an investigation

What Do Guys Keep in Their Backpacks?

Photo: Getty Images

It’s interesting to think about men, by which I primarily mean cisgender straight men, and thank you for allowing me the immediate clarification. They kind of just seem to buy a shirt, or whatever. They’re like, “Give me the regular haircut.” They get a promotion and they’re like, Huh, what? Oh cool, yeah, yeah, that’s great. They don’t have a trashcan in their bathroom even though they need one. They carry a 40-pound backpack constantly, everywhere — to work, to a movie, to a nice dinner. It’s so interesting. I mean that genuinely, even though I do recognize it’s also rude. What is going on in their minds? And, more importantly, whatthe fuckis going on in their backpacks?

My guess is the content of a man’s backpack is sort of the same as the content of the junk drawer where you put all of the accessories for electronics you think you no longer own but aren’t really sure: a cord from a digital camera you had in high school, ethernet cable for a printer, a thing that makes it so your TV can have another HDMI plug, etc. And then I bet there are a couple hard drives and portable chargers in there, a vape, another vape (this one is new), something from an old girlfriend that is useful only in that it may one day be handy argument fodder when a new girlfriend finds it, a knit cap, an extra-large bottle of Rite Aid brand ibuprofen, a little toy that you “forget” where it’s from (old girlfriend again, you won it when you went to a carnival in her hometown) (okay she won it), bodega umbrella but you’re pretty sure it’s broken (it’s not), two computers, crumpled up T-shirt and basketball shorts, four books, Blu-ray of The Matrix, a bowl and spoon in case you want cereal, and pliers.

But of course I don’t know for sure.

I started my investigation into figuring out the contents of male backpacks the way I usually start my “investigations,” which is by trying to find some smart people I could talk to in order to give my piece a false and lightly comedic air of legitimacy. I searched to see if any professors ever wrote about guys and their backpacks. I looked on Pubmed, hoping to find a study that answered the question: What is the, um, psychology, or whatever, of, ah … men … and the constant toting around of their backpacks? And like, the stuff they keep in there? I didn’t find anything, but I also feel the need to admit to you that I didn’t really look very hard.

Instead, it was fairly clear to me that in this case, to find out what kind of stuff men are carting around in their backpacks everywhere even though they seemingly never need any of it, I should just go to the source: Backpacks. Or, no, I mean: Men.

“Please participate in this survey if you are a man,” I requested on Twitter, regarding a Google Form I’d created. It worked like a charm, for which I am very grateful and touched. 124 people responded, answering questions about their backpack use and contents.

As you can see in this chart, an astounding 84.7 percent of responders said they regularly carry a backpack. This may be skewed slightly as the title of the survey was called “What Do You Carry in Your Backpack?” and I’m not sure why you would take that if you did not carry a backpack, which is my bad. In any case, we’re not concerned with that and please leave me alone; we are more concerned with the backpack contents.

“Its a work bag, so lunch, water bottle, coffee thermos, rain jacket, keys, wallet, medication.” “Book, weed, phone charger, umbrella, medicine, sunglasses.” “Laptop, headphones, charging cables, sunglasses, umbrella, lunch.” “Laptop, umbrella, book, tide pen, band-aids, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, charger.” “Laptop, laptop charger, pens, phone charger, moleskin notebook.” “Laptop, a book or magazine, notebook, pens, maybe lip chap or moisturizer depending on the time of year, maybe a snack, random stuff that accumulates over time.” “Macbook Pro, charger, phone charger, Kindle Paperwhite, a jacket.” “Laptop, multiple charging cables, wall adapter, zicam, pain medicine, pens, napkins, mouse, earbuds, in-line microphone.” “Umbrella, book, pens, big portable battery for phone, flashlight, advil, bandaids, pills to take in case nuclear bomb goes off nearby, phone charger cables, phone charger adapters, headphones/headphones case, random first aid things, water bottle, notebook, sunglasses, loose change, sometimes snacks that i forget about and discover later, sometimes rain jacket, laptop if i’m going to work.” “Phone charger, laptop, laptop charger, portable battery, various charging cables, a book, water bottle, umbrella.”

It basically went on like that, but my favorite response was this one: “Lightning Cable, MicroUSB cable, spare USB battery, vape battery, spare vape battery, laptop, usb-c-to-hdmi dongle, a bag of dice, between 3-4 USB wall chargers, a notepad, several pens (all blue), a bunch of stickers, a Magic The Gathering deck, a spare Magic The Gathering Deck, another vape battery.”

Yes, that sounds exactly right.

My coworker Jen Gann asked if anyone said “crinkled old New Yorkers,” which in fact they essentially did — one responder included in his list “months old unread New Yorker issues,” and five others included “magazines.” However, Jen and I agree that it seems like crinkled New Yorkers are being underreported.

I suppose when I think about a man’s backpack I’m thinking about it in contrast with my own purse. What lives in there all the time? Tampons, chapstick, the one lipstick that looks good on me that is basically also a chapstick, annoying loose change, some crinkled-up receipts, wallet. And then I’ll often add either headphones or a book, depending. I don’t find myself needing much else, but if I need it that day I’ll bring it, like if it’s going to rain or if I need to bring a thoughtful gift to a deserving friend, aw. Do the survey responders find themselves needing all of this stuff all of the time?

As you can see from this chart, a majority said they do — 58.9 percent. “I mean not really but sometimes, so yes. They’re nice to have if you need them.” “I mostly am taking the backpack to work, so it’s stuff I need for work. Except the umbrella, which I like to always carry because otherwise my decision to carry one would be based on the ‘is it raining right now’ rubric which is not a very good one.” “Idk, i use all of them pretty regularly and none of it is that heavy.” “Don’t love walking around with 5 things in my pockets and carrying 4 more everytime i go into/leave work. Also its Florida so have to have rain gear.” “I drink a ton of water and I’m terrified of being unprepared.” Interesting.

That leaves 41.1 percent — still a healthy percentage, you’d agree — saying they do not need all that stuff all the time. “I don’t think I’ve ever had to crack open that stick of deodorant (it’s more for comfort of mind), I always forget to re-charge that power bank (so I’m hauling dead weight half the time), the sun glasses are nice but they could easily just be tucked into my collar, and the rain jacket — it turns out!!! — doesn’t do a great job of actually keeping heavy rain from seeping through. It’s more of a light mist jacket.” “Used to carry my laptop to work and back in the backpack. New job so laptop doesn’t come home. Still carry backpack mostly to get my glasses from home to work and back.” “Ummmm not really … is this a deposition?”

One of the first survey responders said, “I need to be carrying it all more than I need to think about it,” which I believe is quite illuminating. Perhaps the desire for a man to carry everything with him at all times is greater than the desire to think about what he needs for that day and add it to his backpack accordingly, or decide that he doesn’t need to carry his backpack at all.

Now, here is something that is interesting to me and also to you, yes? As you can see from the chart, laptops were mentioned with a startling regularity. 71 out of 124 responders said they carried one with them all the time in their backpack. Interesting. Why? When I polled my coworkers (mostly women) about whether they “felt the need to constantly carry a laptop,” which I do admit was a coaxing way to phrase it, they all said no. But I suppose we all have the same job and, though that job is basically exclusively to use a computer nonstop all day, it does not necessarily force us to carry a computer to and from an office.

In a new Google Form I asked, “Why do you carry a laptop?” Only 24 people responded to this one, but I am grateful for them. Basically, everybody pretty much said work — many had jobs that require them to take a laptop to and from the office every day. This is with the exception of one who said “It makes me feel ready” and then another who said “It’s kinda liberating and inspiration strikes at random times. And I like sitting at a bagel shop and writing, it changes up the routine.”

I can only believe that if I’d gotten more responses (perhaps some were frightened by the fact that the question made them confront their reality in a way they had not yet thought to do) a lot of people would have been like, “Huh, yeah, no, I don’t really need that laptop most of the time, kinda I just keep it around because it makes me feel safe somehow.” Don’t you think?

We all have to do what makes us feel secure. From what I can tell via my Google Forms, men who carry backpacks full of useless trash mostly just want to feel safe, and not have to confront the fact that they would feel unsafe if they didn’t have all of their useless trash on their person at all times, just in case they need it. Okay, my love. That’s fine. You do you, friend. (Or maybe you should try to feel a little safer without your trash? I’m not sure. Talk to your therapist.) Just don’t bring a backpack to a nice dinner, in my opinion. Or to the movies. Or to drinks. Or to a party where you’ll have to find somewhere to put it. Oh, also, one guy said he kept “a single tampon that I put in there for my wife like 7 months ago,” and I think that is just so sweet.

What Do Guys Keep in Their Backpacks?