How to Choose the Right Back-to-School Backpack

Quality, Proper Fit, and Style Are Backpack Keys

Excited kids wearing backpacks
Kids need good fitting backpacks to be able to move freely and prevent injury. Captureimages.com via Getty Images

Your child's school backpack will probably be the hardest-working item in your back to school shopping. The backpack will be used every day to take items to and from school. It needs to withstand daily use including traveling to and from school, locker storage, and the rough treatment that children dish out on their belongings.

Because it receives constant, daily use you need to know what to look for in a backpack.

Quality Counts in Backpacks

The widest selection of school backpacks is available during the back-to-school shopping season. You will find that quality and price can vary widely during this time. This is the best time to take advantage of backpack sales, just remember to shop smartly. 

You might be tempted to buy a backpack that is inexpensive and trendy, and just assume that if you have any problems that you will be able to replace it. The problem is that you probably won't be able to find a good backpack easily after the back-to-school sale season.

Inexpensive, low-quality backpacks typically last for a few weeks to a few months. That is just long enough for all of the back-to-school items on store shelves to be replaced with holiday seasonal merchandise. The slim backpack selection that remains is often limited to one or two choices, if a store continues to carry backpacks at all. The limited choices may suffer from quality issues and may not properly fit your child, either.

To look for a quality backpack, Consumer Reports magazine suggests you look over the backpack, inside and out, and keep an eye on the following:

  • Loose, uneven or careless stitching that could easily come undone.
  • Raw or frayed fabric edges which could unravel.
  • Zippers that are openly exposed to weather. Instead, opt for zippers that have fabric flaps over them to keep water and other elements out of the backpack.

    A Backpack Needs to Fit Properly

    "Backpacks that do not fit properly, or are used incorrectly, have the potential to cause back and shoulder strain or pain. When shopping for a backpack, consider proper fit and comfort over price. Often times, the best backpack may not be the most stylish, or expensive." says Matthew Halsey, MD, Director of Pediatric Orthopedics at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, Oregon.

    To find a backpack with the proper fit, Dr. Halsey offers the following tips:

    • Choose the proper size: The width of a backpack should be relatively proportionate to the person’s width. For instance, a small child should not opt for an adult-sized backpack. Further, the backpack’s height should extend from approximately two inches below the shoulder blades to waist level, or just slightly above the waist.
    • Straps are important features: Consider broad straps with padding for the shoulder, both to offer more comfort, and protect the shoulders from excessive pressure. It is important that both straps be used in order to distribute the weight of the backpack evenly. Using just one strap adds extra strain to that one shoulder. Adjustable straps are useful, not just for proper fit but for proper positioning – again, the backpack should sit just slightly above the waist and both straps should stay even in length.
    • Evenly distribute the weight: In addition to utilizing both shoulder straps and ensuring the pack sits at the right height, consider backpacks that offer pockets, slots and dividers to help evenly distribute extra weight. Heavier items should be placed closer to the person’s back, within the pack. Lighter items may sit further from the body. 
    • Don’t over pack: It is important not to weigh down backpacks. This is especially true when considering children. The backpack, as well as its contents, shouldn’t total more than 15% of a person’s weight: A 100-pound child’s filled backpack shouldn’t exceed 15 pounds, while a 60-pound child shouldn’t carry more than 9 pounds. more than 15% of a person’s weight: A 100-pound child’s filled backpack shouldn’t exceed 15 pounds, while a 60-pound child shouldn’t carry more than 9 pounds.
    • Test before your purchase: Bring a few personal items that you would normally carry in your backpack to the store with you. Slip them into the backpack as you try them on to get a better sense of weight distribution, etc.

    Some backpacks offer chest or waist straps designed to help distribute weight. It is important to make sure that these straps sit properly on your child. If they do not sit properly on your child, they will not help distribute weight and may even lead to discomfort.

    • A hip belt should wrap around your child's hips.
    • A chest strap should be adjusted to bring the shoulder straps in so the arms can move freely.
    • The height of the chest strap should be placed where it is the most comfortable for the child.

    Style Is a Factor

    Your child will be wearing their backpack to and from school each school day. While proper fit and good quality are the biggest factors to look for, style is still an element to consider. You want to know that your child actually likes the backpack that they will be using over the course of the year.

    If your child wants a backpack that is low quality with poor fit because it has a popular cartoon or movie character splashed all over it, you can still pass up the low quality, poor fit option and compromise with the following strategy:

    • Look for bright colors and trendy patterns on high-quality backpacks.
    • Once you have a color or pattern that your child likes, add accessories to personalize their backpack into a style that they like.

    This is where you can add key chains and fobs showcasing your child's personal interests. You can also sew or glue on patches from a craft store.

    Reflectors and reflective tape are other style add-ons that increase safety. If your child will be waiting for the school bus alongside a road or walking to school, add reflective elements to your child's backpack. Small reflectors can be found at sporting goods stores. Sewing and craft stores are good sources for reflective tape.

    Blinking lights that your child must turn on or off are not a good choice to keep children visible on their travels to and from school. While adults may remember to turn on a blinking light added to their jacket or bicycle, children often aren't ready to remember to consistently turn a light on or off. Instead, stick with reflective pulls and sew-on reflective tape that will always be on your child's materials.

    Make It a Joint Decision

    Kids can be loyal to certain stores and you'll probably want to visit one of those stores for your child's backpack. Take a look at the backpacks offered at Target, Kohls, Aeropostale, Justice, Delia's, and Hollister. If you want a sturdy backpack that will last and take a beating, you can't beat LL Bean and Land's End. But resist the urge to purchase a backpack without your tween's approval. The backpack is a fashion accessory to a tween, and they want to express their individual style and personality. Help your tween make a smart purchase, but give your child the room to make the final selection.

    Shop Sales

    Be sure to shop sales, if you can. Typically back to school sales begin in mid-July and run through mid-August. If you're really on a tight budget, consider shopping at discount stores or thrift stores. You might be able to find a real steal there, and have enough money left over for a cool lunchbox, too. Also consider using last year's backpack, if it's still in good shape. If your child is still happy with it, and if it's still in good working order, it might be worth keeping around another year.

    If you shop sales and you find a good price on backpack selections, you might consider purchasing two backpacks. By having two, you have a backpack in reserve should your child's break a buckle or a strap on his backpack. It's also fun for your child to switch-out his backpack from time to time, just for a change.

    Sources:

    Backpack Buying Guide." Consumer Reports. N.p., May 2016. Web. 30 June 2016.

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