Important: see my updated 2012 SXSW Packing and Check List
In one week, creative nerds world-wide will begin a mass migration to Austin Texas for the annual gathering known as SXSW. This will be my 10th. Originally blogged in 2008, I've incorporated many years of lessons learned into this freshly updated 2011 packing and check list so you too can be as prepared as any SXSW veteran.
First, you must unpack what you have packed
If you're an urban superhero that walks around packing useful gadgets like swiss army knives (or any kind of knives), allen wrenches (or anything capable of disassembling an airplane), soldering irons, or pocket torches, remove them from your utility belt, your jet pack, and any other part of your supercostume. Unless of course you're willing to pack a bag to check-in (which I highly recommend avoiding, due to risk of loss).
The list itself is of course based on personal preferences, so if you're a girl, or wear something other than black, you'll need to make adjustments. I'm sharing this packing list with a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license: make and blog a solid version for yourself or urban super-heroines instead and I'll be more than happy to link to it, ladies.
Wear the essentials
The night before your flight, set out the clothes you want to wear.
- socks, underwear, and tshirt (plain black)
- pants (plain black). either simple work pants, like Dickies, or comfortable black jeans, but flexible enough for any number of emergency activities, like running and climbing obstacles to ditch crazy stalkers or emo drama queens. H&M (or Volcom) slacks and jeans have a good fit. Get a 2-4% spandex blend for extra flexibility.
- belt (plain black). You never know when you'll need to cinch around something to hold onto, and also a useful yoga prop. Consider a solid heavy belt buckle that you can swing around on the end of your belt like a mace if need be.
- shoes (plain black). They must be very walkable; I prefer PUMAs for their excellent arch and heel support, e.g.: black+silver PUMA Voltaic II (these worked great for me at SXSW 2010, and I've started running in them here in SF as well).
- long sleeve shirt (plain black) - American Apparel has a good selection
- hoodie - zip-up (plain black)
- coat/jacket (plain black), preferably something waterproof or water resistant. It often rains in Austin for a day or two during SXSW. Spiewak has some good options. Related: 10 day Austin Weather Forecast.
Fill your pockets with
- wallet, keys
- compact digital camera, e.g. Canon S95 (I have the S90 and love it, the S95 is slightly better/pricier, has HD video). Why: your iPhone etc. sucks at lowlight photos, and you don't want to lug a DSLR. You'll want to quickly capture many dimly lit SXSW moments.
- ear plugs - essential for loud bars, music, and shared sleeping situations.
- very small notebook, e.g.: mini black Moleskine notebook or paperblanks Micro Format notebook journal - either will fit in a back pocket
- Pilotpen mini black gel pen (2). Easily kept clipped inside a front pocket for writing in aforementioned notebook, pack a spare to lend.
- Burts Beeswax Lip Balm
- small iPod, e.g. iPod nano (or an iPod Touch)
- smartphone, e.g. Virgin Mobile BlackBerry Curve ($35/mo flat = unlimited web/data/txt + 300 min talk - plenty)
Over the shoulder equipment
With the above outfit, you're set to survive a variety of temperatures, climates, and social situations. However, you really need a few more things to make it through an event as geeky and lengthy as SXSW. Pick out the items (or their equivalents) from below, and then find a small (yet robust) backpack (like the Boblbee Megalopolis Executive Hardshell Backpack, see also the smaller People's Delight) or messenger bag that will fit fully underneath the airplane seat in front you.
- small flashlight (e.g. mini maglite)
- ocular backup. In other words, if you wear glasses, pack contacts and sunglasses too, if you wear contacts, pack glasses.
- book to read on the plane (e.g. Michael Pollan's Food Rules or Getting Things Done AKA GTD)
- plain unruled paper pad (e.g. medium size unruled Moleskine notebook) for sketching ideas
- small DVD case of videos (e.g. exercise like yoga or pilates - Kristin McGee's MTV Yoga series is excellent, and maybe a movie or two) - or preferably just rip them beforehand and load them onto a MacBook Air
- energy bars (carry at least 2 with you, e.g. Clif builder bars) because sometimes you'll be too busy to sit down or stand in line for a meal, or late at night you'll want an alternative to pizza-slice-gut-bombs on 6th street.
- peppermint gum - expect close proximity with lots of people, be considerate.
- simple hat (e.g. a black cap, beret, or blue beanie if you prefer) for use in the cold, extreme sun, or if you happen to skip a shower (e.g. because the city turned off the water to your hotel, yes I've had this happen before)
- noise cancelling earbud headphones - these really help on the flight. I have and like the Sony MDR-NC11 Fontopia with In-line Volume Control, and I'm interested in what noise cancelling earbud headphones others like.
- mini-USB cable (and Micro USB To Mini USB Adapter) to charge your phone / other devices and download photos from camera to laptop.
- even smaller laptop/shoulder bag - the smallest bag that will fit your laptop with minimal pockets for cables/powersupply. You won't always have time to stop by your hotel to drop things off - pack as minimal and portable as possible for sessions, meetings, dinners, and evening events.
Gear-up a level
Have you had any of the following happen to you?
- smartphone run out of power before you do
- wanted to set-up your own visuals at a party
- let down by AT&T's network (e.g. (most) iPhone users. even with trucked in mobile cell towers in 2010, it was still so-so)
- stuck in the middle of a natural (or man-made) disaster
Here are a few respective items for the extra prepared techno-road-warrior:
- 5000mAh Rechargeable USB Battery Pack. Keep your iPhone/iPod/Droid/BlackBerry going all night long. I had a 1000mAh USB battery last year and it was incredible - suddenly all my devices were a lot more useful and reliable. I can't count the number of people that needed a few minutes of recharging for their iPhones. Yes, it makes an excellent ice breaker. Avoid any device-specific extra batteries or chargers. I've been happily using the Trent Super-pack IMP500 5000mAh External Battery for a few weeks now. When your device gives a battery warning, recharge it. When your laptop is plugged in, recharge the battery pack.
- Optoma PK201 Pico Pocket Projector. I saw the previous model of this on the flight out to SXSW 2010 - someone was using it to watch a movie from their iPhone projected onto the back of the seat in front of them - and instantly had the feeling that I was seeing something from the future. The PK201 is more than twice as bright/featured in about the same size. You can basically project a 70" HD display from a laptop, iPhone/iPodTouch, or a preloaded micro-SD card. Very bright and easily viewable in any dark venue. As with any "future" device, especially one that will so brightly visually affect your environment and people around you, it may take some awkward experimentation to work out the social conventions of using a personal projector in public.
- Virgin Mobile Wireless Network Router MiFi 2200. Because everyone should have their own personal wifi-cloud. Last year I was reasonably happy with the Sprint Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot (though I returned it after the 1-month trial because I didn't want to commit to a $60/month 2-year contract for no 4G in SF last year). This year I'm trying out the Virgin Mobile Mifi for $50/month with no contract. They both use Sprint's network. The Overdrive also does 4G in Austin (and other cities). Since it looks like they have 4G in San Francisco now, if I have any difficulty with the Virgin Mifi I may return it and take the plunge with the Overdrive.
- Motorola TALKABOUT T900 2-way pager. Yes, seriously, if you've ever been in an earthquake or other disaster, you know that your cell phone is useless. Emergency crews still use pagers, and there's a reason for that - they're still a lot more robust and reliable. I've had a T900 for many years now and the few occasions I've had to use it, it's been invaluable. It can receive phone # pages, voicemail, and can even do email. Oh and it lasts for days on a single AA battery. Now all we need is for services like Twitter, Foursquare etc. to support tweet/check-in by email and we'll be all set. Makes for a very entertaining party conversation piece, but can arouse suspicions of being an anachronistic time-traveler.
Rollaway the remainder
In a small handbag, dufflebag, or rollaway (like the awesome ZÜCA sport rollaway with aircraft aluminum frame), pack the following:
- small empty water bottle (e.g. 16oz Nalgene and a simple carabiner keychain to hook it to your shoulder bag)
- 6 sets of underwear + tshirts + socks.
- more energy bars (like a dozen, e.g. Clif builder bars)
- Tide to Go Instant Stain Remover stick - useful for those unexpected spill/stains from coffee, wine, etc.
- small bottle of Woolite Dark liquid detergent. If you're staying for music, on Wednesday morning after showering and changing, wash your dirty laundry in your hotel laundry room (Residence Inn has coin-op laundry) or hotel room sink and hang dry on the shower curtain rod and towel rods.
- sunscreen/sunblock and a swimsuit - most hotels have pools, even hot tubs. put them to good use. The Hilton has a pool on the roof.
- climbing shoes (I love my FiveTen "5.10" Dragon climbing shoes), tape. see http://geeksloveclimbing.pbwiki.com/
- compact umbrella - check weather, rain expected in Austin some days
- Apple Airport Express to create your own secure reliable wifi cloud from the Ethernet hardline in the hotel room
- thin black fleece sweatpants (American Apparel) - for sleeping in if it gets cold, doing yoga, pilates, or just lounging around your hotel room. Also good for a quick morning jog/run.
- bath kit: toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, contact lens fluids/case, shaver, fingernail clippers, perhaps some hair product (essential for music) and whatever else you would include in a larger bath kit. extra packets of vitamin C, Advil, and Tylenol are highly recommended. Maybe some zinc as a cold remedy; I've found Sudafed (the real stuff, not PE) and Claritin (or Zyrtec) handy too.
- extension cord and powerplug splitter (so you can share an outlet with someone else).
- power adapters/rechargers for your phone and camera battery.
- laptop audio/video cables to connect your laptop to a stereo/tv/flatscreen/projector. Some hotels have the ability to connect to the in-room TV and use it as a second monitor. And if you have DVI/mini-DVI out rather than VGA (e.g. a Mac laptop), bring an adapter that will let you connect your laptop to VGA.
- thin compactable dufflebag. yes, pack a folded up bag inside your rollaway, as there's a good chance you'll acquire stuff (tshirts, guides, souvenir cowboy boots etc.) that you'll want to take home.
Print your boarding pass
24 hours before your flight, be sure to:
- Log on to your airline's website
- check-in online
- print your boarding pass
- put it in your backpack
Get plenty of sleep
The night before. I seem to have trouble with this one, perhaps from procrastination, perhaps from all the anxious excitement of seeing friends I see only once a year at SXSW. But still, try to:
- get plenty of sleep. You'll need it!
- week before extra credit: pretrain your circadian rhythms to Central Time
The morning of
- shower and put on the clothes you put out last night
- pack your laptop(s) (e.g. MacBook Air) in your backpack, including
- power cable(s) and supply(s),
- video adapter(s) connected to your external monitors
- get to the airport 90 minutes in advance
- get to your gate and look around for other folks also going to SXSW,
- your adventure has begun.
Ship directly to your hotel
If you lack any of the above, call your hotel and ask them for their "shipping address" (typically it will be "Attention: Your Name" followed by name of hotel and their normal address). Then order whatever you need from Amazon.com and have it shipped overnight or second day air directly to you at your hotel.
Try out Neighborgoods
If you're missing any of the above items, instead of purchasing them new, you may be able to save money (and the planet) by checking for stuff on Neighborgoods.net first.
Share and improve
If you liked this packing list, please share it with links intact. All the links to Amazon (ASIN) products use my affiliate code and thus if you click and buy something from the list, Amazon sends a tiny portion of what would otherwise be completely their profit, to me, at no cost to you. I think that's a reasonable small nod in return for a free and useful resource.
I'm publishing this packing list with a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license to explicitly encourage people to share it, improve upon it, and the only thing I ask is that you attribute "Tantek's SXSW Packing List" and link to this blog post: preferably keeping any hyperlinks intact as-is (feel free to send me reports of corrections or dead links to: aim:tantekc).
Lastly, I want to note that this is a very practical road-tested packing list. I travel frequently and I've been to SXSW nine times. I have personally purchased, used, and street/travel tested nearly all of the above products which is why they made the cut. I stand by them as solid personal recommendations.
Thanks and hope to see you fully prepared at SXSW!