5 Packing Hacks for the Backpack Office

I’ve been curating my packed office since 2005, and these are the 5 most important hacks I’ve learned.

1. Never Stop Curating

While there are some ‘absolute’ rules that never fail, I’ve learned that the most important thing is to build a minfulness habit around my packed office. Why? Because things change. Sometimes I’m knee-deep in a project that requires me to sketch a lot of concepts, which means I’m spending days with my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. Other times, I’m writing a lot and just need a good keyboard and screen.

The trick here is not stop making assumptions about what we need to bring on a daily basis. My pack is ever-evolving, often daily. I’ve learned to anticipate my changing needs and pack accordingly.

There’s nothing worse than lugging around a 4-pound laptop all day and arrive home to realize you never used it. Above all else, build the habit of anticipating your needs before you leave in the morning, and pack accordingly.

2. Embrace Modularity

Do you keep a clunky case on your laptop? I did for awhile. Because I switch packs all the time according to my daily needs, I realized there were a lot of times I was throwing a case-clad laptop into a perfectly protected laptop area inside a bag. It was a waste of space and weight. All day. I never removed it because it was too much work. It wasn’t designed to be taken on and off easily.

Now, when I buy things, I look for modularity. In this case, instead of buying a snap-on laptop case that’s hard to remove, I use a neoprene slip-case because it’s easier to slide the laptop in when I need extra protection, which is usually the case if I’m using a bag that isn’t well protected.

Look for opportunities in your carry where you could easily shave weight or space by using more modular components.

3. Double-duty Gear

I used to carry a small pencil case. It held a set of colored pens, a writing pen, a Sharpie, an Adonit Jot Pro stylus and an Apple Pencil; about 6 writing utensils in all. I laid them out in a row and, for each one, I thought when was the last time I used this? Turned out that I used my writing pen and Apple Pencil a lot, and sometimes the Sharpie. And almost nothing else.

I found a twin-tip Sharpie that had a broad end and a fine end, and replaced my writing pen and broad Sharpie with that, and packed my Apple Pencil. I was down not just a few utensils, but also a case (most of my bags have at least 2 writing utensil slots).

Twin Tip Sharpie

This is a simple example that I’ve applied broadly: I bought a Microsoft Universal Folding Keyboard so I could comfortably type on my iPhone or iPad. Now, if I didn’t need my laptop, I could leave it at home and literally write on my iPhone. Combined with the charger, that was almost 4 pounds of weight not on my back all day.

Often times these hacks let you downsize your carry, which can lead to using a smaller, lighter bag. Win/win.

Microsoft Universal Folding Keyboard

4. Experiment Consciously

Whether you realize it or not, you’re already experimenting. Every day you’re conducting an experiment about what you’re carrying, what’s working, how often you’re using each item, and how well each item is (or isn’t) serving your needs.

How do you take advantage of these experiments? Get conscious of their results. I often say that the difference between someone struggling to work remotely and someone thriving while working outdoors is how conscious they are about each experiment. You’re already collecting data, so bring it to the foreground; what’s working, or not, for you, already?

…the difference between someone struggling to work remotely and someone thriving while working outdoors is how conscious they are about each experiment.

Believe it or not, this simple change can revolutionize your daily carry. You’ll be packing more simply, you’ll be more organized, you’ll challenge your needs on a regular basis, and thereby refine it down to a science over time. You’ll learn how to double-up on tools, and you’ll be better armed with information when it comes time to improve your toolset.

5. The Pack is Important, of course!

I typically use a mix of messenger bags and backpacks. Everyone’s needs are different. Some have to look more than ‘presentable’ every day, while others rarely encounter another soul for days on end. Your needs will be different than mine, but here are my two tips when it comes to packs:

a) Have a range of packs

In an ideal world, you’ll be able to pick up whatever pack you need as your needs change. But that’s impractical (and not very minimal ;) So think twice before you get rid of those old packs that worked for you in the past. Remember — your needs will never stop changing, and that means you’ll need to have a range of packs to accommodate those needs. I’ve found that 3 or 4 different packs is the number that cover 99% of my needs.

Now, this gets a little tricky. As an aspiring minimalist, I’ve found that this is one area in which it makes sense to stray from the path of minimalism. After all, while I still have a couple packs I need to get rid of, I’ve whittled it down to the few that I used most often, and they all get a lot of use!

b) Get a good pack (or two)

Caveat: don’t go on a shopping spree until you’ve really lived with the packs you have. If you haven’t used a pack in more than 3 months, I suggest that’s the point where it’s not worth keeping. But once you’ve lived with a pack for at least 3 months while being conscious of those experiences, then you should start identifying your needs for a new pack (if they’re not already met).

Again — everyone’s needs are different. But by way of example, here are some of my core needs when it comes to packs:

Durable — I need my packs to be built like tanks because I’m always outdoors and they get a lot of abuse. I look for materials like TPU, ripstop fabrics, leather, rubber, ballistic cordura and even Gore-Tex.

Comfortable—Some days I’m lugging this thing around for hours at a time, whether on foot or bicycle. It needs to be comfortable for the long-haul.

Weather Resistant—While I don’t quite need a roll-top dry-bag that I can cross the English Channel with, I get a fair amount of weather in my travels and daily use. Since I’ve typically got nearly $5k of equipment in there, I need to keep it protected from weather.

Structured—This one is a personal preference. I have a range of bags which generally follow a curve based on capacity; small to large. My smaller bags tend to have less padding and structure. But for my main, daily bag I prefer to use something that’s heavily structured.

What is structured? Glad you asked. It’s when you can set the bag on the ground—packed or empty—and it just stays in it’s original form. It’s reasonably rigid. I like this because I don’t have to fight the bag to get stuff in and out several times a day. But there’s a trade-off: structure usually brings added weight with it. After years of trial and error, I’ve concluded that it’s worth it. For me.

In closing, my 4 most-used bags

To add clarity, here’s a list of the bags I’ve been using a lot over the past 6 months, and how I use each one.

Incase Diamond Wire Icon Backpack

My daily workhorse and travel companion. Heavily structured. Built like a tank. Lots of organization pockets and 3 (yes, three) dedicated large-screen device pockets. Pretty much waterproof. Built using heavy duty sail-cloth material. LOVE. THIS. BAG. Unfortunately, they’re incredibly difficult to get ahold of now, and not cheap when you can find them! But I used the classic Incase Icon Backpack for years, and it’s what sold me on this special version.

Incase Diamond Wire Icon Backpack

Osprey Raptor 14

I use this bag when I can travel reasonably light and want to get in some running. You heard me right—running. I’ve been trying “run commuting” a bit (it’s exactly what it sounds like). This pack is lightweight, has built-in hydration, really good suspension and compression. It lets me pack a laptop and the essentials for day’s work while running or jogging from spot to spot.

Osprey Raptor 14

Crafted Goods “Carrerita” Messenger

This is my go-to bag when I’m just carrying my iPad Pro. It’s incredibly comfortable, looks nice and withstands the elements like the dickens. I’ve traveled through the English rain storms with this bad boy. Also built like a tank, and bonus: designed by the lovely Thanh Trinh and built using recycled inner-tubes by Cyclus Manufactura in Colombia. There’s also a larger version, the Carrera.

Crafted Goods Carrerita Messenger bag

Patagonia Hip Pack

A fanny-pack? Really? I know right. Some days when I can travel and work ultra-light, or I’m going on a light hike, I bring this thing. It’s not particularly weather proof, but it’s so small that it’s easy to wear it under a jacket or wrap a plastic bag around it in a pinch. Nothing special, but highly functional and easy. As far as I know, you can’t really find these anymore.

When I’m carrying this, inside is typically a Zojirushi thermos with coffee, a GoalZero USB battery pack, my iPhone inside a QuadLock Case, a Joby GorillaPod with a QuadLock Tripod adapter on it, and finally my Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard.

A solid alternative is the Crafted Goods “Chiquitia”.

Patagonia Hip Pack