One in three school students suffer significant back or neck pain, often thought to be caused by carrying heavy schoolbags, Victorian studies found. Almost half the students carried bags weighing more than 10% of their body weight – the recommended maximum for growing kids.

For a 40–50kg high school student, 10% of their body weight is 4–5kg. By the time you add in textbooks, laptop, notepads, a pencil case, lunchbox, water bottle, sports gear and project work, a measly five kilos is a tough limit to keep to. A locker takes some of the load off once your young scholar arrives at school, but a good versatile backpack is still crucial.

Teach your kids to carry the load

Inappropriate use of schoolbags, including backpacks, can contribute to acute and long-term spinal problems. No matter how good the bag is, the child needs to carry it over both shoulders with good posture.

Before your child heads off in the morning, make sure they've packed their backpack properly. Items shouldn't be able to bash around inside the bag; the heaviest ones should be packed closest to their back to reduce stress on the spine, with lighter items away from the back.

Encourage them to repack their bag daily, only take what they need that day, and make use of lockers at school, if available.

What to look for

Wheels (not!)

Some office workers with lots of documents have gone for a wheeled bag, similar to the carry-on bags used in air travel. But kids don't commute like adults: they run around, use public transport and move from class to class throughout the day. They would have to pull the bag over bumpy terrain, on grassed footpaths, lift and carry it on stairs or onto public transport – a backpack is better for the more mobile schoolkid.

Proper size

The backpack should neither extend past their shoulders when sitting down with it, nor be wider than their chest.

Playground tough

The bag needs to 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.

Custom fitting

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Several pockets to help with even weight distribution and organisation inside. A drink bottle holder on the side keeps potential spillages outside the pack.
  • 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.

Real world choices

Many schools don't give you much of a choice: the backpack is part of the uniform. If you'd prefer your child to use a better bag than the official 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.

At schools that don't recommend a particular backpack, students may choose surf, sports or mountain/adventure brands. Some of the features of these backpacks are quite good – use the guide above to check it's up to scratch.