Elementary and middle school students need a backpack with more carrying capacity but not so large they end up overloaded.
The JanSport SuperBreak (*Est. $30) has been around for decades, and its 50 different colors and prints are still a hot selling point for kids. It's built simply -- one large compartment and a smaller front compartment -- but it has plenty of room in its 1550 cubic inches for a three-ring binder, notebooks, schoolbooks, paperback books, miscellaneous school supplies and a bag lunch. Students say they are often surprised by just how much they can fit into the SuperBreak. They love how light it is, and they say the thick, supportive straps help them carry any load comfortably.
The SuperBreak also stands out for its durability. Some parents say the fabric in the newer versions doesn't feel quite as sturdy as the fabric from decades past, but it still stands up to years of rough use and overpacking, and it looks great after repeated machine washings. One parent calls the zippers "indestructible."
The L.L.Bean Critter Pack (*Est. $45) ranks well in tests and reviews too, although the higher price may be a downside for some. It has about the same capacity as the SuperBreak at 1500 cubic inches, a reputation for withstanding years of heavy use and reflective piping to make your child more visible.
The Critter Pack has unusual zippered pockets on the sides -- they come in handy for keeping small items ready-to-hand -- but the water bottle pockets, mounted on the outside of those zippered pockets, are a literal flop; The bottles fall out constantly. Parents aren't too happy that this pack's namesake reflective critter (options include snake, dolphin, butterfly or shark) is now screen-printed on the back of the pack instead of embroidered as before, but kids still like them. One other caveat: Kids in the upper tier of this age range may outgrow this pack before it wears out to because of the childish critter imprint.