[Skip to Content]

Backpack Safety


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

Many backpacks come with multiple compartments that help students stay organized while they tote their books and papers from home to school and back again. Compared with shoulder bags, messenger bags, or purses, backpacks are better because strong muscles — the back and the abdominal muscles — support the weight of the packs.

When worn correctly, the weight in a backpack is evenly distributed across the body, and shoulder and neck injuries are less common than if someone carried a briefcase or purse.

As practical as backpacks are, though, they can strain muscles and joints and may cause back pain if they're too heavy or are used incorrectly.

Here's how to help kids find — and use  the right backpack.

Problems Backpacks Can Pose

Many things can lead to back pain — like playing sports or exercising a lot, poor posture while sitting, and long periods of inactivity. But some kids have backaches because they're lugging around their entire locker's worth of books, school supplies, and personal items all day long. 

Doctors and physical therapists recommend that kids carry no more than 10% to 15% of their body weight in their packs. But many carry a lot more than that. When a heavy backpack is incorrectly placed on the shoulders, the weight's force can pull a child backward. To compensate, the child might bend forward at the hips or arch the back. This can make the spine compress unnaturally, leading 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. Girls and younger kids may be especially at risk for backpack-related injuries because they're smaller and may carry loads that are heavier in proportion to their body weight.

Also, backpacks with tight, narrow straps that dig into the shoulders can interfere with circulation and nerves. These types of straps can lead to tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and hands.

And bulky or heavy backpacks don't just cause back injuries. Other safety issues to consider:

Finding a Safe Pack

Despite their potential problems, backpacks are great when used properly. Before you buy one, though, consider a backpack's construction.

Look for the following to choose the right backpack:

Although packs on wheels (which look like small, overhead luggage bags) may be good options for students who have to lug around really heavy loads, 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.

Using Backpacks Wisely

To help kids prevent injury when using a backpack:

What Kids Can Do

A lot of the responsibility for packing lightly — and safely — rests with kids:

What You Can 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:

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

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

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2016


Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995- The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.

Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Science Photo Library, Science Source Images, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com