What’s in Your Debate Bag?

Backpack, Backpack: What’s in Your Debate Bag?
By: Kyle Allen-Niesen & Cory Wynn

EDIT: An updated version of this article can be found here.

With the start of the new year, it’s important that we talk about some of the tips and know-how that we commonly take for granted. Most of you already know that having all the necessities in your backpack at a tournament is an important part of success. Showing up to a tournament without even just one of them is an instant confidence-sapper. Leaving key components of the debate backpack at home is the real-life version of the nightmare where you show up to school having forgotten to get dressed; it leaves you feeling naked. What those necessities actually consist of, on the other hand, is a difficult question.  We couldn’t exactly decide on what should be in the perfect debate backpack, so instead we’re opening up our own backpacks and letting you know exactly what keeps us going weekend after weekend.


While bigger might not always be better (we see you, Ryan Lawrence), it definitely is when it comes to backpacks.  We always made sure that there was ample space for everything we needed, including a laptop and multiple  expandos.  Organizational availability should also be a key criterion when sorting through your local office supply emporium. When you don’t have a backpack with a bunch of pockets, you misplace your pens.  When you misplace your pens, you can’t find another one when your pen runs out of ink.  When you can’t find a pen, you miss your opponents speech. When you miss your opponents speech you drop a turn.  When you drop a turn, you lose your round.  When you lose your round, you lose self-confidence and end up with the wrong crowd.  Next thing you know, you have a new tattoo across your back and piercings in weird places on your face.  Don’t get tattoos or strange facial piercings; Buy a good backpack. Signed, DirecTV.


Cory (15”): In my opinion, nothing is more important than a solid laptop; you can read cases and blocks, write new files, and browse the interwebs in your freetime, all on the same device.  I personally loved using my MacBook Pro 15” because I am definitely a Mac guy, but also because having 15 inches is the perfect amount of space to work with, just enough for two split windows for cutting cards or one large reading space for reading evidence in round. It’s been over three years since I bought it and its still running strong. (Kyle’s computer isn’t in that great of shape, although its still running, which says a lot considering how many times I’ve seen it smashing into the floor). Moral of the story though is pick something durable that you feel comfortable using a lot.

Kyle (13”): 13 inch all the way! I’m currently writing on Cory’s laptop, and let me tell you, it feels like a ton of bricks. My feet might be turning blue from lack of blood circulation.  The 13 inch, on the other hand, is so light that I don’t even know that it’s there (hence, the number of times that Cory has seen my laptop crash onto the ground).  The 13 inch is small enough that you can comfortably adjust the screen on a tray-table in coach, but is big enough to do all of the in-round things that Cory talked about.  And, its durable enough that it can get a few bruises and keep going.  Seriously though, get something strong.  The thought of a laptop crashing during a speech was one of my worst debate nightmares. (Ed. Note: Keep in mind that Kyle hardly ever did any debate work…)

Surge Protectors

If sitting in crowded airports, cafeterias and hotel rooms has taught me anything, it’s that you can never have enough outlets.  From your cellphone, to your laptop, to your iPad and travel printer, having a good surge protector is critical to ensuring that you always enough outlets for all your electronic devices. As for our personal choice, we recommend the Belkin Mini Surge Protector. This small device spits one three-prong outlet into three; and, as an added bonus, there are also two USB slots, perfect for charging iPhones or other devices with USB chargers. You can pick up your own Belkin Mini Surge Protector for as little as $10 on Amazon.


“Thus, I affirm and now stand open for cross-examination.”
“Can you flash me the case?”
“Yeah. Do you have a flash drive?”
“No. Don’t you have a flash drive?”
“Then, can I use your computer for prep?”
“Well, I kind of want to use my computer during prep, so no.”

Bring a Flash Drive. (It’s also a great way to share music with your debate friends!)

Phone Charger

It’s not exactly the most enlightening discovery, but bringing a phone charger is a must. I won’t lie; it wasn’t often that both of us would remember to bring our phone chargers. But, I can promise you that when we did neglect to bring them, we definitely didn’t forget it. Bringing a phone without a charger is pretty much equivalent to not bringing the thing at all. An easy way to remember to bring a charger is just by stashing an extra USB charger in your debate bag.  Not only will you always be able to charge it through your laptop, but also, if you have a Belkin Mini Surge Protector, you can charge your phone almost anywhere without monopolizing the entire outlet.

Pilot G2s (0.5mm or 0.38mm)

I didn’t believe my elders when they told me that they had stumbled upon the world’s greatest pen; so, of course, I had to do my own soul searching. I went through the Pilot V5s, Uni-balls, and even some R.S.V.P.s, but none could match the smooth, extra-fine writing experience that I so desired. With humility and submissiveness, I asked to borrow my team captain’s pen, and it was that exact moment when I fell in love with the G2. No pen writes easier with as fine of a tip, seriously. And, as a plus for all you debate kids, G2s come in a variety of colors so you can ask your opponent what color they want to be on your flow and give them more of a choice than between red and black.


From the second you see your opponent pull out cardstock rather than your average, run of the mill paper, you know that the round isn’t going to be a walk in the park.  It might sound like a lot to say that just because someone has a thicker type of paper that they are automatically a better debater, but let me be honest, it’s often the case. When it comes to cardstock, I typically believe that the thicker, the better.  I am a strong advocate for having paper that doesn’t flop over when you stand up to give your speech.


When it comes to timers, having a timer with 0-9 buttons is a must; nobody wants to hear you you press the seconds button 25 times to set your prep-time.  And when it comes to 0-9 timers, all the cool kids use Radioshack ones.  But being a cool kid certainly has problems.  For one, everyone’s timer looks exactly the same.  Make sure to personalize your timer, otherwise you might end up publicly accusing your teammate of stealing yours! (Greenhill 2009 was the low point in Cory and Kyle’s friendship, partly stemming from a dispute about a timer… and Kyle’s insanity).


Expandos are one of those threshold items that signify your status as a threat.  Think about it. How many rounds have you looked at your opponent, noticed that they stapled their case, or double spaced the pages, or use a pink folder and known that this wouldn’t be a tough round? Don’t be That Kid.  There are still so many questions though! Cover flap, no cover flap, legal, letter, 12 pockets, 31 pockets, plastic, that cardboard material… how do you decide? In my experience, I always liked having a flapless expando.  Papers would naturally stay in place, and having an easy ability to take out and put back papers is always a plus. Also, make sure to get the letter-size 31 pocket expando (if you buy the legal one, good luck getting it in your backpack!).  That way, you have enough pockets for all your files, but it’s small enough to fit comfortably within the backpack. As for plastic vs. cardboard, just follow your heart.  When you follow your heart, nothing can go wrong.  (Cory always brought one, Kyle brought 2).

Headphone Splitter

Having the essential debate backpack is about more than only having things for in-round.  As anyone who has ever been at a debate tournament knows, having things to do in-between rounds is half of the battle; that’s where having a headphone splitter comes in handy.  Being able to share your music, or listen to other’s music makes tournaments all the more bearable.  Nothing’s better after a long few rounds than watching a movie (and actually hearing it) in the hallway between rounds.


The great Waldo 2.0, who is so good that nobody can find him (a.k.a Wes Craven) always said that music was a key part of the vaunted “perceptual dominance”.  Being stuck without it is an instant downer, condemning you to the pandemonious frenzy of the cafeteria, or the tense silence of sitting outside the room with your rival.  So make sure that headphones are always present in the backpack. They guarantee that you will never be without a lyrical sanctuary, and also are another way to be a little unique. Plus, breaking out some crazy-colored ‘phones will give you a little bit of that unique swagger that every great debater has! But remember, just because you have headphones doesn’t mean you need to wear them around like a necklace all day… We get it; you think you look awesome in your Beats. You don’t.


Now, obviously not every single kid on the team needs a printer; but I found it extremely helpful when as a team we had at least one.  Having a portable printer is critical to being able to write new files at tournaments and have them ready to go on paper later that day. While it’s becoming more and more acceptable to read off a laptop, reading off paper, in my experience, makes people way clearer, faster, and more professional looking.  Also, remember, just because you have a portable printer, it doesn’t make you look cool when ya noisily print off files during round. It makes you look like a deleted scene from Office Space.

Flying with a printer can be a pain if it isn’t easy to immediately set up and take down,  so make sure it’s easily accessible. If you don’t feel like dragging it along, make the younger kids bring it! (That’s what teammates are for, amiright?)

And Finally, Snacks!

Making sure that you have your favorite snack is super important, because the average quality of food usually available at debate tournaments ranges from “Airplane  to “Hospital”.  Everyone has a different favorite morsel, so bring what you love.  Kyle loved “10th Tee Energy Bars” (I guess nobody told him that he brought them to the wrong activity), whereas Cory loved whatever his mom packed him for that day and whatever Kyle was eating… You also might want to think about bringing some healthy snacks.  One of the hardest part of debate tournaments is eating healthy.  Bringing along snacks like almonds, dried fruit, and things like granola bars can really help the days pass a lot smoother. While it doesn’t really matter what snacks makes it into your bag, the real key is not to be caught without them.

So, that’s what kept us going at tournaments. All in all though, the final lesson is this: make your debate-pack awesome and make it unique.  Bring the best of everything, but make it your own.

Let us know what you consider necessities or, even better, let us know what’s in your debate-pack! If you already have these products and agree that they are must-haves or if you disagree and think these products are lame, share it in the comments below!