BU Today

Health & Wellness

Backpack Safety 101

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


As the Class of 2021 arrives on campus, BU Today offers a series called “Campus Life 101.” Each day this week, read tips about some important basics: how to do laundry, how to shop for groceries, how to pick the right backpack to avoid injuries, how to stay safe on—and off—campus, and how to avoid or reduce stress and anxiety.

Here are a few sobering statistics: according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, 14,424 Americans sought medical treatment for backpack injuries last year. The cost—in estimated lifetime medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and legal liability—was a staggering $299 million. Among those injured were 5,062 US children under the age of 19. As college students head to stores to purchase back-to-school supplies, BU Today spoke with nationally recognized backpack safety expert Karen Jacobs (SAR’79), a Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences clinical professor, about how to prevent injuries. The number-one rule of thumb? Select the backpack that best fits you and don’t overload it.

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 offers some tips for preventing these issues. They include:

  • Always select a backpack that is the right size for you.
  • Choose a backpack with adjustable padded shoulder straps and a padded back panel.
  • 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 feels comfortable. If it doesn’t, 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.
  • Wear your backpack only when needed. For example, if you’re waiting for the BUS (BU Shuttle) or the T, take your backpack off, keeping it close to you on the ground or on a bench.
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 when choosing a backpack for children that 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.

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

Sargent College entry-level occupational therapy doctoral students and Sargent’s Rotaract Club members will host Backpack Awareness Day on Tuesday, September 27, from 5 to 6 p.m., for BU students, faculty, and staff, in front of Sargent College, 635 Commonwealth Ave. Backpacks will be weighed and organizers will demonstrate the correct ways to pack and wear them.

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

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

6 Comments on Backpack Safety 101

  • Ali on 08.26.2015 at 9:41 am

    Great production on the video, Joe! Useful tips.

  • Angel Dai on 08.30.2016 at 2:52 pm

    Thank you so much for this video! It is so informative and much needed.
    I really enjoy that

  • Don't Do It on 08.31.2016 at 9:10 am

    “Wear your backpack only when needed. For example, if you’re waiting for the BUS (BU Shuttle) or the T, take your backpack off, keeping it close to you on the ground or on a bench.”

    Can I also add: Don’t wear your backpack on the BU Shuttle/T AT ALL. Public transportation gets extremely packed and you take up valuable space by wearing your enormous backpack. Be a considerate person and keep it on the ground between your feet.

  • Jane on 08.31.2016 at 9:16 am

    And if the backpack wearers would remove them when riding on public transportation, making more room for others and avoiding to bash seated people in the head, that would be great too.

  • Clint Cavanaugh on 08.31.2016 at 9:41 am

    I’m so happy to see this piece! It is a never-ending cause of wonderment and chagrin for me to see little kids burdened by backpacks that are waaaaay to big for them. I think some backpack expert–yes, Karen Jacobs!–should do a mockup showing how big a pack would be on an adult, were it the same proportions of bag to body as many backpacks you see on children. It would gigantic and ludicrous, right?!

  • Melissa on 08.31.2016 at 2:11 pm

    I highly recommend Ivar backpacks! They have a special system that distributes your load and reduces strain on back and neck. They are awesome – I have two!

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