When it comes to school supplies, there's really just one star: the backpack.
While not on the list of supplies teachers distribute, the backpack is what gets all those other supplies - the notebooks, folders, three-ring binders, pens, pencils, calculators, books, jackets (phew!) - to the classroom.
"For kids, backpacks are not an accessory," says Gigi de Young of JanSport, a wholesale manufacturer. "They're a friend. Kids think of their backpacks the way adults think of their organizers. It's the thing that carries around their stuff and organizes their lives."
Children aren't the only ones attached to their backpacks, Ms. de Young says. A recent college graduate sent in his ever-faithful pack, "Old Green," to de Young in hopes that she would put it on display among the vintage packs that fill her Appleton, Wis., office.
Most students will stay with a pack two to four years even though it may last far longer, says Cheryl Hughes a gear designer for Eddie Bauer at the retailer's Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
"They'll wear it out or get tired of it and want a new one, but we build them completely rugged," says Ms. Hughes.
To find out what students, from kindergarten through college, must consider in selecting backpacks - often with their parents - we asked de Young, Hughes, and Jody Fossum of catalog giant Lands' End.
Ms. Fossum, a product manager, says that company research has shown that some students like basic, no frills catch-all kinds of designs that allow them to load their packs indiscriminately. Most, however, "want a ton of compartments."
"Kids are extremely busy, between running from soccer to dance to going to a friend's house; they want to be organized," she says.
For example, the Collegiate Bookpack from Lands' End, which sells for $32.50, features a soft, fleecy pocket that protects eyeglasses or computer discs, a key fob, and a mesh pouch to hold a lightweight jacket or water bottle.
For parents, says Eddie Bauer's Hughes, function and price are major considerations. The companies cited here are known for quality merchandise and guaranteed customer satisfaction. Their backpacks range from about $20 to $45, with the most popular models in the $30 to $40 range.
At times, packs can seem bigger than the people carrying them.
At Selvidge Middle School in Ballwin, Mo., an eighth-grade class project showed that many students carry packs that weigh more than 20 percent of their body weight. As a result of the student research, the L.L. Bean Company sent the school two backpacks on wheels to test. Maneuvering in hallway traffic, however, proved a challenge.
What companies have learned from young customers is that some want big packs because they don't have lockers or because there's too little time between classes to get to them.
Concern is also growing that students are overloading themselves. Backpack manufacturers advise against carrying more than 25 percent of one's body weight. But besides weight, the way in which packs are worn is also an issue.
"There's a lot of peer pressure about how to wear packs and what looks cool," says Hughes. "I wish we [manufacturers] could influence that more."
Many students hang their packs off one shoulder, while others carry them too low on their backs. Using both straps and keeping the pack high and close to the back, the experts say, helps in distributing the weight.
Given the packhorse tendencies of today's students, bag- makers seek to ease the burden with strong, lightweight materials, padded straps, cushioned backs, and cinching straps and cords to make the packs as form-fitting as possible.
When purchasing a backpack, the buyer should consider some of these features:
Function. Make sure the pack is suited to its intended use and user - and fits into a locker. Should there be lots of compartments and perhaps a criss-crossed bungee cord for carrying a football or skateboard, or just a few no-frills storage areas?
Comfort. The pack should feel good when snug to the back. A padded back (so books don't stab you) and cushioned shoulder straps are desirable.
Durability. A light yet durable nylon or polyester fabric, reinforced seams and bottom, and tough zippers, snaps, clips, and buckles help packs stand up to heavy use.
Safety. Reflective piping and accents mean greater visibility.
Manageability. Make sure that organizer panels, mesh pockets, key fobs, and storage compartments are convenient and easy to use. A top-hanging loop may provide improved access inside a locker.