School backpacks buying guide

An ergonomic backpack can reduce back and neck pain, but only if carried correctly.
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  • Updated:11 Nov 2005


Children with backpacks

In brief

  • Keeping the weight down as far as possible and carrying a backpack appropriately may help reduce the incidence of acute and long-term spinal problems.
  • A growing child should limit the weight they carry in a backpack to no more than 10% of their body weight, that's around 4–5 kg for a 40–50kg high school student and represents, in practical terms, only three medium to large textbooks and a lunchbox.

Textbooks, notepads, pencil case, lunchbox, water bottle. Perhaps a laptop, sports gear, music or project work — the stuff high-school students carry around some days can certainly add up. That’s where a good, versatile backpack comes in. It’ll let the busy student carry all their daily necessities safely, while keeping their hands and arms free. But inappropriate use of schoolbags, including backpacks, can contribute to acute and long-term spinal problems.

The high number of reports of adolescents suffering from regular episodes of spinal (back, neck or shoulder) pain are of concern worldwide. Findings fro Australian research are just as disturbing.

  • South Australian studies into the spinal health of more than 2500 school students found about half of them repeatedly reported recent spinal pain episodes.
  • Victorian studies found one in three school students suffered significant back or neck pain, often thought to be caused by carrying heavy schoolbags (almost half the students carried bags weighing more than 10% of their body weight, the recommended maximum for growing children).
  • Poor posture when carrying a loaded backpack is one of the intrinsic risk factors for spinal problems, and it’s magnified if students repeatedly carry a heavy load, carry it poorly (over one shoulder only, for example) or for too long a time.
  • Considering that 60–80% of Australians will experience a back problem at some stage, and that the damage students are doing now may set them up for back problems later in life, it’s particularly important that we look after our children’s backs.
  • Providing them with a good school backpack is crucial, but educating them on how to use it appropriately is just as vital.

Wheeled bags not recommended

  • If your child needs to carry lots of things regularly, a bag with wheels and a pull-out handle might seem like a good idea. The theory — that they take the weight off the back and thereby lower the risk of damaging the spine — is fine, but there are concerns about the practical implications.
  • Students on their way to and from school are likely to use their bag in an altogether different manner from adults who are between flights. They may have to pull it over bumpy terrain, on grassed footpaths, lift and carry it on stairs or onto public transport
  • Experts think using one in such conditions could not only be awkward but create other problems, such as minor injuries from bags flipping over, a sore arm (as we tend to use one hand only to pull the bag), or a back injury from lifting a heavy bag — they’re not likely to weigh any less than a packed backpack
  • School supplier Spartan has wheeled bags in its range, but advises against using them as school bags.


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