The Basics of Backpack Ergonomics: Bigger is Not Necessarily Better

Photo by John Cullen

If your child is convinced she needs a backpack more suited to a three-month trek around Europe than boarding a school bus, consider this: Heavily loaded packs can put strain on the muscles and joints, which can cause back, neck, armpit and foot pain, says Dr. Joan Stevenson, who teaches ergonomics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and who specializes in the study of backpacks. (She’s even helped the Canadian and British militaries design theirs.) In fact, a full backpack should never be more than 10 percent of your child’s body weight (15 percent for older students).

You can help lighten your child’s load by choosing an appropriately sized pack in a lightweight material, placing heavier items at the bottom and close to the back and making sure she’s taking only what she needs each day—not a week’s worth of stuff. The Canadian Physiotherapy Association says a backpack is a good fit if the shoulder straps fit comfortably, not digging into the shoulders or armpits, and when the bottom of the pack rests in the middle of the lower back, not sagging way past the waistline. Stevenson recommends packs with a sternum strap which will help distribute the weight evenly.
Nylon and mesh Kids Dome Daypack, $16, MEC.

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