Child in a forest setting, wearing a backpack

How to choose the best backpacks for kids

A kid’s backpack is more than just a thing that holds their books. It’s their snack supply station. Their sleepover bag. A space they can call their own and decide what to carry (well, within reason – half-eaten sandwiches or 30 pinecones might be a sign to see what else is in there).

To help you find the best backpack for school, follow these seven expert tips from the MEC Label design team. They know exactly what goes into making a backpack that’s built to last whatever your kid has planned.

1. Choose the right size

The biggest mistake we see? Choosing kids’ backpacks that are too big. We recommend getting a backpack that fits your child now, instead of buying a pack that you expect them to grow into. Adults don’t like to wear ill-fitting backpacks, and neither do kids.

A backpack is definitely too big if it hangs below their bottom. You want the top of the pack to sit about 2–5cm below the tops of your child’s shoulders. Make sure the shoulder straps don’t dig into their armpits or droop low down on their back.

If you’re shopping online, you can measure your child’s back length to get a sense of the fit:

  • Measure the distance between the most prominent neck vertebrae (about the same level as the shoulders) and the top of the hipbones.
  • Compare this measurement with the length listed for each backpack on mec.ca under the specs tab.
  • This is also a handy way to see if an adult-sized pack will fit older kids.
Two kids walking on a forest trail and wearing backpacks

The MEC Eyas Daypack (above) is designed for elementary school aged children, and the smaller MEC Cub Daypack is sized for kids who are in kindergarten or daycare.

2. Find comfy straps

Make sure the shoulder straps are padded for comfort, and that they’re not thin, narrow straps. Also look for a pack with child-sized shoulder straps and a shorter back length. If you buy an adult or youth pack for a young child, the shoulder straps and back length will likely be too long.

And if possible, encourage them to two-strap it when they carry it around. Wearing both straps – not just one – reduces shoulder strain.

3. Look for a sternum strap

A sternum strap runs horizontally across the chest and keeps the shoulder straps in place so weight is evenly distributed. Find a bag that has an adjustable sternum strap that crosses over the mid-chest; most sternum straps can slide up and down to land in the correct spot.

As backpacks get bigger for high school or college students, a waist strap can also help distribute weight off the shoulders.

Kid wearing backpack with sternum strap

Sternum straps help keep the shoulder straps in place so the weight is distributed evenly.

4. Think burly

Backpacks get tossed on cement, kicked under seats and dragged across playgrounds. Choose a bag made of heavier, thicker material to stand up to serious handling. Also look at the quality of the seams; if you can easily count the number of stitches per inch, you probably want to look for a sturdier pack. Fewer seam stitches per inch means the seams will blow out faster.

Finally, check inside the bag to see if it has bound seams covered by fabric – if you can see raw edges or fraying, that bag isn’t made to last.

If your child outgrows a backpack, a well-made bag keeps stuff out of the landfill since it can still be used. Pass it along to a younger sibling, donate it to a local charity, use it as a portable emergency supply kit bag, or sell it on online marketplace sites.

5. Watch the weight

From lunches to laptops, kids have a lot of things to carry – but it’s important that their bag isn’t too heavy. A bag that’s too large can be tempting to overpack with tons of stuff, which just weighs them down (another reason to get the right size). Kids shouldn’t carry more than 10–12% of their body weight in their school bag.

Find out what they actually need to carry on a daily basis. Can it hold their lunch bag comfortably? Can they bring an empty water bottle and fill it up at school to keep their bag light when they’re on the move? Do they have to carry a big stack of books home every night, or can they bring just the ones they’ll need?

You can also teach kids to pack the heaviest items, like books, closest to their back. This packing technique helps keep them balanced when they’re running around and can reduce strain on their shoulders.

Kids lunch kit, surrounded by a random assortment of snacks

Make sure the backpack fits what your child needs to (realistically) carry, like their lunch, a water bottle, a spare layer and school work.

6. Check out the zippers

Zippers can be the first things to break on a bag, so look for top-shelf zippers. YKK branded zippers are some of the best – all MEC Label backpacks use them.

If you do have a zipper on a well-loved bag that fails, a simple zipper repair might do the trick. All products from MEC are also covered by our Rocksolid Guarantee.

7. Look for handy features

Organizer pockets are just the start. Also look for these features when you’re picking out a school bag:

  • Stretchy side pockets: Great for water bottles, mitts or gloves.
  • Padded sleeves: If they need to carry electronics, check the specs to make sure it fits their laptop or tablet.
  • Key clip: So they don’t lose their house keys or need to unload everything in their bag to find their keys at the bottom.
  • Reflective bits: For safety, since it gets dark early for a lot of school year.
  • Nametag spot: Somewhere inside where they can label their bag to avoid mix-ups.
Blue MEC backpack with a blue Kleen Kanteen waterbottle, surrounded by stacks of textbooks

Sized for high-school kids and older, the MEC Process Bookbag has lots of organization pockets, including a padded laptop sleeve inside and a low-profile side pocket for a water bottle or umbrella.

Bonus tip: How to clean a backpack

If a yogurt container explodes in your child’s backpack, it might be tempting to toss the bag in your washing machine… but washing machines and backpacks don’t mix. The padding and reflective materials that make the bag comfy and visible can be damaged by the rough ride of a washing machine, and heat from a dryer can wreck water-resistant coatings.

Instead, soak the backpack in warm water and mild soap (like dish soap) in your bathtub or sink. Scrub out any ground-in dirt with a rag or sponge, then rinse it really well and hang to dry before you send it back out for another full day of action.

Jumping people on a dock
MEC Staffer

A Canada-wide crew of adventurers, thinkers, doers, writers, photographers and people who love the outdoors.