To the jaded parent, a child's backpack is one more item to cart around, keep clean, and try not to lose. To a 5-year-old about to trundle off to kindergarten, it's a portable bit of personal space—a home away from home.
But what kind of backpack does young Olivia or Jake really need? While elementary-school kids, not yet overburdened with homework, don't tote the loads that older kids do, they do require gear that holds the essentials and can stand up to abuse.
We invited some rising kindergarteners over to stress-test six variations on the classic nylon two-strap school backpack. Most of the models we tried were designed for 5-to-8-year-olds, but we also threw in a couple of all-ages models to see how they worked for littler kids. We steered clear of character merchandise—no Dora or Thomas the Tank Engine. And we stayed away from messenger-bag styles and wheelies, which seem better suited to the travel-and-textbook set.
One note on eco-friendliness: Polyester is a parent's pal when it comes to cleaning, durability, and waterproofing, but it's unlikely to do the planet any favors, and even classic American brands like L.L. Bean now farm production out to China. If you're serious about making green your school color, there are options, such as Ecolution's hemp backpack, a canvas bag from the Simple Shoes line, or something by Patagonia, which makes environmental responsibility part of its corporate strategy. The company doesn't make any backpacks specifically designed for kids, but you might well find one that suits your little guy or gal.
Design (grade range: A to F): Can the backpack easily accommodate necessities like a lunchbox, a folder for permission slips, a water bottle, and a stuffed Grover? Cramming will be unpleasant enough when it's time for high-school algebra; there's no need to add it to your kindergartener's morning routine.
Most kids also insist on porting items from their personal collection of treasures to school: an excellent shell, a toy car, a dead bug. A good pack has plenty of zippered compartments in which to stow such gems, along with lunch money, bus fare, pens and pencils, etc. (There is such a thing as too much storage, though. Avoid packs with so many compartments that you and Junior will never find that deceased cicada again.)
Finally, we considered cuteness. We compared fabrics and colors as well as carrying capacity. The kids went for bold, bright colors and some (but not all) patterns—usually not the packs their parents liked best. Features that appealed to adults (back- and shoulder-strap padding, for instance) were lost on the junior set, who were more intrigued by how much they could stuff inside.
Comfort (grade range: A to F): Our goal was to avoid any backpack that makes little Esmeralda look like Quasimodo by the time she arrives at school. Does the load distribute evenly? Are the straps wide enough for comfort, but not too wide for small shoulders? Is there enough padding?
Durability (grade range: A to F): We did unspeakable things to these poor backpacks. We whizzed their zippers back and forth at bionic speed. We dumped concord grape juice into them. We ground wet dirt into them. We asked our testers to stage tug-of-war games, and when that got too rowdy, my husband and I each took a strap and pulled. Hard. We sought backpacks that wouldn't split a seam or pop a strap. Backpacks that were scrubbable, stain-resistant, and, ideally, water-resistant.
Grading: We used a fairly standard numerical scale to grade the performance of our packs (A+ equals 97-100, A equals 93-96, A- equals 90-92, B+ equals 87-89, and so on). The results, from last in line to head of the class:
Columbia Sportswear Umatilla Cyberpack, $55 This all-ages pack holds more than any of the others we tried (it even has a laptop slot if, heaven forbid, you already have a young computer jockey on your hands). Three outer zipper compartments can absorb all sorts of gear—more than your tyke needs at this stage. The straps aren't super-padded, but they distribute weight well. Juice didn't penetrate or stain, and dirt came off with some scrubbing; while water rolled off the fabric at first, it did soak in more quickly than I found ideal. This model also produced the Turtle Effect big-time on our testers, and while the persimmon-and-black color scheme has a certain dignified flair, dignified isn't what kindergarteners go for. This could be a fine choice for a high-school student, but skip it for the kiddies.
Design: B- (80)
Comfort: C (75)
Durability: A- (91)
Final grade: B- (82)
Hanna Andersson Be Right Backpack, $28 This eye-catching model scored an easy A for design, with its large central compartment, an outside organizer pocket with pen slots, and mesh zippered pouch for ID or cash. The open, pouchlike pockets on the back and sides are a nice touch; elastic-topped, they're the perfect place to stash items you want ready at hand, like a water bottle. All the adults liked the festive purple-and-orange floral pattern—part Swedish country, part psychedelic '60s—but the kids didn't go for it. Maybe another color and pattern combination—the line comes in many variations—would go over better.
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