It seems like conference season never really ends. Between RSA, Cisco Live, Black Hat, and VMworld, I’m always running around to something. I enjoy being able to meet new people and talk to companies at these events but I also find that a little bit of planning ahead helps immensely.
There’s always a lot of discussion from people about what to pack for a conference. There have been some great posts written about it, like this one from Bob McCouch in 2014. He definitely covers all the important stuff that people would want to know, such as comfortable shoes and a bag big enough to carry extra things just in case you come back with enough fidget spinners to sink an aircraft carrier.
However, I’ve found in recent years that the difference between just surviving a conference and really being prepared involves a few extra items I never thought I’d need to bring back when I first started doing this in 2006. Maybe it’s the Scoutmaster in me, but being prepared has gone from being a suggestion to a necessity. And here are a few of those little necessities that I have found I can’t live without.
I’ve found that traveling with a first aid kit is a huge upgrade in Quality of Conference Life. I’m not talking about one of the crazy backpack-style ones that first responders carry. Or even the small plastic ones that you can find in a local department store that have everything under the sun. No, the best first aid kit is the one you pack yourself. So you know you have what you need and you know what you have.
For my first aid kit, I pack small:
- 3-4 bandages. Preferred to be breathable (not plastic or cute)
- Antibiotic ointment
- Moleskin for blisters
- Cotton balls
- Small alcohol swab (for cleaning and drying out blisters)
- Q-Tips or other cotton swabs
- Cuticle scissors
It’s a simple kit but it works wonders. You can take care of minor cuts and scrapes, blisters (which are the bane of every conference), and other things like wound treatment. You can even use cotton balls as earplugs in a pinch. The rest is designed to travel light.
Note that I didn’t list any pain relievers in there. That’s because I separately carry a lot of ibuprofen in my bag to help with tired muscles after standing all day and headaches after waking up. I carry enough that it won’t easily fit in the Ziploc bag that I use for my travel kit. It’s also easier to access in my bag without having to go into another bag. Make your kit easy to use and easy to access so you can get to it when you need it.
It’s funny how we’ve come to depend so much on our mobile devices now. I’ve gone from not even caring if I left my Nokia phone in my room to not being able to function without a smart device or two on me at all times. That also means that I’ve become hyper aware of how long I’m going to be able to use my device. And in places where there are a lot of phones competing for signal or a lot of interference, you’re going to drain your device battery a lot faster.
The other issue is that modern devices have much bigger batteries than in the past. My iPhone XS has a battery thats almost 2,700 mAh. My iPad Pro battery is 8,100 mAh. The battery in a MacBook is almost as much as well. Which means you’re going to either need to be tied to a power outlet often or you need to carry a battery pack.
Most conference guides I’ve seen will tell you to bring at least one battery pack. Since I’m crazy prepared, I always have two. One of them is bigger and designed to provide power on a regular basis away from a power outlet. It’s usually something above 10,000 mAh that takes a while to charge when it’s fully depleted. I’m about to upgrade to a newer unit that has USB-C PD charging and delivery and can recharge all my devices more quickly. The Wirecutter has some great reviews of bigger power banks to recharge all kinds of devices.
I also still need to carry a smaller battery pack for just my phone, especially when I want to travel light. And since I’m trying to travel light I don’t want to carry any extra things, like cables. Normally, I try to have a USB-C, micro USB, and Lightning cable at all times to handle any charging needs. But if it’s after hours and I’m just looking to have my phone charged so it doesn’t die, all I need it a Lightning cable. I’ve been using this Ventev PowerCell 6010+ for the last year thanks to an awesome friend and it does exactly what I need it to do. It recharges my phone more than once and fits in my pocket. The Lightning cable is also attached so I don’t need to worry about anything dangling out of my pocket. And in a pinch it can give a little extra juice to my iPad. You should check them out if you just need something small and simple.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The final thing I pack in my kit that seems out of the ordinary is earplugs. Why? Well, it turns out that conferences are loud. Like, really loud. And that means that you can’t even hear yourself think sometimes. This is especially true if you end up going to the big closing event. This usually involves a DJ or a band playing as loud as possible. And, depending on where you’re sitting or standing you may not be able to hear them clearly for the ringing in your ears.
Likewise, the conference floor is often a jumbled mess of booths, music, and even once a marching band! You need to have some kind of way to block out the noise without completely drowning out what is going on around you. Yes, I know it’s really easy to pop in a set of earbuds or put on a pair of over-the-ear headphones while you walk around. But in my line of work, I don’t want to be distracted by music either. I want the din of all the crowd to die down while I concentrate. It’s also a great way to make any workroom instantly quiet when I need to write up a report during an event.
If you happen to have a custom pair of earplugs already for some reason, such as swimming or shooting sports, you’re already ahead of the curve. Those things probably do an amazing job of blocking out everything. For those of us not lucky enough to have something custom, just hop down to a drugstore or department store and pick up on a set or three of the really cheap foam plugs. You can pass them out to your friends and even make a new one or two. Just don’t expect to converse a lot!
I find the little things are needed to make life more bearable. Because knowing that I have them makes me less likely to stress about all the crazy stuff that can happen during a conference. The unexpected happens all the time. Yet, by definition, we can’t expect it! But, if we know how to prepare for the majority of those things we can focus on having a good conference experience. We may not need a cell phone jammer or an oddly-specific size of metric wrench, but carrying the things above has really helped me when it comes to relaxing a bit at conferences.