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For many students, a backpack is an essential back-to-school item: It can keep supplies like textbooks, folders and stationary in one place while also showing off some personal style. But there are multiple subjects and electives taught in schools — and the weight of the supplies needed for each one can be overbearing.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the weight of a student’s backpack should not exceed 10 to 15 percent of their body weight due to concerns of discomfort and even injury to muscles and joints. The American Chiropractic Association similarly advises that children carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight. “Our backs house some of the strongest muscles in our body. However, add food, schoolbooks, electronics and an assortment of other items, and the weight can add up quickly,” said Shai Karpf, DC, the owner and directing physician at North Broward Chiropractic & Wellness in Coconut Creek, Florida.
If you’re looking for an alternative to traditional backpacks with shoulder straps, rolling backpacks can quite literally take the weight of your child’s back. But are there long-term effects if your child continues to use a too-heavy backpack? We consulted experts on how heavy backpacks impact children and whether rolling backpacks can be a safer option.
What are the potential health effects of carrying around a heavy backpack?
Heavy backpacks are all too common and there are plenty of effects that come with carrying them around for 8 or more hours at school. Carrying a heavy backpack can put a strain on the spine and shoulders, potentially causing short-term effects like soreness and fatigue and long-term bad habits like slouching and poor posture. However, the experts we spoke to told us there’s limited evidence that suggests carrying a heavy backpack can cause significant back pain or have major long-term effects on children.
Heavy backpacks have been associated with back pain in some observational studies: Studies from 2010 and 2011 on the effects of heavy backpacks on lumbar spine pain and back pain in children, respectively, concluded that kids who carry over 10 percent of their body weight could increase the risk of back pain. But “in a systematic review of five prospective studies, backpack characteristics [like] weight and method of carrying were not associated with increased risk of back pain in children and adolescents,” Jill Noble, MD, the interim division director of general pediatrics at Michigan Medicine, and Ingrid Ichesco, MD, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine, told Shopping in a joint email response.
“The back will compensate for any load applied to it for an extended period of time,” they said, noting that “there is no evidence that structural spinal deformity can result from backpack use." According to the doctors, “there is little chance a child or teen will be permanently injured by carrying a heavy backpack.”
The experts we spoke to noted that a variety of factors can contribute to back pain that aren’t necessarily related to a heavy backpack. According to Noble and Ichesco, these include “sports participation (particularly if the sports equipment is inadequate or improper), soft bedding, back flexibility and psychosocial distress [like] depression and anxiety.” Always check with a physician to assess the nature of the pain.
Top-rated rolling backpacks to shop
If you do decide to purchase a rolling backpack for your child as they head back to school, we’ve compiled some highly rated options to shop that can help prevent back strain and soreness.
Top-rated rolling backpack overall: J World
This rolling backpack from J World earned a 4.5-star average rating from over 5,500 Amazon shoppers. It has a durable rubber bottom that can withstand being dragged on hard floors and pavement and it’s made from ripstop polyester fabric with a metal frame and reinforced edges. It also includes two mesh side pockets for water bottles and its front pocket organizer has a key clip, pen holders, card slots and an internal zip pocket to keep small items safe and organized.
Top-rated affordable rolling backpack: Rockland
If you’re looking for a decent rolling backpack on a budget, this Rockland one is made from durable polyester and equips a heavy-duty plastic stand on the bottom to keep it upright. You can choose from more than 15 patterns and designs, including polka dots, pink chevron, multi-colored hearts and leopard. It currently holds a 4.3-star average rating from over 8,000 Amazon reviewers.
Top-rated rolling backpack with laptop compartment: High Sierra
For students who carry tech like laptops and tablets, this option from High Sierra — which earned a 4.5-star average rating from more than 3,000 reviews on Amazon — has a large 34.5-liter capacity and features a padded laptop sleeve that can accommodate a 15-inch laptop. Kids can store supplies in the backpack’s organizer compartment complete with multiple pockets, including a zippered mesh pocket, pen pockets, a media pocket with a USB port and a key fob hook.
Top-rated rolling backpack for elementary school: Tilami
This matching rolling backpack and lunch box set comes in 16 kid-friendly designs, including Mermaid, Galaxy and Camouflage, and the lunch box features a handy strap by which it can attach to the backpack’s handle. The backpack has multiple compartments, including a main pocket, a middle pocket, a front pocket to store stationary and a small top-front pocket for smaller items like glasses and headphones. The set currently has a 4.6-star average rating from more than 600 Amazon reviewers.
Top-rated rolling backpack for middle and high school: JanSport
The JanSport Driver 8 converts from the brand’s classic backpack silhouette into a wheeled version that relieves the weight from kids’ backs. The rolling backpack, which has a 4.5-star average rating from over 100 reviewers on JanSport, comes in a solid Black or Red and features a padded grab handle, a padded back panel and shoulder straps that can be tucked away when they’re not in use. It also has multiple compartments, including two main ones to store larger supplies, a front utility pocket with an organizer for pens and pencils, a front stash pocket for smaller items and a side water bottle pocket.
Top-rated personalized rolling backpack: Pottery Barn Kids
You can personalize this backpack from Pottery Barn Kids to display your child’s name, which can help teachers, school staff and other students identify them during the first few days of school and return their backpack to them if it gets lost. This option is made from a durable and water-resistant polyester material, which is designed to softly glow in the dark to match its solar system pattern — you can purchase matching items separately, including a lunch box and water bottle. The Mackenzie collection features a variety of additional patterns like unicorns, dinosaurs and multi-colored hearts.
Top-rated water-repellant rolling backpack: Vera Bradley
This rolling backpack from Vera Bradley is made from the brand’s ReActive material sourced from 24 recycled plastic bottles. According to the brand, the material is lightweight, durable and water-repellant, so your child won’t have to fret about their school supplies if they’re caught in an unexpected rain shower. It has a 24-liter capacity, can accommodate a laptop up to 15 inches in size and includes straps that can be unclipped and tucked away when not in use.
How to wear a backpack to avoid back pain
Richard Lichenstein, MD, the director of pediatric emergency research at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said that back pain can be avoided if a backpack is used properly: It should be appropriately sized, feature multiple compartments to evenly distribute the weight and have a padded back and padded straps that are tightened so it sits two inches above the waist. To spread out the weight in the backpack, he also suggested placing heavier items at the bottom of the bag right in the center and advised using a harness whenever possible. “In addition, books should be only transported when needed and stored in lockers when possible,” he said, noting that “digitized content [and] a light laptop are excellent alternatives for a student lugging a backpack.”
Are rolling backpacks a good alternative to regular backpacks?
According to Karpf, rolling backpacks “can be a great alternative” to traditional backpacks since they “put the weight on the wheels instead of on your musculoskeletal system.” This can be helpful for children experiencing discomfort from lugging their backpack at school everyday. It can also be a good option for those who do extracurricular activities or walk home from school, which results in additional time carrying around extra weight.
However, there are some drawbacks to rolling backpacks that parents and students should consider that could pose their own safety problems and inconveniences. Not only are these backpacks difficult to carry up a flight of stairs, but some school policies don’t permit them. They also “may clutter hallways and be a tripping hazard to others,” said Lichenstein. These backpacks can also twist, “causing wrist, elbow and shoulder injuries,” added Noble and Ichesco.