Ask LH: How Do You Keep Cables Sorted In Your Bag?

Ask LH: How Do You Keep Cables Sorted In Your Bag?

Dear Lifehacker, Everyone is back at work or university now, and lots of people have to travel to do so. You need a lot of gear — chargers, headphones, USB cables — to keep a functional self ready for all occasions. What is Lifehacker’s solution to handling all the cables in a manageable way while keeping your bag tidy? Thanks, Tangled

Dear Tangled,

Everyone approaches this problem in a slightly different way, but there are a few general principles you can follow to minimise the amount of tangle. We’ve detailed lots of methods for controlling office cables in the past, but bags require their own rules. Here are the most important:

1. Go multi-functional whenever possible

Pictured above is one of my favourite cables: USB on one end, retractable micro USB, mini USB and Apple on the other. This one cable can connect every device I routinely travel with to my PC, and as such it is always in my travel bag. Fewer cables equals less chance of tangling, especially as the cable is retractable.

2. Keep spares in all your active locations

That said, I also keep standard cables in my office desk and in my desk at home. That ensures that my travel cable is always in my travel bag. I’ve got plenty of space in my desks(s), so keeping multiple individual cables isn’t a problem. It also makes me popular at the inevitable moment when a colleague stands up and bleats “Anyone got a spare iPhone charger?” If you’re a student, you might only have two sets — one for your satchel, one for your bedroom — but the principle is the same.

3. Keep cables in a separate pocket

I’ve changed travel bags quite a few times over the years, but one rule remains consistent: cables go in a separate pocket wherever possible. That ensures they don’t get tangled around pens, USB keys or other ephemera. The only exception is with power bricks, since they’re bulky enough to need to go in the main part of the bag. But both power cables and other cables are subject to the same final rule . . .

3. Wrap before you stuff

This applies to headphones, USB cables, power chargers, whatever: spending a few seconds carefully wrapping the cables before they go in the bag is much quicker in the long run than trying to untangle them when you remove them.

That’s not a complicated set of rules, but it works for me (and I change locations an awful lot compared to most people). Anyone got other cable-management-on-the-go tips to share?

Cheers Lifehacker

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman has a pleasant case of the ever-shrinking cables. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker. Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact tab on the right.


    • The one pictured was swag in the LCA conference bags this year, and the only one I’ve ever seen that had an Apple plug as well.

      I’ve seen little black retractable micro/mini USB cables at places like Officeworks and most yum-cha computer places I’ve been to though.

      • Oh that’s sad, I thought that’d be perfect for my iPod _and_ non-apple smartphone. I had a bit of a hunt online to see if I could find one, but even the ones with 10 different adapters don’t seem to combine apple and normal plugs.

    • @Chris jennings Interestingly, I was just playing with a plastic spiral that come off the side of photo copied booklets as I was reading your post. Then it hit me! EUREKA! Cut em up for custom sizing! Office works sells these and are also quite cheap. Plus, you can easily slide your cables out when you need them.

  • How to wrap is key – I bought a roll of double sided velcro strip from Black-box in Melbourne about 10 years ago. It was expensive but lasts forever. And if your kids have grown up, baby socks are great for storing cables.

  • I use an old Logitech case that came with my wireless mouse. Looks like pencil case. Good for storing all my USB cables and USB sticks etc. Got my Mum onto this to organise her things. She just uses a little pencil case she picked up on one of her OS travels. For other cables I don’t really use, I turn a mobo box (or the like) inside out and store everything in there (tied up with plastic tie wires). I then label the box with what is inside so I don’t forget.

    +1 for retractable cables. The are really nift and very cheap from eBay.

  • I normally keep a few cables me as well in my laptop bag. I found a way to fold the cables up and put them in the slots where pens go. I put all my USB onto one keychain and I hook that to the keyholder in the bag. I think that’s probably the cheapest way to go.

  • Ever since I dabbled in audio production as a teenager I reverse roll *everything*. Means cables sit nicely when wrapped, but are wonderfully straight and useable when unwrapped. If you don’t know how to do it, google it, once you’ve retrained your cables to wrap like that they’ll be 75% less of a pain in the arse. They’ll last longer too.

    Little bits of double sided velcro to keep cables wrapped can work quite well – though I’ve found with the smaller cables I actually keep in my bag (iPhone, Kindle) they actually sit pretty happily just by hooking the plugs inside the loop after wrapping.

  • I use varying sizes of clear zip-lock bags.
    Each cable, cord, charger has has it’s own bag.
    The bags go into my laptop bag.
    When I need a cable/charger I can easily see the one I need, and grab it even easier, without playing the lets-untangle-every-cable-in-the-bag-from-every-other-cable-in-the-bag game.

  • I use velcro cable ties to hold my cables together ($2 for a pack of 10 from the local discount store). When I travel I put all the chargers and cables I need into a black nylon toiletries bag I also found at a discount shop for a few dollars. It’s roomy, made of tough, waterproof nylon and has a couple of extra pockets to hold smaller items.

    • I also use this method, except I use a staple to fix the cable tie in a loop around the cable itself so when not in use it just hangs off, like you’ll find on some laptop/travel chargers.

  • Eagle Creek makes nice zippable travel bags and soft-sided “cubes”, generally with some degree of windowing so you can see what’s in them. The “lid” zips open on 3 sides, so that you can open it and look at everyhing sitting flat. You can find them online at luggage stores or in random travel type stores in larger cities like Sydney.

    I have two small Eagle Creek Pack-It quarter cubes probably intended for socks and undies, in different colors. When I’m not travelling, one holds my adapter, which I don’t always require when using my laptop, and a couple international power point converter adapters. The other contains usb cable, various device chargers that are not USB, more international power point converters since I always lose them, and random devices like a backup cell phone, USB 3G dongle, GPS, and USB sticks.

    When I’m travelling, selected critical items like my camera charger and a USB cable temporarily get promoted to the adapter cube as “essential to have on me even when my bags are checked and I’m waiting in an intermediate airport for my next flight”, while the other cube goes into my luggage, to conserve carry-on kilos.

    I never tie up the adapter, just throw it in the cube and zip it closed, as solitary confinement keeps it from messing with its other cable friends.

    Originally, everything in the other cube (which contains multiple cords) was tied with color-coded velcro tape indicating “phone related”, “A/V related” by color. However, this didn’t work for me. I just didn’t have the time to bother to tie up the cables after I used them. Yes, I also maintain a cluttered desk and Mom was always yelling at me to pick up my toys when I was a child. However, I am who I am, and one finds an organisation style that suits who they are.

    I blocked off my Pack-It cube into sections by buying a bit of fabric and using it to separate areas for different cables by making little interior “walls” of fabric whose ends were carefully glued to the sides of the cube. Yes, it’s some work to do this, but the benefit is that you can customise the interior of your Pack-It to have whatever compartments it needs to precisely fit what you’re storing in it.

    Because I’m an idiot when it comes to organisation, I had to go further to ensure that each cable ended up where it was supposed to when I put it back. I labelled each slot of the Pack-it with what belonged there. If I’d had a color laser printer back when I did this, I would have put an easy-to-identify graphic on each as well.

    Perfect? No. If I’m not careful, things can still get somewhat jumbled. But for me, being able to avoid tying cables after use was a must, as experience had taught me that I rarely bothered to do it even when I made it easy-as with velcro. And my system works for that.

    Added benefit: I can quickly look and verify that everything I want to bring with me, really is in the cube, because if it’s not, there’s an open space where the missing item should be.

    A couple friends, upon seeing my Pack-It cable and adapter sorter years ago, made ones for themselves.

      • You’re welcome. For a couple years, I was quite the road warrior, and time spent figuring out the best way to travel with my plethora of gadgets translated to lots of time saved in the future. Lots of travel meant lots of opportunities to test out ideas and evolve the best solution for me.

        The Pack-It cube was what worked, given my unpredictable need for various pieces of electronics on the road, and the tendency to need to dig things out quickly and put them back even more quickly — and my paranoia about forgetting difficult-to-replace-on-the-road cables. In general, Eagle Creek’s stuff rocks, and should be investigated by anyone who needs to bring lots of little bits of tech and personal stuff with them, but who doesn’t want to spend a lot of time organising it, because it makes organisation obvious.

  • I’m a uni student and I love using my Grid-It organiser ( It’s beautiful. I usually have a couple of USB drives, three cables (two mini-USB and one iPhone-compatible) for charging my devices, and a four-way USB hub stored in it. I use the pocket on the reverse to put in a few pens.

    This all goes into the front pocket of my UNDFIND bag (I had one before it was cool, people :P) and I chuck my textbooks, notebooks and either my laptop or an iPad in the main pocket. In the rear pocket I keep an umbrella, just in case. (I’ve actually gone so far as to purchase a different umbrella for each of my bags, to make sure I don’t get caught in the rain.)

    But back to cables, my Grid-It organiser has definitely paid for itself; larger adaptors just go into the back compartment with the umbrella. At home I use curly cable tidies to keep my computer in order (I’ve got two monitors and two towers).

    Oh, also – it’s probably been mentioned but I use the little flags that people use to mark books/documents to colour code each end; so no scrounging through a mess when I need to change/check something.

  • I’m travelling in Japan right now and I’m using the ‘separate bags’ method and it’s working well for me. Laptop has a sleeve and sits in a dedicated pocket in the rear of the backpack. One small zippered bag holds its charger, a travel mouse, and LAN cable and USB stick. I’ve got two ziplock bags, one for the camera charger and USB cable, another for the phone charger and USB cable (different size :P). The portable wifi hotspot I’ve hired over here has it’s own pouch to hold the charger, while the unit itself is in another ziplock to keep it dry when on the move. My canalphones came with their own zippered pouch too.

    Easy to pack, and find what I want without tangles because everything is in different containers. Easy to distribute/pack in the backpack and/or suitcase as needed. I’m simply coiling the wires and that’s working for me, because that’s pretty much their default shape anyway, so why fight it?.

  • +1 for the toiletries bag. I have a spacious one with lots of pockets that unfolds and has a hook to hang it up. That way you can easily see most of the cables and any other bits and pieces. Chargers, overseas adapters, memory sticks etc.

  • I use bobino cable organisers. They come in 3 sizes and different colours. No tangling so I can put everything in the one bag and find it easily

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