Ask Hackaday: What Tools Do You Really Need For A Life On The Road?

How do you dispose of an old hard drive? Inventive stories about heat and flame or industrial shredders will no doubt appear in the comments, but for me I just dismantle them and throw the various parts into the relevant scrap bins at my hackerspace. The magnets end up stuck to a metal door frame, and I’m good to go. So a week or so ago when I had a few ancient drives from the 1990s to deal with, I sat down only to find my set of Torx and Allen drivers was missing. I was back to square one.

What A Missing Tool Tells You About Necessities

Clint Eastwood always seemed to have just what he needed, why can I never manage it! Produzioni Europee Associati, Public domain.
Clint Eastwood always seemed to have just what he needed, why can I never manage it! Produzioni Europee Associati, Public domain.

Life deals an odd hand, sometimes. One never expects to find oneself homeless and sofa-surfing, nearly all possessions in a container on a farm somewhere. But here I am, and somewhere in one of those huge blue plastic removal crates is my driver set, alongside the other detritus of an engineer scribe’s existence. It’s all very well to become a digital nomad with laptop and hotspot when it comes to writing, but what has the experience taught me about doing the same as a solderer of fortune when it comes to hardware? My bench takes up several large removal crates and there is little chance of my carrying that much stuff around with me, so what makes the cut? Evidently not the tools for hard drive evisceration, so I had to borrow the set of a hackerspace friend to get the job done.

The practicality of life on the move comes down to how much stuff you can carry with you. Even with friends second to none and the immense privilege that comes with having the resources to get through the experience without destitution, there is a limit to what it is possible for a person to have in their immediate possession. Lonesome drifters in the movies seem to have an astounding variety of just the stuff they need for each escapade lashed to their saddles, but for me there’s no script-writer. So my daypack becomes the focus of my life, and what goes in to it has to be chosen with care. In the chill and damp of a British October and November it’s easy to fill it entirely with just a waterproof jacket and a fuzzy jumper so my first task is to secure the former on the outside of the pack with a cargo net, instantly making the visible jump for observers from one who’s just walked out of an office to one who’s on the move and spends time outdoors. Bad move if you need to blend in, but my choices are few.

Your Life In A Day Pack

Nota Bene: Dont't forget this set in the future! Junkyardsparkle, CC0.
Nota Bene: Dont’t forget this set in the future! Junkyardsparkle, CC0.

Into the pack goes an all-important packet of ginger biscuits, two laptops and their associated wiring, a hefty battery booster pack, and my folding headphones. I’m set for writing, but why two laptops? For years I’ve worked with a powerful semi-paving-slab of a laptop in the office and a super-light Chromebook on the road, and when fate puts me in this position I find myself lumbered with both of them. Lesson learned: should you do this by choice rather than necessity make sure to pick a single  laptop with both portability and power.

At the start of my nomadic existence I carried a soldering iron and a multimeter, screwdrivers and tweezers. I was set for whatever hardware the world would bring me, but somehow what I imagined never came. Another lesson learned: common tools are likely to already be wherever you might need them, in a hackerspace or at the bench of your technically inclined friends. Why carry what you can easily borrow, instead the art lies in selecting the uncommon tools that may not be to hand. And there’s the rub, for you only discover what those are when you don’t have them to hand. So far aside from the driver set I’ve found myself wanting a tape measure when I couldn’t borrow one and missing my Vernier caliper, and while there’s no way I’ll subject my Mitutoyo to my pack there’s definitely a cheap instrument on my shopping list. Meanwhile I’ve hung on to the screwdriver set and left the soldering iron in my storage unit.

Before too long I’ll no doubt be settled again somewhere, but along the way I have parked up in a lot of field entrances on country roads, seen more motorway service stations and fast food drive-thru lanes than I’d care to, learned a few things about life, about other people, about myself, and about which tools are indispensable but surprisingly uncommon. Which of you have had a similar experience, and what were the tools you found yourself needing on the road? Can we arrive at the truly indispensable kit of tools for the wandering hardware hacker, rather than the stuff we think we’ll need? Our comments section is as always open.

Meanwhile may you never find yourself in this position, and if you do may you be fortunate enough to have the peer group and resources to make your way through it. Consider donating to your local food bank and homeless charities, and be sure to lend a hand to friends in need. Some of those who helped me will be reading this, and I thank them.

Header image: Karsten Würth, CC0.

45 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: What Tools Do You Really Need For A Life On The Road?

      1. Indeed a leatherman can take so much abuse, and packs a collection of useful tools in one spot – though I made my own screwdriver bit holder for the standard interchangable heads (contemplated adding the ratchet but haven’t yet at least).

        Other good multitools out there too – one I picked up cheap for a laugh has actually proved really handy quite a few times – a small claw hammer bifurcated and pivoted so its head is also a pretty bulky pliers for those high grip jobs, handle full of the usual assortment of sharp bits and bobs. Tis a tiny little thing, can’t weigh much more than a normal pinhammer at the head, but being a little claw hammer its made a great crowbar for tight spaces, pin puller, second pliers for those job where two spanners/socket is what you need but they are not handy while still being a good enough hammer to whack those nails and centre punch that need whacking..

    1. I can attest to the utility of these things, I used mine earlier today to fix the brake on a housemate’s bike. It’s very good for applying lots of torque to start stuck screws off. However, taking out any more than a few screws with it is a somewhat tedious experience so I’d still consider carrying a more conventional screwdriver handle.

  1. For quick, secure HD erasure, I’ve started just sinking a drill bit through the thin cover and piercing the platters. Not sure if a powered drill makes the list of tools to take on the road. That likely depends on how much room you’ve got.

    1. I think any powered tools that exist in manual form also comes down to how you end up on the road – if you always have a grid tie up or generator (your car?) then you can easily and sensibly take a few power tools (The ryobi one-plus line would make sense sharing the same batteries across generations of tool – though I’ve not got any to know if they are as good as claimed), otherwise you want all your power between charging stops to be for the laptop/phone etc that is much harder to do without.

  2. A french proberm says “partir avec sa bite et son couteau”, which could be translated in “take the road with you d…k and a knife” … in one word, a knife (well sharpened in my own opinion ;).
    Well, as a IT guy I also carry a light laptop (lenovo x240, up to 10 hours with dual battery), a power bank and my ubuntu phone, and a pen plus some blank sheets.
    I also always carry a little useful tool: “multifunction 4 way tool”, it’s small, cheap and can help you opening lots of doors in urban places (subway doors, elevator doors, water taps, …), and a small screwdriver with the most useful tips.
    And some other stuff: a small scarf (can be used to protect your face, or to do some bandage / pad), and a small box with first necessity items (paracetamol, codeine, eye drops, sugar, alcohol pads).
    I always carry these in my backpack :)
    I wish to never be homeless, but the ways of life (a good music btw) are not predictable, so I also take care about putting some money on my bank account when I can, in case of … and take care about other people: when I help someone (jump starting its car, or helping someone to take gasoline for its bike, …) and he ask “how much can I pay for your help ?”, I answer: help someone else someday, that’s the way to do it (I think I must listen Dire Straits :). Other people are the key, we are social animals !
    If I had to leave my house now, I would attach to my vw van my trailer with my bike on it, and would take my toolbox (hammer, ts100 solder iron, screwdrivers, …), some dishes, water, dried food, beer, coffee, matches, gas stove, blankets, toilet paper, a crowbar (you can’t imagine how such a tool can be useful: “give me a lever and i will lift the world” said Archimedes), a saw, and a music instrument. From an old boy scout point of view, I think this is a lot of comfort :)

  3. I am spending this winter in an isolated spot. I picked up an old craftsman’s toolchest off ebay, and filled it with: magnifying glass/extra hand; solder; dvm / scope; T100 iron; usb c power adapter and Chinese buckboost psu controller; surgical style smd tools; solder wick; salae clone; microscrewdriver set; usb programmers for my three preferred architectures; dev boards for the same; old win10 lenovo miix tablet/pc with software tools for the previous items; sdr; DuPont wires; stripper, sidecutters and needle nosed pliers; two of each usb adapter (mini, micro, c); usb to Ethernet plus Ethernet cable x 2; Ethernet client for Wi-Fi access point (connect wired stuff to WiFi); protoboard; wirewrap wire plus ww tool; Allen keys. Where I am, I can’t get to a shop or get stuff delivered in any kind of sensible timeframe, so the last is a bit more extensive than it might be normally. I also have no need for heavy tools like spanners/metalworking/woodwork. So I can basically carry on my hobby from where I am.

    But if you are off to explore, forget the lot! Buy what you need and rely on the kindness of strangers. I’ve had bikers help solder starter cables on the autobahn (using a gas cooker!) and been given week’s worth of hospitality by people I’ve never met before just because they were decent folk and I was in need.

    PS download all those iso-s before you go, it gets old and expressive on a hotspot pretty quickly and they take up no room.

  4. Two laptops indeed, an usb oscilloscope (pico), an ultra cheap logic analyzer (ebay 8ch, 24MHz), an even cheaper ST-Link clone, soldering iron with a powerbank, some solder and a half finished project (incl some spare parts) and I’m ready to go.

    1. I second the picoscope, I have two of them, it’s so nice just to toss one of them in the laptop bag and have a decent ‘scope with me. Picotech software runs on Linux too, something I appreciate. They don’t support non-intel Linux though, so a Raspberry Pi with the picoscope is out.

  5. My friend Helen was homeless, she had nothing, and carried nothing around because she counted on blending in. Even then she’d be told to leave places, based on her looks.

    I hope this isn’t as bad.

    1. I’m very privileged in this context, I have very good friends, I have resources, I have a car, and I have a job.

      It’s slowly sorting itself out, because of those. I’m fully aware of that privilege.

  6. Mountain bike multitools are tiny, lightweight, like swiss army knives but more useful for disassembly, where a SAK is more useful for camping. Teensy for code development, spi/i2c/serial comm, and power sequencing problems. Very small-nosed jeweler’s pliers. That solves most of my problems.

  7. A Leatherman Micra and a couple of tiny AAA powered LED flashlights (Fenix E05 these days) are always in my pocket. My pack always has a portable phone charging power pack, a small (paper) notebook and a Cross Pen. Life is too short for unreliable leaky pens.

    My vehicle always has a basic multimeter. A Fluke 101 is rugged, small, reliable, and cheap. I also carry a small socket set, screwdrivers, pliers, some nitrile exam gloves (for greasy mechanical messes or potential biohazards), and a basic first aid kit.

    Beyond this, I may carry other gadgets, but it really depends on what I’m expecting to do.

    1. Leatherman Style PS, Fenix E05, a tiny SOG folding knife, my USB token, and a clip ring makes up my EDC kit. I gave up on the Micra when I had to surrender one at airport security. The PS is TSA approved, so I leave the folding knife out of the kit when I travel (which isn’t much nowadays). I also find the Style PS pliers to be helpful, and the separate wire cutter a good alternative to ruining the scissors on larger wires.

  8. I wish you the best to get your situation sorted out soon and that you may find some upside in it, too. Your articles here are one of my favorites as they always contain original ideas and thoughts (rather than reporting a press release). I don’t remember one that didn’t like and find interesting!
    For light traveling I usually look for items that can be used for multiple things.
    For working with electronics I probably would take my Analog or Digital Discovery (or both) These are small and light, but very versatile. For doing HF stuff, an SDR and a NanoVNA v2 would be small and versatile.
    TS100 would be handy if it can be used with one of the laptop power supplies (the old round Thinkpad plugs do fit. One could make an adapter, too.) Or better, get a good adjustable power supply and a set of Adapters like these to reduce the number of power supplies to lug around.
    The bit-set shown in the article is a good choice as it is compact and all the hex and torx bits have holes, so they can be used with screws with and without pin. It also has uncommon star and slot bits instead of the usual 500 different blade and philips bits.

  9. All of my tools are on wheels and in bags. When it comes time to hit the road, i pack for a specific task. but for the most part, I can fit my entire garage in my chosen road vehicle, which is roughly 40 feet long, if i chose to do so and have done previously.

  10. Wishing you well, hope you can get back to ‘normal’ soon (something I’m not sure any of us really understand as we seem to revel in creating the odd).

    I’d definitely dump two laptops if on the move, probably the heavy one and just make do with slower computing for a while. (My school bag weighed in over 10Kg with my laptop, books and lunch (just lunch and the laptop were probably 10Kg) – The laptop was for its day a desktop in ‘small’ form-factor real desktop processor etc but it wasn’t worth hauling all that weight as the performance wasn’t needed except when I was home anyway and now if you need more performance while on the move can always farm it off to the cloud assuming connection is available…).

    But as having two screens is so very useful at times I’d definitely suggest a tablet or perhaps Kindle (Personally I’d take kindle wifi connected?) as the extra display, useful in their own right but carrying less unneeded bulk than the double laptop setup. Or if really planning for a life on the road something like the later toughpads – have two of them but just one one keyboard dock – then you have a largely shared charger/batteries etc and two reasonably performant computers that being toughpads will be tough enough to take the slings and arrows of a rougher life. Not what you would call cheap though.

  11. Best article this week. Thought provoking, a photo of Clint, and bringing out the best in the comments section.
    In the few and short such experiences I have had it’s always been the people who have been most important. It has always surprised me how helpful strangers are.
    When loading my bag the one item I’ve always taken and never needed is a lockpick set.
    Good call on highlighting homeless charities. Having spent a handful of nights on cold city streets when travelling (not homeless) I have had the tiniest glimpse of what such a life must be like and regularly donate to
    I hope your transition goes well.

  12. Human beings are no different than magpies with a drive to collect novel shiny things. I have a shop full of shiny tools and my wife has her collection of shoes and purses. Rationalize it any way you want, the need to collect junk is genetic and should probably be labelled a disease. At the end of the day its all junk.

  13. Downsize your wants and expectations, you’ll need less support equipment. You don’t HAVE To Disassemble the hard drives if they aren’t necessary and that will negate the need to carry the specialist bits. It’s a lot like backpacking: you only can carry so much mass, so if it doesn’t multitaks, exist in a micro space, do you REALLY REALLY need it?


  14. Steven Roberts wrote a series of interesting books about ‘nomadic’ engineering. They included some remarkable (for the era) designs and implementations for bicycle and boat-based wandering for an engineer.

    The two books I read were “Computing Across America” and “From Behemoth to Microship”; there may have been more.

  15. I’ve spent most career in the hinterlands of Alaska as an itinerant industrial and telecom technician. I’ve found mobile tool storage to be of a high priority. The two best solutions I’ve found are : The Pelican 0450 mobile tool box and the ToolPak original 6 panel tool backpack.
    The Pelican 0450 is a bit heavy when fully populated with tools, but with the kaizen/FOD foam in the drawers your tools stay organized and protected. My primary Pelican tool case is set up like the US militaries General Maintainence Tool Kit( customized for my specific needs of course.)
    The ToolPak backpack has been my EDC tool set for almost 20 years. Unlike alot of soft tool storage solutions it has a large number of small pockets for organizing individual hand tools. The pockets are well designed and can accommodate a variety use cases. The bag is well constructed and I dare say its “tougher than boiled owl.” After nearly two decades of use its none too worse for the wear. I did break one zipper pull tab a few years ago but a snippet of 550 cord took care of that. The ToolPak is well suited for a variety of transport modes. It is aircraft friendly and the ideal size for helicopter/floatplane cargo compartments.

  16. Always having the right tool but keeping the bag light is sometimes harder then you would think, what I have found is that ditching the laptops (2 or 3 at times) has giving me a much smaller bag or more room for the more needed items. These days I mostly just carry my phone, 2 10″ tablets ( 1 win 1 android), a bt keyboard, a travel router, and a handful of usb sticks loaded with what I need.
    A source of inspiration might also be some of those van life video’s out there, most are junk in my opinion but I seen a few from Glytch has been doing some and has even found room for the 3d printer running off the solar bank.

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