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
 

01 .Introduction

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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A good school backpack should:
  • Be appropriately sized for the child. It should neither extend past their shoulders when sitting down with it, nor be wider than their chest.
  • Be comparatively lightweight. Fully packed it shouldn’t weigh more than 10% of the child’s body weight (that’s the lean body weight, so it’s even less for overweight children).
  • Be sturdy and reasonably water-resistant (or have a rain cover). The material should be firm to prevent sagging. The base should be abrasive-resistant and/or reinforced.
  • Have a moulded frame and/or an adjustable hip or waist strap, so most of the weight rests on the hips and pelvis, not on the shoulders and spine. The waist/hip belt is particularly important to secure the load when walking, running or cycling.
  • Have adjustable, broad, padded shoulder straps that help distribute the weight evenly and don’t dig into the wearer.
  • Have a padded or quilted back for comfortable wear.
  • Have compression straps at the sides to draw the load together and bring it close to the child’s back. They’ll also help stabilise the contents of a partially filled pack.
  • Have a sternum (chest) strap to help stabilise the load and prevent the straps slipping off the shoulders. It should sit about 10 cm down from the Adam’s apple. (Look for a detachable strap if you’re not sure your child will wear it.)
  • Have several pockets to help with even weight distribution and organisation inside. A drink bottle holder on the side keeps potential spillages outside the pack.

Using it properly

While a pack with a limited capacity and the ‘less than 10% of body weight’ benchmark are attempts to tackle the problem, what can you do if kids can’t avoid carrying more sometimes? That’s where using a backpack properly comes in.

  • Backpacks are designed to carry a load safely — symmetrical, stable and close to the spine — but not if they’re worn casually slung over just one shoulder.
  • If necessary, show your child how to put the backpack on properly: lift it up by the loop with both hands and bent knees, facing the straps and pushing up with the legs. Place one strap over the shoulder, then the other, or put it on the edge of a desk and loop both arms through together.
  • A backpack should be worn so the waist strap (or hip belt) sits firmly where intended.
  • Shoulder straps should be adjusted so the child doesn’t have to lean forward and the base of the pack rests on their hips, not on the bum, as many like to wear it.
  • Before your child heads off to school, make sure they’ve packed their backpack properly. Items shouldn’t be able to move around; the heaviest ones should be packed closest to their back to reduce stress on the spine, lighter items away from the spine.
  • Encourage them to repack their bag daily, only take what they need that day and make use of lockers at school, if available.

Choosing a bag

Many schools don’t give you much of a choice: the backpack is part of the uniform — it’s in the school colours and probably emblazoned with its logo. If you’d prefer your child to use a different bag from the official one, perhaps a more ergonomically designed one, ask the appropriate body at the school to justify its choice of bag. Your suggestions might well be taken up in the future, or it might kindle debate on the topic — and in the meantime they might agree to let your child use a better bag.

Children use a school backpack five days a week, 40 weeks a year. It’s thrown on the ground, used as a seat and often treated with little care and attention. To withstand such rough treatment, a school backpack must be designed to last.

A major supplier of school backpacks, bags and accessories, Spartan School Supplies, says it aims to provide a wide choice of strong and durable bags at an affordable price. They also offer endorsed bags.

Spartan bags are primarily available through and priced by schools (usually with the school’s logo), but you can also buy directly from the supplier www.spartanss.com.au or phone (03) 9874 8955, or 1800 815 557 from outside metropolitan Melbourne.

Brands and trends

At schools that don’t recommend a particular backpack, students may choose surf brands such as Billabong or Ripcurl. Some of the features of these backpacks that might help posture include ergonomic shoulder straps and a padded back, and some other features include a laptop compartment, reinforced base piping and oversized zips.

Some surf or mountain packs come with things like a curved back section and sternum, waist or compression straps. Your child, though, is probably more attracted to the brand-name graphics and features such as skateboard straps and loads of customised pockets for things like an MP3 player.

Also on the market are a few ergonomic school backpacks, designed to reduce the incidence and severity of back and neck pain associated with carrying a heavy backpack and endorsed by professional back care organisations.

These endorsements may be based on the organisation’s own or independent evaluation, but not always on comparative testing. So they’re an indication that professionals in the field have given the thumbs-up to the pack, not necessarily that they’re the best you can find.

Chiropak II

Manufacturer: Spartan

Contact: www.spartanss.com.au or phone (03) 9874 8955, or 1800 815 557 from outside metropolitan Melbourne.

  • Endorsed by the Chiropractors’ Association of Australia and the World Federation of Chiropractic
  • Developed by Spartan and researchers from the Department of Chiropractic at Macquarie University (NSW) with the aim to allow children to carry their heavy load safely — with around 80% of the weight resting on their pelvis and hips, the body’s major load-bearing structure, rather than the spine
  • Features that help achieve this include a padded hip belt, an adjustable spine board (also called internal spine) and a removable sternum (chest) strap to help stabilise the load and keep it centred over the shoulders
  • Available in four sizes, providing for Year 7 students upwards

Features that help achieve this include a padded hip belt, an adjustable spine board (also called internal spine) and a removable sternum (chest) strap to help stabilise the load and keep it centred over the shoulders. For more on these and other features, see What to look for. It’s available in four sizes, providing for Year 7 students upwards; for your nearest stockist, contact Spartan.

Physiopak 07

Manufacturer: Spartan

Contact: www.spartanss.com.au or phone (03) 9874 8955, or 1800 815 557 from outside metropolitan Melbourne

  • Endorsed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association and designed with the aim of minimising postural change in school students
  • Based on research by the Centre for Allied Health Evidence at the University of South Australia, which set out to design a pack with limited capacity, as it had found that students would fill up even a large backpack
  • The Physiopak 07’s moulded base and frame are designed to keep the load at the correct angle to the spine and stop it from sagging away from it, even when no compression straps are used (they’re provided)
  • It has many of the other features of a good backpack (see What to look for)

Available in four sizes. Spartan also offers P-Pak III for primary school students.

SAS Academic

Manufacturer: SAS Academic

Contact: www.sasacademic.com or phone (02) 8338 6999

  • The latest of the endorsed packs to come on the market is the SAS Academic, a school backpack designed in collaboration with a chiropractor and endorsed by the Chiropractic & Osteopathic College of Australasia
  • This pack has a special harness that lets you adjust the pack to fit a good range of heights, and shoulder straps that attach to different buckles to cater for different shoulder widths and torso lengths. Ask the supplier for help with the initial fitting.
  • Apart from the usual features of a good backpack, the SAS Academic also has a reflective strip (for better visibility), 3 large internal compartments, rubber feet and a rain cover.
  • It’s available in three sizes claimed to be suitable for kindergarten to Year 12 students and can be personalised to suit the school’s requirements