Back-to-School Backpacks to Ease the Load -- and the Budget


Victoria Brunn of Manteca, Calif., was scouring the Internet for a back-to-school backpack under $30 for her 8-year-old son, Jackson. The kid knows what he wants. Messenger-style strap over one shoulder. Must be cool. "I have a budget. He, of course, doesn't," the mother said. "That's part of the problem."

Both mother and son have a good chance of being satisfied customers, according to, a collector of expert and buyer opinions on all kinds of merchandise. Its top-rated backpacks begin at $23 for elementary schoolers and $40 for teens.

Paying any less will leave you with a fuller wallet, but your kid could be lugging the pack for the short haul, warned Christine Frietchen, ConsumerSearch's editor in chief. Textbook friction, the tendency for kids to toss their packs around like dirty socks, and natural wear-and-tear could shred your so-called bargain before midterm report cards. "That's the issue with drugstore and discount store backpacks," she said.

Backpacks of unknown or obscure brands can be a pleasant surprise, but you're on your own, Frietchen said, because there's no word of mouth on the quality. "It's a trial-and-error thing," she said. "Hopefully it's only a $10 or $15 mistake." Perhaps one exception to where you can get away with drugstore brands are for the very young, who carry a minimal amount of stuff.

The Weight of the World on Their Shoulders

No matter what you're buying, always look for a backpack that's the right size to discourage overpacking, Frietchen advised. "It makes my heart break when I see a tiny little tiny kid with a huge backpack," she said. Think 950 cubic inches of capacity for elementary and middle school, twice that for higher grades. And remember: The backpack is not an industrial storage bin. Stop cramming in everything. You want your children to have posture like they're hauling stones to build the Pyramids? The American Chiropractic Association recommends youngsters carry no more than 5% to 10% of their body weight. The American Academy of Pediatrics gives a bit more leeway at 10% to 20%.

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The pack should not hang down more than two inches below the waist, experts say. Look for a padded back to protect against protruding sharp objects. And don't forget the padded straps. But other features come down to personal taste. Water bottle holder? Compression laces to shove in a sweater or poncho? Separate laptop compartment? Digital music player slot? Mickey Mouse theme or Dora the Explorer? Lightning McQueen or Justin Bieber?

(If you're thinking about wheels, don't go there. They can be dangerous on stairs, and they make your children look they just got off the red-eye from London.)

ConsumerSearch's list-topping backpacks include the North Face (VFC) Jester ($55) and JanSport Big Student ($40) for teen scholars, the Lucky Bums Dragonfly 15 ($50) for ages 9 and older, and the LL Bean Junior Original ($23) for kindergarten and up.

Military Surpluss
Military Surpluss

This DailyFinance writer would like to throw another retail option into the mix: Army Navy surplus stores. I often go that route. While the manufacturers' names may not ring a bell, the packs' durability can often match or exceed familiar brands. Uncle Sam's Army Navy Outfitters in Manhattan featured urban-style camouflage, khaki and black canvas backpacks ($39.95) that can last five or six years, sales manager Abou Toure said. Christy Tomecek, a grad student at Queens College, said she was in the store to replace a messenger bag ($34.95) she bought there that finally wore out after four years.

Another plus of military outlets has nothing to do with cubic inches, supplemental handles or price: Said manager Tim Raby: "It's more fun to come into an Army-Navy."

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