Right and Wrong Ways to Wear a Backpack to Prevent Pain

The Right Way to Wear a Backpack to Prevent Back and Shoulder Pain

Wearing Backpacks on Walk
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Do you pay attention to the way your backpack fits when you grab it and sling it onto your back? Or, do you have the bad habit of just slinging it over one shoulder as you head out the door? Wearing a backpack wrong can lead to more pressure on the neck, shoulders, and back, according to researchers.

Just because you're only doing some urban walking or carrying your stuff at work or school, you still should pay attention to how you wear a backpack if you want to prevent pain. It's never too early to start developing good backpack habits, from grade school kids to young adults and mature adults.

The Right Way to Wear a Backpack to Prevent Pain

Use these tips to get the right backpack positioning each time you put on your backpack. You may need to practice these mindfully for a couple of weeks to make them a habit.

  • Always wear both shoulder straps rather than slinging your backpack with one strap on one shoulder. It takes a moment longer but this simple habit can help prevent problems.
  • Adjust the shoulder straps so the backpack is high on your back and the shoulder straps are comfortable on your shoulders.
  • Your backpack should not sway from side to side as you walk. That can lead to chafing from the shoulder straps and from rubbing against your back. A stable load is better.
  • If the backpack has a waist strap or pectoral strap, you should use it. Waist straps help to distribute the weight load to the hips, relieving shoulder pressure. A pectoral strap helps keep the shoulder straps in place and reduces swaying of the pack.

Wrong Way to Wear a Backpack: Using the One Strap Sling Method

It is easy and stylish to carry your backpack slung over one shoulder, using only one strap. However, this position puts all of the pressure on one shoulder. You cannot walk with good posture with a load of several pounds on one shoulder only.

Researchers say wearing a backpack slung on one shoulder can lead to poor posture and pain in the neck, shoulders, and back. Even if you switch it back and forth between shoulders, you are walking off-balance. This puts a strain on all of the bones and muscles of your upper body, not to mention your hips and core.

Take the time to use both straps and position the backpack high on the back, where it won't sway with each step.

Wrong Way to Wear a Backpack: Low on the Back

Wearing Backpack Low on Back
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Wearing a backpack low on your back increases the pressure on the shoulders. This position may lead to shoulder and lower back strain.

You may find that you are doing this because you have been loosening the straps to make it easier to put the backpack on and to take it off. This especially is true when you adjust it for your overcoat, but you don't readjust it when you aren't wearing a jacket.

This low back position may lead to a forward lean, which places pressure on the lower back. Loose straps also allow the pack to sway back and forth when you walk, which can be uncomfortable and may result in the straps chafing your shoulders.

Take the time adjust the straps immediately when you put on your backpack, so it rides high on your back. Your shoulders and back will thank you.

If you have difficulty adjusting the straps, they may not be laced correctly, or the mechanism may be broken. You may be able to find instructions on the manufacturer's website on how to adjust them and ensure they are properly threading through the mechanism. If that doesn't work, it's probably worthwhile to get a new backpack that has easily adjustable straps.

Light Backpacks for Children

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Children should carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight in their backpack. That means that it should probably weigh four to 10 pounds at most. Be sure that young children are not carrying too heavy of a load in their school backpacks. See tips for how to lighten your child's backpack.


Macias BR, Murthy G, Chambers H, Hargens AR. "Asymmetric loads and pain associated with backpack carrying by children." J Pediatr Orthop. 2008 Jul-Aug;28(5):512-7.

Macias BR, Murthy G, Chambers H, Hargens AR. "High contact pressure beneath backpack straps of children contributes to pain." Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005 Dec;159(12):1186-7.