The best backpacks have

  • Ample capacity. Carrying capacity is an important consideration for a backpack. For small children, capacities of 1,000 cubic inches or less are common, while bigger kids' backpacks start at about 1,500 cubic inches, and high schoolers and adults may require backpacks in excess of 2,000 cubic inches. It's important that the pack be able to accommodate the largest item likely to be carried, such as a three-ring binder for a younger child or a 15-inch laptop for an older one.
  • Good organization. While very small children may do fine with one big compartment and a smaller pocket, older students need more organizational options. Compartments to hold writing instruments, as well as notebooks and binders of varying sizes will help cut down on lost homework and confusion. Also, ports for headphones means that valuable electronics can stay stowed, yet easily used.
  • Sturdy zippers. A backpack is only as good as its ability to keep your belongings securely organized; the zippers should be sturdy and snag-free.
  • Water resistance. Your pack doesn't necessarily have to be waterproof, but some degree of water-resistance is nice to have. Otherwise, all your belongings may end up soaked if you're caught in the rain. This is especially important if you carry a lot of electronics.
  • A good warranty. Even the best manufacturer produces a dud every once in a while. Your backpack should be backed by a quality warranty; most manufacturers offer lifetime coverage against manufacturing defects, but not normal wear and tear.

Know before you go

What's on your child's back-to-school list? If you're shopping for a child's backpack, ask the school or teacher for a list of required items. That way you'll know how much the backpack you're shopping for has to hold.

How much does your child weigh? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a loaded backpack should weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of your child's body weight; the American Chiropractic Association sets a more conservative limit of 5 to 10 percent. We discuss this further below.

What is your torso size? Packs are sized by torso length, not overall height, and knowing your torso measurement can help you get the right size. Measure from the bony bump at the base of your neck (your seventh cervical vertebrae) to the top of your hipbones.

Will it fit your hips? If you're shopping for backpacks with hip belts, knowing your hip circumference can help you choose the right size right off the shelf. Measure around your hips at the same level with the top of your hipbones and make sure to keep the measuring tape level.

What are the school's rules? Many schools have banned rolling backpacks as a tripping hazard and many wheeled backpacks won't fit in a locker. Check with your child's school to be sure they allow wheeled backpacks and (if possible) measure the locker before buying.

Avoiding back pain from your backpack

Health professionals are becoming increasingly worried about the effect of heavy backpacks on a child's spine, shoulders and neck. A child who carries a backpack stuffed with a laptop, several books, projects, and all of the other school and personal items they need on a daily basis may be setting themselves up for musculoskeletal pain.

To help combat this, be sure your child is carrying no more than 5 to 10 percent of their body weight in their backpack as recommended by the American Chiropractic Association (ACA). It's important that your child's backpack fit his or her age -- don't try to save money over the long term by buying your very small child a backpack that's intended for teens, even if it may be durable enough to last that many years. In addition, comfortable components like contoured, padded shoulder straps and back panels will help keep strain at bay. Other helpful ergonomic features include a padded hip belt and suspension straps to help keep the load properly positioned. Lastly, encourage your child to wear their backpack properly, with both straps over their shoulders and the backpack centered on their back. Casually slinging a heavy backpack over one shoulder can result in misalignment that may cause problems.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Backpacks | Middle School and Kids' Backpacks | High School and College Backpacks | Rolling Backpacks | Our Sources

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