Commuter style: Do's and don'ts

Juggling book, laptop, yoga mat and more, how to organize and lighten your load

Ellen Warren

Answer Angel

September 7, 2012


If there were an Olympics of Schlepping, I'd medal for sure. That's because I'm a haul-a-holic.

My daily commute involves at least three separate bags: a purse, a tote and an enormous purse annex. That doesn't include the laptop, which sometimes goes in the tote but often gets its own bag-on-wheels, despite the dreaded nerd factor. So that's my confession.

I've tried to cut back and I have reduced (a little) my heavy haul by relying on my phone for photos instead of carrying a camera, eliminating one of the two coffee thermoses I bring to work and spending a couple of minutes before leaving the house to examine what's in those bags to make sure I'm not carrying around heavy stuff (books for the library, a dog leash) that I don't need.

To walk you through the do's and don'ts of gearing up for your commute, I stopped commuters at rush hour to talk about strategies to look good and lighten their loads. And, yes, I admit, this is a classic example of "Do as I say — not as I do." I'm trying to do better, and so can you.


Walter Ortiz

21, art student/sales clerk

"I really don't need much. I'm just going to work." His backpack is lightweight and contains only what he knows he'll use on his daily train commute: a sketchbook, sunglasses, iPod, charger, phone and Game Boy. Also, just in case, a small medical kit if there's a skateboard accident.

What's right: Backpack distributes weight evenly; contents pared down to essentials; skateboarding to his job from the train station is fast, cheap — and green.

What's wrong: Nothing.

Andrea Swift

36, stock exchange sales

"I normally don't have this much stuff. I normally (just) have my tote (the bag on her right shoulder) and try to fit everything in there. Normally I even have my laptop in there, and lunch goes in there too. I'm going to yoga, and this (black bag) is my workout bag."

What's right: Despite all that gear — three separate pieces — she looks chic and put together.

What's wrong: The Gucci bag she uses as a tote is heavy, even when it's empty. And she confesses she's hauling two big bottles of water — one sparkling, one regular — a large cosmetics bag and more. "I guess I do need to clean out my bag." Miniature cosmetics, less water, a lighter tote bag would help.

Christine Polk Mohr

37, attorney

The most together commuter ever! She's got all that she needs and not a single thing more, arranged for easy access, including work ID, office and home keys, lunch, cloth shopping sack. Her system — flawless! — "developed over time."

What's right: A while ago she swapped her heavy leather Coach bag for the much lighter all-black fabric Vera Bradley bag (on her left shoulder). Instead of a wallet, a credit card holder (in bright yellow; easy to find in her purse) holds the necessities. The leopard tote is lightweight too. She takes work home but is careful to pare files down. And she keeps a small makeup bag and her gym shoes at the office to further lighten her load.

What's wrong: Not a thing.

Shari Weber

52, project manager

She considers this bag her rolling office: "I can stop wherever and work." And it also means she gets exercise. "I didn't want to take taxis. I wanted to walk." After several back surgeries, she tries to minimize the weight on her back and shoulders.

What's right: You can't beat wheels if you absolutely have to haul heavy stuff around.

What's wrong: There's a tendency to pack the bag fuller than it needs to be (and you still have to carry the heavy thing up and down steps at the train station or bus); not remotely a cool look.

Kathi Nudi

58, audit assistant

"I don't really have a system. This works for me," she says, carrying a medium purse for her wallet, hand sanitizer and glasses. The tote is for lunch, umbrella, makeup bag and a sweater or jacket.

What's right: Two bags make carrying more manageable, and she can leave the tote at work or home when running quick errands.

What's wrong: Nothing, as long as she cleans out her bags often to eliminate what she doesn't need.

Tom Leinenweber

46, attorney

He says he's weighed down with an overflowing briefcase because he's delivering two giant textbooks — American history and college algebra — to his high school son. Leinenweber made a tactical mistake, having the online retailer send the books to his office when he should have had them sent to the house.

What's right: Not much. He's so hard on his briefcases, even when not carrying high school text books, he has to buy a new one every year.

What's wrong: The bag is digging into his shoulder; wearing it cross body would distribute the weight.

Kelly Davis

22, barber school student

"I just run out of the house in the morning, so I throw in everything that fits," she says. She's carrying a purse on top of her black tote.

What's right: The bags don't look stuffed, even though she carries a change of clothes in one of them, a requirement for school.

What's wrong: She carries two, and sometimes three, heavy, glass, full-size perfume bottles in her purse because she likes options during the day. Limit scent to one a day.

Tips for a lighter commute

•Be a smart shopper: If the bag is heavy when empty, don't buy it; choose a lighter one.

•A dose of realism: Are you really going to get all that paperwork/studying done tonight? If not, leave it at home, school or the office.

Minimize: Why carry a heavy wallet with check book, 18 credit cards and frequent shopper cards if you only need two?

•Calendars weigh you down; use your phone as a planner.

•Downsize: Opt for smaller makeup, water bottle, fragrance containers.

•Clean up: Assess your bag(s) every night to assure you're only carrying what you need.

•Leave extra shoes, workout clothes at your desk.