Tips on Shopping for Kids’ Backpacks

In the past year, gear companies such as Gregory, Mountainsmith and Kelty have rolled out more high-quality backpacks for young kids and teens. We talked with the folks at Kelty and put together a few tips you can follow when shopping for kids’ backpacks. Plus, we’ve highlighted some of the kids packs that hit the market in 2013.

Tips on Choosing a Kid’s Backpack

1. Determine torso length

As is the case with an adult backpack, a kid’s pack will be constructed to fit certain torso lengths. The torso length is determined by measuring the distance between the C7 vertebrae near the top of the spine and the iliac crest at the top of the hipbones. It’s a good idea to determine a kid’s torso length before you go shopping, and the video below demonstrates how to take the measurement.


2. Visit an outdoor specialty store

Usually, you can find kids’ backpacks at “big box” stores, but they tend to be less durable and less comfortable than the backpacks sold in outdoor specialty stores. Also, outdoor stores are more likely to carry the newer, high-quality packs being constructed for youth and teens. In addition, outdoor stores are more likely to have staff members with the knowledge and tools to measure a kid’s torso length if you’re not able to do this yourself. And many outdoor stores will have kids’ packs that you can rent for about $30, which is a great option for kids who have never been backpacking before. You can rent a pack for a weekend to see if your child is going to like it before you invest more money.

3. External frame packs vs. internal frame packs

There are two types of kids’ packs – those with a bag attached to an external metal or plastic frame, and those with a metal or plastic frame that sits on the interior of the bag. Here are the advantages of each…

External frame packs

Widely adjustable: You can adjust the length of the shoulder straps as well as the width between the tops of the shoulder straps. This allows external frame packs to not only fit a wide variety of body types, but also remain useful as a kid grows over the course of a few years. Also, external frame packs tend to fit especially smaller kids better than internal frame models.

Loading is a no-brainer: External frame packs are good for kids because you don’t have to load them as precisely as internal frame packs. If a kid doesn’t balance the load, he can still carry the external-frame pack comfortably. Plus, external frame packs tend to have lots of little pockets so kids can access their gear without emptying all the contents and potentially losing something.

Comfortable in warm weather: An external frame creates space between a person and the pack where air can flow, while an internal frame pack sits closer to a person’s body and has smaller air channels. (Note that some internal frame packs with “trampoline” back panels can allow a relatively high degree of airflow.)

Internal frame packs

The coolness factor: Internal frame packs look like technical adult packs, and some youth simply want gear that makes them seem more mature.

Better balance: Internal frame packs keep a load closer to a kid’s center of gravity, and when the pack is loaded properly, it will feel more balanced than an external frame pack when scrambling, covering rocky terrain or exploring off-trail.

Advanced features: Many internal frame packs have hipbelt pockets, trekking pole carriers, removable lids and other features that increase comfort and convenience.

4. Load the pack with weight

Most outdoor stores will have bags weighing about 20 pounds, which you can put in a kid’s pack when trying to fit it properly. Have him walk around the store, and maybe go check out water bottles, so he can get over his initial excitement over shopping, and get a better perspective on whether the pack feels comfortable.

5. Check the fit

Make sure the shoulder straps fit flush against the shoulders and don’t form a V-shaped gap at the tops of the shoulders. Also, ensure that the waist belt can be pulled snug so the padding covers the front of the hips and the belt isn’t maxed out. Check out this video for general fit guidelines…


6. Think about hydration

Some people like packs with hydration bags, or reservoirs, because you can drink while on the go. However, if a kid uses water bottles, an adult can more easily check to see if the kid is drinking enough water, while that’s hard to check with a reservoir that’s stuffed in a pack. If you decide to go with bottles, double check to make sure you have bottles that will fit in the pockets of the pack.

7. A women’s pack might work

Designed to fit torsos that are relatively short and narrow, women’s packs can fit young girls as well as boys. The only catch is that companies are now offering women’s packs in more feminine colors, so it can be tough to find a model that a boy will like.

Here’s a look at the latest kids’ packs hitting the market in the next year…

Gregory — Wander

In 2013, Gregory rolled out its first kids’ backpacks, which have adjustable suspension systems that allow kids to use the packs as they grow.  The 50-liter model ($179) fits torso lengths from 13 inches to 20 inches. The pack also has an adjustable waist belt that fits a waist as small as 24 inches. Designed to carry up to 35 pounds, the pack has a suspension system where the harness, lumbar support and waist belt work in concert to transfer weight to the hips. The pack also has a front panel with a U-shaped zipper that allows easy access to the entire main compartment, plus there are side stash pockets for easy access while hiking. In addition, there’s a security pocket under the top lid and a hydration reservoir sleeve.

Mountainsmith — Youth Pursuit & Scout

Mountainsmith introduced a youth internal frame pack as well as an external frame model. Designed to carry up to 50 pounds of gear, the Pursuit internal frame pack ($130) has about 50 liters of volume, and fits torso sizes from 13 inches to 17 inches. Highlights include  adjustable suspension with an air mesh back panel, and a SlingShot detachable top lid that converts into a lumbar pack or shoulder sling. There’s also a sleeve for a hydration reservoir.

The new Scout ($120) with an external aluminum frame is also designed to carry up to 50 pounds, and has adjustable shoulder straps to fit torso sizes from 13 inches to 17 inches. The pack has about 38 liters of volume and includes a sleeping bag sling with compression straps, zippered side pockets and side mesh pockets for water bottles.


Kelty — Red Cloud Jr. & Lakota Jr.

Kelty has introduced the Red Cloud Junior ($180), a 64-liter pack that fits torsos from 14 inches to 18 inches. It has all the bells and whistles of an adult pack, such as AirMesh shoulder straps, a hydration sleeve and hipbelt stabilizer straps.

For 2013, Kelty also rolled out the new Lakota Jr., a 45-liter pack designed for teenagers who have outgrown a kid-sized pack, but aren’t ready to carry an adult-sized model. It fits torso sizes from 12 inches to 16 inches, and like the Red Cloud, it’s constructed much like an adult pack with a high-tech harness system, a hydration sleeve and hipbelt pockets.

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