Packing for a conference should be easy: grab some clothes and a copy of your paper and you’re off to the races. But what if last-minute packing sends you into paroxysms of panic, or if you’re trying to pack lightly enough that you can ditch your rolling carry-on?

If you’ve ever wondered, read on—but first, a quick note: we aren’t going to dictate what specific bag to buy or what clothing or office supplies to bring—that’s up to you. This guide is meant more as a thought exercise to encourage light(er) packing.

Your Bag
The bag you’ll carry is determined in large part by three things:

  • Type of conference:
    Is the atmosphere of your conference formal, business casual, or relaxed? Will all your time be consumed by meetings, panels, and lectures, or are there social and/or team-building activities as well? Will you be doing any sightseeing or personal travel before or after the conference? How you answer these questions will dictate the type of clothing you need to bring with you, and how much.
  • Location and length of trip:
    What is the average weather and temperature of the conference locale during the time you’ll be going? Are there any cultural requirements for dress you must observe? How many days and nights will you be gone?
  • What else you’re carrying:
    Will you have to bring a poster tube, AV equipment, or handouts? Are you carrying something bulky, like complimentary copies of a journal, or an illustrative model? Do you need to carry special medications, or food for a restricted diet? If you plan on carrying all of your stuff by yourself, you’ll have to take into account its relative weight and if you’ll have any difficulty managing it.

Running quickly through these questions might tell you that, for example, you’ll fly into Denver on a mild Wednesday morning in April, and attend informal workshops and a business dinner later that day. You’ll give one presentation and chair another on Thursday before going to a social event at Bronco Stadium. The conference will end with you attending panels as an observer all day on Friday; you’ll use most of Saturday to do a little sightseeing and light hiking before your late evening flight out.

Your Stuff
Having a handle on your activities will not only help you figure out what clothing and personal items to bring, but also get maximum utility from each thing, allowing you to carry less.

Still pretending you’re the conference-goer above: based on your planned activities, it might be tempting to bring up to four pairs of shoes, not counting the ones on your feet—not very practical for only four days of travel.

If you want to make light travel a priority, it may be worth investing in a pair of multi-function shoes that are appropriate for casual wear and light athletic/outdoor use. You’ll then only need to carry your formal business shoes. For very short trips, you may not need to pack extra shoes at all.

Determining what you need and what you don’t should also extend to the briefcase, backpack, or messenger bag you normally carry, and its contents. Conferences aren’t everyday events, and you may be able to leave some of your usual everyday carry items at home. You might even reconsider the bag itself—especially if it’s made out of leather, it could end up feeling very, very heavy by the end of a long travel or conference day.

Electronics can also weigh you down, and it’s hard to resist bringing a bunch of “in case” items. Ask yourself what tech you really, really need. You might find that a smartphone and tablet is enough to get you through. If you must bring your laptop to do work, you may not have time for your Kindle, Nintendo DS, and movie streaming device. Being honest about your conference habits is a great help when you’re stuck on whether or not to pack something.

Honesty is especially important if your packing tends to reflect the habits of an earnest and highly productive aspirational conference self who bears no resemblance to your actual conference self. Armed with the best of intentions, you grab that pile of grading (I can finish it on the plane!), the 800 page book you’re reviewing (I’ll read it between panels!), and the yoga mat you bought in 2007 (I’ll get up early and realign my chakras!). Before you know it, you’re wondering if you should bring the model U.S.S. Commodore Perry you’re building—and you see where this is going.

While a conference might be a great opportunity to catch up on grading/reading/writing, get to the gym, or finally finish up that mammoth knitting project, your own track record will tell you if it’s worth bringing those items with you. Your aspirational self probably doesn’t stand a chance if your actual self hangs out in the hotel bar with friends from grad school or watches the Law and Order marathon.

Finally, don’t discount the power of making a packing list. Upon your return, note all the things you used and didn’t use, or would have liked to have had. Especially if you travel infrequently, this written record of your past will help you make more informed packing choices in the future.

Putting it into Practice
The academics on the Forum have listed their top conference travel bag; here are some additional ideas (not exhaustive by any means):

The Pilot / Founder’s Briefcase / Empire Builder: These are no-brainers for carrying at a conference, but they’re also versatile enough to travel to a conference if you’ll just be there overnight. For inspiration, see how jmoz from the Forum packed his Pilot for an overnight meeting.

The Parental Unit: yeah, it’s a diaper bag, but no one at your conference will know! All they’ll see is a capacious tote-style bag with tons of room for all the stuff you’re bound to pick up at the publishers’ booths.

And here are a few ideas for “bag within a bag” pairings:

Western Flyer / Tri-Star with the Daylight Briefcase: You can use the briefcase as a packing cube for clothes, or you can use it to store your laptop, papers, and in-flight necessities: when you board, you can stash the larger bag in the overhead bin and store the briefcase under the seat in front of you. Or you could just one-bag: see how imperator packed for a 3-day conference with just his Western Flyer.

The Aeronaut 30 with the Co-Pilot / Pilot: This pairing follows a similar logic to the one above.  The Co-Pilot is small enough to slip in and out of the Aeronaut with ease; because of its size, the Pilot may perform better as a packing cube en route to your destination.

The Brain Bag with the Daylight Backpack / Daylight Briefcase: If you need a dedicated backpack, consider using the Brain Bag. While it can certainly work at the conference itself, if you want a low-profile option, either Daylight bag fits well inside.

If you need to pack a suit, here’s how using the Aeronaut (video) and the Tri-Star.

What bags do you carry for conference travel? Which items are invaluable, and which have you learned you can live without? Let us know in the comments.