A portable ergonomic office setup for digital nomads
Traveling and working simultaneously can be challenging. As someone who works with a laptop for at least a few hours each day I have started to see how valuable and important being comfortable at my work is. I want to continue this lifestyle sustainably, I need to minimize the impact of sitting at a computer all day. Good posture also keeps me productive and creative for longer so I can get more done and enjoy more free time.A portable ergonomic office setup for digital nomads Click To Tweet
I have already started to see some early impacts of poor posture while working. I have felt lower back pain, a tight jaw, sore wrists after a long day of poor posture. It’s not something I want to have as a regular part of my life.
While traveling as a digital nomad or location-independent entrepreneur you sacrifice much of the comforts that a personal office can provide. Such as a standing desk that’s perfectly adjusted to your height, or large raised monitors that you don’t have to hunch over to use. There’s plenty of articles outlining how to do this at home or at your office, but I have found less for remote workers.
Working from coffee shops and visiting to new places you don’t always know what you’re getting into as far as your workspace goes.
Over time I have put together a “mobile office” that gets the best of both worlds. You can enjoy many of the ergonomic benefits while still being able to pack the whole office away in a small-lightweight backpack.
So here’s my setup that is optimized for ergonomics and portability.
Thule 19 liter backpack
The Thule Enroute Strut is a perfect daypack. It’s small so you can only take the essentials. This keeps it lightweight, so you don’t strain your shoulders. I also like that it has two straps, most packs this size seem to go with the one-strap sling style.
It has a padded pouch that fits a 15inch laptop nicely and a smaller pouch that works well for a tablet.
Everything else I mention below in this post fits nicely in this backpack, and you should have room for a few other extras. I leave out a few things that are in my bag that don’t relate to ergonomics (like an external hard drive)
I travel a lot, I only like to take what I can fit into carry on with me. When traveling I pretty much keep the contents of the bag the same, so whether I am heading to a coffee shop or the airport, not much changes. So there’s one less bag to pack.
This backpack is so small that it fits under an airplane seat nicely, and nobody ever has problems with me carrying it on with my larger bag with my clothes and other essentials.
Note: I am currently living in Colombia and I swapped this backpack out with an old pack from high school. I did this because I thought the Thule was a particularly nice looking backpack and might attract unwanted attention to it’s contents. Since I have my entire office setup in there it would be devastating to lose. My old bag is tattered and less flashy.
The Roost laptop stand
The moment you set your laptop on a Roost Laptop stand your life will change. Your posture will instantly get better and you’ll be able to breathe fresh air into your previously compressed lungs.
This laptop stand is essential if your laptop is your main tool for work. Using this will make stilling at a laptop much more comfortable, and can also work as a standing desk if you prefer.
When I saw this stand in pictures I was concerned about stability. It looked top-heavy and the slightest nudge would make it tip over. I was happy to be proven wrong in this case. The stand is very sturdy, the laptop fits snugly on the stand and does not slide or wobble, and it would take a significant force to cause it to tip over. After using it for a few months, it’s not something I worry about anymore.
The stand collapses into a small cylinder that takes up virtually no space in your backpack.
One potential drawback to this stand is you’ll need to get an external keyboard and mouse to use it. It’s not really comfortable to use the native keyboard when it is raised up on the stand. I imagine it will counteract any ergonomic benefits you’ll receive if you try to work in that position.
Aviiq Laptop stand
The Aviiq laptop stand is really a marvel of engineering. It is extremely low profile, folds up to the size of a bookmark, and is simple. If there’s one item on the list I recommend most on this post it is this laptop stand. It captures many of the benefits of an ergonomic office setup in a sleek package.
The stand elevates your screen a few inches, which makes a surprising difference on the strain on your neck. The tilt of the keyboard is also much more comfortable to type on. A few inches of lift on a screen and a slight tilt on a keyboard may not seem like it would make much of a difference. But when it adds up over long hours working at a laptop.
Though this stand has been largely replaced by the Roost, I still have it in my bag for a few reasons.
If I use my full setup, I usually expect to stay set up for a few hours. It does not take long, and is not particularly difficult. But I don’t find it worth the effort if I only plan on spending an hour or less working somewhere.
Occasionally I find myself in coffee shops that don’t have any power outlets available. Using my mouse and bluetooth keyboard drains the battery very quickly. The Aviiq laptop stand still provides most of the benefits of the roost, but without the necessity of all the peripherals.
Finally I sometimes find myself working at a narrow bar, or small table that can’t fit the extra keyboard. The Aviiq stand does not take up any more space than setting up your laptop on it’s own.
I found typing on the laptop keyboard to strain my wrists. So I purchased the Gold Touch bluetooth keyboard to give a split keyboard a try. If you’re interested in buying the Roost, you’ll need a keyboard anyway, I recommend this one.
At first the elevated and split keyboard and intimidating. I didn’t have the best form typing and I had never used a split keyboard. But after a week or two I was typing just as quickly on this keyboard. In fact, it improved my typing speed by forcing me to get better with my typing form.
The keyboard folds up nicely and protects the keys while stored.
The battery on this keyboard lasts a long time, it weeks last weeks or months in some cases. It does however, drain the your laptop’s battery via bluetooth very quickly. So make sure you have a plug nearby if you want to use this.
My one complaint is it sometimes is a little wobbly if you have it set at certain angles. But I have solved this problem by placing a lacrosse ball in the center of the keyboard. This also reminds me to take breaks and roll out periodically.
More on lacrosse balls later.
If a split keyword is not enough, you can further optimize your typing. Casey Rosengren from Toptal recommends switching to a Dvorak Keyboard. This can reduce finger movement while typing by up to 45%, which makes a big difference over long days and hours of coding. He says it takes 2 to 3 weeks to learn and be comfortable with the new layout.
Logitech Marathon mouse
I still use my laptop trackpad for gestures like switching windows but I found using a trackpad for things like photo or video editing (ok fine, and games…) to be slower and more difficult to be precise. I also feel that in the long run, a mouse is just easier on the wrist.
The Logitech Marathon mouse is pretty simple, nothing new or particularly remarkable about it, but it does the job it’s meant to do perfectly.
- Super cheap >$30
- The USB key is tiny – I barely notice it and I just leave it in it’s USB slot most of the time unless I need two USB slots for some reason.
- The batteries last forever… Usually 6 months. I leave the mouse on all the time too.
- It’s sturdy, it’s survived many falls and is still working perfectly.
- It’s comfortable to use, and fits nicely into my hand.
Bose quiet comfort headphones
Though the Bose Quiet Comfort headphones are excellent for listening to music, I only have music on about half the time. I like to just turn the headphones on so they cancel ambient noise, and work great as what Zackary Stockhill calls F-off headphones. If you want some time for undisturbed work big beefy headphones seem to intimidate people more than little earbuds.
When I am not listening to music, I am using Pure Binaural beats. While working I have it set to the activity or problem solving setting. It creates a tone that stimulates your brain into a productive state of mind, making it a little easier to focus. You can also use this app for meditation and relaxation.
I often make the mistake of leaving these on in my bag, and it kills the batteries (they take AAA). So I recommend always carrying an extra AAA battery, because if you own these it will happen to you too (trust me).
They also have worn out very quickly especially around the headband after a little more than a year of use. So far, it’s only cosmetic damage and they still work perfectly, but I wish they were a little bit more durable since they are designed for travelers. They came with a case originally, and I recommend keeping it if you are storing these in a backpack.
I keep a daily journal. I try to make a simple list of 3-5 things I want to get done in a day and have the journal handy to keep track. But it also serves a few other purposes at my workstation.
It can be used to increase the angle of the Aviiq stand and raise my screen higher. If I put it underneath the stand it can boost the stand just a tad. The higher the better (in my opinion).
Or if I am set up on a surface that is not “mouse friendly” then it doubles as a mousepad. It’s great of glass tables, distressed wood, or a metal mesh that’s common with outdoor tables.
I keep a lacrosse ball in my bag, it’s an 80/20 tool to mitigate most of the issues that happen while sitting at a computer without having to do awkward yoga moves in the middle of a coffee shop. It is small and discreet, and allows for some basic mobility breaks. I use deskstrong as a resource for most of these mobility workouts, but you can probably find hundreds of ideas on youtube.
Thera Band Loop
I have a Thera Band in my bag that I use for some simple resistance exercises. Thera bands are great for travelers because they are extremely portable and versatile. With a few lengths of band you can do hundreds of workouts for all areas of your body.
There’s a few good hand and wrist movements you can do with a small band while sitting at a table that are discrete and won’t look like you are working out right in the middle of a coffee shop.
If you’re working at home (or have a thick skin) there’s also lots of hip exercises you can do with the loop that are perfect for people who sit at a laptop for extended periods of time.
Since I’m not a doctor or a coach, I recommend talking with one about some exercises you could do that would be good for you before you try.
You don’t have to compromise the benefits of a personal office as a digital nomad. Everything listed above is very lightweight and can make your work much more pleasant and comfortable, not to mention keep your body healthy so you can enjoy your time while you’re not working.8 tools to make a portable ergonomic office for digital nomads Click To Tweet
Let me know what you think of the items on this list or if you have anything to add.