Backpack Buying Guide

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What We Found

In Consumer Reports' evaluations of backpacks, we selected non-wheeled backpacks with two shoulder straps. We test backpacks for durability, construction quality, safety, convenience features, comfort, and resistance to rain. Good safety features include reflective material, an abdominal or chest strap (to help distribute weight), and a place to store excess adjustment straps so they don't snag on a doorknob or school-bus door.

Find One That Fits Your Lifestyle and Your Frame
We evaluated several backpacks to find those with the best balance of fit, quality, comfort, and other features. We tested each backpack in a "tumbler" to see how well each would stand up to regular use (and possibly abuse). And we asked panelists to test the backpacks for comfort, using them in ways that simulate movements an average person makes in a typical day—walking, running, going up and down stairs, and picking things up from the floor—while wearing each backpack.

How the Marketplace has Changed
Sales of backpacks in the U.S. totaled $1.31 billion in 2008, according to the Travel Goods Association. And more than half of all backpacks purchased are for children under 17, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Jansport has been the top-selling brand for at least 15 years, with L.L. Bean placing second.

Shopping Tips

One Size Does not Fit All
Ideally, the bottom of the backpack should align with the curve of the lower back, and not more than four inches below the waistline. A backpack's shoulder-strap anchor points should also rest 1 to 2 inches below the top of the shoulders.

Inspect Before You Invest
Things to look for on the inside and outside of a backpack before you buy it include:
Sloppy stitching or loose threads, which can indicate poor manufacturing
Raw, exposed fabric edges, which can fray and weaken the fabric, and possibly get stuck in the zipper
Zippers without covering fabric flaps. In our rain test, zippers that were not protected by flaps of fabric allowed water to seep in

Comfort, Convenience, and Safety are Important
Features to look for include wide, padded, contoured shoulder straps that distribute the pack's load over a large area of the shoulder, an abdominal strap, which can help distribute the pack's weight evenly on the back, waist, and hips, and reflectors or reflective fabrics on the pack to add visibility when kids travel to and from school at dusk or dawn.

Prevent Injury With a Lighter Load
To prevent discomfort and injury, load and wear the backpack correctly. The American Occupational Therapy Association recommends carrying no more than 15 percent of your body weight in a backpack. But the less you carry, the better for your back.

Our Backpack Tests

We looked at non-wheeled backpacks with two shoulder straps. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends wearing a pack with two straps because a backpack with a single shoulder strap across the body does not distribute weight evenly According to our in-house survey, an estimated 84 percent of backpacks bought in the last two years were non-wheeled models.

We tested all the backpacks for durability, construction quality, safety, convenience features, comfort, and resistance to rain.

For durability testing, very little difference was found from pack to pack, with one exception. In two samples of the Bakugan Battle Brawlers pack, seam rips made the backpacks unusable. It was also the only backpack to show signs of wear in our shoulder-strap durability tests.

On one sample of the Hannah Montana Undercover Pop Star backpack by FAB StarPoint, for the outer pocket on the pack, the part of the zipper that closes the "teeth" together broke off while in use. In another sample, an adjustment buckle was sewn onto the wrong side of a shoulder strap. And on a third sample, an adjustment strap came undone during the kids' comfort tests, causing the bag to hang from one lone strap.

We evaluated all packs for the presence of safety features such as a reflective material, an abdominal strap or chest strap (to help keep the weight of the pack closer to the body and distribute weight), and a place to store excess adjustment straps to prevent them from getting snagged on a doorknob or school-bus door, for example.

To test rain resistance, we lined each pack with construction paper, filled it with linen cloth, zipped it and placed it on a mannequin that was subjected to a five-minute shower simulating rainfall. The backpacks were then removed from the mannequin, the water shaken off, and our engineers scored the saturation of the construction paper.

A look at the BackTPack

The BackTPack is advertised as a system "that uses the vertical force of gravity for training proper alignment of the skeleton in the way the body was designed to function." Essentially, this bag is like carrying two shoulder bags, one on each side, that are attached to each other across the user's back and front with straps.

Highs: This pack scored Good for construction and convenience features, and features a chest strap, abdominal strap, and means of securing excess adjustment straps.

Lows: The undersides of your forearms might rub against the pack, forcing you to hold your arms out when in use. At $65, it's expensive when compared with most of the backpacks we tested.

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