BU Today

Health & Wellness

Backpack Safety 101

“Pack it right, wear it light,” says SAR’s Jacobs


As the Class of 2018 arrives on campus, BU Today has put together a series of articles we call Campus Life 101. Each day this week, we are providing you with tips about some important basics: how to shop for groceries, how to do laundry, how to pick the right backpack to avoid injuries, how to avoid or reduce stress and anxiety, and how to stay safe on—and off—campus.

Here’s a sobering statistic. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 28,000 people were treated for backpack-related injuries in the United States last year. That figure included 8,500 children between the ages of 5 and 18 who wound up in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. The cost—in medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and legal liability—tops out at more than $1 billion annually. As college students head to stores this week to purchase back-to-school supplies, BU Today spoke with Karen Jacobs (SAR’79), a Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences clinical professor and a nationally recognized expert on backpack safety, about how to prevent injuries. The number-one rule of thumb? The weight of your backpack shouldn’t exceed more than 10 percent of your body weight.

BU Today: What are the health threats of an overloaded backpack?

Jacobs: More than 79 million students across the United States cram in textbooks, binders, notebook computers, pencils, pens, erasers, craft supplies, lunches, and extra clothes for gym class and make the trek to school. Researchers have reported seeing backpacks that weigh more than 40 percent of a child’s weight. Just imagine a child weighing 60 pounds carrying a backpack weighing 24 pounds! The good news is that with some easy behavior changes, this health issue can be eliminated.

What leads to injuries, and what is the best way to prevent them?

Research suggests that wearing a backpack incorrectly, wearing one that is too heavy, the amount of time one carries a backpack, the distance walked, inadequate distribution of weight in the backpack, and poor placement of items in the backpack can be contributing risk factors for discomfort, fatigue, muscle soreness, musculoskeletal pain (especially in the lower back), respiratory problems, and other issues. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers some tips for preventing these issues. They include:

  • Always select a backpack that is the right size for you
  • Distribute weight evenly. Load heaviest items closest to your back and balance materials so that you can easily stand up straight.
  • If a backpack has a hip belt, wear it to improve balance and take some strain off sensitive neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Check that your packed backpack weighs no more than 10 percent of your body weight. If it weighs more, determine what you can leave at home that day to lessen the load.
  • If the backpack is still too heavy, consider a book bag on wheels.
Boston University BU, Sargent College SAR, Health and Rehabilitation Sciences professor Karen Jacobs, backpack awareness day

Experts recommend placing heavy items, such as large textbooks and tablets, at the bottom and the back of your backpack and placing water bottles in side compartments. Photo by Cydney Scott

How do you know which is the right backpack for you?

You should always choose a backpack that is the right size for you. Make sure the height of the backpack extends from approximately two inches below the shoulder blades to waist level, or slightly above the waist. The proper backpack should have padded shoulder straps, a padded back, chest and hip straps, a reflector, and for older students, a compartment on the side of the bag. It’s important to remember that if you’ve bought a backpack for a child, the one they used the year before may no longer be the right size.

When buying a backpack for young children, you urge parents to avoid monogramming their names. Why?

It is a safety issue when a name is on a backpack. For example, a stranger could approach a child and call him or her by name if it appears on the backpack. It’s best to be proactive and avoid putting a child’s name on a backpack.

You argue against buying backpacks online. Why?

I highly recommend that once you decide what you’ll be using your backpack for and know what size and features you want, it’s best to try on a backpack before buying it to guarantee you’re getting the best fit. Once you have tried on backpacks to find a good match, you can order one online if it’s the same design or has the same dimensions.

You say it’s important to consider a backpack’s material before buying it. What should you look for and what should you avoid?

Backpacks are made from a variety of fabrics that have an impact on the weight, durability, and strength of the pack. I like a nylon packcloth or Cordura, a nylon canvas. Try to avoid backpacks that are made of heavy material such as leather.

What are the warning signs of an injury from backpack use?

If a person is complaining of neck, shoulder, or back discomfort associated with wearing a backpack, it can be a sign that there is a problem.

If you have any of those symptoms, what should you do?

If you show signs of any of these symptoms, it’s best to see if the weight of the backpack can be reduced, the amount of time wearing the backpack can be reduced, or the distance carrying the backpack can be reduced. Consider using a wheeled backpack. I do almost every day during the academic year.

Want to learn more about backpack safety? In honor of National Backpack Awareness Day, Sargent College will be hosting a free backpack weigh-in for BU students, faculty, and staff on Wednesday, September 17, in front of Sargent College, 635 Commonwealth Ave., from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Members of the Sargent College Rotaract Club will also demonstrate the best way to pack your backpack. All participants will be eligible to enter a raffle to win a free Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

Find more tips on how to navigate college life in our series, Campus Life 101.

This story originally ran September 18, 2013; it has been recently updated to include current information.

john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

4 Comments on Backpack Safety 101

  • Renaldo on 09.18.2013 at 7:45 am

    The best place to try backpacks is HIlton’s Tent City over by North Station. They have a large selection of quality packs in all styles and sizes. Highly recommended.

  • Max on 09.18.2013 at 10:10 am

    What about other alternatives, such as messenger bags etc.?

  • Rose on 09.24.2013 at 10:50 am

    Amazing that few others have ever pointed out this issue, yet backpacks are so widely used. The tips offered here are excellent – but what about improved fitness? I believe everyone would benefit by having a stronger upper body to help mitigate this issue.

  • Backpack Enthusiasts R Us on 03.18.2015 at 2:11 pm

    Wow. Just when I thought I knew all there was to know about proper backpack saftey this riveting article comes along and quite frankly changes the entire game. If only I had come across this article sooner in my life.. The great backpack incident of 2009 could have been completely avoided. But that’s a story for another time. This life changing article is a must read and honestly may even save lives. As the creator of the back pack council once said “pack it light and wear it right.”

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