The backpack is the equivalent of a branding iron or a tracking device: It says a lot about you, your herd and your migratory habits.

"Kids today are among the most discerning fashion customers, and a bag is one of the most important pieces in making a style statement," says Tracy Ogden, public relations manager for, which boasts more than 5,000 backpacks and 1,500 messenger bags for sale.

A backpack is no longer just a book holder. It contains cord ports, cell-phone pockets and padded lining for laptops -- a natural progression for tech-obsessed scholars. And unlike the monotony of school years past (one bag per annum, per child), these days shorties and teens upgrade their bags several times a semester.

Constance White, style director for eBay, says the primal obsession now is all about the right color, print and logo on satchels and totes. For fall that means camouflage, charms, cartoony prints and T-shirtesque novelty phrases.

And so the entire herd goes off in search of something "different and sophisticated," says White. They'll hunt for bags at obscure Web sites or an unknown boutique. The trick is to find a bag just like everyone else's that's not exactly like everyone else's. Notes White, "If you can get a Jansen bag -- but it has a stripe that no one else has -- it's the ultimate bag."

-- Janelle Erlichman Diamond

From the top: L.L. Bean rugby stripe Boat and Tote bag in cotton canvas with zippered top, $19-$35 at or 800-221-4221. Merrell Rapid Pack in weather-resistant ballistic nylon with audio port, $89.99 at Pottery Barn Kids green backpack with padded straps and water bottle pocket, $29-$35 at or 800-993-4923. Ollie and Bette Travelin' Tote with pockets, $108 at School supplies from Mead.