A Conference Survival Kit

(Advance warning: Yes, these are all affiliate links, but I’m writing this post because I think this stuff is genuinely life improving and not just to make a quick buck)

I’ve been to a lot of conferences over over the last year. Conferences are great, but they’re also really hard work and I often end up feeling quite broken by the end of them.

I’ve learned a few things to bring that help me to survive the various trials and tribulations of conferences and emerge feeling somewhat less broken.

Hydration

The number one thing I recommend everyone bring to a conference is a refillable water bottle. There will generally be lots of sources of water throughout the conference, and you will almost always get teeny tiny plastic cups to drink it from. As well as making it very hard to get enough water, this is also not great for the environment. Bringing a water bottle you can refill helps you get enough water whenever you want it, and helps the environment too.

I use this Siggs classic traveller bottle. It’s extremely basic, but I’m a big fan. That said, you don’t really need a water bottle to be fancy and almost anything works.

Hint to conference organisers: Water bottles make great swag. I’ve seen them given out at Europython and I’ve seen a few DjangoCon Europe ones floating around, and they’ll be well received and will make your conference attendees healthier and happier.

Food

Whenever you are on someone else’s meal schedule it’s basically a recipe for getting hangry. A meal will be too late, or too early and thus leave too long before the next meal, etc. The breaks might have snacks in them, but they’ll be something that’s basically white flour and sugar and so they’ll perk you up a bit and then half an hour later you’ll sugar crash and be back to where you started.

I really like these Cliff Bars (note: Contains mostly peanuts. Avoid if you have a peanut allergy, and be considerate of the people around you. There are also non-nut protein bars that should work well. I’ve used these chocolate protein bars before and they’re… OK). They contain sugar for the immediate pick me up and fat and protein for the long-term stability. They’re also reasonably tasty.

Occasionally if I’m too exhausted at the end of the day to deal properly I will retreat to my hotel room and a protein bar becomes dinner. It’s not the healthiest of dinners, but it works.

Handling Crowds

Conferences are noisy places. Not so much in the talks, but in the social and the hallway tracks you’ll be surrounded by an onslaught of background noise. The amount of socialization going on around you makes it really hard to hear and talk to the people you’re actually trying to socialize with! Fortunately there’s a solution to this: Musicians’ Earplugs. They will cut out the background noise much more than the conversational noise and you’ll be able to hear again. It’s amazing. I use these ACS hearing protectors.

More speculatively: I’ve been trying taking theanine during the latest PyCon UK. It’s supposed to have a non-sedative calming effect, which should help with social anxiety and generally being able to deal with a large number of people. It seems to help? It’s hard to do a subjective evaluation of this. I’ve definitely felt calmer and more able to deal with people this conference, and I’ve not been socially exhausted to even close to the degree I would expect to be, but there are a whole bunch of reasons that could be. It might be worth trying though. I’ve been taking the Solgar ones here at PyCon UK because they were the only ones I could buy locally, but they’re outrageously overpriced and I recommend finding a cheaper brand. e.g. these ones are almost certainly absolutely fine.

Theanine is also a good idea if you’re taking a lot of caffeine at the conference. Theanine + caffeine is a known very beneficial combination, it’s just theanine without caffeine that is a bit more speculative.

Sleep

Conferences will drain your energy. This makes sleep even more important than it usually is. Unfortunately, you’re also in an unknown and possibly quite poor sleeping situation: Hotel rooms are often noisy, and they’re almost always full of annoying bright LEDs.

It’s important to bring tools to counteract that: A sleep mask and ear plugs. I use this sleep mask and these ear plugs. They’re both great and I can recommend them.

Note: Try sleeping with these at home for a few days before going to the conference. I found it took 3 or 4 days of sleeping with the mask before I stopped waking up to find I’d taken it off during the night (which isn’t the worst thing in the world as it’s mainly important while trying to fall asleep, but it helps if you’re prone to waking up in the night).

Caffeine

If you don’t use caffeine you can ignore this one. But most people who go to conferences are addicted to caffeine (this isn’t just a developer stereotype – a significant majority of the west are, and probably outside the west too), and given how tired you’re going to be during the conference you may want caffeine anyway.

Bring caffeine pills. Seriously.

Conference coffee is almost never good. At best it might be mediocre, more often it’s awful. This isn’t anyone’s fault it’s just logistically rather challenging (and consequently expensive) to produce good coffee at conference scale. I recommend you just don’t bother with the coffee and stick to water and caffeine pills.

I use these caffeine pills. They’re quite strong though, so you might want to take 50mg ones instead. I’ve used Pro Plus for that, but honestly caffeine is caffeine and whatever you take is fine.

Your Phone

You’re going to be using your phone a lot. It probably won’t last the day. Bring an external battery pack. I use this one currently but honestly can’t strongly recommend it.

Additionally, WiFi is going to be unreliable. Your life will be better if you have a phone SIM that works where you are. If you’re in your home country, that’s not a problem, but abroad you want to avoid roaming charges. You can probably easily buy a local pay as you go SIM, or you can use Three who have a lot of different countries that it will just work automatically in. Otherwise, this wiki will tell you what you need to do to get a local SIM.

Attitude

You’re there for your benefit. Take things at your own pace. Relax. It’s better to have a great experience attending half the conference than to burn yourself out trying to attend all of it. You don’t have to attend every talk, you don’t have to meet every person. If you need a time out, go for a walk or retreat to the quiet room if there is one. It’s OK.

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