What’s in Your Debate Bag? 2018 Edition

Photo by Richard Clyborne of Music Strive

For some reason, one of our popular articles on Vbriefly earlier in the year was a 2012 article called What’s in Your Debate Bag? I guess I understand why it’s popular: people like to know what other people are carrying. I know cause I watch a lot of tech channels and my favorite videos are the tech backpack videos. However, the article is quite outdated (it still suggests that you bring a portable printer) and written by two dudes from a big school, so we decided to update it to match what people are actually carrying in 2018. With people thinking about upgrading their debate backpacks as the season is starting, it’s (somewhat) important that we talk about some of the tips and know-how that debaters who have graduated commonly take for granted when it comes to packing backpacks. These things make tournaments so much more enjoyable and showing up without some key items in your backpack might make the tournament that much worse.

Most of you already know that you should bring a computer, pens, and paper to a debate tournament, but there might be some other things on this list that you might not have thought about or you might want to purchase as an upgrade to your existing backpack. Just like the previous article, we couldn’t really decide on what should go into the perfect debate backpack, so instead VBI staffers Kathy Wang, Ellie Singer, and I (Lawrence Zhou) are going to open up our debate backpacks and let you see what we take with us to debate tournaments. Don’t view this as a list of things you have to have since it is a lot of stuff, but rather use it as inspiration for what you might want in your debate backpack!

Download the full, unedited article below!


Ellie Singer

Ellie: Sometimes I used my school backpack, which is a Jansport backpack. (I can’t find my exact backpack, but this one is pretty similar.) I also used a purse pretty frequently since my sophomore year. The idea there was that I thought it made me look like a slick young professional who had it together even when I was crumbling on the inside from exhaustion. When I used to still carry expandos, I would have little to no extra room in my purse, so I made my debate partner carry my wallet and water bottle. His backpack is a Northface! Nowadays, when I’m judging and coaching, I still generally use a purse just because I flow on my laptop for the most part and have fewer papers and pens to carry around.

Kathy: The one I personally use is a Samsonite Pro-DLX 3 laptop backpack. It’s been through quite a lot with me – I think I’ve been using it for 6 or 7 years total, and 4 regularly. It has a bunch of pockets that are well organized, which is really great for me because I can easily know exactly where everything is. It also is really compact and padded, so it doesn’t bulge out of your back a ton and also is more supportive for less strain on your shoulders.

On a more available and budget-friendly note, Amazon Basics has a great laptop backpack that seems pretty similar to Swiss Gear ones and holds up at around $30. It’s a little less sturdy than the one I normally use, but holds a ridiculous amount of stuff and definitely gets the job done. It also holds laptops up to 17 inches, so for those of you with giant computers it’s a pretty appealing choice.

Lawrence: For most tournaments, I use the Herschel Heritage backpack. It’s small, light, and only has one main pocket which makes packing super easy. I don’t usually need the multiple pockets that a lot of people suggest for debate backpacks, so this backpack is perfect. For tournaments where I need to carry more things with me, I use a Thule EnRoute Escort. With multiple compartments, I can either go an entire weekend with just a backpack and carry my clothes in my backpack, or I can use it to carry more electronics.


Ellie: I used a Macbook Air for most of high school. I liked it a lot. I’m pretty technologically inept, but it was still really easy for me to navigate. I also think it’s just a good-looking computer. It’s also pretty light and easy to fit in any bag or backpack, which is really nice because I’m weak and don’t like to carry heavy things. I use a Macbook Pro now, one of the new ones with the touch bar. It’s super cool! I like that I can unlock it with my finger. More relevantly, it’s super easy to bold or underline or highlight things in word using the touchbar, which makes cutting cards in Verbatim even more efficient. 1o/10, highly recommend.

Kathy: I use a MacBook Pro! It’s one of the really old ones (think L-shaped charger) but still works pretty well for me. I mostly chose it for the hardware on it – it’s easily customizable when you get it so mine has a ton of storage. It’s also pretty well-performing and efficient, and has a good amount of battery life. Also, it doesn’t break really easily, which is a very big plus.

Lawrence: A good laptop is, in my opinion, the most important piece of technology a person can have. I’d rather buy every other thing, including the clothes I wear, as cheap as possible just to spend a little more to get a good laptop. It’s the thing I use the most in debate, school, and life. Pick a laptop that is portable, durable, and reliable. Unlike the other two, I’m a PC guy all the way. I use a late 2017 Dell XPS 13. It’s been the most recommended Windows laptop for a few years now and it should be obvious why. It’s built like a tank, reliable, and incredibly portable. I’ve always been bewildered by the amount of people that skimp out on purchasing their laptops but have an expensive iPhone: my laptop is just way more important than my phone. I prefer Windows for debate because Verbatim on Mac sucks! (I also added a Dbrand skin for my laptop and really like it.) When I do use a Mac, I use a Macbook Air. It’s a perfectly fine laptop, but I definitely prefer Windows and I almost exclusively keep my Macbook plugged into my TV just to watch Netflix.

Computer Accessories

Lawrence Zhou and Kathy Wang

Ellie: I always use a case for my computer. I really liked to decorate it with stickers, such as my “Debate Like a Girl Sticker” and college paraphernalia. And, of course, a VBI sticker.

Kathy: I really, really recommend having an external hard drive. It can be a little pricey, but is definitely worth the investment in case something happens to your laptop and your files disappear. Seagate sells an easily portable one. It’s still definitely worth it – it really mitigates the risk of losing all your backfiles and makes transitioning between computers easy. Also, you can never go wrong with flash drives. People don’t always have paper copies on them and wifi isn’t reliable at tournaments. I usually have at least 2 flash drives on me at tournaments (sometimes more, haha) as backups for me and anyone else on my team who might need one.

Lawrence: I can’t go anywhere without my Logitech MX Anywhere 2S Mouse and its case. It’s super light, reliable, works on any surface, and has programmable buttons which I use to cut cards in Verbatim. When I’m judging and coaching at tournaments, I also like to bring a portable monitor to make cutting cards easier. I also really like a bag for my cables.


Ellie: I didn’t really use a stand. They can be helpful in public forum, but they aren’t quite universal yet. Also, I’m really short and my partner is really tall, so the one time we tried using a stand we had to constantly adjust it between speeches.

Kathy: I do use a debate stand! I like setting it up and it feels a little easier to give speeches when you’re not curled up on yourself on the chair. It’s also more surface area for stickers.

Lawrence: When I debated in high school, I never used a stand, but when I go to college policy tournaments, I always bring a stand. Obviously, since I now mostly judge, I don’t carry a stand with me, but I think it’s a necessity for anyone competing on the circuit, and I even recommend it to some local debaters.

Phone Accessories

Ellie: I always use a phone case to protect my phone, which I drop a lot. In high school, I had a charger case, which helped my phone last all day. Super helpful. I have a normal case now but a portable charger, which is really nice too. I never used my phone as a timer in high school, but I think it’s a good idea to consider a portable charger if you do.

Kathy: I always bring a portable phone charger everywhere. The one I use right now is a Tzumi Pocketjuice – it’s pretty large (about as big as my phone), but very much so worth it. It carries about 6 spare charges on it, so it’s pretty reliable and I don’t need to charge the portable battery too much either. Also, a power strip is very very helpful, especially for tournaments where student HQ are cafeterias and the sort or where war rooms aren’t very accessible. Think of it this way: if you bring the power strip, you will always get an outlet. Likewise, extension cords are great for rooms that don’t have outlets in easy places so everyone in the round doesn’t have to awkwardly shuffle and find a different arrangement.

Lawrence: I think there are two main accessories that everyone should have for their phones and electronics: a surge protector and a portable battery. I use a Belkin surge protector which is only $15 and has been a lifesaver on so many occasions. It comes with three outlets and two USB-A ports and always ensures I have access to power. A portable battery is absolutely crucial, especially for iPhone users who drain their battery. I can’t tell you how many times people are like “my phone died” and don’t carry a portable battery. I currently use two: an older Anker one, and a massive 20100mAh Ravpower one that charges my phone and Nintendo Switch several times over.


Ellie: If you have an iPhone and a nice Apple gift card, I would recommend AirPods so you can pop them in when you don’t want to listen to the RFD without anyone noticing. Just kidding!

Kathy: I use the Sony MDR XB950N1 headphones. They’re bass boosting and noise-cancelling, and I’ve been using them for about a year now.  They’re super comfortable, pretty decent at noise cancelling, great sound quality. Your QOL will probably increase with noise cancelling headphones.

Lawrence: Headphones are key to traveling for debate tournaments. I usually bring my BeatsX Bluetooth earbuds which I like because they work super well with my iPhone, are comfortable, and convenient. I also like to bring my Sony headphones (the newer version: Sony WH1000xM2) for traveling. They’re Bluetooth and have excellent noise-cancellation, even better than the common Bose QC-35s.

Pens and paper

Ellie: For paper, I like to have those super long legal sized sheets. That makes it super convenient to flow dense and card-heavy cases. Alternatively, I kind of like using a sketchpad for flowing. It’s something I just started doing in college debate but probably could have tried earlier. As for pens, like many debaters, I am a huge fan of G2s. I highly recommend bringing more than just the ones you need in a given round for flowing.

Kathy: G2s are very, very good. I always bring a few extra colors just in case. I used to get the ones in the cute pouch and just bring those to tournaments just for convenience sake. I also like legal paper. I’m not … really great about bringing paper to tournaments (I think I’ve just used my teammates’ literally the entire year).

Lawrence: I was a big fan of cardstock when I debated in high school, but now when I debate at college tournaments, I usually don’t bring paper and just mooch off of other people on my team. I’ve been a pretty loyal user of Pilot G2 pens for a while and I prefer the .38s since their ink doesn’t run.


Ellie: I don’t use expandos anymore because I love saving trees and also space. That said, if you want to use expandos, go hard or go home and get two files (one for aff, one for neg) with like twenty pockets.

Kathy: Naw

Lawrence: I used an expando in high school when I debated locally and I honestly still recommend them for local tournaments and tournaments like NCFLs and NSDAs.


Ellie: I think I used the same two Taylor Digital Plastic Timers for three years. They can switch between counting up and down, so I had one count down prep time and one count up for my speech times. I don’t think I ever had to change the batteries. I dropped them constantly and they never broke. Also, they’re pretty big, so they’re super easy to read. I would definitely recommend getting these instead of using a phone because they’re cheap but solid investments that won’t run out of power mid-speech if you forgot an iPhone charger.

Kathy: Honestly, I’m not fantastic with keeping timers, but I do like the old Radioshack ones (RIP). They have them on Amazon now. It’s pretty compact, the design is sleek, there’s a pretty solid alarm and vibration, and the buttons feel really push-able and clicky which I love because I tend to fidget with them a lot.

Lawrence: When I debate in college, I usually just use the built-in timer for Verbatim, but for most people, I really recommend this 10-button timer.


Ellie: I always carry Advil with me everywhere. One of those gigantic 300 pill bottles that sounds like maracas when you walk. Super helpful because I get headaches a lot. I sometimes carry a bottle of Tums with me too. I’m kind of like the team pharmacy.

Kathy: I also always bring a mini-hospital to tournaments with me. Not even joking. This is my usual lineup:

  • Advil/Tylenol
  • Benadryl
  • Tums/Stomach relief stuff
  • Generic cough and cold medicine
  • Cough drops
  • Emergen-C
  • Melatonin
  • Lotion / Neosporin sometimes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • A first aid kit

A lot happens at tournaments and everything on that list has been helpful at some point at a debate tournament. It probably isn’t necessary to bring all of these, but I don’t think you can ever be too prepared.

I really like Luden’s cherry cough drops. They’re actually pretty helpful. The best part is that they don’t taste like cough drops. Trust me, they’re like candy. It’s amazing. Johnson & Johnson also has a First Aid To-Go pack that’s helpful in a pinch. There’s not much in it, but it’s usually like $2 at a Walgreens. It’s also easy and cheap to buy in bulk, so it’s nice for a team-wide distribution thing too. My sleep schedule is often very wonky, so melatonin is very helpful because getting actual decent sleep before tournaments is pretty important.

Lawrence: Smart debaters will bring medicine with them. The amount of people that ask for an aspirin or tums is way too much. I especially recommend bringing allergy medications.


Ellie: Nutrition bars can be kind of nice during tournaments. Sometimes during a tournament I’d lose my appetite, but bars are a nice way to eat quickly and lightly. They’re also pretty compact and easy to shove in a bag or backpack without making a mess. I really liked LUNA Bars, but pretty much any brand works.

Kathy: I like to bring gum or other candies. That’s kind of a bad thing for some people – sugar at tournaments can definitely build up the anxiety, so take caution. Snack-wise, I usually opt for either Nature’s Grain bars or Quaker’s Chewy granola bars. I also sometimes bring Kind Bars, but once accidentally gave a former teammate a mild allergic reaction, so that’s something to generally keep in mind too when packing food. Personally, I’m not great about eating regularly at debate tournaments, so having snacks you actually like on hold is pretty vital for when tournament meals feel too overwhelming.

Lawrence: College tournaments usually provide snacks and as a judge, I get access to the judges’ lounge so I haven’t had to pack snacks in a while. But I imagine granola bars are good?

Water bottle

Ellie: I always carry around a gigantic reusable water bottle because I drink so much water in every round. In high school, I often used whatever was in the house because I kept losing water bottles. Now, I use a college water bottle, because the college bookstore was the first place I could think of to buy a new one and having a nice, insulated water bottle was worth getting ripped off. It’s a mybevi! Pretty nice and keeps my water cold. My high school partner used a s’well, which seemed pretty nice too. Still, a simpler plastic bottle works just fine.

Kathy: I love love love bringing huge water bottles. Seriously, this is very underrated. Hydration at tournaments is important. The bigger, the better for me – my usual is a Camelbak 1L bottle. Super sturdy, spill-resistant, and holds a lot of water. I also got a Contigo Thermalock from Costco a while back which has also been super, super helpful. It’s one of those really nice steel bottles, and maintains temperature for like the entire day, whether it’s hot tea or ice coffee. It’s super well made and fancy!

Lawrence: Always bring a water bottle! I lose all of mine so I just use whatever water bottle I have on me at the moment.

Anything else?

Ellie: I also have a smaller bag for toiletries and cosmetics that I keep in my backpack or purse. It has small sample-size concealers, mascaras, and other things in it in case I feel I need a touch up throughout the day. Nobody should feel like they need to wear make-up at a tournament, of course, but if you like to, it’s nice to carry a few small things around with you throughout the day too. Also, I would recommend carrying around period products. Even if you might not necessarily need it, someone else you know might, and in that case they’re pretty crucial to feeling comfortable throughout the day. Bathrooms often run out of extras and it can’t hurt to be prepared.

Kathy: A few more things on my end —

A tide stick!!!

I generally like bringing a lot of stress-reliever stuff to tournaments! I’ve brought Play-doh, color floss for making friendship bracelets, fidget toys / cubes, coloring supplies, stuffed animals, and the whole lot. It’s really nice to have at least something comforting at tournaments, since they can be pretty chaotic and stressful. It sounds a little childish, but in a ridiculously intense activity like debate being childish really sounds pretty good.

Also, an extra pair of everything in my suitcase – one extra outfit, underwear, socks, etc. Depending on the tournament, another sweater or something of the like as well.

This is also a mildly obvious sounding suggestion, but bring cash! Being able to use a card isn’t always reliable and it’s always good to have some extra emergency money. I also keep a little note in my wallet that has emergency numbers, relevant medical information, and an address/P.O. box in case.

Anyways, of course, this is a pretty exhaustive list – it’s very possible to survive a debate tournament with a lot less than what I’ve mentioned, but this is just what I find has me prepared for nearly every situation. Good luck!

Lawrence: I recently managed to save enough money to purchase a Nintendo Switch so I’ve been lugging that to some tournaments. I really like the Jackbox party games which I’ve found to be really fun to play at tournaments. I also sometimes carry a bluetooth speaker.


We hope that this article has been helpful for deciding what to bring in your debate backpack! Obviously, you don’t need everything that we’ve mentioned, but we hope this will serve as a source of inspiration as the season kicks off. Feel free to comment what’s in your debate backpack below!

Download the full, unedited version of this article here: Debate Backpack 2018.