Thursday, August 23, 2012

7 Tips for Buying a Comfortable Backpack

I like to use a backpack when I am traveling because it doesn’t scream, I HAVE AN EXPENSIVE CAMERA IN HERE PLEASE STEAL IT like my fancy camera bag does.

Unfortunately, once I switched to a heavier DSLR camera my current backpacks (I’ll get to that in a minute) didn’t work for me. The backpack straps sit on a knot I have in each shoulder.

The extra weight of the camera plus whatever else I want to carry (water bottle, etc.) rides the knots like a cowboy on rodeo night. I get a migraine. Dealing with a migraine is not the way I want to spend my vacation, or for that matter, a blogging conference.

As a green blogger, I get information about backpacks made from eco friendly materials all the time. I appreciate that but an ill fitting backpack made from eco friendly materials is useless because I will spend more time and resources replacing it with more backpacks that may or may not hurt my back. If I have to go with a  backpack made from not so eco friendly materials I’d rather it be made from material that takes a beating and lasts as long as my backpack from the 80’s that I still have and use.

You can tell it's from the 80's because it is mauve.

 During BlogHer, I learned about backpack ergonomics from  Dr. Mary Ann Wilmarth of the American Physical Therapy Association and at the Lands End Back to School event.  I learned more than half of kids (and adults) carry an overloaded backpack that is too heavy. Well, yeah I figured that’s why I always get a backache when I'm on vacation. Books and photos are my favorite type of souvenir. 

What Size Backpack Should I Buy for School that Won’t Hurt My Back?

After the event, I did more research. Here's what I found: 

1. Your backpack should not be bigger than the size of your back.

2. The backpack should sit evenly in the middle of your back not below it looks like I’m buying kid size backpacks for the rest of my life. Well, at least it takes care of my shoving too much stuff into a heavy backpack issue.

3. The backpack straps should be widely set to sit properly on both shoulders.

4. The weight of items in your backpack should be 10 to 15% of your body weight. A 60 pound child should carry a backpack weighing five pound or less, for example.

5. They recommend padded backpack straps for comfort. I agree.

6. Try to put the heaviest items in the backpack closest to your back.

7. You should wear both straps to distribute the weight evenly. I never do this. Maybe that’s why I have the pain problem. Aw, but I looked sooo coooooool…

Let’s compared what I learned to the backpacks in my closet.

Backpack Purse

  • Not bigger than the size of my back
  • Small, less than 10 to 15% of my body weight fits in it.
  • It’s a purse. It doesn’t look like I’m going hiking in the city.
  • It sits below the middle of my back.
  • Heavy items do not ride close to my back.
  • The straps are not padded.
  • The straps hurt.
Eastpack Backpack

I love this backpack because the leather bottom took a beating all the way through school, college, and beyond. The only reason I replaced it is the zipper is a little wonky and I can’t get Eastpak to honor their lifetime guarantee and fix it.

  • Not bigger than the size of my back
  • If I used the waist strap, it would sit in the middle of my back. The waist strap might take some of the weight off my shoulders where those knots live. Or not. I don’t know. I never used it.
  • Padded straps.
  • Less than 10 to 15% of my body weight fits in it because it is smallish. (another reason I replaced it before a big trip.)
  • Took a beating, traveled the country, and still going strong.
  • It sits lower than my middle back because I made the shoulder straps too loose and never wear the waist strap because it looks dorky and won’t fit around a winter coat.
  • The straps overlap at the top of the backpack and are not widely set. They hurt.
  • Heavy items ride in the bottom of the backpack away from my back
Rocky Mountain Equipment Backpack

I bought this backpack as upgrade in 2004 because it had multiple compartments for more stuff to carry on vacations. The inside compartments are shredded. I can’t fix them. I am looking for an ergonomic backpack to replace it.


  • I like that it’s huge and holds a lot of stuff. The compartments allow me to keep my camera separate from the other stuff in the backpack. In theory.
  • The back of the backpack is padded.
  • Padded straps.
  • The curved straps are supposed to be more ergonomic than the Eastpak backpack.

  • It is bigger than the size of my back.
  • It sits lower than my middle back
  • The straps are more widely set but they do not sit properly on both of my shoulders after awhile it hurts.
  • It’s so big I often carried more than 10% of my body weight in it.
  • Heavy items ride away from my back.
  • The outside of the backpack is durable but the interior is flimsy nylon that rips easily and beyond repair.
Lands End Classmate – Size medium (they have different sizes of each style of backpack to fit kids from preschool to high school)
Lands End gave me this backpack at the event. I’m not required to blog about it but I'm going to because it is another backpack in my closet. I gave it a test run for the rest of BlogHer and here’s the scoop on its performance.


  • Not bigger than the size of my back
  • It sits in the middle of my back. Apparently, this is the size backpack shorty short 4’11” me should use. Who knew?
  • The straps are widely set and sit properly on both shoulders when I snap the front strap.
  • It is the same size as the Eastpak. Less than 10 to 15% of my body weight should fit in it and that’s it.
  • Padded straps.
  • The curved straps are supposed to be more ergonomic. The straps didn’t pull on the knots in my shoulders when I carried my DSLR in it. Win! Sorta. See below.
  • The medium size backpack is for people 4 feet to 5 feet 6 inches tall. It is the perfect size for me!
  • The chest strap is what keeps the shoulder straps in place and me from getting a headache but it feels dorky. I know. I know. Get over it. I don’t have to impress the cool kids at the lunch table anymore.
  • The color and design. The Classmate only comes in designs that work for kids, little ones at that. I can’t see a middle or high school student or a guy carrying any of these designs which is a shame because it is supposed to be sturdy backpack and long lasting. A kid might be able to use it from middle school to high school or beyond. I think it’s a comfortable backpack for adults and I’m not just saying that because I got it free. I want to use it because it is the first time in forever I haven’t had a backache or headache after wearing a backpack with my camera in it. I was ready to buy another more adult design with my own money after I got home from BlogHer but there isn’t one. While I like the comfort and that it was last forever, I don’t know if I want to use a kiddie colored backpack forever. Or truthfully, this week.  Update 8/2013: Lands End now carries the Classmate in plain colors which is perfect for older kids and adults. I am buying one ASAP and giving the one I got last year to a kid who will think it is super cool.
I cannot tell you how much I love my red Classmate backpack. I haven't gotten a migraine on a vacation since I bought it. That includes the day I carried a bunch of mugs I bought for gifts around Universal Studios. Note to self: buy that stuff before leaving the park. Not in the morning.
What do you look for in a backpack?

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This post is part of the Green Mom's Carnival where our topic is Back to School hosted by Mindful Momma jump on over and check it out!


Unknown said...

You could cover the kiddy pattern of the Classmate with a coat or three of grey or black spray paint. I've used spray paint to mark old luggage, and it has held up remarkably well.

Maggie Mae said...

Did you ever find one that works? I have the same problem with my 1985 backpack still in excellent shape after years of abuse. It looks very similar to yours! But, it makes my shoulders hurt! I'm 5'4"

I looked at lands end and they now have some solid medium backpacks.


Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

I use the Lands End backpack they gave me. I haven't gotten around to checking if they have more adult colors. Based on your comment I will!

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