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Heavy load? Best backpacks for kids (of all ages)

For all the attention given to back-to-school gear this fall, one item is probably the most frequently purchased but least properly used of them all: the overstuffed, overpacked, slightly dangerous school backpack.

You know the drill — your darling little tax deduction is getting ready to run out the door for the bus when you realize he hasn’t moved in the last 10 minutes. The reason: His pack weighs more than he does. Your 8-year-old has tipped over backward and, like a pond turtle, is immobilized in the mudroom.

All kidding aside, studies at the Mayo Clinic and at other hospitals around the United States calculate that overpacked or improperly packed school backpacks account for more than 7,000 emergency room visits annually. And according to the American Occupational Therapy Association, over 50 percent of all students between the ages of 9 and 20 suffer from chronic back pain related to the way they wear their packs.

Add in that kids either proudly overpack or are forced by their school system to take everything home every night, and you have some real concerns.

Below are some basic guidelines for buying and packing a school backpack that can help your kid stay healthy … and out of the mudroom.

  1. Cheap means cheap: Unfortunately, a $20 pack purchased at a drugstore chain is worth every penny. The loose price cutoff for a decent pack (unless you buy a discontinued version — see below) is about $40. Licensed gear (stuff with SpongeBob or Miley Cyrus on the side) is often inadequate. Tell your kid Miley Cyrus is a billionaire and doesn’t need your money.

  2. What you get for the money: Padded straps, padded backs, proper shapes. If the pack you’re considering has padded, ergonomic straps (shaped for a kid’s narrower shoulders) and a padded back section to protect your kid from their books, they’ll wear them properly and their books won’t dig into their spine or shoulder blades.

  3. Big (down), small (up): In other words, make sure you place the heaviest stuff in the bottom of the pack snugly against the child’s back, and the lightest stuff on top, away from the child’s back. That way, the pack sways less and moves with the child. Note:
    The more compartments there are in a pack, the easier this is to do.

  4. The 15 percent solution: Most experts recommend that your child’s pack weigh no more than 15 percent of their body weight. For reference, an 80-pound 9-year-old should carry no more than 12 pounds. The fact is, this may not seem realistic to any parent (like me) who is used to watching their child go off to fourth grade looking like they intend to summit Everest. Here are some possible solutions: Make sure she only brings home what she needs each day. If it’s not too much of a stretch, get one set of the two or three heaviest textbooks that can stay at home. Actually look in your child’s pack once a week. If my experience is any guide, you will likely find heavy, forgotten items, including sporting gear, extra notebooks and a tuna fish sandwich from 1991.

  5. Chest or ‘sternum’ straps: Look for packs that have a secure strap across the chest that holds the shoulder straps together. This will help stabilize the load.

  6. Use the ‘4-inch’ rule:  A backpack should not descend more than 4 inches below your child’s waistline. Any lower, and a fully loaded pack will force the lower spine to arch backward uncomfortably. Consider child-size backpacks made by brands like REI and L.L. Bean.

  7. Wheels: There are only two drawbacks to backpacks with wheels, which allow your child to roll their books instead of carrying them. Some school districts consider the extendable handles on wheeled packs to be a tripping hazard and therefore don’t allow them, and they could make your kid look like a lost member of the flight crew. Check with your kid on the embarrassment factor.

Recommended packs

  • Grade school: The REI ‘Satellite’ pack for little kids is perfect for a lot of reasons — it’s inexpensive; it’s small enough so kids can’t overpack, it has nicely padded straps (and a sternum strap for little chests) and multiple compartments. Plus, it makes them feel like the big kids without overloading them. ($24.50; )
  • Grade school and high school: The Kelty Redtail pack is made by the same camping company that made the Kelty Cloud, which got to the top of Everest. Assuming you’re not planning this kind of trip, the Redtail is perfect for just about everything else. It has tons of dividers and compartments, a generous interior for bigger bags, a sternum and waist strap and extensive padding throughout. ($59; )
  • High school, college or grad school: Ortlieb Velocity: This waterproof backpack is great for students in rainy climates or who generally mess up their bags a lot. Ortlieb, a German brand made famous by New York City messengers, makes the Velocity out of rubber-coated canvas, which is totally impervious and tough as nails. It’s a bare-bones interior, so if you’re not good at organizing yourself, this may not be for you. ($110; )
  • College or grad school: Burton iPod Amp pack: Granted, this one is expensive, but it does some amazing things for the college or grad student who can’t live without her music. Ergonomic, ultra-comfortable padded straps, padded back and multiple compartments aside, the Amp pack connects you wirelessly to your iPod through buttons … mounted in the straps. ($159; )

Last but not least — remember, if you’re on a tight budget, surf the Web at places like overstock.com and cabelas.com (look in Cabelas’ amazing “bargain cave”) for camping and hiking brands you recognize, like The North Face, JanSport and Camelbak. You don’t have to spend a bundle to bundle it up right.

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at:

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