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.
The Be Right came up a little short on comfort and shorter on durability. The back has no padding, and the straps don't have much; that's not a problem if all you stow in there is a lunchbox, and for very young kids, the light weight might even be an advantage, but add a heavy storybook or two and the game changes. Although the grape juice and dirt scrubbed off easily and didn't stain, the straps began to fray and pull away from the body of the pack during the tug-of-war test. And the light-colored bottom looks like it would get grubby pretty fast. Pretty and smart don't always go hand in hand.
Design: A- (90)
Comfort: B (84)
Durability: C (72)
Final grade: B- (82)
The Children's Place Best in Class All-Season Performance Gear Backpack, $15.50 I grabbed this pack off the rack during a rare trip to the mall, and it turned out to be my 5-year-old daughter's favorite, probably because it's so unabashedly pink. (It comes in other colors, as well.) But it had more to offer than a big burst of color. It scored high on capacity, with room to spare in its two large zippered compartments, even after we loaded it up. The outside organizer pocket holds more than most of the other packs, and one of the straps features a small mesh pocket—perfect for keeping bus fare within easy reach. The main compartments unzip almost all the way to the bottom of the pack, offering great access when it's time to load it or search for AWOL items. The straps are comfortably wide (maybe too wide for some), and a waist belt helps take the load off the shoulders if you need it. Juice didn't stain or leak through the seams, and dirt came off easily with some scrubbing. Water soaked into the fabric fast, though; this isn't the pack that will stand up to a steady rain. And during the tug-of-war test, we heard the unmistakable sound of fabric tearing after a few yanks. I'd be surprised if this one makes it to next year.
Design: A- (92)
Comfort: B+ (87)
Durability: C (73)
Final grade: B (84)
High Sierra Old School Backpack, $50 Rounder and plumper than most of our models, the Old School looks like a space-age bug, which I liked. Some of the grown-ups thought it was too big, but the kids were unfazed by the size, happily strapping it on. Our boy testers seemed especially taken, maybe because of the orange/gray/black color scheme. It has more than enough room for the basics, with one large zippered compartment and two smaller ones, along with a mesh pocket on one strap like the Children's Place model. It handled the juice-and-dirt cleanup easily, without staining, and repelled water better than several of the other models. Some cons: There's no organizer compartment for pens, etc., but you could stow all that stuff in the smallest zip pocket. And the straps were hefty and thick—too wide for some kids' shoulders. This backpack is meant for all ages but would do just fine for an elementary-school kid, especially one who's on the taller side, and it would also make a good companion on family trips.
Design: B (86)
Comfort: B- (80)
Durability: A- (96)
Final grade: B+ (87.3)
L.L. Bean Junior Original Backpack, $19 This backpack has one of the simplest designs we encountered—one large zippered compartment with one external organizer pocket—but it worked well for our needs. A smaller zippered outside pocket has a reflective safety strip, too, for parental peace of mind. The straps could be wider and the back's a little thin; I worried that the fabric seemed flimsy, but another mother argued that the light weight made it easier for the youngest kids to work with. (It's billed as a "starter" book pack.) And it turned out to be a tough little number: It passed the tug-of-war test with flying colors and cleaned up nicely after its encounters with grape juice and dirt. The pink/green/blue motif also caught our girl testers' eyes, easily beating the competing Hanna Andersson floral. It comes in a multitude of colors and patterns, too, if your kid prefers something less girly.
Design: A- (92)
Comfort: B (86)
Durability: A- (92)
Final Grade: A- (90)
Lands' End Classmate Junior, $26.50 Two large zippered sections make for a winning design; you can stash a leaky lunchbox in one and still keep papers safe and dry in the other. It also has an organizer pocket inside one of the compartments, so you have fewer places to look for things—a good idea, from a parent's perspective. There are some baffling design touches, like the flimsy slots (in the organizer section) reminiscent of Netflix DVD envelopes. And the cord port and MP3/CD player pocket seem a little advanced for this age group, too, but maybe I'm old-fashioned. (The Children's Place and High Sierra models also have cord ports. Please tell me that parents aren't giving their 6-year-olds iPods.) Such questionable flourishes are outweighed by good ones, however. The boxy shape and bold color appeal to grown-ups and kids. (It also comes in a variety of solid colors and at least one floral print.) The strip of reflective material around the edge of the biggest compartment adds some flair as well as extra visibility. The straps are just right—padded but not enormous—and the back is cushy, too. Even the pull tabs on the zippers have a fun railroad-track effect as well as being thick and easy to grip. The Classmate Junior sailed through all our tests, with no fabric tears or stains. If only school itself could be so easy.
Design: B+ (89)
Comfort: A (93)
Durability: A- (91)
Final grade: A- (91)