Commuter Conundrum: Packing for a Long Day at Work


I need to get something off my back: I am not skilled at packing light for my day at work. Lately I feel like I’m hauling Cheryl Strayed’s “Monster” around with me. It’s getting heavy.

Everything but the kitchen sink

I leave for work around 6 AM and return around 5 PM. In an effort to save money, I bring my own coffee, breakfast, and lunch. On any given commute, I am carrying the following:

  • Drinks: cold-press coffee in a tumbler and a refillable water bottle
  • House key
  • Nice Ride key
  • IDs: Metropass & Car2Go, driver’s license (to prove I’m of legal drinking age), U of M ID, Gym proximity card
  • Currency & debit/credit cards
  • Electronics: phone and laptop
  • Food: breakfast, lunch, and snacks
  • Sunglasses
  • Workout clothes

My “Monster” situation involves:

  1. Purse: Ogio Broolyn
    Contents: Wallet with IDs; cash/cards; sunglasses; house key
  2. Laptop bag: Belkin Core backpack
    Contents: Laptop and power cord
  3. Reusable grocery bag: From local grocers and giveaways
    Contents: Food and drink (none of my bags have dedicated drink holders)
  4. Gym bag: A duffle I got for free
    Contents: Workout clothes

Even if I don’t take my laptop home with me, that’s 2-3 bags I’m carrying. There’s got to be a better way.

I need your help.

I’d like to consolidate and maximize efficiency for my daily commute. I bet others out there are in a similar situation. Or maybe you are a pro level commuter with tips. Let’s chat about it in the comments.

  • What do you do to lighten your load while having all you need for your day at work.
  • Do you have recommended purses/packs/bags?
  • Do you have a system in place for streamlining what you’re carrying on your person?
Janelle Nivens

About Janelle Nivens

Janelle is an urban explorer who likes to challenge herself to walk long distances (40 miles is her record). She lives in southwest Minneapolis with Scott and their adorable dog Stewie and works at the University of Minnesota. Janelle documents what catches her eye on long walks in hopes of inspiring others to discover hidden gems in their own communities. Walk with her on Instagram, Twitter (@Janellie23), and FitBit.

37 thoughts on “Commuter Conundrum: Packing for a Long Day at Work

  1. Roxanne

    I bring my breakfast stuff to work and just leave it there – 5 pack of bagels and cream cheese on Monday and I’m set for the week! I try to avoid bringing my laptop (or any work) home or bring my water bottle home – just leave it at work along with a change of clothes/shoes for working out.

    1. Janelle NivensJanelle Nivens Post author

      This is definitely something I’m going to try. It seems like it would help get things organized for the week too – bonus!

  2. Noelle

    I’m in the same boat! I ride the bus and need to carry my laptop, breakfast and lunch, and often workout clothes for the days I run with coworkers.

    I consolidate my laptop bag & purse, for starters. It sounds like you don’t carry much in your purse, so that wouldn’t be terribly difficult. I have a big tote-sized bag with a laptop compartment where everything lives, including wallet, way too many lip balms, bus pass, sunglasses, keys, mouse, etc. On days where I don’t bring workout clothes, I have an insulated lunch bag that my bfast/lunch go in, and on days where I do bring workout clothes, I use a duffel I bought at Marshall’s for $20 and I pack my food together with my workout gear in there.

    Maybe even consider looking for a gym bag with a laptop compartment, to consolidate further? Then you could have a big-ish bag for laptop, wallet, workout clothes, and a separate bag for food.

    Found this one, and it even has a drink carrier on the side!

    Lululemon bags are expensive, but are often made with laptop compartments and include separate bags to put wet workout gear or shoes:;USwomen;accessories;bags

    Good luck!

  3. Keith Morris

    My messenger bag does the trick. It carries my laptop, a few bike tools, spare tube, a book or two, food for work, and clothes.

    1. Janelle NivensJanelle

      Keith, mind sharing the make/model of your bag? It sounds like it can accommodate a lot!

      This may be a weird question but how do you pack your food for work? For some reason that’s the most challenging part of this equation for me.

  4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Don’t forget books. I almost always feel compelled to bring one of those, even if I never use it. For me, a loaded down day involves a bike bag with:

    bike tool, tube, pump, lock
    change of underclothes
    extra hat, scarf
    book or magazine
    computer with cords and extra keyboard

    If i want to have room to go shopping I might bring an extra bag (pannier), which could then hold groceries, beer, random store purchases, etc.

  5. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    I cannot recommend large backpaks highly enough, laptop compartments + side pockets for water bottles + smaller front compartments for food. I’d wrap lunch in a plastic bag and bring workout clothes home in it to avoid (depending on perspiration levels and any possible odor) smelling up the inside of the bag or its contents. One of my bags even has an iPod compartment with a small opening for sticking earbuds through.

    Downsides – If you’re biking it’s an awkward counterweight (I’m probably heavier than you so it’s not as big a deal for me unless it’s stuffed), – Also if heavy it can be a strange maneuvering to get into seats on train, putting it on and off takes a few seconds and is usually carried briefcase like off the train if the train is crowded.

  6. Nicole

    I think you can definitely consolidate a bunch of that. I’ve been traveling regularly for work for fifteen years and that’s more than I bring on an overnight trip!

    My current favorite bag is this one by Po Campo (you can get seconds on eBay for quite a bit less): They have lots of great bags of that one doesn’t do it for you.

    Gym clothes in the bottom, work stuff on top, and I usually pack a small (matching, just because) purse in the top compartment so I don’t have to drag the beast everywhere. Laptop, work files, breast pump (lol!), small knitting project, and Kindle in the top pocket. You could replace that with laptop and food and small purse with wallet.

    I love the ideas of bringing stuff on Mondays and leaving it for the week. I only use a nice stainless coffee mug and wash it out when I’m done and it becomes my water bottle (stainless is easier to get the coffee flavor out of). Carrying two beverage containers is bulky and heavy.

    I think the key for you is going to be to invest in a more functional bag. You’re carrying a lot just in bags even if they don’t have anything else. Tuck a little Chico bag in just in case, and you’re set if you need to carry more.

    Good luck!

    1. Janelle NivensJanelle Nivens Post author

      Wow – I have never seen a bag like the Po Campo. You are right – I need to get a new bag and consolidate. Thanks for the great tips and lead on a new bag.

  7. Karen

    Depending on what your breakfast is, make it the night before and eat it quickly before you leave. For example, you can hard-boil some eggs and leave them in the refrigerator overnight or make a cheese sandwich.

    1. Janelle NivensJanelle Nivens Post author

      Can you believe I’ve never hard-boiled eggs? If nothing else it would be worth trying a new routine to see if I like it. Thanks for the suggestion.

  8. Bb

    This is a very real problem for people not using a car.

    This becomes an obstacle as more places ban backpacks.

    Stocking items at a destination has been mentioned.
    Endless possibilities here. For me I store an earthquake survival kit in my cube. I have 24 hour access.

    The bag , the dropp off … See above, but the goal is to shed bags and use the one you want.

    I try to be able to buy bags that fit inside other bags

    My commuter bag can hold my laptop bag.
    When traveling to customer sites I shed the commuter bag in the hotel room. When traveling home I put the laptop bag in the commuter bag.

    My day back pack fits into my , hiking backpack. .5 pound
    I can use it for all sorts of stuff a seat anyone?

    So what bags do I buy

    Day back a hakari backpack . I am using an old Dana design.

    Commuter backpack simple open top I am using a Swissalps bag with rain cover sa1653 we get

    Hiking backpack mostly use a la police gear operator pack. For that 2 day journey.

      1. Gabe Ormsby

        “Ban” might be an overstatement, but many stores ask you to check them at the front. Depending on how much of your ‘life’ is contained in the bag, the prospect of having to check it or deal with the “wierdo” side-eye when doing one’s shopping might be enough to tip some of us over to the “I’ll just drive the car today” side.

    1. Janelle NivensJanelle Nivens Post author

      Great leads on new-to-me brands. I think I should see if the editorial board would allow a round-up of all of these suggestions.

    1. Gabe Ormsby

      I second the Swiss Gear pack. Not positive mine’s the Ibex, but it looks like it other than the color and minor cosmetic stuff–I’ve had mine since 2006 and it’s still going strong.

  9. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    I agree with all those suggesting a good backpack. Get one with all the pockets/compartments you need and don’t skimp on quality. A good backpack is worth every penny and lasts, making the money you spend stretch further anyway!

  10. Rachel Quednau

    Yes! This is such a good conversation to be having. If I could point to one single reason why I am sometimes tempted to borrow a car/take a Lyft versus using public transit or walking, it would be the amount of stuff I carry.

    I used to commute (now work from home) in both Milwaukee and New York City. New York was especially bad because, since I lived way in upper Manhattan, I could end up doing a bunch of activities before finally coming home after work, so I’d have to bring everything with me for the day. That included: book to read (often I would not choose a large book because I knew I wouldn’t want to lug it on the subway), lunch, workout clothes, water bottle, other essentials (keys, wallet, phone, etc.), shoes for work (versus the walking shoes I wore during my commute).

    I was very intentional about the weight of everything I carried. I found a lightweight water bottle and only filled it with a little bit of water each morning (more once I got into work). I stopped using my leather purse and found a lightweight canvas one. I made sure I wasn’t lugging around $10 worth of coins in my bag and I even routinely went through my wallet to make sure every library and debit card was in there for a reason.

    The last tip I have is to carry multiple bags so that the weigh is not all on one shoulder. A backpack could work for this too, but depending on your job, that can look less professional and also be more tempting for pick-pockets.

  11. Glenn Gilbert

    Single strap laptop/messenger bag is easy to swing from back to front when boarding bus or sitting on train. Also keeps both hands free for hanging on when seats are full.

  12. Pingback: Sunday Summary – November 8, 2015 |

  13. Joe

    I don’t fully know your situation, but could you just store your water bottle at work and then use a drinking fountain at the gym? Then you could ditch the water bottle (and the heavy water inside it), but still have it at work. That’s what I do anyway.

    1. Janelle NivensJanelle Nivens Post author


      I think all comments sections would be better served if people started with “I don’t fully know your situation”! So refreshing. Just like water.

      My personal situation is that I only bring a water bottle with me if I’m going somewhere after work but otherwise it stays at work.

      Thanks for joining the conversation!

  14. Gabe Ormsby

    Good conversation starter and thread! Somewhat related, one thing I’d love to see from MetroTransit is the addition of some sort of light duty luggage carriers to buses.

    On a typical day my family of three, who should nominally take two seats on the bus (kid on a lap), find ourselves crammed in our 2 or 3 seats and sprawling into the aisle with all our our computer, lunch, book, gym, and whatever bags.

    Seems like the buses have plenty of headroom to accommodate some racks. But I’m sure a) it would eat into the advertising revenue; and b) there’s something unique about our particular system that makes any solutions implemented worldwide utterly inappropriate for here.

    1. Janelle NivensJanelle Nivens Post author

      You’re definitely not alone. I’ve see other families with children on the bus and internally congratulate them for overcoming what I can only assume are minor/major hurdles to make it happen.

      Let’s ask MetroTransit what they’d recommend for families who want or have no choice but to have a car-free commute. In the meantime…what do others think could be tips/tricks/solutions?

  15. GlowBoy

    One more in agreement with getting a good, big-enough backpack! I now work from home most of the time, but prior to moving here from Portland I had a long bike commute, often in wet weather during the colder months.

    For inclement weather, I can’t praise my Banjo Brothers waterproof commuter backpack enough (OK, well except it would be nice to have a couple more organization pockets under the flap). Not only is it 100% waterproof, but the waterproof liner can be replaced in under one minute and for under $20 if it should wear out or become damaged. It’s also big enough to hold a laptop, lunch+dinner, work clothes and a sweater or jacket. They also make an even bigger version than the one I have.

    I think side pockets are a really important feature on a backpack too. My former commute was multi-modal in the morning (ride to the LRT station downtown, spend half an hour on the train, ride a few more minutes to work), so being able to quickly stash and access gloves, glasses and other sundries quickly – without taking the packpack off and setting it down to open and dig into it – was really handy.

    One other nice feature, which I have on the NON-waterproof backpack I use on drier days, is an exterior-accessible laptop compartment with a separate zipper. It is sooo much easier to access the laptop without having to open up the main compartment, I often work in libraries, cafes, etc, as well as using my laptop on transit, so I find this very handy. I’m using a Nike RPM pack, though it’s on the small side for also carrying lunch, changes of clothes, etc., but Timbuk2 and others also make similar models. Downside is I’ve yet to see a backpack with this feature that was also waterproof and had a waterproof zipper, so may not be the best choice for sloppy weather.

    If you’re not biking or only for shorter distances, messenger bags are a great alternative. I tried them, but found them uncomfortable on my hour-plus evening bike commute. As others have mentioned, messenger bags are easier to access while wearing than backpacks are, so if you’re mostly walking and riding transit that can be very handy. They can be just as waterproof and can hold as much too. If I’m leaving the house to work and not biking, I usually take my quasi-messenger bag rather than a backpack.

  16. kate

    My commute is pretty easy – walk a block, get on bus for 20-40 minutes depending on NJ traffic, get off bus, walk through campus, about 3 blocks I guess. I almost always carry a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger in the medium size. My back i so wonky that I purposely carry a smallish bag so I’m not tempted to pack more than I can carry.

    My Timbuk2 holds my planner, which I almost always carry, backup bus fare, whatever work stuff had to come home. It’s mostly a shell in which everything else can fit.

    I carry my lunch either in a bentology style bento box ( or in tupperwares in a neoprene BuiltNY lunch bag (I think this one? it’s a smaller size than the Gourmet Getaway – If it doesn’t fit into my bag that day, I often attach it to the grab strap of my Timbuk2 with a carabiner to keep my hands free. My breakfast is almost always a KIND bar and a few handfuls of trail mix I keep a stash of both at work and an emergency backup bar in my bag.

    My purse fits inside my Timbuk2 unless I took a whole lot of work home with me. It’s smallish but it fits everything I need to grab quickly: wallet, phone, headphones, lip balm, dramamine, altoids, mini journal, a couple of pens, keys and school ID and bus fare (in a small Vera Bradley pouch on a lanyard so that they’re easy to spot). It’s called the Carezza Organizer Bag and appears to no longer be in production, but I LOVE it. It’s only about 10″ wide x 8″ deep but it’s perfect for my daily needs. it has three outside pockets, a bunch of internal organizer pockets, and the leather is amazing (and purple!) and soft. It’s heavier than a canvas or cotton bag would be, but I love it too much not to carry it.

    I carry my coffee in a mug that I just hold on to. I keep meaning to sew a cup holder into my bag but I haven’t managed it yet. If I want to bring backup coffee it’ll be in a Zojirushi thermos.

    I have a smaller bag that I keep at work if I have to just run to a meeting with a smaller amount of stuff. I almost never carry a computer. Too heavy. If I have to carry my laptop somewhere, I switch to a North Face backpack to distribute the weight more evenly, but I find that all of the tasks that I need to do on my (relatively short) commute can be done on my (relatively large iPhone 6+) phone.

    I never carry gym clothes, but I suppose that if I did, I’d be able to cram them into my TImbuk2, and I’d wear my gym shoes to work and change into work shoes (there are always three pairs of work shoes in my office, along with a full change of clothes, just in case, an extra umbrella, lots of other stuff…)

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