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The Rules of Backpacks

I Love You, Beautiful Nerds: The rules of backpacks

Every year more than 40 million kids from elementary through high school carry their books and other supplies to and from school in a backpack. For younger children, this may be the only time they use their backpacks, but middle and high school aged children may carry a backpack to and from every class.

Although carrying a backpack may seem harmless enough, these heavy loads may lead to back, neck, and shoulder pain. Additionally, during this time of growth and adolescence, children’s bodies are forming and changing, and the physical stresses they undergo during this time may have significant effects later in life. The following is some information to help your child choose, wear, and pack their bag…but honestly, this information applies to all of us. Lugging work equipment around? Heavy gym bag? Over-stuffed purse? Fairly typical diaper bag?  Same rules apply. 

Choosing a Backpack:

Pick a backpack with only enough room for necessary items. Any pack longer or wider than your child’s torso (or the torso of the person wearing it) is too big. Also, extra room can result in the items inside shifting around, and increasing stress on the body.

When available, choose a backpack with safety and comfort features such as wide, padded shoulder straps and a soft or padded back. This will reduce pressure and enhance comfort in the neck and shoulders where sensitive structures like nerves and blood vessels run. Hip and chest belts are also beneficial to transfer the weight of the pack from the back and shoulders to the hips and torso. The heavier the pack, the more important this is.

Look for lightweight packs with multiple compartments as this will help distribute weight and keep items easily accessible. Compression straps on the sides and bottom of the backpack can help to stabilize and compress the contents so that the items are close to the back, causing less stress on a child’s body. Finally, reflective material makes it easier for drivers to see the child while walking at night or in the early morning. Most packs will have some reflective strips or features, but the more prominent, the better. 

Packing a Backpack:

First, and foremost, pack only necessary daily items. For older students who may have different needs for different classes, or after school activities, break the daily load up by storing things you don’t need until after lunch or after school in a locker, and retrieve them as needed, swapping out what you have already used. A good rule of thumb is that the backpack should not be more than 10-15% of the child’s body weight. If you absolutely need to transport heavier weights, try hand carrying one or two items so that the weight is better distributed on the front and back of the body. When arranging books and materials in your pack, put the heaviest items toward the back, so that they will be closest to the body when carrying, and try to arrange your items so that they will not slide around during use. 

Wearing a Backpack:

Both shoulder straps should always be worn. It may be ~less cool~ than slinging that heavy pack over one shoulder, but wearing a pack or bag of any style over just one shoulder can cause your child to lean to one side, curving the spine and causing pain or discomfort. Adjust the shoulder straps for the pack to fit snugly along your child’s back, it should sit on the back with the bottom of the pack sitting in the curve in the low back. Also, if you’ve chosen a backpack with additional features such as a waist belt or chest straps, use them. Just remember: high and tight, nerds. 

**While a backpack is often best, if your student is cycling to or from school the use of a shoulder bag worn across the body diagonally may be better as it positions the load more through the natural center of gravity. Better yet, consider using panniers to take the load off your child entirely during the ride. 

**Rolling backpacks may also be an option, but recommendations for these are generally limited to those who physically cannot carry a backpack on their back, as it may pose a tripping hazard for children in tight classroom spaces. 

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