Put your random bag collection to work by creating “activity totes”

Amazon: Canvas Tote Bag 11x10x4Over the years, I've amassed a sizeable collection of freebie shopping bags, canvas tote bags, and conference swag bags. Until recently, all they did were clutter my hallway closet and overwhelm the knobs on my guest room door.

My recent road trip inspired me to put these random bags to good use. I have turned them into single-use containers for stuff I either a) misplace regularly, and/or b) need to grab for a trip out the door.

Some examples:

Portable DVD player tote: I have two portable DVD players for long road trips. I store the players and all of their assorted chargers, cables, and headphones in a drawstring tote. Come road trip time, I grab the tote and relish the 20 minutes I no longer use to turn the house upside-down looking for the components.

Swim/beach tote: This one contains goggles, sunscreen, cheap sunglasses, cheap flip flops, travel-sized shampoo and conditioner, a comb, two beach towels, and five bucks for ice cream.

Library tote: library books (checked-out or to return) and my library card.

Return/exchange tote: Stuff (and associated receipts) I need to keep with me in case I drive by a store at which I need to return or exchange something.

Give away tote: Stuff to donate. I save the low-quality totes (and paper shopping bags) for this purpose so I can give away the tote and its contents.

Any more ideas for "activity totes?" I know I've barely scratched the surface.


  1. cathy says

    We have a “going to church/going to a restaurant” tote- clipboard, quiet toys, things to color, etc.

  2. Sarah says

    We have a “church tote” with a notepad, a few crayons, a book or two, some quiet toys, and a couple of diapers and a ziploc bag of wipes. Toss in a snack and we’re good to go!

  3. Holly says

    1- Dry cleaning bag
    2- Mail to send bag (I spend a fair amount of time mailing packages at the post office)
    3- Knitting bag
    4- Homeless bottle bag*

    *This may need some explanation. :) I keep this bag in the front seat of my car. It’s full of water bottles (most of which I’ve accumulated from trade shows and the like; but I also buy them at garage sales). Each water bottle is as full as I can get it with items like toothbrushes, toothpaste, travel toiletries, granola bars, etc. I give this away in lieu of cash when I pass an intersection when I encounter someone who needs it.

  4. nikole says

    Our family has a “take the dog” tote that includes a first aid kit, cooling towel, collapsible water bowl, an old baby blanket, baggies, and some food just in case. Oh – and a lint brush!!!

    I also volunteer for a rescue group and it has all of my surrender forms, plastic gloves, etc. in there for emergency pick ups.

  5. nikole says

    I love it!!! I have so many travel sizes and I never know what to do with them that will make a difference. I am so going to try the homeless bottle bag.

  6. says

    Restaurant tote, Park/Picnic tote and grocery bag tote :) – one in the car where we put other totes, so we can grab one and have 4-5 for when we go grocery shopping.

    We also have the swim tote and library tote.

  7. gabbie says

    i have a “other people’s stuff” tote that i keep on a hook by the door for peoples tupperware or books i’ve borrowed or jackets left at my house.

  8. says

    Hence the encouragement at the end of the post for people to comment with their ideas, which I am finding totally inspiring. You might consider adding something productive to the conversation as well.

  9. bryssy says

    Definitely our picnic tote gets the most use. I keep a gallon size zip top bag full of plastic utensils, napkins, condiment packets, etc. I keep several plastic grocery bags for garbage, a plastic tablecloth, odds and ends of paper plates, a 1/2 gallon pitcher, a drink mix (just add water to the pitcher!), a roll of paper towels and it’s ready. When we decide to picnic (frequently) I throw in our food and we are ready to go! We just got back from a picnic with friends, in fact. I just threw in the loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter, small container of freezer jam (still frozen), several frozen water bottles, watermelon and carrots and we were ready! I make sammies when we get there while the kids play.

    I generally keep a laminated tag on the bag with a list of non-perishable items it should contain. That way, I can have my oldest child check through periodically and restock as needed. We also have a swimming tote with goggles and swim toys that we use nearly every day.

  10. pdxfoodmama says

    having hard time figuring out how you get bars and toothpaste in water bottles – tiny hole at top…

  11. AbleApril says

    I’ve got a *ton* of plain black zipper-topped totes I scored cheap that I should do this with. The trouble comes with identifying the contents and where to store once I fill them en mass. Color-coded tags perhaps as well as a label? Hmmm… suggestions?

  12. Gina Marie says

    Love this hack! I hung sticky hooks (the easily removable kind) on the wall that our closet door opens out on, and our bags hang there. I have one for each kid’s activity: ballet, occupational therapy, church/sunday school, gymnastics, t-ball, etc. I put the needed supplies, a granola bar, Purell, a book and some paper/pencils or other easy activity in each. Then all I have to do each day is look at the calendar to see what’s on the schedule and grab the appropriate bag. Keeping everything together and ready to go saves wondering whether we’ve got the leotard *and* ballet shoes, uniform *and* baseball glove, etc. I also keep an all-purpose homework bag with colored pencils, eraser, scissors, tape, pencils, and extra paper for the days when I pick my daughter up and take her to a cafe to do her homework.

  13. Sara says

    I have a “sleepover” tote for my 2 year old. We frequently go to a friends house on a Friday night and stay until midnight. We put our daughter down to sleep in her KidCo PeaPod tent & keep the tote filled with her travel sheet, blankets, pajamas, empty sippy cup, diapers, wipes, toothbrush, etc. I just have to grab her lovies on the way out of the house & we’re good to go.

  14. Joanna says

    I have one of those too-it lives behind our third row seat in the car so I never forget to take it when we are out and about. Its been a life saver SO many times when food is delayed or lines are long:)

  15. Holly says

    Definitely the wide-mouth plastic bottles work better for this. But I use whatever I have on hand.

    When I have a narrow bottle, I can usually get a toothbrush, travel toothpaste (minus box), and some other stuff inside…but not granola bars, unfortunately.

  16. Cindy says

    I have a few totes from years ago when I asked for them for Christmas and these ideas are making me want to get more lol

  17. Bethany L. says

    I have a park tote that has sand toys, a frisbee, an inflatable ball, sunscreen, a package of wipes, hand sanitizer, and a small towel & baby powder for getting sand off. Our parks often have a water feature near the sandbox, and dusting kids with baby powder makes it easier to brush off the sand before we leave.
    One of my totes holds all of the misc. chargers, cables, etc. for every electronic gadget we have. They’re labeled and grouped with clothespins :) and keeping them all in one place has eliminated the desperate hunts around the house for that one missing cord.
    I love the idea of having the travel dvd player in a bag! I’m absolutely going to do that with ours and the dvd storage case that has our travel only dvd’s. (We have a few dvds that I save just for trips so that they’re a little more special. Plus I have them timed so I know that they’ll last from point A to point B.)
    We also have a tote-of-totes, a library tote, a church tote and a pool/beach tote.

  18. Cindy says

    I think I might “steal” this idea! Though since I don’t have a collection of the big mouth water bottles like you do I might just make up zip lock bags of the necessities. Thanks for the idea!

  19. says

    I love this idea. We live in a small town now so we don’t see as much as we did when we lived in Denver. Thank you for paying it forward this way. It’s inspirational.

  20. says

    Make a fancy little label. It doesn’t have to be that big. Could even do some of those letter beads on an elastic string. My daughter has one on her lunch bag. Hasn’t broken so far and has snapped me a few times.

  21. says

    I did that last summer. I even made laminated tags for the bags.

    I have:
    Pool bag – now an XL Lands End tote I bought this summer
    Park bag – snacks, toys, diapers, sunscreen, blanket
    Grandma bag – my 2 year old goes there when his school has an in-service day and when I need a break, so it is best to be pack
    On-the-go bag – my mom’s 35 year old diaper bag for me, either gets left in the car or becomes my purse
    Overnight bag – packed with PJs, several diapers, extra clothes, and a little bag of toiletries, so my son can easily be left at my parents

    I still need to put together a church bag and a travel in the car bag (for when he is a wee bit older).

  22. says

    I have got many of the totes already described. I also toted the kids play barn. My hubby built a mini barn to store our outdoor gear when we lived in an apartment. Now that we have a house with a garage the barn has turned into the girls outdoor toy collector. It was getting so cluttered that I used some of my shopping totes to collect the similar items together. Hung them from nails inside and then I can grab the beach toys and throw them in the car when we go. They know where to find the Easter eggs to decorate the trees outside when the time comes and so on.

  23. says

    After cleaning out the car and finding a layer of toys and clothes a foot deep by the kids carseats, I’ve created “car bags” (I know, brilliant name). I assigned both the 4yo and the 2yo a cloth tote that has a water bottle and a spare pair of flip flops (for those days that we can’t find the mate to any of our shoes!), and a favorite car book. The Usborne 1001 things to find books are perfection for this. They can bring another toy or two if it fits in the bag. Then the kids need to take the tote out and bring it back in every time we go to or from the car. It really cuts down on the car debris because they have to take everything the bring back into the house. The baby will need one once I don’t take all of her stuff in the diaper bag.

    Holly, the care bottles are so brilliant. I love it.

  24. Deb says

    Regarding those small bottles of shampoo and soaps you get from hotels: Our local women’s shelter uses those with their clients, so charities around here collect them and deliver them to the shelter.

  25. Lynn says

    Breast-feeding tote. Has my pump, pads, a good read, notepad and pen, pacifier and burpcloths

  26. Christy says

    I have a spare underwear tote for the car, which is just something you never think you’re going to need until you need it. That and the bandaid box with bandaids of various sizes, neosporin packs, alcohol wipes and silverdene for burns (never need it until the 4th) and benedryl pills and cream. The trip version has pediatric bottles of medicines and a thermometer too, so we can just grab it at a moment’s notice.

  27. Rebecca Ho says

    I am a compartmentalizer and do this kind of thing all the time. Often carrying multiple smaller bags vs. one large container. Sadly, I haven’t gotten my act together so completely as some of you guys to leave my things packed. I’m often repacking or organizing once a week.

    To AbleApril: At my daughter’s preschool I noticed that one of the Mom’s has her totes labeled with a Sharpie pen. On black totes you could use ‘white-out’?

    She has just a few plain canvas totes. “Swim” (towel, suit, pool shoes); “Crafts/Games” (quite activities); “Park” (bubbles, ball, frisbee, water bottle, handsanitizer)

  28. Marcy says

    I clicked over to your site, and I find your dismissive attitude of others work inconsistent with what you seem to be trying to do. Is this how we get the best out of others?

    I’d suggest evaluating your comment posting style, as this is not good for your brand. This was the first I’ve heard of you and your site. Based on what you’ve presented here, I’m put off from wanting to know more.

  29. Holly says

    I had to google an image of that – yes, that would work really well. Also insulated cups like this – http://tinyurl.com/5upahtl – are super.

    I should clarify that I don’t spend much $$ on the bottle/cup – I get a lot for free, and I (once) had quite a few cluttering up my cupboards. Now I pick them up at garage sales for a quarter or less. I think spending money on the bottles would be a waste; you could just as easily use ziploc bags, or whatever. I like the fact that the bottles are useful in themselves though.

    I also keep an eye out for bulk deals on toothbrushes, which have gotten a lot more expensive than they used to be. But overall, this is not at all an expensive thing to do if you plan ahead. Much of it can be obtained for free, especially if you travel for work.

  30. phillippa says

    I fully agree. As a first introduction to you (Anthony), my immediate thought is that the guy who runs Charismatic Kid isn’t so charismatic himself. I have zero interest in even exploring your site, beyond that the first glimpse, based on the tone of your response here.

  31. Paula says

    We have a Library tote (never thought of adding my library card!), dance class tote, scout tote and a tote of totes as well. I am getting ready to reorganize my laundry room I am thinking of adding several hooks for all my new tote ideas. Thanks!

  32. Paula says

    What about Luggage tags? I made my own Sponge bob ones by laminating cardstock. One side could contain the lable (Picnic) the other side the list of items like someone suggested above to help with repacking (plastic forks, napkins, plates,table cloth, etc)

  33. says

    I have a rain gear tote, with wellies, rubberised trousers etc, a necessity in London/Vancouver for sudden showers.

    Love the idea of the homeless water bottle. Might be worth including some sanitary products for woman-specific ones? When I worked at a soup kitchen, these supplies always went first in the giveaway boxes.

  34. renee says

    I have a watercolor tote: paper, paints, clipboards, pencils, and a little cup for water. It lives in the back of the car and when we go somewhere scenic and I want the kids to sit their butts down for a few minutes, we paint.

  35. Bethany L. says

    Inspired by all of this, yesterday I created an art supply tote with crayons, assorted paper, kids scissors, glue sticks, tissue paper squares, markers, collage magazines, stickers, popsicle sticks and yarn. My 3 yr old is already so in love with the bag that he’s spent almost an hour absorbed in making creations.

    Thanks, Parent Hacks!!

  36. says

    Hey guys! Sorry about coming off as rude. But come on, seriously? Tote bags?

    Alright, you win. I’ll give my own idea, Asha.

    Get some paint from the art supply store, have your kids decorate them however they’d like, and then tell the girls that it’s their brand new pocketbook. In fact, have them decorate 5-10 of the extra tote bags you have, take pictures of them, and then sell them on etsy. But it’s summertime, so have her set up a table out on your front sidewalk and sell them for 3 bucks a pop.

    For the boys, have them put an old superhero costume in the bag, and carry it around with them wherever they go. Whenever they are feeling shy or upset in public, tell him to go into a bathroom and turn into “SuperCharles!” (or whatever his name is). This will make him take the situation he’s dealing with less seriously, approach it from a more confident and fun way. If there is a problem, SuperCharles always has a cool way to fix it.

    To Asha, this is one of my first times reading your blog and first impressions are big for me. Love your VapoRub post and I’m now a regular reader.

  37. says

    Phillippa, I want to thank you for your comment. Your right, sometimes I can be rude. I’m sorry that my comment made you turned off from CharismaticKid. You definitely are a straight shooter … which I can be as well sometimes.

  38. says

    Thanks for being game. Honestly, using up 6 old tote bags that have been cluttering my house forever does feel like a hack, both in terms of environmental goodness and organization. But hey — what’s brilliant to one person is obvious to another. You never know which tip is going to change someone’s life.

    I think Holly’s “homeless bottle” idea certainly does.

    Welcome to the gang, Anthony.

  39. Katie says

    For my library tote, I have my library card in a luggage tag. The luggage tag is on the bag strap and always easy to find. It is behind the clear plastic and easy to scan without taking it out. I never forget my library card and I don’t ever have to scramble to find it to check out.

  40. Lori says

    I use extra bags as grocery bags. Shove them all inside one and toss them in the trunk. They might be a mish mash of sizes and shapes but they get the job done.

    I’ll keep a few out to hold things to take to work or to my parents’ house the next time we go. Also, my kids tended to get respiratory illnesses for a while so we have our own nebulizer to give them meds. I keep the nebulizer and all the various hoses and face masks together in one bag hanging in the closet. No need to search for the pieces parts.

    I like the idea of holding restaraunt entertainment. We don’t take the kids out to eat often but this would be a good thing to have on hand when we go on the spur of the moment!

    Soon we’ll be moving into a 2 story house so I can envision having a tote at the bottom of the stairs to carry things up next time someone goes.

  41. says

    I’m so already there. I have a park bag (towel for wet slides, waterproof blanket, sunscreen, bandaids), a library bag, and a couple quiet activity bags for my son to pull out when Mommy’s doing chores.

  42. Ingrid says

    I put our thrift store donations in a tote and drop off the whole thing. The charity can use the bags in many ways, including selling them.

  43. relaxedrevolutionary says

    I like to fold up a tote and keep it in my diaper bag/purse. Comes in handy whenever I end up leaving a place with more stuff than I brought!

  44. Dee says

    I have two bags in the car: one for each kid with a few extra clothing, including extra underwear. It covers weather changes, accidents, sprinkler park aftermath etc etc. One extra diaper in that bag can make a real difference for us.

  45. Amy says

    Our most important is the travel potty seat tote: a foldable potty seat (our best potty-training purchase http://www.potette.com/more.htm ), a regular plastic bag and diaper in case it needs to be used in stand-alone mode, a small ziploc with wipes, hand sanitizer, a back up pair of undies and pants/shorts (for the oops), and an empty ziploc (good for after an oops, but also great after a vomit episode or for misc. wet clothes).

    Often the tote goes into the backpack with other stuff, but I like being able to grab just the tote to take to the bathroom, rather than dragging the whole backpack.

  46. Rachel says

    Another version of this hack is to use those weird plastic resealable pouches that baby and toddler stuff gets packaged in (like, for some reason, I really need a heavy-duty plastic, zippered pouch to carry home my 3-pack of BabyGap socks?) Anyway, I can’t bear to throw out these nifty little pouches, so I use them for emergency changes of clothes (a small one is just the right size to carry a diaper and a lightweight pair of pants), organizing items in suitcases and carry-ons (larger ones, like the kind my BundleMe came in), toting toys to the park, and collecting shopping bags for trips to the green market. Because they are small and sturdy, you can pack a lot of stuff in efficiently and feel a little better about the unnecessary packaging that seems to plague the Baby Industrial Complex!

  47. mommydirks@yahoo.com says

    Like the re-sale idea! My little workers are not quite ready for this level of entrepreneurship. I just put the bag on my head and chase them around the house. Works great!

  48. Raquel says

    What an awesome idea with the homeless bottle bag! I try to have water bottles or granola bars for these situations, but this idea is great!

  49. lisamarie says

    all of you guys rock! this has been one of the most useful hacks for me personally so far!!

  50. says

    Other than the one I use for work and ones for groceries, I tend to just fold up the “extra” bags and forget about them. Thanks for the tips. Really Useful!

  51. ChristineB says

    I guess I’m in the wrong place because I’m not a parent, but let me add: When my Mom moved into assisted living, I had a “laundry shuttle” tote because I did her laundry at home. I kept it handy and inbetween visits put in any mail, cards, items of interest, little gifties that I wanted to bring her. It was also great for sneaking out the funky things she would accumulate in her small room (packets of jelly, newspaper clippings, etc.)

    For camping, the smoky cook kit and grill rack that goes on the campfire. A freebie briefcase fits the grill and make it easier to handle – it’s cast iron and heavy! Easy to locate when packing to go, and makes for safer transport, since it’s not banging against other gear.

    Finally, I have a small toteful of paper hand fans (advertising freebies) for hot outdoor events. Cute when everyone is sitting around fanning themselves, and very appreciated!

  52. Phyllis says

    I have a “take to my mom’s” tote for when I visit her in the rest home. I bring magazines I have picked up for free @ the library. Plus CDs to listen to on the 2-hour ride home.

    I also have a girl scout badge/blanket tote, for when I might (someday) complete this project.

  53. sarah e says

    A few years back I brought each of my kids LLBean totes in their favorite colors with their names embroidered (what can I say, I’m a tote bag junkie). Anyway, I use them every year as Easter baskets. The ones I bought stand up on their own and look cuter (in my opinion) than baskets. I don’t think my kids care either way as long as they’re being supplied with kites, chalk, and candy. :) But I sure like it.

  54. says

    Since posting I have added a “Tag Jr” tote to my collection. It is a bag that came from my MIL’s house. It holds 5-6 books I have loaded (and more if I wanted) and the little Tag guy. It also has pockets on the front that I can use for paper and pencils. Who needs their specialized bag?

    I am also using a Tubtrug for our visits to the drive-in. I have bug spray, a blanket, glow sticks, those new fan repellents, and paper towels in it all the time. When we go I throw in some cups and drinks (we buy dinner there) and we are ready to go. It is easy to throw everything back in it when we are ready to move into the car.

  55. says

    I love this list of ideas. I too have a lot of tote bags lying around – you don’t want to throw them out, because that would be wasteful. There’s always grocery shopping, but some of them are better for other things.

  56. Tracy says

    I LOVE all of these ideas. I think I will make little lists of ingredients and make hang tags…mostly because my spouse CANNOT put anything away where they belong…maybe it’ll work. I did a similar thing as Rachel, I can’t throw away the packages that sheets or blankets or almost anything comes in. They’re sturdy & have a zipper. One is my boy’s art tote and I use others to hold all of his Melissa & Doug Puzzels & their many many peices (why oh why haven’t they come up with something to store these puzzles other than the wire rack thing!)

    As always great posts, great people (minus meanie Anthony)