to their body weight.
Also, backpacks with tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders can interfere with circulation and nerves. These types of straps can lead to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.
And bulky or heavy backpacks don't just cause back injuries. Other safety issues to consider:
- Kids who carry large packs often aren't aware of how much space the packs take up and can hit others with their packs when turning around or moving through tight spaces, such as the aisles of a school bus.
- Students can be injured if they trip over large packs or a pack falls on them.
- Carrying a heavy pack changes the way kids walk and puts them at risk of falling, particularly on stairs or other places where a backpack puts a student off balance.
Finding a Safe Pack
Despite their potential problems, backpacks are great when used properly. Before you buy one, though, consider a backpack's construction.
Look for the following to choose the right backpack:
- a lightweight pack: get one that doesn't add a lot of weight to your child's load; for example, leather packs look cool, but they weigh more than canvas backpacks
- two wide, padded shoulder straps: straps that are too narrow can dig into shoulders
- a padded back: it not only provides increased comfort, but also protects kids from being poked by sharp objects or edges (pencils, rulers, notebooks, etc.) inside the pack
- a waist belt: this helps to distribute the weight more evenly across the body
- multiple compartments: to help distribute the weight throughout the pack
Although packs on wheels (which look like small, overhead luggage bags) may be good options for students who have to lug around really heavy loads, they're very hard to pull up stairs and to roll through snow. Check with the school before buying a rolling pack; many don't allow them because they can be a tripping hazard in the hallways.
Using Backpacks Wisely
To help kids prevent injury when using a backpack:
- Lighten the load. No matter how well-designed the backpack, less weight is always better. Use the bathroom scale to check that a pack isn't over 10% to 15% of your child's body weight (for example, the backpack of a child who weighs 80 pounds shouldn't weigh more than 8 to 12 pounds).
- Use and pick up the backpack properly. Make sure kids use both shoulder straps. Bags that are slung over the shoulder or across the chest — or that only have one strap — aren't as effective at distributing the weight as bags with two wide shoulder straps, and therefore may strain muscles. Also tighten the straps enough for the backpack to fit closely to the body. The pack should rest evenly in the middle of the back and not sag down to the buttocks.
What Kids Can Do
A lot of the responsibility for packing lightly — and safely — rests with kids:
- Encourage kids to use their locker or desk often throughout the day instead of carrying the entire day's worth of books in the backpack.
- Make sure kids don't tote unnecessary items — laptops, cellphones, and video games can add extra pounds to a pack.
- Encourage kids to bring home only the books needed for homework or studying each night.
- Ask about homework planning. A heavier pack on Fridays might mean that a child is delaying homework until the weekend, making for an unnecessarily heavy backpack.
- Picking up the backpack the right way can help kids avoid back injuries. As with any heavy weight, they should bend at the knees and grab the pack with both hands when lifting a backpack to the shoulders.
- Use all of the backpack's compartments, putting heavier items, such as textbooks, closest to the center of the back.
What You Can Do
Involving other parents and your child's school in solving students' backpack burdens might help to lessen kids' loads. Some ways the school can get involved include:
- giving students more time between classes to use lockers
- using paperback books
- adding school education programs about safe backpack use
- putting some curriculum on the school's website, when possible
You may need to adjust your kids' backpacks and/or reduce how much they carry if they:
- struggle to get the backpack on or off
- have back pain
- lean forward to carry the backpack
If your child has back pain or numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist.