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SHOPTALK : Out of the Woods and Into the Mainstream : As an accessory this season, backpacks have arrived in a variety of sizes, colors and fabrics and in a range of prices.


This is the season of the backpack. And they're not just for kids and outdoorsy types anymore. Backpacks in all shapes, fabrics and sizes are being worn everywhere. From the practical nylon pack filled with books and pencils to the ultra-chic patent-leather backpack by Chanel, they come in all prices too.

We've shopped high and low for the best-priced and the best-looking backpacks. What we found were great deals on top-selling student packs and some really cool backpacks for the students of fashion.

If you can't see yourself carrying a backpack anymore than you can see yourself wearing a vinyl miniskirt, try again. A backpack feels good. Sling one on and you're instantly ready for adventure. Your hands are free to swing at your sides as you hike up a mountain trail or push a stroller at the mall. Backpacks are comfortable, too. The average purse can leave you with an aching shoulder or back. Pack a backpack with the same amount of stuff and you can walk comfortably for miles.

Angela Sutter, a Ventura County chiropractor, says using a backpack makes sense. "A backpack is preferable to a shoulder bag. It distributes weight better and is less likely to injure."

Now for the shopping. For students, Jansport and Eastpak are the two major players. Both companies designed their backpacks for outdoor use by sportsmen and women. With just the right amount of Pacific Northwest styling, kids have discovered them to be great school bags.

These "sport" or "school" backpacks are made of incredibly strong, yet lightweight nylon. Most of them have organizers inside for writing implements and calculators. They also have leather bottoms for longevity, which is a good thing since they also have lifetime warranties.

Formerly, Jansport and Eastpak were found only in sporting goods stores. They're now sold at major department stores and discount stores like Target. At Target we found some of the lowest-priced styles, including Navajo for $23.99 and Pinnacle for $35.99, both by Jansport.

Bullock's and Robinson's-May had many new styles and colors and both stores had sale prices. Robinson's had the lowest prices. Jansport's Right Pack was $39.99 at Robinson's and $49.99 at Bullock's. Savannah, also by Jansport, was $39.99 at Robinson's and $44.99 at Bullock's.

Taking a big hint from these practical backpacks, our favorite fashion backpacks are nylon too. This fabric is so functional, lightweight and easy to clean. DKNY makes one in black nylon for about $90. That's a great price for anything made by DKNY. Coach makes a couple of different leather backpacks. They're great looking but pricey. About $250 and up.

At Bullock's we saw lots of good-looking and much more reasonably priced backpacks by Esprit, Kenneth Cole and Roots. Liz Claiborne had a mini-backpack in solid or plaid suede for $56.

Contempo Casuals was a good source for stylish backpacks for very little cash. We liked a tiny black vinyl pack for $18. They also had a black nylon pack for $22 and a patchwork pack for $18.

If you're buying one of the pricier backpacks, make sure it has a zippered access to the main compartment. We've found the drawstring closure to be a real pain in the pack.

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