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Backpack Safety

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
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Backpacks come in all sizes, colors, fabrics, and shapes and help kids express their own personal sense of style. And when used properly, they're incredibly handy.

But backpacks can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain if they're too heavy or not used correctly.

What Problems Can Backpacks Cause?

Kids can have backaches from lugging around the weight of books, school supplies, and personal items. Doctors and physical therapists recommend that kids carry no more than 10% to 20% of their body weight in their packs. But many carry a lot more than that. 

The weight can pull a child backward, making them bend forward at the hips or arch the back to stay steady. This unnatural position can lead to shoulder, neck, and back pain.

Kids who wear their backpacks over just one shoulder — as many do, because they think it looks better or just feels easier — may end up leaning to one side to offset the extra weight. They might develop lower and upper back pain and strain their shoulders and neck. Improper backpack use can also lead to bad posture. 

Also, backpacks with tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders can cause tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.

Other safety issues to consider:

  • Kids who carry large packs often aren't aware of how much space the packs take up and can hit others with their packs when turning around or moving through tight spaces, such as the aisles of a school bus.
  • Students can be injured if they trip over large packs or a pack falls on them.
  • Carrying a heavy pack changes the way kids walk and puts them at risk of falling, particularly on stairs or other places where a backpack puts a student off balance.

What Should I Look for in a Backpack?

Follow these tips to choose the right backpack:

  • Get a lightweight pack: Find one that doesn't add a lot of weight to your child's load. For example, leather packs weigh more than canvas backpacks. It should have:
    • two wide, padded shoulder straps: Straps that are too narrow can dig into shoulders.
    • a padded back: It not only provides increased comfort, but also protects kids from being poked by sharp objects or edges (pencils, rulers, notebooks, etc.) inside the pack.
    • a waist belt: This helps spread the weight more evenly across the body.
    • multiple compartments: These help spread the weight throughout the pack.

Packs on wheels, which look like small, overhead luggage bags, may be good options for students who have to lug around really heavy loads. But they're very hard to pull up stairs and to roll through snow. Check with the school before buying a rolling pack. Many don't allow them because they can be a tripping hazard in the hallways.

What Can Kids Do?

To help kids prevent injury when using a backpack, they should:

Lighten the load:

  • No matter how well-designed the backpack, less weight is always better. Use the bathroom scale to check that a pack isn't over 10% to 20% of your child's body weight. For example, a child who weighs 80 pounds shouldn't carry a backpack that weighs more than 8 to 16 pounds.
  • Encourage kids to use their locker or desk often throughout the day instead of carrying the entire day's worth of books in the backpack.
  • Make sure kids don't tote unnecessary items that can add extra pounds to a pack.
  • Encourage kids to bring home only the books needed for homework or studying each night.
  • Use all of the backpack's compartments, putting heavier items, such as textbooks, closest to the center of the back.

Use and pick up the backpack properly:

  • Make sure kids use both shoulder straps. Bags that are slung over the shoulder or across the chest — or that only have one strap — aren't as effective at distributing the weight as bags with two wide shoulder straps, and can strain muscles. 
  • Tighten the straps enough for the backpack to fit closely to the body. The pack should rest evenly in the middle of the back and not sag down to the buttocks. 
  • Picking up the backpack the right way can help kids avoid back injuries. As with any heavy weight, they should bend at the knees and grab the pack with both hands when lifting a backpack to the shoulders.

What Can Parents Do?

Involving other parents and your child's school in solving students' backpack burdens might help to lessen kids' loads. Some ways the school can get involved include:

  • giving students more time between classes to use lockers
  • using paperback books
  • adding school education programs about safe backpack use
  • putting some curriculum online, when possible

You may need to adjust your kids' backpacks and/or reduce how much they carry if they:

  • struggle to get the backpack on or off
  • have back pain
  • lean forward to carry the backpack

If your child has back pain or numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, talk to the doctor.

Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: May 2020