What's new in school backpacks?


Today's backpacks are funky and functional.
Today's backpacks are funky and functional.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

This year's backpack styles are all about effortless functionality, rugged durability and enough cunning cubbies to suit the most organized back-to-schooler. Style is a big factor, too. Backpacks can be fashion statements with more visibility than your average pair of high-priced shoes. With this year's styles, turn down the lights and you're looking at the familiar slouchy outline of a standard backpack. Turn them back up again, and you've got braided leather, a profusion of flowers or large-scale plaids in bold colors that mirror this year's big clothing trends. If you love 1970s retro, polka dots or animal prints, you definitely need a new backpack this season.

A trusty backpack takes a beating, and this is one purchase where quality counts. Look for a bag that can carry a big load and weather a few indignities, like being dragged down the sidewalk or thumped up a flight of stairs. Because a backpack can be an investment, you should also consider a classic style that will be a keeper for a couple of seasons.

Your best indicator of quality is a name brand you recognize and trust. Inexpensive, mass market backpacks may look great on the shelf, but they're likely to show wear fast: Fraying seams, cracking decals and sticking or broken zippers could have you buying more than one backpack in a season -- which is a bad bargain no matter how you look at it.

Where features are concerned, if you have the time to check out the offerings, you're likely to find the perfect fit for your unique style. From ergonomically constructed bags designed to distribute the weight of books and other heavy objects minimizing back and neck strain, to specialty backpacks with onboard speakers for your MP3 player, there's a lot to choose from.

The best way to make a start is to assess your needs. If you'll be carrying lots of books, you may need an expandable backpack or even a rolling backpack if your school (and style) allows it. The more tailored the pack is, the more convenient it will be to use. Models with a padded notebook computer sleeve and a water bottle pocket are pretty common this year. Cell phone and MP3 player pockets, insulated lunch bag storage and interior divider panels for notebooks and folders are all features you'll find pretty readily, too, but maybe not all in the same backpack. That's why it's important to have your wish list ready before you shop. You can go with a relatively streamlined exterior or one that looks like a pile of pouches, but whatever profile you prefer, evaluate a backpack's onboard cubbies relative to the items you'll be carrying with you most of the time.

For easy access, a backpack should have a convenient grab handle. It'll help avoid premature wear on the pack's shoulder straps. Wide, comfortable straps and reinforced bottoms are also important. If you're shopping for a younger child, a petite backpack may seem like a great, lightweight solution, but make sure the design you choose is large enough to carry notebooks and art projects without creasing or crushing them.

Beyond fashion and functionality is fit, so we've saved it for last. The weight of a backpack should always rest on the lower back and not the shoulders. It should also be designed to hold items snugly enough that they won't shift unexpectedly. Having a core, center section especially for books is great for this. An oversized backpack may seem like a good solution because you'll have the extra space if you need it, right? The problem is that all the extra weight could cause back problems later, and if the space is there, you may just keep adding stuff, whether you're using it regularly or not.

If you're shopping for a child, review the informational materials on the products you're interested in. Some have sizing guidelines to help you. Choose padded backpacks with two straps. A good general rule is that a backpack should be no larger than the width of a child's back measurement. Take their schedules into consideration, too. If they'll be walking to the bus stop in the early morning or coming home late from an extracurricular practice, look for safety features like reflective lights or panels. You might also want to do some online product research. Comments from students (or parents) who've actually used some of the backpacks you're considering can give you insights into whether or not they're as convenient and comfortable to use as they are attractive to look at.

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