How to Pack A Backpack


When I was a child, there was a book called “Sophie’s Knapsack” that my mom bought for me because, at the time, “Sophie" was not common, and this knapsack book was basically all I had as proof that I had a real name not invented by my parents. In the story, a girl named Sophie (way cuter and more tomboyish than me) goes on an adventure (read: a hike with her parents) and packs a knapsack to prepare. Then they go on the hike. That is the whole story.

I didn’t just like this book, I was obsessed with it. Sophie puts animal crackers in her knapsack! She puts a neat sweater in there! She has access to all kinds of cool shit, and her mom lets her take it on a walk, which makes Sophie feel like a turtle. This seemed the ultimate independence, and as soon as I could, I spent my allowance on a yellow knapsack to fill up with things. 

In college, I seduced boys with my knapsack. At this point, I had a sturdy orange Jansport. I filled it up with tamarind Jarritos and fruit roll-ups and empty crossword puzzles, and then I’d go find the boy I liked in the student center. Here was my MPDG* move: I’d throw a pencil in the air, and whatever direction it landed I would say, “Let’s walk that direction as far as we can go. I’ll bring my knapsack.” And indeed, every boy thought this was SO ADORABLE. They were ALL seduced by this move. I could just picture each of these boys writing a novel about me in ten years because LOOK at how weird and charismatic and charming I was! In Walla Walla, Washington, walking far enough in any direction meant you ultimately ended up in a wheat field, and a wheat field is a great place to make out.

You’ll notice I’m calling it a knapsack. This, too, is mainly to be charming.

You call it a backpack. Historically speaking (fun facts alert!), “backpack” came before knapsack, and is a distinctly American word, coined in the 1910s. Before that — because people have pretty much always carried things in sacks on their backs — “moneybag” and “packsack” were the preferred terms. In Germany, some call a backpack a “haversack,” which translates roughly to “oat sack.” The earliest backpack, at least as far as we can tell, dates back to 3300 B.C.

I tell you all this so you don’t doubt my authority on this subject. I’ve used backpacks since I was very small, and I have successfully seduced boys using them. And so it follows that I definitely know how to pack them.

Below is a list of the things you should put in your backpack. And then the next step is to become the kind of adult who carries her backpack everywhere, even though it doesn’t match her outfit, because a backpack is just more magical than a purse or a tote. It simply IS. 

Start with your flat, papery things. These should include:

  1. A sturdy day planner. I don’t care how much you swear by iCal, it isn’t really happening unless you write it down on some paper. Broadway plays invite cute stickers. So do birthdays. Use markers liberally. Be twelve years old with your day planner. It is a great place to secretly be a child while avoiding judgement.
  2. A sketchbook. I was never a sketchbook person, but since I started, there was no going back. You use the sketchbook for boring meetings, or any time when you need to be paying attention but not really. Like, maybe you’re listening to a podcast. Maybe you’re waiting for your number to be called at the DMV and you’re too anxious about missing it to really concentrate on a book. The sketchbook is infinitely superior to the Smart Phone for moments like these because (a) it is less rude to use one, and (b) it helps you to put your moments somewhere, so that in thirty years you might say, “My, I lived an interesting life, didn’t I.”
  3. A pack of colored pencils. Prismacolor is the preferred brand. These can be used solo or they can be used in harmony with each other. They can mark up a map for a stranger; they can write a note on a business card.
  4. A New Yorker. Don’t bother with a book; they take up too much space and are better before bed anyway. The New Yorker is slim and dense and has all the kinds of writing in it. And, bonus: the other hot person on the train will also be reading this same issue of the New Yorker, and you can make eyes at each other and feel so proud of how smart you each are. 
  5. An empty folder. Sometimes in life you go to the doctor or you are a teacher or someone is always handing you a flyer about their concert, and 8.5" x 11” papers are a part of your life all of a sudden. A folder will keep them from getting squashed, and it will let you find these papers easily when you need to. 

Have a zippered pouch for things that easily go stray. This should include:

  1. Lip balm and a contact mirror. This pair of items is not gendered. Everyone sometimes needs both these things.
  2. Band-Aids and ibuprofen and tampons. Be the person who, when someone says, “Do you have a —?”, has the —.
  3. Earplugs. It might happen that you are at a concert and you are suddenly in your thirties and wish you had some earplugs. You are now a person who travels everywhere with their backpack, and sorry, you’ll have to check it at the door, but pull out the earplugs beforehand. Also handy for: planes, bus rides where people are talking loudly about television, sleeping in public parks. (Hot tip! If you are sleeping in a public park, use your backpack as a pillow! This way, nothing will get stolen without you first getting hit in the head.)
  4. Mints or gum. I have had to have a lot of dental work lately, and so I must insist that this is sugar-free.
  5. Emergency snack. This is usually a granola bar with some heft, but I don’t see why you can’t get creative. Why not a sleeve of pistachios? Those are very fashionable now.
  6. Cloth-covered rubber bands. Other people call these hair ties, but they can be used for so much more than hair. Say you receive a poster as a gift, for example. How will you transport it home? You have these cloth-covered rubber bands, so you can roll it up as a tube and secure it as such, and the poster will not be unwieldy on the train. 
  7. A black pen. Get either a Uniball or a Flair felt-tipped one. Having a nice pen is the best way to feel, in the back of your mind, like you are taking care of yourself.

Some things can be stray in the big pockets, and these things are:

  1. Water bottle. Mine is plastic but it glows in the dark and it assures me on the bottom that it does not cause cancer. I have no reason to doubt this glowing water bottle, and I appreciate how big it is.
  2. Your wallet. Maybe you are a wallet-in-your-pocket person, and that’s fine too — but one of the great things about the backpack is that it frees up the pockets for shoving your hands into if you’re feeling embarrassed about a crush.
  3. Your phone. Hide it away so it can’t destroy you, spiritually.
  4. A sweater. Let this be the thinnest, most minimally-sized sweater you can manage. This is always the size of sweater you will need. If it’s winter, for instance, you’re already going to have your bigger layers on your person — you’ll need the thin sweater when you go to work and realize it’s a little brisk in there, but not so much that you should have on your parka. 

And then finally, there are little things that should go in the front pocket. They are these:

  1. Your keys. You need to be able to access these easily.
  2. Another lip balm and another pen. Let’s be honest: You’re going to lose the ones in your pouch. It’s just bound to happen.
  3. A bus pass. If you’re carrying this backpack, you also take the bus. I’m right, right?
  4. Two paperclips. These are mostly for MacGyver situations, but also for when you have crud stuck under your fingernails, and for when you need to hold together a stack of papers. 

That’s it! Just one note: Don’t have a lighter. Not because you’ll never need it, but because others will grow too reliant on you. People are constantly demanding a lighter, and sometimes you can’t stop to provide the lighter, but you DO have it, and you DON’T want to lie. That’s just my two cents. I’ve oft-regretted having a lighter in my backpack. 


*manic pixie dream girl 

Sophie Lucido JohnsonComment