A tech bag for digital nomads

Take it or toss it? The tech bag packing guide for digital nomads (2022 Edition)

Digital Nomad and Author Phil Teare
Contributor: Phil Teare Investor, traveller, boffin

Phil is an angel investor and founder of SquareFish Business Support. He has been travelling the world and working on the go since 2005 — before the term 'digital nomad' even existed. In this article, he shares a few of the tips and tricks that make him just as productive on the road as he is back at the office in Cork, Ireland.

Introduction

Over the years, I've been lucky enough to see a lot of the world whilst working as I go — enjoying the full digital nomad life. And like just about every digital nomad you'll meet, I've honed my kit down to some favourites that I just could not live without.

I've also invested in a few items that really seemed essential... until they turned out not to be. In those cases, it's not just about buying the wrong kit. It's also the added insult of having to lug it with you all around the globe.

So here it is, based on 17 years of trial and error: my "take it or toss it" guide to packing your laptop/tech bag as a digital nomad.

Laptop and second screen on a train table
Working at full capacity, from a train. Banana optional.

1. Travel Wi-Fi

Peace of mind in your pocket. Wherever you go, no matter how shaky the hotel Wi-Fi might be, you can still get the job done before the deadline. In theory, at least, that's what you get when you buy or rent travel Wi-Fi. It's a gadget the size of your hand which provides 4G internet in (apparently) 125+ countries around the globe. Top providers like travelwifi.com and Solis Wi-Fi promise total freedom and total independence. What's not to love?

Well, there are some downsides — and that's why I personally have never gone down this road. Myself, I have always managed on local Wi-Fi and, in a squeeze, mobile data. Apart from not wanting to take up much-needed bag space, I have always been put off by the price. In other words, for me, travel Wi-Fi has never represented real value for money.

Here's why...

Certainly, as a frequent-flying digital nomad, it is a lot cheaper to buy your own travel Wi-Fi unit than to rent one. This one-off purchase is relatively inexpensive, usually around €100-200. Then you can choose to add a fixed amount of data (with optional future top-ups), or take out a monthly subscription plan. This is where is gets expensive. One month of global data typically costs around €80 — that can be for a fixed amount of data (around 40 GB) or for unlimited data, but with limits on access to higher download speeds.

If you're staying in one place for more than a couple of weeks (and you can't find reliable Wi-Fi), you might just be better off getting a local SIM card with preloaded data. International providers such as Lycamobile offer 20 GB of monthly data for as little as €13.

Verdict: Toss it

Unless you're moving from country to country every week or two, locally-sourced international mobile SIMs with a basic 4G mobile Wi-Fi router (or your phone's own hotspot) could work out a lot cheaper. For most of us, the pricey travel Wi-Fi router might be surplus to requirements.

The laptop's second screen, connected via USB
My travel monitor uses just one USB port and matches my laptop's screen resolution.

2. The Second Screen

With a second screen, you can get so much more done. In fact, if I had a choice, I'd have a setup that looks like NASA mission control. Alas, that's not too practical for the digital nomad life. Even so, I do always carry a second screen. It makes the world of difference to my productivity, whilst being small and light enough to fit in the same laptop compartment of my bag.

Top Tips:

Firstly, getting one that's exactly the same size and resolution as your main laptop screen, makes them super-handy to use. Secondly, getting one that needs only one USB lead — some use two USB ports, leaving little spare for any other gadgetry you might need to plug in.

Verdict: Take it!

My second screen (ASUS mb169b+, €190) matches my laptop's size and resolution exactly, just the one USB lead, perfect. The only downside is the case-stand is a bit limiting on the angles that you can set it at, but maybe I'm just splitting hairs now.

Noise-cancelling headphones, ideal for working on the go
If you have money to spend, invest it in a good headset

3. A quality headset

If you are like most digital nomads, you'll spend half your life wearing your headset. To make work calls, to watch movies, to drown out background noise. So this one is pretty cut and dry: you're going to want to take this with you. In fact, when it comes to budget, this might be the area where you want to splash out and reach for the upper end of what's available. Here are a few things to think about when you're looking to invest.

Over the ear (not on the ear)

This helps isolate you from background noise, super-handy when working from trains / buses / cafés / etc.

Noise-cancelling for working on the move

Noise-cancelling is great too, but note that only removes constant sounds (like engines, train noise, etc). Noise-cancelling doesn't tend to do much for voices.

Boom, if calling in busy places

If you are going to make work calls in places with background noise, then a boom is kind of a must. Even the best headsets without booms struggle if the person next to you in the café is chatting too. Do note that almost all digital nomad destinations (including Heyday Chalet) have call booths, though — so you can chat in private and not disturb others. So this is only a consideration if you plan on lots of calls from cafés / airports and the like.

Software tip

If you are like me and find background chatter of a public place distracting, then websites like noisili.com (my personal favourite) are brilliant. It simply gives you a whole range of background noises to pick from that gently drown out the real background sounds. Other great ones to try include mynoise.net and asoftmurmur.com.

Verdict: Take it!

My headset is a suitably Star Trek-sounding Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC, coming in at a cool €230. Yes, I went big here. It's definitely a lot to spend on a headset, and you don't need to spend that much to get something good. For me, I love it. Super-comfy, over-the-ear, great noise cancelling, great sound quality. One feature I love in particular is the Bluetooth — it connects to my laptop and phone at the same time. No more desperately trying to change connection when calls come in. The only downside is no boom, but my work rarely involves calls in busy places, so it's a compromise that works for me.

The ideal backpack for today's digital nomad
I've lost days researching the perfect backpack

4. The Perfect Bag

Okay, you're undoubtedly going to need a rucksack, so why feature this in a "take it or toss it" article like this? Well, the question really is which rucksack should you bring.

There is no right or wrong here. How often are you moving? Do your digital nomad trips last a month or two, or a year or two? How much work gear do you need to bring? How far down the minimalist packing route are you happy to go?

Your rucksack is now your whole life, so it's worth a little homework. My favourite resource here is packhacker.com. They have an awesome YouTube channel, too. Rabbit hole alert — if you are of the nerdy inclination (like me) you can lose days down the rabbit hole of this packing kit subculture. Some amazing tips and kit reviews there, I love what these guys do.

Ease of use and organisation are big things to look out for with digital nomad bags — you won't want to unpack your entire bag every time you need to grab an adaptor.

Verdict: Take it and do the research!

My own bag is an AER Travel Pack 2, and it set me back a fairly eye-watering €200. Yeah, I know it's a lot for a bag. But I've been super-happy with it, even considering the price tag. It works brilliantly as a day bag and for trips for up to a few week, all out of the one small bag. I have to carry a fair bit of work kit too when I travel, and it can expand to hold all that. The organisation is awesome — everything I need is always at hand. The protection for my kit is great too (padding and waterproofing) without it weighing a tonne either.

5. Fancy Mouse / Trackpad

If you're working anything like full-time hours on a laptop, using the built-in trackpad is nothing but a brake on your productivity, and what feels like a break in your hand. Some kind of external mouse or trackpad is a must.

Personally, I have never got on with trackpads of any kind, though people with more media-oriented jobs than mine might disagree. I also know people who swear by a vertical mouse as the cure-all when it comes to shoulder and back problems. Myself, I keep it pretty basic with a good old-fashioned Bluetooth mouse.

Verdict: Take it and go for Bluetooth

Why Bluetooth, specifically? Well, you know those little dongles that a wireless mouse comes with? Apart from the fact that they needlessly take up a USB port, they're basically designed to break a laptop which does a lot of air miles like yours does. How? Well, those tiny little dongles act as a perfect stress concentration if someone is a bit heavy-handed whilst moving your rucksack (I had a USB port snapped like that once). A Bluetooth mouse not only frees up a USB port, but might even save you a trip to the laptop repair shop in a language that's not your own.

ThinkPad laptop and second screen, perfect size for digital nomads
Grab and go. My 15" Lenovo laptop does a lot of mileage.

6. The Right Laptop Size and Price

If you don't have a laptop with you, you're probably not a digital nomad. So this one is less about whether to bring a laptop, more about which laptop to bring. I've seen a few people, new to the digital nomad life, shell out their savings on a shiny future-proof laptop, only to realise a month later that they've chosen the wrong size. A few considerations to stop you from falling into the same trap are how much you'll be moving and the type of work you do.

Too small for proper work

Firstly, those little 11-inch laptops are great for checking a few emails whilst on holiday. But, for those of us who need to properly work whilst moving around, the tiny screen size soon wears thin. The kit you carry, especially your laptop, should be big enough so you can work at full speed.

Too big to carry

Equally, though those 17-inch behemoths might be too far the other way — not only the weight you have to carry, but they don't fit into the average bag (which are normally designed for laptops up to 15 inches). You now you have to get a bigger and heavier bag too. Finally, when working on a train / plane, you can often find that the bigger size becomes tricky, as they are often too big to fit on a small table.

Verdict: mid-range, 15-inch laptop for the win

I've carried a lot of different laptops over the years, and for me, a 15-inch screen is the perfect balance — I can work properly, without having to haul a brick with me the whole time. My own current laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad E580. It's a great laptop — 5 hours battery life, fast, just the right size. Also, it's mid-range, and that's a conscious choice. Kit on the road gets a much harder life, so spending every last penny on the super-flashy model isn't always the right call, as you'll need enough in the rainy-day fund to replace it that bit more frequently.

7. Kensington Lock

A Kensington lock is one of those security cables you'll see in places like PC World to stop anyone just picking up the display models and walking off with them. Most laptops come with a standard connection, so you can attach the Kensington lock to the heavy table or anything else solid-looking. Places designed to attract digital nomads often have 'anchor points'. These are secure fixings to which you can attach your laptop using a Kensington lock. Then there's no need take your laptop to the counter when you need a refill (or to the bathroom when you've had too many refills).

Verdict: Erm, depends

Most digital nomad coliving accommodation locations (including Heyday Chalet) are private areas. So locking your laptop to various pieces of furniture might be overkill. But if you're spending lots of time in more public spaces like cafés and co-working spaces, then a good lock can give you peace of mind and a less awkward bathroom routine.

8. Battery pack / power bank

Although I own one, I no longer carry an external battery pack for my laptop. This is one I've put down to over-exuberance when I was new to the digital nomad life. It seemed a great idea at the time, an external battery that'll run your laptop for an extra 8 hours — handy if I'm stuck in the wilderness and really need to finish some code. In reality, the places I get stuck tend to be airports, train stations, and other very civilised places, where power is no problem. For me, anything I carry needs to be used a lot, especially when it's a big, heavy block.

A small power bank for your phone is perhaps not so cut and dry, especially if it's small enough to fit in your pocket. But personally, I still come to the same conclusion. If I need to charge my phone, I just connect it to my laptop and charge it from there.

Verdict: Toss it

Controversial, right? But, as a digital nomad living the minimalist lifestyle, you have to be pretty ruthless with your packing list. For me, that means leaving the power banks and external batteries in a dusty drawer at home.

9. External keyboard and laptop stand

There's no question about it: using the keyboard on your laptop isn't good for your eyes or your posture. When your laptop is just a forearm's length away, the screen is at both the wrong distance and the wrong height. If you're working for long hours, that can soon translate into sore eyes and a stiff neck.

Even so, digital nomads have to be pragmatic when it comes to their packing list. And, taken together, a keyboard and laptop stand are both bulky and heavy.

Verdict: Toss it

Neither your optician nor your chiropractor will thank me for this, but these items are just too damn big. Toss it!

10. Extension Cable

In any digital nomad accommodation, you will find lots of techy people, all looking to charge their many gadgets from the same few plug sockets. So there's no doubt about it: an extension cable can definitely come in handy. If you have an extension cable with you, you'll only need one plug adaptor for all your electricals. Plus, it's now easy and affordable to get an extension cable with multiple fast-charging USB ports of 4.5A and higher.

Of course, as with everything else mentioned in this article, these undeniable benefits have to be weighed against the unavoidable need to save baggage space.

Verdict: Toss it

If you can, plug in your laptop and charge all your USB devices from that. It will be a massive headache if your laptop is ever stolen, but we digital nomads just don't have space for heavy, chunky items like extension cables.

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