Kids from kindergarten through middle school need a backpack with enough carrying capacity for folders, binders and to keep 8.5 by 11-inch papers neat and unwrinkled -- but the pack shouldn't be so large that they end up overloaded.
The JanSport SuperBreak (Est. $30) has been around for decades, and its more than 50 different colors and prints are still a hot selling point for elementary school kids. It's built simply -- one large compartment and a smaller front compartment -- but it has plenty of room in its 1,550 cubic inches for a three-ring binder, notebooks, textbooks, school supplies and a lunch bag. Students say they are often surprised by just how much they can fit into the SuperBreak. They love how light it is (12 ounces), and they say the thick, supportive straps help them carry any load comfortably. A few reviewers say they wish it had more pockets for a higher level of organization, however.
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 over packing, and it looks great after repeated machine washings. The zippers are reported as "virtually indestructible." Quite a few owners say it makes a good hiking daypack as well, for family outings or for Boy Scout or Girl Scout excursions. The SuperBreak is machine washable and comes with a lifetime warranty.
Another pack that's been around for many years, and is a good fit for the middle school-aged child, especially at the upper range of that about three-year spectrum, is the L.L.Bean Deluxe Book Pack (Est. $30). The Deluxe Book Pack is a great choice for those students who prefer more organizational options, with dual main compartments to hold several binders, notebooks or a lunch box, and a generous front pocket with an organizer panel for pens and other small items. It also includes an audio cord port.
The Deluxe Book Pack comes in a variety of colors and prints and is made of tough, weatherproof material with a reflective strip for those dark mornings. The shoulder straps and back panel are padded for comfort. The only factor keeping the L.L.Bean backpack out of our Best Reviewed slot is that users indicate that it can be big and bulky, especially on slighter children. It also has a boxier shape that doesn't earn the raves of the sleeker SuperBreak.
Younger, elementary school kids will probably be thrilled with the Pottery Barns Kids Mackenzie Collection (Est. $25 and up). There are four sizes to choose from -- mini, small, large and wheeled -- so there's one to fit your child at any stage. They're particularly praised for their stylish colors and designs, but they're nothing but workhorses when it comes to organization. These backpacks feature three exterior and one exterior pocket, two exterior water bottle holders, an MP3 holder and openings for headphones (the mini does not have the latter feature).
The Pottery Barn Kids Mackenzie is well padded with ergonomic straps, a sternum strap, and outer loops for a lunch box -- matching lunch boxes are available -- so that lunch doesn't get smashed in the pack. The only complaint we found regarding the Mackenzie was about the rolling backpack in this series; its wheels and handle are flimsy, owners say. Otherwise, this is a great, durable choice, albeit at a slightly higher price than the JanSport. We cover top choices in rolling backpacks elsewhere in this report.
Both the L.L.Bean Deluxe Book Pack and the Pottery Barns Kids backpacks have the option for adding a personalized monogram.
The best backpacks for toddlers and preschoolers should be sized to fit their small bodies and have a fun design so kids want to pack them up and go.
Parents love how well Skip Hop Zoo (Est. $20) backpacks fit their young children, but the 24 brightly colored animal designs are what appeal to kids. Expert feedback and customer reviewers say youngsters can't wait until it's time to grab their favorite animal friend and go bye-bye. Options include cat, dog, dinosaur, penguin, zebra, giraffe and monkey designs.
The Skip Hop Zoo Pack has one large compartment and a smaller, insulated snack compartment. There's a nametag inside the main compartment, and parents say the color doesn't bleed when you write on it. Reviewers note that the zippers are sturdy and easy for even small fingers to work. The fabric is phthalate-free and BPA-free, and parents say the backpack can be tossed in the washing machine and hung to dry.
The only real downside to these packs is they're too small to fit a full-size folder or notebook, so once your child hits kindergarten and those items are added to the list of required school supplies, you'll need to upgrade to something larger. The Zoo Packs last for years, however, so you can always hang onto them as a toy bag, overnight bag, or to pass along to a younger sibling.
Stephen Joseph Quilted Backpacks for Little Girls (Est. $20) and Stephen Joseph Quilted Backpacks for Little Boys (Est. $20) come in 37 cute designs for boys and girls, ranging from trucks to animals to ballerinas, and reviewers say they're just as adorable as the Skip Hop Zoo Packs, albeit slightly smaller. Stephen Joseph backpacks have one large drawstring compartment with a magnetic closure to keep the top down, and a small zippered compartment. It's large enough to hold a small notebook and a change of clothes and snack. They also can be monogrammed.
Parents love the Stephen Joseph Quilted Backpack's super-soft construction, which one parent says is plush enough to use as a pillow. They're easy to clean, too: just toss them in the washing machine and hang to dry. A few parents complain of the strap or zipper breaking and a few others bemoan how easy it is to pull out the drawstring, so be sure it's double-knotted.
Elsewhere in this report: