Combatting backpack clutter

Reader Lisa, a college student, wrote in to Unclutterer asking if we might be able to help her with her backpack woes:

Pens and pencils, chapstick, scissors, flash drives, cell phone, iPod, granola bars, random electronics cables, pens, calculators, flashcards, earrings, more pens … etc, etc. And not only do I wind up with all this unwanted stuff, when I do want something I can never find it! I most definitely need some help.

I thought about saving this question for Friday’s Ask Unclutterer column, but with school starting for so many students I thought earlier might be better than later.

The first thing you’ll want to do is assess what you need to carry with you each day. The list you gave is a good starting point, but you probably also carry notebooks, textbooks, paper, folders, keys, and a few other odds and ends with you. Whatever these things are, set them out on a table so that you can see them all at once.

Next, evaluate these things. Are you missing anything you regularly need? Do you have duplicate items? Are the items in good condition? Are the objects durable for constant travel? Get rid of anything you don’t need and get your hands on those things you do need for the school year.

When evaluating durability, you’ll want to be honest with yourself about how hard you are on things. When I was in school, I found that I couldn’t use paper folders. Three or four weeks into the semester they would be torn and tattered. I had to use three-ring binders for all of my notes and an aluminum portfolio for my artwork (I started college as a painting major). This also meant that I carried a small three-hole punch at the front of each binder so that I could immediately store all of the handouts. (I also loaded 100 or so loose-leaf sheets of notebook paper into each binder for taking class-specific notes.)

Be sure to use sturdy containers for food stuffs, like your granola bars. It’s never fun to find smooshed up food at the bottom of your bag. And, don’t forget to regularly clean this container.

You will also want a backpack organizer of some kind to give all of your tools a proper place to live. I prefer the pocket organizers like the one pictured, but you could easily get a pencil case and put all of your supplies into one zipper pouch.

Finally, set up a routine for when you get home to immediately process all of the contents of your backpack. Much like you would sort mail, you will want to recycle, trash, scan, file, wash, and deal with everything from your bag. Within five minutes of arriving home, your bag should be empty except for your tools stored in your backpack organizer.

Lisa, I hope this advice helps to get your backpack organized. Good luck at school!

29 Comments for “Combatting backpack clutter”

  1. posted by KDS on

    I’m a grad student, and I also use three-ring binders rather than paper notebooks or folders. In addition to the things you mention about binders, they’re also great because they allow you to reuse paper that has been printed on one side but not the other. All of my binders are filled not with looseleaf, but with old drafts of papers, flyers I no longer need, etc. It allows me to get maximum use out of paper before it gets recycled.

  2. posted by Chaya on

    It makes sense to keep paperwork in three-ring binders but to leave them at home or in your dorm room. The chance you’ll be referring to previous notes during classes in minimal. Have one three ring-binder, with subject (i.e. course) dividers to take to classes for note-taking, and preferably a pocket, or use one of those clear three-ring pockets, for any handouts. This binder can also have a three-ring “pencil case” so you have all your “office” equipment at hand. This system does, however, require that you transfer the notes and handouts on a daily basis to your home/dorm binders. Taking a three-ring binder with you for each course is IMHO unnecessarily shlepping and the amount of time you’ll waste looking for the right binder and searching for the other stuff buried in your backpack is just not worth it.

  3. posted by Krisha on

    in college, i used 3- or 5-subject spiral bound notebooks for my notes and plastic folders for any handouts. the notebooks would alternate (MWF/TR classes) and the folders were color-coded. most of the work i handed in was either digital, typed, or in ‘blue books’ (, so there was little need to have my own loose leaf paper (if it came up in class, i could usually get some from a classmate). any notes that needed to be shared with classmates could be scanned and emailed or printed.
    if you like to have a binder with dividers, a portable hole punch ( is invaluable. it takes up only a tiny bit of space and lets you process things right away.

  4. posted by JC on

    Everyone has their own style. For me, I was a spiral notebook gal, too. MWF classes in one notebook. TR classes in the other notebook. With exceptions made for note-intensive classes which got their own notebook.

    One product I currently love right now are report covers like these:

    A good light weight substitute for 3-ring binders and NO HOLES to punch! I didn’t use them when I was in school but I think they would be good to keep class-handouts and any loose-leaf papers organized.

    My other favorite travel/backpack organizing product of all time are see-thru mesh pouches. I have two.

    One is pencil case sized – for all the lo-tech products – pens and chapstick and the like. One is larger to hold all the techy products like flash drives, phone charger, etc etc.

  5. posted by Michele on

    I just finished law school. Since I’m single and share joint custody of my daughter with her dad, the only way I got through with my sanity intact was by becoming a ninja in organization and time management. The best solution I came up with was to clean out my bag every day. Depending on what materials I would need on a particular day (some days I would need my computer, some days I would need only papers and books) I might take a different bag — a backpack one day, a briefcase another day. By emptying a bag at the end of the day, I was almost always on top of deadlines, reading assignments, and writing projects, because nothing could fall to the bottom of a bag and be forgotten for more than a few hours.

    As for physical organization, I kept my pens, a thumb drive, and a few miscellaneous items in an old-fashioned pencil case that I could easily transfer from one bag to another. I would put my phone, keys, ID card, bus pass, and cell phone in the “landing strip” by the front door, and then slip them into the front pocket of whichever bag I was using on my way out. And every night, the last thing I would do before bed was to prepare my bag for the next day and leave it at the door.

    I took notes on my laptop computer most of the time. (Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks? Few people had even desktop computers when I was an undergrad.) For classes where I took notes on paper, I found that using a 3-ring binder was best. I could 3-hole punch the syllabus and keep it in the front of the binder, and I could punch the handouts and slip them into the binder in chronological order with my notes. Keeping up with that task on a daily basis left no stray papers kicking around in my bags.

    The most important trick for me was to check my papers and bags on a daily basis. Establishing a daily routine of clearing out clutter and putting the papers in order was key to avoiding a huge mess by the end of the academic term and (shudder) final exams.

  6. posted by Drew on

    The system I’ve been using is fairly simple and works well for me. Since I try to go more or less paper-less; I just carry a manilla folder in my Timbuktu laptop bag and slide it into the laptop compartment with my computer. Any assignments to be turned in that day go into the folder before I leave the house, and handouts or returned assignments are taken out of the folder and scanned/filed when I get home. That leaves the main compartment free for any textbooks I couldn’t get in PDF, a Moleskine, and a large clear-front zippered pouch to carry all of my cords/chargers/flash drives. The various internal pockets hold my leatherman, mini flashlight, iPod, DS, and keys.

  7. posted by Theresa on

    Great tips for students of all ages! thanks for sharing.

  8. posted by Brandon Green on

    I could’ve used that advice in high school!

  9. posted by Rue on

    When I was in college (and high school, for that matter) I had a spiral notebook for each class that I was in which I used for notes. I kept a three-ring binder with dividers for each class and put handouts, syllabi, etc into those. (I also kept a bit of looseleaf notebook paper in the front of the binder for times when I would need it – which was rarely.)

    I kept things like snacks, pens/pencils, phone, keys, etc., in my purse. If you don’t carry a purse, I’d recommend getting a couple of zipper pencil pouches. Use one for the things like your keys, cell phone, flash drive, chapstick, etc., and the other for your office supplies. (Might help if they’re different colors so you know which is which!) And definitely do keep your food in a tupperware or something similar. If nothing else, t keeps crumbs from getting all over the rest of your bag.

    It also helps if your backpack has several compartments. Because I mostly used my notes in class, I kept my spirals in a thinner large compartment, and my textbooks and three-ring binder in the bigger compartment, just in case I needed them. Most backpacks I’ve seen these days have compartments specifically for pens and pencils, and some have ones for cell phones or water bottles too. If you’ve got one of the backpacks that just has one huge compartment, it might help if you get a new one. 🙂

  10. posted by mo on

    The best solution I’ve found is this Pendaflex Project Sorter. It’s flexible plastic, 1/2″ inch thick, with six dividers and a rather clever elastic to hold it all together. That and a clean tear spiral notebook got carried to class. Each class had a binder or folder at home, depending on the amount of material.

    I’m a GTDer, so cleaning out/restocking the Pendaflex was simply part of my daily routine. People ask me where I bought it all the time. And it’s held up for several years.

  11. posted by Katrina d on

    Many students don’t have much spare cash. I suggest organising your backpack with two or three smaller zippered bags from a dollar shop (or similar place).

    Here in Australia there are lots of nice cheap plastic lined fake-silk zippered cosmetic pouches around. (I’ve seen them selling for 3 for $4). Something like that also double as a purse for a party etc.

  12. posted by cv on

    The most helpful thing by far is a regular routine of cleaning out the backpack. I’m not a student but carry a backpack on my bike commute to work, and it can easily get cluttered with receipts, books, papers, tupperwares from lunch, batteries for my bike lights, etc. Making a commitment to taking everything out once a week, if not daily, will help enormously. The more often you do it, the easier it is to maintain and the less time it takes to process.

    Also, the less stuff you carry, the easier it is on your back and shoulders!

  13. posted by Anne on

    I was the same way – no matter how many compartments my backpack had, everything ended up in the large one in the rush to get out of class (or through sheer laziness/inattention).

    My best advice is: DON’T have a separate place for everything! It may SEEM like a good idea to have chapstick pocket and an iPod pocket and a pen pocket, but you know they’ll all end up in a jumbled mess at the bottom of your bag anyway (if you’re anything like me, at least!).

    Buy a clear or mesh, medium-sized zippy pouch for all your knicknacks and make it your “catch-all” for stuff that would normally land in the depths of your backpack – from chapstick to pens to earrings. Store it in a convenient spot (e.g. on top of your books). Voila, now you have a bag that’s easy to stash things in, that you’ll have to look in often (so nothing will be forgotten), and that’s easy to search through (because it’s removable and see-through).

    You might want a separate bag for electronic cables, since those tend to get tangled and easily ruined.

  14. posted by Brad on

    If you are a paper-based GTD’er, one of the best backpack organizing items I have found is a vertical filer:

    Takes care of the issue of papers falling out of traditional folders. It’s also thick enough that you can throw in loose items that aren’t papers per se. Like a notebook, Moleskine, etc.

  15. posted by infmom on

    My husband used to ride his bike to work and put all the stuff he needed to carry in a really nice solid backpack from the Duluth Trading Company. He’s now doing a lot more work out of town than he used to, so riding his bike isn’t practical any more, but he still has all that stuff in the backpack and he still carries it.

    And it’s falling apart. For the second time. He already had a luggage-repair place put the zippers back once. The backpack feels like he carries an anvil in it. Most of what’s in there is paper–contact lists, instruction manuals, schematics and so forth–that he feels he has to have always available “just in case.”

    The first time the zippers came out, I suggested that he take all that stuff to the office copier (since it is all work related stuff) and just make multiple copies. One to stay at work, one to stay at home, and one for each remote site he travels to. He already has the contact lists in his Blackberry, so why he carries the paper ones around all the time I don’t know.

    Needless to say, he hasn’t done any of that. Today when he said he’d need to take the backpack to the luggage-repair place again, I told him “Not till you get it cleaned out, first.”

  16. posted by Jay on

    Instead of a 3-ring binder, I prefer a 2-ring binder notebook from a company called Bindertek. (I am merely a satisfied user.) The binder opens easily with a lever, the papers rarely tear out, and the papers are easy to thumb through.

  17. posted by ga on

    I like plastic file folders (never wear out, don’t get grubby, feel better than paper). Tom Bihn ( makes a file carrier called the Freudian Slip (in two versions—vertical and horizontal) that fits in many backpacks and briefcases. One side holds files, papers, magazines, etc., and the other has pen holders, pockets, and mesh pouches for doodads. Small catch-all bags work for me, too.

    infmom, Tom Bihn makes excellent backpacks. I bought his Smart Alec, and now that my needs have changed, I’m planning to buy the forthcoming smaller Synapse. His bags are sturdy and don’t seem to wear out.

  18. posted by Awurrlu on

    First, is a backpack really right for you? I found that the verticality of a backpack meant that I couldn’t easily find or retrieve what I needed. A messenger bag or other horizontally oriented bag works much better for me.

    In either case, back in the paper days, I used folders with pockets in the covers and clips in the middle. Much lighter and more portable than binders, and more flexible than a spiral notebook. The first thing that would go in was the syllabus, 3-hole punched. Any loose handouts from class went into pockets until I got home and punched them.

    To take notes, I used 8.5×11 pads of paper that were pre-punched, which I found much more comfortable to use than a spiral notebook.

    Now that I’ve gone electronic, my system is a lot like Drew’s above. I have two small zippered pouches in my Timbuk2 as well: one contains an analog survival kit with aspirin, earplugs, bandages, tissue, hand sanitizer, safety pins, etc. The other contains the digital survival tools: cell phone headset and spare battery, mini flashlight, spare flash drive, and my leatherman micra.

  19. posted by Viv on

    I am also a fan of the Pendaflex project organizer. It really keeps my life organized.

    I have also used Mountain Equipment Coop knapsacks since I was first a student many years ago. They have good pockets and internal secret pockets for documents, and mine (I just bought my second one) have gone around the world with me.

  20. posted by Rosey on

    I use one one-inch binder for each class, with loads of loose-leaf paper[I only have 4 classes a day][Also, my family travels often. It’s easiest to take only the binders for the class that has homework]. I have 6 textbooks this year [Java, 2 for Government, 2 for Econ, 1 for Calculus]. I used to keep a hole punch in each binder, but I find that those are flimsy. Instead, I use binders with pockets in them to hold onto papers until I’m home. Calculator and pencils go in a side pocket; wallet, phone, similar go in the front pocket.

    I care my lunch separately.

  21. posted by Caroline on

    I love buying cheap pencil cases (with my favorite cartoon characters or the like) on them, and using each for a purpose. For instance, a smaller one is used for all my little bits. USB, Chapstick, erasers, tiny hair clips for my growing out bangs, makeup etc. A larger one is for my (coiled) iPod docking cable, Camera docking cable, LAN cable etc. And of course, a pencil case for pencils, pens and Sharpies.

    Associate the colour of the case with the item and it will be easier to find and put the items back. Plus the cases can be a reflection of your personality, if you like. 🙂

    I also purchased a laptop backpack, and when not carting my laptop, I use the back compartment for books. It keeps them separate from the wallet/keys/phone/lunch mass in the front, and keeps them flat and not wrinkled.

    I have also wanted to try the Purseket, to see if it would go from backpack to purse easily. I think it likely would, although instead of buying one, I’d sew my own.

  22. posted by Another Deb on

    My favorite organizing tool is a carbiner. I have my flash drives hanging from one, keys for home on another, and keys for school on a third. I always buy purses with some ring or place for a quick connect. On the job I keep thw work keys clipped to the badge holder, as well as a pen that stays handy for the thousand times a day I need it. Yeah, I look geeky but this has worked for many years!

  23. posted by Tabatha on

    when i started school i bought note books and folders and i didn’t even use any of them. i got a binder with dividers and a three hole punch for free at a study skills thing i went to and i used that all year and it was great. i just kept everything in one binder and never had any problems.

  24. posted by Kelsey on

    Thank you so much for posting this! I was searching on your website just the other day for this exact information- and I love how this can apply to almost any age (from elementary through college and beyond).

  25. posted by Vanessa on

    I’m very disorganized, so I have to start the school year right or I’ll never keep things organized. I have to use 3-ring binders, sectioned off for each class (and usually one more divider in the back for papers not specified for any class); notebooks just aren’t right for me. I need a 3-ring binder so every handout gets 3-hole punched (3-hole punch is also kept in my binder) and placed right behind that day’s notes. I never need to search through a folder to find the sheet that went along with the notes.

    Also, I never run out of room because I can always add more loose leaf, and if I forget my binder one day, I can borrow loose leaf and slip it in where it belongs in the binder.

    And I used to use a messenger bag throughout my 4 years of college, until my right shoulder was aching by the end of the day. I just bought a simple bookbag, and it’s already saved my shoulders and back. It may not open as much as my messenger bag did, but the comfort of the weight evenly distributed on my shoulders is well worth it!

  26. posted by Jonathan on

    I have a 7″ x 10″ zippered bag from a company called Eagle Creek that I use for all those small items: lip balm, pens, pencils, sunglasses, sunscreen, USB flash drives, spare batteries, earbuds, business cards, memo notebook, etc. I just move it from bag to bag depending on which bag I’m using that day. It keeps stuff from nesting on the bottom of particular bags, and allows me to be more flexible in which bag I take with me.

    In a similar vein, I keep four things and exactly four things in my pockets: keys, ID, wallet, and cellphone. If I have all four, I’m good to go. Knowing the number (four) makes it easy to ensure that I have all of them with me because I can just reach into my pockets and count.

  27. posted by Dee1010 on

    I want to thank you all for the information that you offer to stay organized for school. As a returning student, I find it a challenge to get in the groove, when I was in h.s. the 8 track tape was king (smile). I currently carry a backpack but like Awurrlu, I found that it was not practical when getting documents out. I would love to carry a messenger bag but like Vanessa, I think the weight should be evenly distributed to prevent problems in carrying so much weight on one side. So I’m looking to carry as less as possible. Drew & Awurrlu tips are very helpful. I find that loose-leaf works for me, but the binders are too bulky. I do remove old documents regularly, if I find that I do need them they’re still on my flash drive. Because my flash drive is inexpensive it has the removable (easy to lose also) top. So I attach a Case Logic ultra compact camera case to my jeans’ with my flash drive & cell phone. I want to thank you again for all your help

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