The perfect black bag

Tumi The young consultant lives or dies by the "all but only" rule.  He or she wants to travel with everything needed to survive life on the road, and not one thing, one ounce or one feature more.

Further to my occasional series, "advice to a young consultant," here are some thoughts on the perfect black bag.  (We are talking briefcases here.  I will leave the perfect suitcase to a later post; the consultant’s world is a two bag world.) 

I welcome the comments and advice of other travellers.  This account does not pretend to be definitive or exhaustive.

The perfect black bag

The bag itself should be cloth, expandable, study and probably by Tumi. The bag cannot have hard sides.  It is going to have to expand in some moments and collapse down in others.  (Consultants should be able to do the same.)  Hard sides make this impossible.  The bag cannot be made of leather. This dries out and looks bad in the long term.  In the short term, it will be seen as a "rookie mistake" by your fellow travellers. The Tumi brand has also become a "secret signal" for the sophisticated traveller.  Don’t buy something like a Hartmann or anything showy.   You want to keep a lowish profile in those moments you find yourself in the company of thieves.

Contents of the perfect black bag:


To protect yourself from the punishments of life on the road, you must have noise cancelling earphones.  They work well on the plane and reduce the fatique of air travel substantially.  And they mean that you can actually hear the dialogue of the movies you are watching.  (Travel outside the US turns out to be a great way of catching up with popular culture inside the US.  Those trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific trips allow you to watch 3 or 4 movies at a go.  You can also wear the headphones when the airport or traffic gets noisy, and here they are life savers.  Finally, headphones are good when you find yourself seated by a kucklehead or a bore.  Nothing says "don’t bother me" like a headset.  (I did actually sit beside someone who suffered "pressure of speech" so enormously that they kept talking to me even after I put my headphones on.)

The insider’s choice at the moment is the Bose headset, but recently, having lost my Bose to misadventure on the road, I purchased a set of Sony MDR-NC50 and I think they’re better. They cover the entire ear, which is essential, and they can operate as a headset without a battery inserted.  I think this is key.  Who wants a battery held against one’s skull for an 8 hour flight?  The price might give you pause, but believe me $200-300 is the single best investment you will make as a traveller. 


If you want to be an ethnographic consultant, you are going to want to take lots of photos.   I am still looking for the right camera.  I have a Nikon Coolpix 3700.  The perfect camera would turn on, focus, and refresh instanteously.  Lots of cameras lag in one or all of these areas.  Much of your photography will be shot from the open window of a speeding taxi.  Any kind of lag is intolerable.  Also the camera needs to be really little so that it can accompany you in a jacket pocket.  It should have some telephoto capacity.  I would love to hear suggestions here.


There is no substitute for the ThinkPad by Lenovo.  It is incredibly light, incredibly dependable, and it has the best keyboard, the point of interface that matters most.  The new models have dramatically better battery life and hard drive capacity.  (They also have that new, special "explodo" battery made by Sony, but I understand that’s being fixed. )

Cell phone service

If you are doing lots of international travel, you will want to have a phone capable of taking a SIM card and GSM/GPRS service, and this means Cingular and T-Mobile.  The former give me good service and reception in Russia and China. 

Food stuffs

This is a special concern for me because I have subject to anaphylaxis.  But the thing about travel and consulting is that schedules are hectic and its easy to miss a meal. Miss a couple in a row and you are light headed and miserable. My fall back are granola bars from Kellogg’s . 

A book

You only have room for one so you have to chose it carefully.  This is going to be your companion when things get really unpleasant, so it has to be written with perfectly clarity.  Last trip I took The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado, but it is laboriously written.  This is one of the "desert island disks" question, so beloved by the English, and it makes an interesting exercise.  What is the single best literary companion.  You might say Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but often you will be reading while exhausted, groggy, jet lagged and distracted.  I don’t know about you but if find I actually have to pay attention while reading the Sonnets.  Maybe the latest volume of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin series.  It’s swashbuckling without being too boy’s own.  Pound for pound, word for word, what is the best literate pal to have along for the ride?

iPod or Zen

I think a well appointed laptop should serve as a substitute for these devices, but there will be times when you want to protect your laptop battery or travel without encumbrance.  The iPod is everyone’s favorite.  Ideally, we want one capable of music and movies.  I welcome recommendations here.

A sweater

I know this sounds dorky but if you take a sweater, you can get them to hang up your suit jacket and the less "suited up" you feel while flying the more pleasant it will be.  Travel is a process that wears away at you.  Anything you can do to "give yourself a little space" is to be recommended. 


adapter laptop for plane
business cards
charge cords for phone and laptop and iPod
extra battery for laptop
plugs and adapters for Europe and Asia
SD card for capturing images on camera and transferring them to labtop
thumbdrive for backup
transparent envelope for itinary
transparent envelope for project reading
transparent envelope for receipts
(remember to charge everything the night before you go)

Redundant systems

It’s up to you to decide which of these systems is so essential you should take a backup.  Strictly speaking, I guess, this should be your laptop.  But if you are transitioning out of the Microsoft world to the Google one, more and more of your essentials end up on line.  Don’t hesitate to email yourself that Powerpoint presentation, for a backup you will be able to access anywhere even in the effect of a cataclysmic lose of your perfect black bag.

Hard card

This sounds dopy, too. but it’s essential.  What you have decided on "all but only" the contents of your perfect black bag, you will want to type these in a list on a piece of paper, take the piece of paper to Kinko’s, and have them cover the piece of paper with something transparent.  Your bag is now a little universe of some 30 heterogeneous objects waiting to go astray.  Hard cards make it easier to keep track. 

Bon voyage.


For more on the Patrick O’Brian series, see the W.W. Norton website here.

13 thoughts on “The perfect black bag

  1. Ed Lee

    I can highly recommend a small amount of change for emergency phone calls. I sent an event kit to a client and she said out of everything she had on the four week trip; the change turned out to be the best thing in the, exhaustive, bag.

    Great list and as soon as this young consultant has the cash, I’ll be updating my kit!


  2. Pingback: Consuming Things

  3. M E-L

    Oh, preparedness. One of my favorite topics… A few suggestions:

    Newegg sells a 1 GB Flash drive for $20 that is small enough to keep inside your wallet. It’s about the size and weight of a paperclip.
    Load up on stickware apps at Portable Freeware:

    This blog post on Ishbadiddle outlines the stuff I carry around with me. Not all of it useful for int’l travel. I highly recommend both the PakLite and the Photon Freedom Microlight.

    The 43 Folders wiki has several lists of “thing to carry.”

  4. Akshay Kapur

    Your site was referenced in Businessweek magazine last week and i’ve been perusing many of the old posts and i was fascinated with “the problem of involuntary empathy”. As you mention, empathetic scanning is innate and cannot be switched on and off. It is very dependent on mood, location, atmosphere, and the people “noise” in your surroundings.

    Anyway, what i thought of as an abstract idea, you have illuminated in a single post. Frank Herbert explored the idea of detailed noticing and scanning quite a bit in his “Dune” series. As an application it is much more subtle, but as you mentioned in “Noticing 101”, the ability to view a situation from a 360 degree perspective with a peculiar attention to detail, has become invaluable in any profession. Medicine and Law may rely on it, but business, art, and construction can obviously benefit as well. Instead of increasing our extrinsic knowledge of our job, we should tap into our intrinsic qualities of awareness and curiousity.

    Great blog! I’m looking forward to future posts 🙂

  5. jens


    – a mini maglite
    – a fisher space-pen
    – a baseball cap – beneficial in summer and winter + great on the plane to pull down over your eyes (much better than any of those eye covers they give you in case you are a little claustrophobic like me)
    – extra bottle of water

  6. Ann Handley

    “Pound for pound, word for word, what is the best literate pal to have along for the ride?”

    My preference: A months worth of “New Yorker” magazines. You never have time to read them cover to cover at home anyway, they travel light, you can always find something within an issue to meet your fancy/mood/level of fatigue, and (best of all) you can leave them in the seatback when you’re done.

  7. Adam Richardson

    Grant, lots of great suggestions here. Here are a couple of alternatives I’ve liked:

    Etymotic ER6i headphones – in-ear phones that are super light weight and which don’t require batteries. Superb sound quality and ambient sound isolation. These fit me better personally than the Shure equivalents, but many people like those. I wrote about these on my blog:

    iGo Universal Power Adaptor: Only one charger to carry around for laptop, iPod, cellphone, camera, etc. Not cheap, but worth it to avoid dongle overload.

  8. Adam Richardson

    A couple of addendums to my original comment, returning to this post 6 months later because of your black bag update….

    I’ve switched from Etymotic ER6’s to Shure ER3c’s. One of the earplugs on the Ety’s broke after getting yanked from my ear, and was never the same. The Shure’s have the same noise-suppressing capabilities, slightly better sound, and are more durable and less prone to tangling. They are also NOT WHITE, which in certain cities is a very good thing indeed as they don’t scream “Steal this iPod!”

    Speaking of iPods, for the last six months I’ve also been using a Sony Ericsson Walkman phone, the W810i. It’s a pretty nice little piece, and means that I don’t have to carry a phone, iPod, voice recorder, PDA and small digital camera around (or remember to keep them all charged or carry chargers for them). With a 2GB card (extra), 2mega pixel camera, and syncing to my Mac, it’s all covered. It’s a world phone, and the UI is pretty good. I wrote up a lengthy review: It is not a replacement for something like the Canon camera you mention in today’s post however.

    With the space freed up by all those gadgets, you can now also fit in an inflatable Eagle Creek lumbar support for those long plane/train/bus rides 🙂

Comments are closed.