How Heavy Should My Child's Backpack Be?

Getting your kids to carry a pack while hiking teaches them important skills, like thinking about what’s essential gear. And toddlers who carry their own snack or water bottle take great pride in their growing self-sufficiency. But how much weight should children carry in their packs?

Medical experts say children should carry backpacks that weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of their body weight to avoid lower back pain and associated problems. The range in the recommendations reflects different degrees of caution. On the more conservative end are groups like the American Occupational Therapy Association, which recommends sticking to 10 percent of body weight or less. For a 60-pound child, that means the pack and its contents should weigh 6 pounds at most.

When planning a hike, it’s important to look beyond the guidelines to the specifics of a particular child, says Dr. Pierre d’Hemecourt of the Division of Sports Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It’s very similar to any other sport. How conditioned is the athlete? What’s their endurance? Every person is different.”

For a child with good strength and conditioning who uses the backpack correctly (more on that later) and who is not going through a period of rapid adolescent growth, d’Hemecourt says that carrying from 15 percent to a maximum of 20 percent of body weight can be appropriate. For a 60-pound child, that would mean 9 to 12 pounds. For a 100-pound child, it would mean up to 20 pounds.

During periods of rapid growth, adolescents’ spines are changing and it’s a good idea to be careful about increasing stress on the lower back, d’Hemecourt says. This is especially true for young people who also play sports that can extend the back, like gymnastics, ballet, figure skating, and the inside lineman position in football.

Also, when planning trips outdoors, adults should consider the difference between carrying a school backpack between classes and carrying a backpack on a day hike or a longer, multi-day backpacking trip. “If you go from 15 minutes here and there carrying a backpack at school to hiking for six hours with a heavy backpack, there’s a higher risk for injury,” d’Hemecourt says. So young people, like adults, should build up their endurance before going on longer outings. “If you know you are going to the Grand Canyon to hike for a week,” d’Hemecourt says, “maybe you should go to Mount Washington and hike a half day first, then increase to a full day.”

Proper Use
In addition to weight, a key factor in whether a backpack will cause pain is how it is carried. The following tips, adapted from the American Occupational Therapy Association, can help keep kids free of discomfort:
To figure out 10 (or 15 or 20) percent of your child’s body weight, use this online calculator.

Learn More
National School Backpack Awareness Day, on Sept. 18, 2013, will include backpack weigh-ins, backpack check-ups, activities, and special events.

Find additional advice on getting outdoors with your kids.

Photo by iStock.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog, written by Heather Stephenson.

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