Tips for Buying School Backpacks

The holidays are near, so why in the world are we writing about school backpacks?!?

Kids, especially younger ones, love receiving new school supplies, and you can easily gift it to them at Christmas to update any backpacks that are already showing signs of wear and tear, get a fresh start for the new calendar year, or just switch up backpacks for fun.  Besides, one of my best budget tips for buying school supplies is not to buy them during the back-to-school season. Shopping off-season not only has its price benefits, but it also saves you from the general mad rush in August and from having to hunt down supplies through picked-over bins.

When purchasing your child’s new backpack, price should not be of primary concern.  It should be an important decision because an ill-fitting, poor quality backpack can plague your child’s spinal health for life. In other words, I encourage you to resist the urge to buy the cutest or cheapest backpack you find, and rather shop more mindfully, considering more than just price or appearance.

After checking on any restrictions and requirements set forth by your school, select a backpack based on durability, style, size, fit, wash-ability, and any necessary features.


Backpacks certainly get their fair share of abuse, so it’s important to invest in one that is durable.  We have a friend that has had to replace a backpack for her child (same age as ours) three times while we have had only one. The difference?  Quality!  Yes, ours initially cost us more, as we forked over nearly $40 for ours, but she has paid over $50 for 3 lesser quality ones that will need to be replaced again next year.  I have always been one to choose quality over price, because, in the end, it stands the test of time, costing you less in replacement fees.  Barring any unusual circumstances or changes, a backpack should last several years or until a child outgrows it.  It should be made of a sturdy but lightweight, water-resistant material that won’t easily fray.  Any zippers, straps, seams and wheels should also be carefully inspected.


Take your child’s age, preferences and needs into consideration before deciding on a style of bag. With that said, I still prefer the standard or traditional backpacks over messenger or sling bags, as they improve carrying posture. Convertible rolling backpacks are also great where allowed and for when your (older) child needs to haul around larger loads.

If you are looking at being able to use the backpack for an extended amount of time (and because obsessions come and go), avoid the design fads and most characters.  But that doesn’t mean that personal style has to be compromised.  There are plenty of suitable backpacks on the market with classic solid colors or more adaptable, here-to-stay patterns.


Ideally, your child will only need 4 backpacks in his or her primary and secondary school life – Pre-school, early elementary (Kindergarten to 2nd grade), older elementary to middle school, and high school.  It’s great to have customizable sizes in a brand that you like and trust – not just because you don’t want to have your tiny child swallowed by a standard-sized backpack, but because an appropriately sized backpack and comfortable fit is imperative for spinal health.

For preschool-aged children, a backpack is not entirely necessary.  They really just need a bag to hold a change of clothes, a snack and a favorite toy.  However, most preschoolers I know love to feel like a big kid by wearing a backpack of their own.  (They certainly do look adorable in them, don’t they?) If this is the case, be sure to look for a preschool-sized pack.

By early elementary age, kids need a backpack large enough to hold at least one folder, a book or two, a water bottle and their lunch.  Older kids will need larger backpacks or even an extra-large rolling bag with the amount of books and binders they will need to haul around. Unfortunately, due to rigorous homework demands, oftentimes our children are required to carry backpacks of larger sizes. If this is the case, avoid the temptation to fill it with more “stuff.”

Tip: Avoid unnecessary shoulder and back strain and affecting your child’s posture adversely by finding the right size.

What’s the right size? A backpack should be the size of the child’s back or smaller.  When both shoulder straps are secured and adjusted at the correct location, the bottom of the backpack should fall just below your child’s belly button. Generally speaking, the height of the backpack should be:

  • Less than 12 inches for preschoolers
  • Less than 16 inches for elementary-aged kids
  • Less than for 18 inches for older kids

Tip: Torsos come in various shapes and sizes, so don’t just trust “standard” sizes.  Whenever possible, take your child with you to try them on.

How should the backpack fit?  To provide stability and relieve pressure on the back and shoulders, make sure the straps fit snug and not loosely.  An additional strap at the waist or chest is desirable for weight distribution and proper balance. Look for wide, contoured straps that are adjustable and have plenty of padding to absorb some of the load.

Tip: When worn properly and with the correct amount of load, backpacks should not make the child lean forward in compensation.

What is the correct amount of load?  Chiropractors and other physicians recommend no more than 15% of a person’s body weight being carried in a backpack.  In a child that weighs 50 pounds, the (filled) backpack should weigh less than 7 pounds.


With the wear and tear kids put backpacks through, backpacks should not only be able to withstand the abuse but also a good periodic cleaning. Although tempting (and even if the care label says it’s okay), I advise you to refrain from tossing your backpack in the washer. If you want it to last longer than one school year, hand wash it!


In today’s backpacks, there are many fancy bells and whistles for just about anything you can think of.  And while I love organization in the form of pockets and compartments, don’t get sucked into buying any unnecessary features. Why?  It can be tempting to use all of them, which will add to the overall weight of the pack.  Think, what will your child realistically need and use?

Here are four features that I personally love:

  • Side drink pockets on the exterior of the backpack – This is mainly to keep “sweating” or leaking bottles away from the contents of the backpack, but it also serves as a handy and visible reminder to stay hydrated.
  • Lunch bag straps on the outside of the backpack – If the contents of the lunch bag somehow leaks, I would rather it leak on the outside than the inside of the backpack where it could ruin important paperwork or artwork.  However, this doesn’t mean that you can fill the inside of the backpack with more “stuff.”  There are several backpacks that have coordinating lunch bags that clip on to the backpack’s exterior, like this one from Pottery Barn Kids MacKenzie Collection:
  • MP3 player pocket with a cutout for headphones for the older kids, especially those that might have a long bus ride or commute – It is easier to locate the device and not lose the headphones this way.
  • Reflective material to help with visibility when crossing busy streets (especially in the early morning hours during the time change in the Spring!)

If you keep these suggestions in mind the next time you purchase a backpack, you can be confidently satisfied in your investment and your child’s back will thank you for it in the years to come.

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