I’ve been making changes to my go bag the last couple of months, and since I’ve recently updated some of my other gear — my phone to an iPhone Xs with wireless charging, for instance — it made sense to re-evaluate all of the gear I carried in my go bag, replace some of it with better options, and remove all of the stuff I really don’t use on the move.

I started this update informally when I took the trip to New Orleans and found what I packed not doing what I needed well, and having just finished a number of trips down to family in SoCal, I now feel comfortable that what I have in there will work for me for the next year or two.

What’s a Go Bag?

To answer the first obvious question: A Go Bag is the thing you grab when you leave the house; it carries what you need while you’re out, and it does so in a comfortable way without being annoying to carry around. So it has to be big enough to carry your gear on the road, but light enough that you don’t hate carrying it.

In a perfect world, the go bag works if you’re headed to the coffee shop, to the office for a day or meetings, or on a plane for a week in New Orleans. It needs to carry what you need for those outings, and have enough room for you to add custom items for a specific trip, all while staying small enough and light enough that you actually carry it with you.

There are a couple of philosophies about go bags. I know people who pack up a bag whenever they go out with what they need.

I am not that person. I will invariably forget to pack something. It’s guaranteed. My Amazon ordering is littered with emergency overnight deliveries of chargers for my camera battery, enough that it might well pay for the contents of this bag. The only way I keep that from happening is having a bag packed and ready to go, and then not taking stuff out of it at home and expecting to remember to put it back.

Another reason my go bag is always packed: I live in earthquake country. I may need to leave the house in a real hurry — or crawl back into the wreckage and salvage things I can get my hands on. Literally, packing a go bag to leave in a hurry might not be possible, so from an emergency kit point of view, it’s ready to literally grab and go.

The go bag is always there and ready so I don’t have to think about getting ready to go, or I can just grab and run for my life if I need to (and it’s within reach).

That’s a go bag.

The bag

I’ve tried a number of bags before settling on one I liked: the Swiss gear 1900 in Grey Heather. it’s a mid-sized bag. It has a back compartment to hold a laptop (up to 17″), and it has a second spot where you can stick an iPad or Kindle. It’s TSA approved in that you can unzip it and split it open so you don’t need to remove the laptop or tablet for the scanner. That adds to the bulk a bit but I like the convenience.

On the front are two pockets, a larger one sticking out on the lower half, and a top smaller pocket. On the sides are two tall pockets. Finally, there’s the large interior area, which is separated from the laptop storage, which is accessed through a zipper on the side.

Overall the design gives me enough structure without it all getting in my way and limiting my options. I use packing squares to keep the insides neat and tidy and much prefer that form than a bag with lots of built in storage bits and bobs that don’t do exactly what I want. There are mesh pockets on the sides that can be used for a small water bottle, but I find them rather tight so I rarely do that.

You can see I have a luggage tag attached. All of my bags have these bright green tags attached with a business card inside. I attach them using two wire straps, not the supplied strap, because that way I can guarantee it won’t come off accidentally (why two? One might fail given the handling in a typical airport if I check the bag; the chances both wire wraps will fail is too small to be credible; if the tag is gone, someone removed it)

The Side pockets

The two tall pockets on the side are used for — ta da — tall stuff.

One pocket holds a tabletop tripod. This is the Manfrotto Mini Tripod, and it can be used both for sitting a camera on a table and for holding in your hand and carrying around, sort of a non-motorized gimbal thing.

The other thing is the Glif, from Studio Neat. It lets you do the same with your phone and can help give much more stable video. I’ve got it with the optional handle. I can also shift the Glif to the tripod if I want to put the camera on that support.

This is, more or less, my vlogging tools, if only I were vlogging.

In the other side pocket is my charging battery, the Zendur A6PD 20100mAh Power Bank. I can delivery 45 watts via USB C so it can keep a Macbook pro under load charged, and will also quick charge an iPhone or charge any USB gear. I found on my recent trips my old battery simply couldn’t keep the laptop charged, and I was in a situation where I needed to work and my work spot (the patio) was awesome but not near any power, and even with the old battery plugged in, the laptop lost charge. oops.

In testing of this battery, I set up my laptop with a 95% charge, fired up Adobe Lightroom, told it to convert 500 RAW images to DNG, and hooked it up to the battery. ten minutes in, the laptop reported a 100% charge, and 20 minutes later when the batch finished the battery reported > 80% charge with the laptop fully charged. I consider that more than good enough, so it’s the new toy in my bag that solves a problem my old gear couldn’t. I know from past experience that I can sit at a conference with no electrical outlet and plug the iPad into a battery that size and use it for 10+ hours without running out of juice.

It’s not something I need constantly, but it’s really nice to know you have spare power, especially in the situation where I’m leaving the house in a hurry. That said, this is the one piece of gear that doesn’t live in the bag, but on the desk hooked to a charger so it’s always at 100%. And yes, I’ve left the house without it.

The front pockets

The front two pockets are kind of boring. They hold a collection of pens, business cards, lens clothes and the like. The two special items in here are the flashlight, because I keep a flashlight in every bag — emergency go bag, remember? — and some wet-cleaning lens papers. The flashlight in this bag is older and no longer made, but the one I’m currently buying is the Foxelli Headlamp. It is cheap, it doesn’t take up much space, it uses AAA batteries so it’s easy to replace them when needed, and takes up very little space. If you’re out and about and you run late on a walk, it’s really nice to have a bit of light to help you stay on the path back to civilization.

The lens wipes are from Nikon, and as I write this, not available for some reason. Basically they’re wet wipes but for lenses, both camera and eyeglasses. I use them when the microfiber cloths don’t get the job done and so far they’ve worked well. When I run out of these, my next batch will be these Zeiss Lens Wipes. I only use them about 10% of the time I clean off some glass compared to the microfibers, but when you need them, they’re a godsend. (note: not for your camera sensor, just the lens glass).

The main storage

And now, the main event.

Open up the main compartment and you see one large area for storage. The bottom quarter has a couple of dividers you can use or ignore, but I find them useful for minimizing having sets of papers banged up by other stuff in the bag. There’s a spot to put your phone with a port to snake your headphone wire out if you need that. I do love their icon on it shows an iPod. There’s a nice mesh pocket that I find I’m not using right now, but it holds a fair amount.

My standard set of gear is the four bags at the bottom. This fills less than a third of the available space in this bag, leaving me a lot of flexibility. It is quite possible for my to stick one of my cameras in here, along with a second lens, allowing me to go out and about without a second camera bag (and bonus: it doesn’t look like a camera bag). I can fit everything I need to travel on a plane and carry on in it if I want, including a set of clothes, my prescriptions and insulin, etc.

It’s really nice, open and flexible without being huge or uncomfortable while walking with it. I can’t ask for much more than that…

Those four bags? Let’s take a look.

The black case top right are my binoculars. When I went to New Orleans I realized I really, really never wanted to be without binoculars, so I’ve spent some time trying a few models and looking for a small and light pair that wasn’t too expensive.

If small, light, inexpensive and portable are the primary goals, you might look at the Pentax AD 10×25 at about $115. They’re perfectly good for a casual birder or someone wanting them for a ball game. I found myself frustrated and wanting something with sharper detail, so I ended up going with a more expensive (and bigger/bulkier) pair than I’d originally hoped, and they aren’t quite as good as my primary birding binoculars (see my birding gear kit for those) but the Vortex Diamondback 8×32 is a nice compromise between size and usability and I’ve been quite happy with them. I could use them as a primary set of glass without complaining, which at under half the price of my normal binoculars is saying something.

The two tan bags are my chargers. Yes, I carry two. Both are fairly new upgrades but I’ve been pretty happy with them the last couple of trips.

The bags are Eagle Creek Pack-it Quarter Cubes in size Extra-Small. They’re $9 each, and if you haven’t discovered the magic of using Packing Cubes to organize your gear when you travel, I feel sorry for you.

The first bag holds my USB charger. I’m now using this small power strip by Tessan, which has two AC outlets and 3 standard USB ports, which is kind of perfect for me. It has a 5′ cord, and this typically is plugged in and put on the side table next to the bed in the hotel room, and allows me to put the iPhone, iPad and Watch next to me where I can get to them easily in the dark or when I wake up. The AC port means I also have a place to plug in my CPAP, which simplifies life, especially if the outlet isn’t convenient to the side table.

Attached to it are three Lightning cables, a short one for the phone, a 6′ one for the iPad (so I can charge it while using it in bed before crashing) and one for the watch, which I connect to the Belkin Travel Stand (mine is white, now only available in black).

For dealing with my mobile gear, this is perfect. It’s light, compact, inexpensive, it all fits nicely on a side table next to a bed in a hotel, and it just works. It doesn’t have quick charging for the newer iPhone, but honestly, do I care if the phone charges in 3 hours vs 5 while I’m asleep? nope. And if I do need a faster burst, I can use my battery in that side pocket. Or plug it into my other charger.

The other tan bag holds the other charger, which is primarily for my laptop. I know I could carry Apple’s white brick, but I hate uni-taskers.

I switched to the Satechi 75W Travel Charger about a month ago, and I’m really happy. My old charger struggled to keep up with the laptop. This one doesn’t: it can send up to 60 watts to feed your computer charger — and it’s cheaper than Apple’s white brick, and it has a few more charging ports to boot. It had fast charging if you want it for your newer iPhones, and it has a couple of more USB charging ports, too.

This is why I have a second charger: think about a typical photography day: I’m out in the field shooting all day. When I get back to the hotel room, I have an iPad, iPhone and Watch that all need charging.

But I also have maybe 3-4 camera batteries that need charging. I need to fire up the laptop and import my images into Lightroom for evaluation, so I get a first look at how the day’s shooting worked — perhaps as many as 1500. So the laptop is sucking power, I need to plug in a couple of chargers, and I want to be sitting at the desk doing this, not on the bed, and if I need to leave batteries charging overnight, I can’t have them using the same charging ports my devices use.

So off to the room, hook up the charger by the bed, plug in the phone and iPad. Set up the CPAP so when I’m ready for bed, I don’t have to think about it. Haul out the laptop, plug it into the charger, fire it up and start importing images. Grab the camera battery chargers and start charging. That’s a nice, relaxing evening after a nice relaxing day of photography out in the field.

If I used charge out of my battery, it needs to be charged, too. That’s done with the Satechi charger as well instead of the laptop, and often, once I’m done processing for the night, I’ll unplug the laptop and let the battery charge all night. Sometimes I’ll set the battery to charge and go eat and then come back and do the image review. So far, I haven’t felt the need for another high power charger for that battery, but I’m waiting for it to happen.

So the two chargers support a lot of flexibility and my preferred working setup. It also means if I go on a trip without the laptop I can leave the second charger home and save space if I want.

The Satechi is stored with a USB C cable and another Lightning cable.

So those two charger bags cover the vast majority of my needs to keep my electronics running and at full capacity.

There are, or course, times when something unusual is needed. That is why that fourth bag exists. It is — the everything else bag. Because life isn’t complete until you realize at 11PM that you need to charge something with a micro-USB port.

The “Everything else” bag

Welcome to Dongle Town.

The reason that mesh pocket is empty is because I finally got tired of everything being cluttered and tangled and occasionally missing for no reason I could figure out.

My solution: the ProCase Roll-Up Electronics Organizer, a $13 gadget bag that means everything has a place, so it’s easy to see if it’s not there. It’s about 4″ x 9″, so it’s not huge and doesn’t take up a lot of space.

In case it’s not obvious, I’m a big fan of organization for a couple of reasons.

One is obvious: if things have a place to live, you can — at a glance — look and make sure everything is where it belongs. If it’s all piled together in a pile, you have to sort and inventory the pile to make sure it’s complete. For a go bag, I’m always going to look for ways to know it’s set up rather than have to find out it’s set up. Good organization is one of those helpers.

The second hack is a bit less obvious: The human brain can only hold on to so many bits of data at once; generally speaking the number is around 7, plus or minus. So if you look in your go-bag and there are 20 things that need to be in it, you probably need a written check list to check again, or you’re likely going to miss something.

But if you put a few of those things in a bag? You don’t have to remember those things any more. If you know the five things are in the bag, you don’t have to keep track of the five things. All you need to to do is see that the bag is there. It makes inventorying for completeness a lot easier, because you’re breaking it up into manageable chunks.

I don’t have to remember everything in those bags. I just need to see those bags are in there. As long as I always set up each bag properly when putting it away, those two charger bags hide a level of detail so I don’t have to think about it.

The Everything Else bag is a bit different, since it’s job is to hold everything that doesn’t really have a home. It still allows me to organize all of that, so at a glance can see if something’s missing, and figure out what it is supposed to be and replace it. That also makes keeping it all straight simpler.

Here’s what’s currently in this bag.

At the bottom are the inevitable dongles. I typically carry two USB-C -> USB-A dongles for the laptop, and Dansrue Lighting to HDMI digital converter, in part because it’s way cheaper than others, and it has the USB-C for power.

These live in the bottom compartment of the bag, along with a Monoprice 6′ Ultra Slim HDMI cable for plugging things into the hotel TV cheaply, and the Satechi USB-C Multi-port adapter, which at about $55 means I don’t need any other dongles for my laptop, since it has a charging port, an HDML, and a couple of USB-A ports for good measure.

I may stop carrying that one of these days, because I usually use that other hub instead. That’s the Satechi Pro Hub Adapter. It plugs into the two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports on the side of a Macbook Pro, and turns them into a charging port, a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, two USB-A ports, an HDMI port, and both SD Card and Micro SD card readers.

In other words, for $80, Satechi has built a little box that lives on the side of your laptop that gives you all of the ports everyone is complaining Apple took away when it went to USB-C.

Warning: editorial rant ahead

So, you might notice I have a number of things from Satechi in my bag. That’s because they’re decently priced, I’ve found them reliable as hell, and they’re designed to look like Apple designed them: they are pretty and functional. Satechi is one of those companies that I’ve come to believe if they have a product that does what I need, I’ll just buy that because I trust it’ll work like it should (Anker is another, Neewer is as well).

And here’s the rant: Satechi has built the hubs/ports/dongles Apple should have built. They look like they belong with the Macbook pro, and they work like champs. If Apple had shipped these, we’d have many fewer arguments about Dongle Town.

But Apple doesn’t ship adapters like these. Apple ships overpriced, single-function dongles that are hunks of white plastic and which cost way too much.

Yes, I’m that person who isn’t upset about Apple making us buy dongle. I’m that person who’s upset that the dongles they ship are ugly, almost as if Apple doesn’t care about them. They should, because those big white ugly blobs of plastic make the Macbook look ugly, and I think that’s at the core of a lot of the complaints about dongle town.

My suggestion: People should just buy the Satechi hub and move on, honestly.

But my other suggestion is to Apple: if you’re going to ship a product, even a dongle, it should look like it was designed by Apple and not like it was a senior project by a design student who waited until the night before deadline to start on it.

Satechi shows what Apple should be shipping, and Apple should be embarassed at the design quality of what it is shipping.

Not that it’ll change, if it hasn’t already. So go buy the Satechi things and you’ll be a lot happier.

Editorial Rant done

Okay, done with the rant.

What else is in the dongle bag?

The top mesh bags hold a couple of spare lightning cables, including a really cute 6″ cable that is sometimes useful but not as useful as often as I hoped. There are also two USB-A to Micro-USB cables, and a USB-C to USB-C cable. I should probably have a thunderbolt 3 cable in here as well, but I’ve not needed one yet.

There’s also yet another SD card reader here: Cable Matters has a really nice and cheap one ($12) so I have a bunch of them in different bags, so I always have one when I need one.

The final thing is a battery charger for my camera. Neewer has a Micro-USB charger that’s dirt cheap (under $8) and while it’s not the faster charger in the world, it means there’s no reason not to have a bunch stuck in places where you have it when you need it. I have one in my camera bag, another in my car console…

Remember when we used to pay $50 for a hunk of plastic that charged camera batteries? No more. And Neewer has versions of this for most of the popular cameras out there. Well worth grabbing a couple.

So, that’s the Go Bag.

Everything in there is something I typically need on a trip, or if not every trip, many of them. The exceptions would be the dongles, but I’m not yet ready to stop carrying them. And they’re tiny…

I do think it’s useful to have a Go Bag, and think through what needs to be in it — and just as important, what doesn’t. If you live in a location where you might need to Go In a Hurry, like Earthquake Country, I really think it ought to be independent and kept packed, just in case.

This bag fits my needs now — it’s been six months since I’ve had that “damn, I wish I’d packed…” moment, and there’s nothing in there other than dongles that hasn’t been used in the last six months as well. That, I think, is the best definition of “best possible” I can think of.

Hopefully, this gives you some ideas of how you can tweak and improve your Go Bag, or get serious about setting it up.

What’s in your go bag?