Hacking And Working On The Go

I’m off visiting my parents for a while, and have managed to bring nearly everything along with me that I need to get work done, and it all fit in a small backpack! This includes a portable audio interface to run my podcast mic, two (count them) two Linux computers, and all manner of simple hacking tools. Microcontrollers with USB/serial adapters built in are a godsend.

But putting together the minimal setup was no easy task! Alone the USB cable assortment I had to bring was astounding. And in the end, it looks like I forgot a USB-B mini, and good luck finding that at the local drug store. (I know! But the Zoom recorder wants mini. Don’t ask me why.)

And then there’s the power adapters — brick for the laptop, USB-C fast charger for the Steam Deck, another wall-plug USB for recharging the power banks. And of course, this silly custom keyboard which I’m so used to typing on, and which embodies so much muscle memory in its macros that I’m practically helpless without it.

So fundamentally, I’m astounded by the amount of functionality I could cram into my pack, but I’m also aghast at all the little things that add up around the edges. And I’m sure that I’ll find stuff that I’m missing in the next few weeks.

Do you need to travel for work with your full kit? What’s your approach? Minimal? Maximal? Leave us your hacker travel kit tips in the comments.

35 thoughts on “Hacking And Working On The Go

  1. You’ve hit on the reason I am converting everything possible to USB-C and/or the 12V battery standard used by my Makita CXT tools. The multiplication of dongles and cables is just nuts. I recently fell victim to the xkcd “one more standard” by introducing the 20V worx battery, mostly because it drives my pinecil better and can more reliably provide higher USB-C voltages. But yeah: there’s mountains of technical debt in the form of oddball USB-not-C hardware and not-USB barrel jacks out there in my personal life, and I’m on a mission to gradually drive that to zero.

    1. Yep. USB-C and Anderson Powerpole here. I do wish the powerpoles were smaller, but they cover so many use cases, all the way up to 500 watts if needed (though my biggest load is currently 22A, 250 watts).

      It’s astonishing what you can power with a few hundred grams of LFP battery.

      1. USB-C (and a couple keychain style adapters just in case clipped onto a “main” charging cable) and XT60 have been my go-to as much as possible. Though that’s mainly because I got into FPV drones as a hobby before I started worrying about it and I’m surrounded by XT60 and XT30 connectors already.

      2. I grafted Powerpole connectors into a couple of old Dewalt 20V batteries to run my Pinecil and TS100, a small box fan (rated 24v), and a small variable buck/boost converter for providing power to projects. (Don’t let the voltage go too low, but the Pinecil and TS100 can monitor that.) The main thing I think I’m missing is a heat gun for heat shrink tubing… I’ve had my eye on a 20V Worx one for a while but haven’t gone for it.

        I’ve had such variable luck with USB-C that I’m still not totally sold on it for power delivery, but USB-A is convenient for powering 5V logic stuff.

        1. The 20V worx heat gun is fine. Unless you want to buy into the entire worx line, thoughtl, I’d skip buying the worx hub and just power the heat gun from the 20V battery you already have. A regular 3-pin male DIN plug will fit fine into female socket on the heat gun, and although there’s some fancy voltage control on the hub used on some of the other worx tools, the heat gun is just on/off 20V on the two outer pins. (The pins on the worx hub connectors are slightly larger in diameter than standard din, presumably to carry slightly more power, so male DIN work fine but female DIN won’t fit because the worx pins are too big.)

          1. Very helpful, thanks! I was hoping to avoid getting the hub or any other equipment, just planning to either rewire it or make an adapter to fit my PowerPole standard connectors. I appreciate the useful information.

  2. I have converted all my project laptops to EOL linux chromebooks of the same model. Its nice because all chargers are the same, keyboard layouts are the same, and ports are the same. Plus it was ~$30 per laptop.

    1. hah! i want to imagine i’ve found a kindred soul buying up all the asus c201s, the best laptop ever made.

      (i eventually gave up on it because i wasn’t certain the wifi flaw that had been nagging me would be resolved by a new laptop but man i was tempted to just buy a pile of used/for parts ones to keep it going another 5 years)

    1. It reminds me of those posts on watch or pen forums where someone casually sneaks a gun or hunting knife into frame. Like “Yeah I’m ready to time a race and elegantly record the results, and also kill a mf.”

  3. I use a packing cube and velcro straps for all my cables. This way keeps everything together and I can visually make sure i have all my cables. Plus i can throw other small things like a usb stick or Yubikey in it. The other thing i take is a travel power stip. Because having everything thrown all over a room sucks. especially when you’re trying to leave and making sure you have everything.

  4. I just use a single compact multi port C-PD adaptor for everything when I travel. There are C-PD adaptors for pretty much every laptop out there, including massage. And dongles that will otherwise output whatever voltage you need from a PD charger. Also a various-connector usbA cable

    I keep a USB soldering iron and mini screwdriver set in every bag as well

  5. There could be one way to tell for about anyone: have some empty box. For one week, when picking something up, anything for any reason, instead of putting it back to its original place, put it back to that box… That is good for finding the most essential tools, but anticipating “what if I run into X?”…

    Among the specialized tools,
    – a small [logic analyzer](https://www.aliexpress.com/item/1005003649856071.html),
    – an MCU [debug probe](https://black-magic.org/)
    – a few MCUs devboards like STM32F103 or RP2040
    – jumper wires of all polarity, as short as I can find buy
    – assorted USB cables, as short as I can find
    – specialized cables depending on the project

    Method for managing the device being worked on:
    Put screws into the mounting holes to attach it at the bottom of an as small as possible cardboard box, and cut holes to pass cables out of it. This will act as an easy to build enclosure to protect it. Never had boards fried since I started to use that. This also allows to screw-mount any other boards inside (debugger, other PCBs, camera modules attached to main board, logic analyzer, external modules…). That also allows to move it around without it being a mess of wires that always disconnect themselves when moving around.

    Alternative: put your setup on remote!
    If all operations that are required for a complete development cycle can be made by connecting to a Raspberry Pi over SSH (loading a new firmware, hitting a reset button, probing signals…), then this allows yourself to work from remote, as well as automate much of the process.

        1. I’m in the process of moving my lab/workshop into a pair of 20′ ISO shipping containers.

          I’ll be moving multiple times in the next few years, and it seems less effort overall. It’s a different time and space scale than rucksack-and-weekend, but I like to think it’s a somewhat similar principle :-)

  6. One high wattage USB-C supply, a multi-voltage trigger cable, and an assortment of barrel jack adapters is a pretty complete solution as long as only one power level beyond USB-C is needed at a time and your devices can operate (even if slightly out of spec) on one of the various PD levels.

    In my satchel now:
    – 48w 12v automobile to USB-C
    – Couple of passive international adapter to US plug
    – US plug to 220w USB-C supply
    – 2 USB-C to USB-C 4 PD3.1 240W cables
    – USB-C to mini, micro and std male and female and apple plugs
    – USB-C trigger cable to barrel plug with 5 voltages (5v to 20v)
    – 11 size Jack Converter Barrel Connector Set

    This takes 12v vehicle or most global wall plugs to all USB types and all common barrel jacks at 5 different voltages and takes up about the same space as a large laptop brick. It also allows me to make most USB cable combos for data transfers.

    It is an ongoing struggle to find components that thread the needle of compatibility with all the USB-C complexities. Recent HaD articles were a great help with understanding some of that.

    I am still looking for a small buck/boost variable converter to deal with voltage/amprages outside of the PD range. Any recommendations or good DIY projects you’d recommend? Bonus points if it replaces one or more of the above parts.

    I have been putting effort into this because scientific field equipment is even worse than consumer tech as far as data and power supply cableling and converter needs. I once had a setup that was over 2x as much by weight for the suppliers VS the equipment! My colleagues and I are trying to find a better system centered around the USB-C standard.

  7. Tigard has been a pretty great multiprotocol tool. The Analog Discovery by Digilent is also great for being a sort of jack of all trades tool, such as power supply, oscilloscope, LA, etc though software stack could use some work. The Flipper looks interesting as a possible wireless multiprotocol tool, though I haven’t used it much.

    1. Yeah the analog discovery 3 can replace quite a large number of devices and has the benefit of being able to script it or just use the different parts of it together.

      What do you mean when you say that the software stack could use some work?

      The digital discovery is good too but as the name suggests only works with digital signals, it can handle 8 channels at up to 800 MS/s, 16 channels at 400 MS/s and 32 channels at 200 MS/s. It has 24 input only channels and 16 input and output channels with a relatively large sample depth up to 256 million samples for the 8 channel mode. It also has an adjustable power supply which powers the logic analyser too so it also sets the threshold voltages appropriately, you can set the supply from 1.2 to 3.3 V but the 3.3 V mode can work fine with 5 V input. It is a very decent for the price, especially as you don’t need to worry about level shifters.

  8. i can’t really wrap my mind around the mission statement, especially because my work is just a laptop (i can get by with a phone so long as i have a bluetooth keyboard). but just from a “fun” perspective, i really think i would want to leave most of that garbage at home. if i’m taking a break from my house, i’d want to take a break from a lot of other things as well.

    when i’ve found myself playing with tech while travelling, i have always explicitly enjoyed the creative prompt of what is fun with the one piece i have. not so much of an issue now that laptops and supercomputer-phones are so ubiquitous, but i have many times enjoyed some dumb hack just because it was the only thing i could think to do with what i had packed, or with what i found at my destination.

    the idea of carrying around like a logic analyzer…man, i leave my workbench at home. even my fluke multimeter rarely ever leaves the mounting bracket i made for it. if i had to work out in the field much, i’d design my whole kit around that instead of just trying to see how much of my workbench i can pack into a bag.

    1. I’ve (re)designed my workbench around portability. Even if it’s not “in the field” it’s just so much easier to take the tools out to the car or basement or garden where the soldering/diagnosis/fix it job is, rather than disassemble and disconnect everything to lug it to my workbench.

  9. My company used to buy Dell Precision 5550, 5560, and 5570 laptops by the carload. I managed to keep about a dozen of the cosmetic boxes the laptop came in. They are great for parts and have two when I travel in a large backpack. The magnetic catches are a sweet touch.

  10. Would of been nice to see an actual picture, like a EDC bag dump.

    I carry in my bag a couple usb-c to usb-c cables and a bunch of various style usb-c adapters I keep in a small 3D printed case I made. A pinecil in a 3d printed case, a modded Leatherman with bitkit, GaN charger. I also have a PD trigger and a small volt meter in a small printed case I use as a power supply for some projects.

  11. Just a thought, but how about not taking everything with you, and instead spending some quality time with your folks. You know, talking to them, sharing meals, walks, that sort of thing?

  12. I very recently travelled packed in such away. I brought along a tablet Chromebook (lenovo duet 3), because they are quite versatile, a single 25W usb charger for the phone and the Chromebook. A USB micro cables for an rpi pico and a USB A to C to connect the pico to the Chromebook. Some jumper wires and a screwdriver.

  13. I have standardised on USB-C cables due to the computer I use having only USB-C ports. I have a few USB-C to micro (for legacy devices that I commonly use), and a bunch of USB-C to -C cables. For other connectors, I have some little adapter dongles that convert USB-C to mini-USB, lightning, USB-A, etc. I mostly have short USB-C cables, but I also have a couple of USB-C extension cables in case I need something longer for some reason.

    I swapped out the biggish brick for my laptop for a GaN charger with 2 C sockets, and an A socket for various charging requirements. Most of these are packed into a travel pack with a variety of elastic sections or zipped pouches for easy organisation.

    One thing I have found to be a little annoying is that some devices are not entirely happy to run from a USB-C-C cable. In particular, some ESP32 dev boards won’t power up, unless I power them through a USB-A adapter. I *think* this is down to the cables that I have, I think I was able to get them working with different cables, but will need to get a cable tester to be able to assign the blame accurately.

  14. Prior to the Pandemic I was doing much of that for a group that my LUG had spawned. It caused the creation of impromptu hacking spots in various places all over the City. Typically I stuck in a tote (or carry bag) what I was working on, and a basic parts list, and necessary cables. Oh and a laptop in his special bag.

  15. I stick with minimal tools for field work. My rationalization is that it’s usually much easier to get the work done back at my bench, if it requires more than my field kit can cover, and the quality of the work will be much higher than if I were to “get by” with suboptimal equipment. Think about replacement of SMDs on industrial CNC PCBs, as an example.

    Off the top of my head, I think I took an old multiboot Fujitsu laptop, a few chip programmers and prototyping boards, test leads, a DSO (probably my old Rigol), Fluke 87-V, LCR meter, basic soldering stuff (Hakko station, flux pen, solder sucker, desoldering wick, etc.), and basic hand tools along with me, the last time I did field work.

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