The idea of a youngster skipping off to school with an armful of books is fast becoming nothing more than a quaint piece of societal history.

Like getting one’s drinking water from a hand pump or shoveling coal into your basement furnace.

For the past couple of generations, the backpack has been standard issue to every student from preschool on up. Once reserved only for hikers and soldiers, the backpack is now more common in schools than the pencil box, and probably the pencil itself.

Because backpacks have become such a big part of the back-to-school retail industry, every year there are new and innovative models from which to choose. Backpacks with separate areas for laptops. Backpacks with wheels. Backpacks that are clear, so you can always find what you’re looking for.

And if you think about it, backpacks aren’t just for school. Sure, a young person starts the day with lessons in academics, but often finishes the day with team practice, music lessons, club meetings or other activities.

So backpacks really have to be ready for anything.

“Student schedules are packed from morning until evening with class, sports, band practice, school clubs and social activities. Not many items are as critical to this action-packed day as a reliable backpack,” said Pamela R. Jones, senior designer in the Travel Division at L.L. Bean in Freeport. “Class schedules can be so tight that there is limited time between classes, preventing trips to the locker.”

L.L. Bean focuses on versatile and reliable backpacks. Jones says the company’s best-selling pack is the Deluxe Book Pack ($39.95), designed for ages 10 and older. It’s been on the market since 1986.

The Deluxe Book Pack has ergonomic straps and compartments for various things, including an audio cord port. The pack measures about 17 inches by 13 inches, and is more than 9 inches deep.

Jones says L.L. Bean puts its backpacks through strenuous tests to ensure they will last. “Our customers often write to us on the longevity of their packs, with some literally lasting from grade school to grad school,” he said.

While many people don’t mind paying $40 for a rugged backpack that could last years, some are looking to spend less.

Walmart has been advertising many children’s backpacks on sale for $8. One interesting model is the Eastport clear backpack, measuring about 13 by 17 inches and 7 inches deep.

It’s made of see-through plastic so a child doesn’t have to go fishing in the backpack to find that special pen or small notebook. This also means parents and teachers can see everything that’s being brought to school and back home.

Besides specific compartments for iPods and other items, the big changes to backpacks every year focus on color and design.

The “color splash” design on L.L. Bean’s Deluxe Book Pack was inspired by doodles, the kind that most of us made on the paper bag covers of our books.

And of course, logos for everything from TV shows and movies to NASCAR racing appear on backpacks as well. A quick browse through websites shows that Disney’s Tinker Bell and “Cars” packs are easy to find, as are a huge variety of Hello Kitty packs.

Backpacks with wheels are big again this year. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests rolling packs as a way to prevent back problems that heavy packs may cause. (For more backpack tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics, see the information box accompanying this story.)

But before buying a rolling backpack, check with your school. Some don’t allow them because of hallway hazards they might cause, including kids tripping over them or being intentionally tripped by them. Some schools don’t even allow them to be wheeled into school, meaning the child can wheel the backpack to school but has to carry it indoors.

Here are some other things suggested by Jones at L.L. Bean that you may want to think about before buying a school backpack:

Don’t buy too much volume. Purchase a size appropriate for the student’s age. Look for age classification when you purchase. Many catalogs will suggest age-appropriate pack styles.

Look for quality fabrics and foam. You do get what you pay for. A good pack will last many years, and will be reliable.

Foam should be in both the shoulder straps and back panel. The foam should rebound when you squeeze it and be of firm, medium density. Not too hard, not too soft.

Look for a pack with quality reflective trim for safety.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

[email protected]