Modular Packing for Everyday Carry

I love packing, but I'm not really a huge fan of travel. Go figure. I think it's because vacations make me feel pressure to enjoy myself every minute and make the most of my limited time in a particular area, which stresses me out. Most of the things I enjoy most are things I can do anywhere, like reading and napping, and going somewhere else to read and nap feels like a waste. But packing is just the pure joy of organizing things, and, as you know, I love organizing, and I love things. When I imagine travel, I fantasize mainly about packing, and I pack and repack the little items I carry around with me in my everyday life.

The Principles of Perfect Packing

Pack light

Packing as light as possible rewards itself if you're walking long distances, and it's just as important for commuting. It's impractical to weigh down your shoulders with an overstuffed, bulky bag on a daily basis--especially when you can keep most of your necessaries at home or at work. It's not like you're going to the far reaches of the galaxy.

Be prepared

Anyone who carries a big purse or backpack every day already feels this. We look at people who walk around with just a wallet, and we wonder: where is your chapstick? your water bottle? your USB stick containing every song you liked in high school? your pen? your apple for if you get hungry later?

Overpackers (like me) need to chill out and learn to live lighter, underpackers could also learn a thing or two about preparedness. If you've ever searched an unforgiving post office for a pen that works, or stood sniffing on the subway for half an hour wondering if it would be weird to ask that motherly-looking lady at the end of the car if she has a tissue, it might be worthwhile to put together a few useful, lightweight basics.


I love bags, boxes, and containers, so part of my life of modularization is purely nerdjoy. But it's also really handy to group small or related items into units (such as a bag within a bag or a clipped-together keychain) so that you can find the things you need when you need them, and there's not just a bunch of loose stuff in your bag. It also makes it easier to move from one bag to another when you don't have to individually transfer, like, six lipsticks.

Modularization can help you be prepared by piggybacking some extra useful items onto objects or groups you're already planning to carry, without increasing the mental stress of remembering another item. If your daily mantra is "keys, wallet, phone," you're probably already taking advantage of piggybacking by adding as many useful things as possible to those three items. You probably keep your ID and insurance cards in your wallet as well as your money; your phone has many uses aside from making calls; and you might even have some useful items on your keychain, like a USB stick or a mini flashlight.

Another thing to think about when modularizing is redundancy--you want any backups to be in different modules. When I started carrying an ID badge for work, the obvious piggybacking strategy was to put it in my wallet. Then, one day, I forgot my wallet, and there was absolutely zero way for me to get into the building. Normally, if you forget your work ID, you can go through a reception process with another photo ID to get a temporary pass, but since I didn't have my wallet, I had no ID either. After that, I switched to keeping my work badge clipped to my keys with a lanyard. Still no fourth item, but now, if I lose or forget one of my keys/phone/wallet triad, I'm slightly less screwed.

My Everyday Carry Modules

I recently made an attempt to apply my perfect packing principals to my everyday purse or backpack contents. Since I often switch between bags depending on what else I need to bring with me, I don't have much time to build up junk, and I try to keep the number of modules to a minimum, with each one being somewhat optional depending on the task. When not in my current active purse of backpack, all of these modules live in a bin on the bottom shelf of my nightstand.

Module 1: Wallet-Keys-Phone

Technically this isn't one physical module but three, but I think of them mentally together. If I carry no bag at all, these three items go into my pockets. The principle of piggybacking is storng here.

  • Wallet, including the basic wallet stuff: cash, credit card, and ID. My wallet also includes a little zipper portion for a few coins, which is handy since it means I don't have to carry a separate coin purse. The challenge is keeping this clear of things I don't need to carry everywhere, like old receipts.
  • Keys, on a keychain with my work badge, lanyard, USB stick, and some frequently used store loyalty cards. I removed the loyalty cards for stores I never go to and got it down to the basics: pharmacy, food co-op, and ice cream shop. What more do you need?
  • Phone, which also acts as a camera, flashlight, and general boredom reducer.

Module 2: Kindle or Current Library Book

This is in its own module because it needs to be easily accessible for frequent reading.

Module 3: Minor Emergencies Kit

This small pouch, just over three by four inches, contains anything I might need for my most frequently encountered "wish I had"s.
  • Lip balm
  • Handkerchief
  • Throat lozenge
  • A couple of bandaids
  • A couple of safety pins
  • A couple of aspirin
  • Tweezers
  • Pencil that has been sharpened so often that it's now golf-sized
  • Tiny notepad
  • Sanitary pad
  • Spare transit card with a few dollars on it
  • Spare ATM card

The spare transit card and ATM card are my redundancy features, in case of wallet loss. I also keep one credit card and form of identification at home, in case I lost my whole bag.

I can think of a few more things I could put in here--earbuds, tiny ballpoint pen or Sharpie, Swiss Army knife, LED flashlight, mirror compact--but space is limited, so I have to be choosy. I chose such a little pouch because when I've used larger ones, they get so big and bulky that I don't carry them around, and then what's the point? At the same time, the downside of such a small pouch is that I basically have to fully unpack it to get at anything.

Module 4: Lunch bag

Contains my lunch, when I bring it to work.

Module 5: Day Out Kit

I usually bring these items on a weekend day out, but rarely bring any of them on a commute. The items here are as useful for a day hike as a day running errands. This is where my water bottle would belong if it weren't its own module.

  • Water bottle
  • Compact binoculars (for unexpected birdwatching on the go; my big binoculars are their own module, if the primary purpose of my trip is birdwatching.)
  • Winter: Glove liners (used when I don't think to bring gloves, but my hands get cold, especially while carrying binoculars)
  • Summer: Sunscreen, sunglasses (actually, sunscreen does rise to the level of wallet-keys-phone; I'm very pale)
  • "To go" kit - fork, spoon, stainless steel straw, cloth napkin
  • Fold-up tote bag (for unexpected shopping)

Module 6: Crash Kit

I actually haven't physically built this as I haven't needed it recently, but back when I dated people who didn't live in my house, and frequently visited friends across town and then missed the last train back (it didn't occur to me to take a taxi), I found it helpful to carry the bare minimum I might need to comfortably sleep away from home at a moment's notice.
  • Change of underwear
  • Tightly folded T-shirt or camisole
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, tooth floss
  • Deodorant
  • Couple extra rx doses
  • Phone charger

What are your modules?

If I haven't lost you by now, you're probably itching to create your own personal modules of the things you need the most frequently. Everyone's needs will be different, of course, but if you have any brilliant suggestions or experiences of little things that you often need, or that have gotten you out of jams, feel free to share. I love when I can become even more prepared without much addition of space or weight.


Popular Posts