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A backpack user’s guide: Pack ‘em light, wear ‘em right

A man wearing a backpack, carrying a child
If misused, backpacks can pose risks to your shoulders, back and neck.

Backpacks are no doubt useful for stashing schoolwork, hauling hiking gear or even for use by professional people to keep essential equipment handy.

A problem with backpacks, though, is they may hold more than you can carry.

“Most people are aware that backpacks are helpful, but if misused they can pose risks to your shoulders, back and neck,” said Aaron Homolka, a physical therapist at Marshfield Clinic.

How can you keep a backpack from straining your back – or your child’s?

Back pack safety graphic
Download and share the backpack safety guidelines

Homolka offers some tips:

  • Check for proper fit. Most backpacks are designed to outline the shape of the back, with the pack’s top near or just below the top of the shoulders. The bottom should be just below the waist. Adjust backpack straps for proper alignment.
  • Keep heavier items closest to the back. “The closer the weight is to the center of the body, the better the body’s muscle and bone system can handle the load. Use both shoulder straps. Never sling a loaded pack over one shoulder. Use chest and waist straps if your backpack has them, to keep the load evenly distributed.”
  • Keep the load down. Loads should be only 10 to 15 percent of the user’s body weight. “If you weigh 60 pounds, I recommend your loaded backpack weighs no more than 6 to 10 pounds. Use your bathroom scale to check it. Try to remove unnecessary items from the pack. Plan ahead with homework to allow smaller loads daily instead of large and heavy loads on the weekends.”
  • Limit the lifting. If rolling backpacks are allowed, they’re an excellent alternative. If a traditional backpack is required, take it off when standing still. Even short breaks can help decrease muscle strain. When putting the backpack on or taking it off, use your legs to lift the load and place it gently on your back.
  • Stay strong. Good core strength of the abdominals and trunk muscles can prevent injuries to the back, neck and shoulders. Physical activity also can help prevent weight gain, which also can increase the load to these same areas.
  • Stay updated. Researchers are designing backpacks with suspension systems. If tension of the suspension spring can be adjusted to soften the load’s impact, the cushioning effect may help reduce back strain. These and other innovations may reduce strain.

“Finally, remember that backpacks are safest when they’re in good working condition,” Homolka stressed. “Inspect straps with use and change packs if they’re damaged or can’t be adjusted properly. A bad pack can be a real pain in the back.”

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