Matryoshka Hardware
review workflow

Introduction

Most activities that I do require a combination of activity-specific gear and a set of more general core hardware. A ski trip requires specific gear like skies and gloves, but also core hardware like a wallet and a good book. I’ve found that most activities of the same duration and complexity share the same set of core hardware. For example, a 3 day ski adventure, scientific conference, or holiday weekend requires much of the same core hardware.

A byproduct of this division between activity-specific gear and core hardware is that core hardware naturally organizes into layers. Core hardware that I use for shorter duration activities serves as the foundation for core hardware that I carry for longer duration activities. A smaller set of core hardware integrates into the layer above it. Each layer subsumes the previous layer like a series of Matryoshka dolls.

Nesting hardware like Matryoshka dolls has numerous advantages. It minimizes hardware redundancy and ipso facto reduces the number of items that need to be carried. Predetermined hardware configurations facilitates faster packing with greater fidelity. It’s harder to forget important items using logical hardware layers. This post explains my views about hardware abstraction and describes 3 of my core hardware layers that I use to get things done.

Layers

The atom of my hardware is an Every Day Carry (EDC). This layer is composed of the minimal set of gear that I carry each day. The items I carry in this layer go with me everywhere. I dislike carrying things, so this hardware layer aims to be high functional albeit with minimal size and weight.

In situations where my EDC is insufficient, I add additional items to the EDC to form layers with more functionality. The next layer up from my EDC is my Extended Carry Items (ECI). I use Extended Carry Items on longer day trips or in other contexts where I need more functionality than my EDC can provide. For activities where I need yet more hardware, I merge my ECI with more gear to form my Bug-out Bag(BOB).1 My BOB is typically used for longer, usually multi-day, excursions.

EDC

My base EDC hardware layer is composed of a knife, keychain, wallet and a phone:

At the foundation of my EDC is a good knife. I’ve tried many knives in my kit, but my favorite is the Benchmade Osbourne Mini-Barrage. Benchmade manufactures ideal EDC blades. They’re of high quality and are reasonably priced, so I’m not afraid to abuse this knife. The Mini-Barrage is an ideal EDC blade because it’s the perfect size—large enough to fit comfortably in my hand when open and compact enough to fit comfortability in my pocket when closed. I also like the AXIS-assist design which facilitates opening the knife with one hand:

For a key ring, I use the titanium short-coated wire. It has a unique design that only opens when it is twisted into a special shape. I find that it never accidentally comes apart like screw-type key rings that I’ve used. The ability to open and close the keychain also allows me to take tools or spare keys on and off for modularity and easier use.2 It also allows me to fasten the keychain to a backpack or other object so I don’t misplace my keys. This design minimizes bulk by eliminating the need to carry a bulky carabiner or other attachment device.

I carry three items on my short-coated wire—an LRI Photon light, USB stick, and an Atwood tool. The Photon is ideal for reading, unlocking a door at night, or finding something in the bottom of a backpack. It’s extremely bright, compact, and inexpensive. I use a USB for transferring photos or presentation slides for talks. I also keep several privacy and encryption tools on it like tails. My current USB drive is a Kensington DataTraveler—it’s small, fairly durable, and has a nice attachment eyelet. The last tool on my keychain is a Atwood Titanium Wrunt. I use the tool for all sorts of tasks such as prying, screwing, scraping, and researching beer. The Wrunt is an excellent complement to the Barrage. Together, these two tools can be used for a wide array of applications:

The iPhone is also part of my EDC. The apps I use everyday include Omnifocus and Downcast. Here’s a screenshot.

The last item in my EDC is a money clip. I dislike wallets because they’re bulky and prone to dropping their contents. For a money clip, I stole an idea from Instructables and use a binder clip. Binder clips take up almost no room in my pocket, costs pennies, and securely hold money and credit cards. They’re also multi-purpose and have many other uses. Another feature I like is that the binder clip can be flipped up and placed onto my short-coated wire. I find this extremely useful if I’m at the gym or any place where I don’t have pockets. I also wrap my money clip with a ranger band for added stability. The band can also be repurposed for other tasks as well.

Extended Carry

The next level up from my base EDC is my Extended Carry Items. This module adds three additional items to my EDCan iPad, a notebook, and an organizer:

The majority of my ECI is housed in a Maxpedition Pocket Organizer. The Maxpedition excels at keeping numerous small pieces of hardware organized in a compact footprint. It has numerous attachment points, pockets, and lashing straps for organizing gear. The small profile makes the organizer easy to carry by itself or in a pack. Most of the gear I carry in the ECI is not directly visible in this picture. Here are a few of the items I carry in the Maxpedition:

Sunwayman V11R: This is a fantastic light that strikes a nice balance between price, size, and performance. I carry this model for its output-to-runtime efficiency, optional AA battery compatibility, and continuously variable beam control. The light is equally adept in situations where I need a low-intensity beam for an extended period of time or in specialized circumstances where I want to throw a 500 lumen blast. The light also makes a great lantern when attached with paracord to a Grimlock:

Distraction countermeasures: Sometimes I need to concentrate on the work that I’m doing or tune out disruptions to facilitate sleeping. Distraction countermeasures are absolutely indispensable in my ECI. I carry ear plugs and Etymotic Research HF3 headphones. The ear plugs are primarily used for sleeping on planes, trains, and automobiles. When I’m coding or doing almost any kind of work where I need to focus, I listen to music. The HF3 has reasonable audio quality, takes up little room, and has a nice mic and iPhone controls.

Adenosine triphosphate: For sustenance, I always keep a few snacks in my ECI. These items are handy when I don’t have time to eat Bieber, Gaga, and Eastwood for breakfast or if I don’t have access to food such as on a plane or in the backcountry. I like to carry Pemmican on shorter trips, but it has a short shelf-life and isn’t part of my ECI. Instead, I carry Active Green Bars, which have a reasonable nutritional profile for a pre-packaged bar. These bars are good for long-term storage in the ECI because they don’t have a coating that can melt and remain chewy even when cold.

Cable Management: Organizing cables is a real pain. When unmanaged, cables get wrapped around other gear and twisted together making them hard to work with. My ECI has to deal with headphones, cables for my iPhone/iPad, as well as any cables for other activity-specific gear I may be carrying. I’ve found three useful cable management gadgets that remove most of the cable organizing frustrations. Conventional cable ties, reusable Velcro cable ties, and Applecore cable oganizers.

Repair: Stuff breaks. Sometimes it’s gear, sometimes it’s me. I try to be prepared for these events and mitigate any issues before they become a problem. Some of the multi-functional items I carry for repair tasks include safety pins and a pocket screwdriver. For hands specific protection, I keep nail clippers, safety pins, hand repair creme, and hand sanitizer:3. A favorite repair item of mine is Gorilla tape. It’s the best kind of tape and has almost unlimited uses. I like to use it for things like protecting blisters on my feet or patching a holes in a water bottle. I keep Gorilla tape spooled around the sheath of an old pen as a dispenser. This design also allows me to store spare paracord in a Solomon Bar:

Writing/Drawing: I keep a few writing and drawing instruments in my ECI. Currently, my main workhorse is a Retro 51 Hex-o-matic. The Hex-o-matic ships as a ballpoint, but I use it with the excellent Schmidt 8900 Superbowl refills. This refill is unusual in that it transforms the Hex-o-matic into a liquid ink rollerball. I like rollerballs because they write well on most surfaces like a ballpoint and are smooth with good ink flow like a fountain pen. I also carry several Faber Castell Pitt pens for situations where I need to lay own a lot of ink. If the Pitt pens are good enough for Don Colley, they’re good enough for me.4

Weatherproofing: Several items in my ECI are prone to weather damage. I store my iPhone in my ECI inside a waterproof ziplock freezer bag. I also need to keep small items like extra money, my USB stick, and SD cards safe and dry. I find conical tubes to be an excellent storage containers. They’re lightweight, waterproof, crush-resistant, and can even hold liquids. Conical tubes are perfect containers for compartmentalizing small hardware items as well. My ECI can hold two 50 milliliter conical tubes for small hardware items and one 15 mL tube that I use for storing hand sanitizer. The contents of one 50mL tube include—Advil, spare money, an SD card, a MagSafe 2 converter, ear plugs, and Velcro cable ties:

BOB

The next level up in my hardware is the Bug-out Bag (BOB). I use this configuration in situations where my Extended Carry is insufficient. The BOB is designed to hold enough gear for a day to a week. I use one of two different bags as my BOBs depending on the situation. Both BOBs have a volume of roughly 25 liters, which I find is small enough to easily carry, yet large enough to hold adequate core hardware and activity specific-gear. The core hardware contents of either pack are the same.

Deciding what bag to carry largely hinges on weight and how long I need to carry a load. For most urban settings I select the Tom Bihn Empire Builder.6 The bag has a well thought out design that supposedly took 3 years to develop. The pockets are positioned well the carrying handles are extremely comfortable. I especially like the integration with the Braincell for securely carrying a laptop:

The other pack I use is the Arcteryx Quintic.7 I’ve just started using this pack after retiring an older BOB. The Quintic has a unique design that was developed primarily for backcountry skiing. The main access point to the central compartment is through the side of the pack. I like this feature because I can spin the pack around one shoulder to gain access to the Quintic’s contents while skiing, hiking, or maneuvering through a city. The best feature of this pack though is how well it carries a load. It was designed to hug a skier during descents and I find this quality translates to everyday situations as well:

Here are a few of the items I carry in my BOB:

Compression Sacks: An indispensable item in my BOB is the mighty compression sack. Compression sacks are designed to compact gear into smaller spaces. I usually carry several of these in my BOB. They provide a way to compartmentalize gear and to carry more things in less space. I like Granite Gear compression sacks in particular. I use several models ranging from the extremely light weight to waterproof models. My favorite models are semi-translucent making it easier to spot items inside the sack:

Liquids: A staple in my BOB is water. I carry water in the Platypus plusBottle and/or the Big Zip SL. I use several Platypus products primarily because they’re the only company I’ve found that doesn’t make water taste like plastic. When not in use, Platypus products weigh next to nothing and fold down to takes up little pack space. Another liquid I like to carry in my BOB is Spike. I have almost no response to coffee or other caffeine-based stimulants, but the combination of N-acetyl-Tyrosine and Yohimbine in Spike is a wonderful stimulant and a nice addition to my ECI distraction countermeasures.

Technical Wear: Two jackets that seem to always find their way into my BOB are the Patagonia Supercell and Retro-X Vest jackets. I usually pack the Supercell in my BOB to safeguard against precipitation and I wear the Retro-X everywhere. The combination of these jackets can handle a huge range of weather I encounter and both jackets are extremely lightweight and packable.

Books: A good book is an essential BOB item. I usually alternate between reading one technical and one recreational. A few of my favorite recent recreational books have been Seeking Wisdom, Ghost in the Wires and The Psychology of Persuasion.


  1. I’m borrowing the terms EDC and Bug-out Bag which generally has a more survivalist/tactical connotation. 

  2. I wish the short-coated wire was a touch longer. It’s usually not a problem for me, but the length of the wire makes it difficult to fasten if there are many items on the keychain. 

  3. Note that this is not a man-purse. Man-purses have shoulder straps. Man-purses are cool though, Indiana Jones carried one. 

  4. Hand sanitizer, hand repair creme, and lip balm are excellent fire starting reagents. 

  5. Don Colley is my favorite contemporary artist. John Thornton’s Have Pen Will Travel is a good introduction. 

  6. I really like Tom Bihn. I received the Empire Builder as a birthday gift a few years ago and it arrived directly from Tom Bihn hand decorated by the employees. 

  7. Quintic is a peculiar name for this pack; was it named after a fifth order polynomial