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

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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.

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