Backpacks for the Younger Crowd

Makings of a good backpack

  • Padded shoulder straps for comfort.
  • Contour straps, sometimes called S straps, prevent chafing at the armpits.
  • Padded back reduces pressure, prevents contents from digging in and structures the pack.
  • Compression straps on the sides or bottom allow for adjustments in fit.
    * Waist belt distributes some of the weight load to the body’s core.

Tips for the perfect fit

  • Check where the shoulder straps fall on the child. They should not be on the outer edges of the shoulders.
  • The pack should fit the child’s torso. The bottom of the pack should rest on the contour of the lower back. It should not sag down over the buttocks
  • The waist belt should buckle above the belly button.

Source: American Physical Therapy Association, REI camping specialist Samuel Stumbo

Backpack facts

* Children should carry no more than 15 percent of their own body weight.
* Roughly 55 percent of children surveyed carried loads heavier than that.
* 30 percent of children surveyed experienced back pain at some point.
Source: American Physical Therapy Association

One of Stuart Johnson’s most important back-to-school tasks is making sure his 7-year-old daughter has a backpack that fits.

As a physical therapist for Rebound Physical Therapy in Bend and Redmond, Johnson knows that a backpack that constricts, sags or is plain overloaded can cause problems for children down the road.

“It’s tough because she’s a small girl for her age, but the notebooks she has to carry are not small,” he said.

When it comes to back-to-school shopping, perhaps one of the most important purchases parents make is the backpack.

This is true even for elementary-age students, experts said. An ill-fitting backpack can cause a child back, neck or shoulder pain. And while one need not spend a fortune on a child’s backpack, durable models are apt to last longer.

“I’ve seen them dropped, tossed and dragged,” Elk Meadow Elementary School Principal Bruce Reynolds said.

But with a little savvy, it’s easy for parents to pick the right pack.

A decent elementary-age student’s backpack will accommodate lunch, library books and gym shoes, fit the child well when properly worn and last for several school years.

Backpacks in elementary schools
Backpacks don’t show up on every elementary school’s supplies list, but they are the norm starting even in kindergarten, Reynolds said.

Part of the reason schools encourage backpacks for elementary children, he said, is to help form habits. Throughout their education, children will need to ferry papers and books back and forth, so they need to get used to being responsible for a pack.

Guidelines on what kind of backpacks are appropriate vary not only among elementary schools, but possibly among grades in the same school. Some supply lists for this school year in the Bend-La Pine district specify that a backpack must not have wheels or must fit in a locker. So check the supply list online or with the school to make sure you’re shopping for the correct style of pack. (To find supply lists for schools in Bend-La Pine, go to www.bend.k12, then click the Parents link and scroll down.)

On a typical day, Reynolds said, children will carry in their backpacks a lunch, perhaps library books, a folder with some papers and, depending on the weather, clothes.

First-graders may only carry a bit of paperwork. Homework starts around then but is more about showing off what the student did in class or providing a bit of practice in a subject to help form the homework habit. Later in elementary school, the amount of homework carried increases.
Reynolds said parents do ask about backpacks, and his response is that something basic will do. While backpack weight becomes a more significant issue in middle school and high school, elementary schools try to keep the loads carried to a minimum.

“It doesn’t have to have a lot of containers or compartments,” Reynolds said. “A lot of parents will get real fancy backpacks, but it’s not required.”

Getting a good fit

Although children’s backpacks can be as expensive as $150, health professionals agree packs don’t have to be swanky. But they do recommend certain tips for pack construction and fit.
The main concern for backpack fit is that children not carry more than they should and distribute the weight correctly, said Kevin Phillips, a chiropractor with Heartstone Family Chiropractic in Bend.

Parents should buy a backpack specifically for a child, not an adult. Unlike clothes, experts say parents should not expect kids to “grow into” larger backpacks.

Child-size packs accommodate only child-size loads. While adults should carry no more than a third of their body weight, children should haul no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight, according to the American Association of Physical Therapists.

When shopping for a backpack, make sure it fits the torso of the child. A good-fitting pack will go from the shoulders to the hip bone, said Samuel Stumbo, camping specialist at REI in Bend. The straps should be padded and ideally will be curved to prevent chafing.

A hip belt is especially important as well, Stumbo said, as it helps distribute the weight. It will buckle at the belly button. He added that a sternum strap is nice but not as critical. Such straps span across the chest and buckle in front.

Examine the width of the straps on the child’s shoulders when trying on packs. Stumbo said they should not pull the shoulders back.

A good backpack will have compression straps, said Johnson, the physical therapist. The straps can be located at various points on the pack and can allow parents to make it looser or tighter to best fit the child.

Johnson also said it’s best to buy a pack with structure in the back, either with a pad or an internal frame, as it gives the pack the ability to better distribute weight.
When trying on backpacks, bring something along to stuff in the empty space. Some stores, like REI, have beanbags available for this purpose.

Filling the packs will give parents a better sense of how they will function. And besides, it’s frustrating to bring home a pack and then discover it’s too small for the Spider Man lunch box.

Active families might want to consider a pack that can function for both school and the outdoors. Stumbo noted that a child’s backpacking pack costs more than $100, but because its torso length and hip belt are adjustable, it can last for much longer as the child grows.

Stumbo also said parents should think about whether they want a front-loading or a top-loading pack. A child who forgets to close a top-loading pack will be less likely to lose goods, but it will be easier to find the pencils in the bottom of a front-loading pack.

After all these shopping considerations, however, the truly difficult task for parents is yet to come. They must encourage their children to wear their backpacks properly.

Backpack habits

Tales abound of kids flinging a pack over one shoulder or attaching a skateboard that bounces against the backs of the wearer’s knees.

“I’ve seen some kids where I want to go over and say, ‘Just looking at you causes me pain,’ ” Phillips said.

For a 50-pound child, 10 to 15 percent of their body weight equals 5 to 7.5 pounds. The Webster’s New World College Dictionary alone weighs just more than 4 pounds.
But like forming the homework habit, Phillips said parents should try to get their children to also form the good backpack habit.

Start by showing children that they should put heavy items in the bottom of the pack, Phillips said. Then help them adjust the pack so it fits well. There should be no light coming through a space between a child’s back and the pack.

Johnson recommended cleaning out the backpack with the child once a week to prevent the accumulation of weight.

And ask your child if the pack causes discomfort. Some children might not know to speak up.

The consequences for not properly wearing backpacks can be significant over time. The American Physical Therapy Association notes that heavy packs can cause children to lean forward or backward to adjust, leading to muscle strain, spinal alignment problems and vulnerability to injury.

Phillips said he has had elementary-age children as chiropractic patients already experiencing back pain.

“On the surface, it’s a small thing,” he said of backpack fit. “But fast-forward that about 15 years. There’s a saying I used to have up in my office: ‘As the twig bends, so grows the tree.’ ”