Backpack Safety: Tips for Lightening the Load and Finding the Right Fit

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

BY Dr. Brittany Falcone & Dr. Vito Giacalone

Choosing a backpack is about more than finding the right color or cool design. An incorrectly fitted school backpack can cause early spinal damage. Picking the right backpack is important to a student's health and to having a successful school year.

In 2013, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission cited 5,415 backpack related injuries at emergency rooms. Heavy backpacks can result in acute and chronic back problems, among other painful conditions. 

The maximum capacity for a backpack should be 10 percent of body weight, so a 50-pound child should carry a bag no more than five pounds. A 2001 study at Simmons College discovered that 55 percent of students carry a backpack that is heavier than the recommended guidelines. While some sources suggest a 15 percent  maximum capacity body weight, we encourage a conservative approach. Regardless of a child’s weight, a backpack should never exceed 25 pounds.

Omitting items to meet weight requirements may seem challenging or unrealistic. Consider a few suggestions: purchase a small-to-medium size pack (a smaller pack will ensure a lighter load); have two textbooks – one at home and one at school, or eliminate books by accessing an online version; and make it a habit to empty out your child’s pack each week to ensure unwanted items are removed.

It is also possible to avoid using a backpack altogether and opt for a rolling suitcase-type pack instead. This style of bag almost eliminates the need to carry anything at all while allowing your child to transport required school items. However, many schools do not allow suitcases in the classroom. Look for a backpack/suitcase hybrid like the AO King Rolling Wheeled backpack. It has wheels and a retractable handle that allows it to be pulled behind or carried by straps over the shoulders.

When selecting a backpack for your child, it is important to choose comfort and fit over fashion (hopefully you’ll find both). The top features to look for in an ergonomically appropriate backpack are: 

-Wide, padded shoulder straps

-Adjustable straps

-A padded back region

-Multiple compartments

-Chest and/or waist straps

-Appropriately sized (no wider than the student’s chest)

Once you have selected a backpack using theses guidelines, the fit and position of the pack on your child is equally important. While backpacks vary, they are made with two straps for a reason. Encourage your children to use both straps, all the time. Once on both shoulders, tighten the straps so the pack is firmly against the shoulder blades and mid-back. The pack should always be worn at or above the hollow of the lower back. Lastly, to help with proper weight distribution, place heavier items at the base of the bag and closer to the spine (this is where those extra compartments come in handy). Rounded shoulders or a pack that falls below the level of the pelvis are indicators that the straps need to be adjusted to a tighter position. Look for the visual signs of an improperly fitted backpack in your child to prevent injury.

If your child complains of pain, fatigue, or that their pack feels too heavy, there is likely a problem. Your first steps should be to reduce the weight of the backpack, adjust the fit, or consider purchasing a new bag. If pain persists, an evaluation by your child’s pediatrician/family doctor or a chiropractor that specializes in treated children may be warranted.