The Ultimate Back to College Buying Guide
September 02, 2020
The sunsets are getting earlier. There’s a noticeable chill in the air. Your late summer staycation is finally winding down. And if you listen closely, you can almost hear the sound of thousands of professors printing off millions of syllabi and course packets.
It’s that time of year again: the beginning of the college school year. This year’s back-to-college September – like everything else in 2020 – may look a little different, though. Don’t expect the rowdy frosh weeks filled with hijinks and public antics. Hold your breath for the inaugural parties and orientation seminars. And don’t be surprised if the bulk of your studies are conducted via the comfort and clutter of your dorm room.
That said, going back to college is still exciting. To prepare for the academic year ahead, you’ll want to stock up on as many supplies, merino wool clothing, electronics, kitchenware items, essentials, and creature comforts as you possibly can. Whether you’re a college student heading back into the fray, or you’re buying for a loved one, we at Unbound Merino have compiled a convenient checklist of all the best back-to-school items.
On this list, you'll find purchases to help facilitate your studies and keep you comfortable, making your life easier, your cooking tastier and your leisure time richer. What you won’t find on this list are the gimmick items often marketed to college students in September – quick-drying shower shoes, googly eye staplers, microwaveable s' mores makers, etc. (yes, those are all real).
Where we feel compelled, we’ll offer suggestions for specific brands and products, or we’ll point you in the direction of an authoritative best-of round-up. Get your suitcases out and clear the trunk of your car – here are the ultimate back-to-college purchases.
For Your Desk
In this section, you'll find items relating to your studies, including key electronics, desk accessories, and backpack. Whether you’re living in a dorm room, a private apartment, or your parents' place, these are essential items to survive the scholastic year.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
Noise happens. Especially in dorms, the din and clamor of other people travels easily through walls. At best, it can make you feel like you’re part of a community. At worst, it can be detrimentally distracting. If you have an important exam imminent or a major paper due, you need quiet, so noise-canceling headphones are essential. The best all-around noise-canceling headphones are the Sony WH-1000XM4, but the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 is an excellent budget-friendly option.
External Hard Drive
You’d be surprised how many gigabytes you can accrue over a school semester. Between materials, games, movies, music, etc., your essential files can sometimes overwhelm your computer. To play it safe, pick up an external hard drive. Any drive will do, but we’re partial to the Western Digital My Passport 4TB, which has tons of storage and is compatible with both PCs and Macs.
Occasionally, you’re away from your room the entire day. Not only that, but you’re away from any available outlet for the day. In these situations, portable power banks are godsends. Charge your phone, laptop, Switch, or whatever else you need on the go.
Optional, but meriting a spot on the list, e-readers let you read through novels, textbooks, and papers without straining your eyes on your computer's blue light. They also consolidate your materials in one small package, making it easier to keep your place looking clean and minimalist. The best options are still from Kindle and Kobo, with Kindle’s Paperweight model topping NYT’s Wirecutter list for 2020.
A New Computer
It's difficult in the year 2020 – if not impossible – to attend college without a computer. As for type, we'd lean toward laptop over a desktop, only for its portability and ease-of-use, though some college students swear by their desktop’s powerful processors and smooth speeds. For laptops, you can draw a line in the sand – if you’re a Mac user, the Macbook Pro remains your best bet; if you’re a PC user, the Dell XPS 13 is getting rave reviews online.
Sometimes, you need to keep the main lights off in deference to your roommate. Sometimes, you need a little extra light on your desk. Sometimes, you just like the old-school look of a library-style desk lamp. Whatever the reason, they're good to own.
Textbooks, papers and supplies pile up. They find their way to all corners of the room. Before long, you start using them as coasters and table mats. It’s not a good look. To keep your study space organized, invest in a couple of 74-quart plastic storage bins to keep beside or under your desk.
Other Desk Essentials
A Bluetooth Speaker
Old Fashioned Writing Utensils
A Spare Laptop Charger
For Your Wardrobe
This section will cover perhaps the most essential back-to-college items of all (we may be biased). For college clothes, three criteria are key. One, they need to look fantastic. Two, they need to stay fresh for a long time (with long intervals between washes, especially during exam season, this is critical, not just for you but for those around you!). And three, they need to be comfortable.
What’s smack-dab in the middle of the Venn diagram of those three criteria? You guessed it: merino wool. Read our guide to merino wool for more information on this amazing material, and check out the items listed below.
T-shirts are a necessary part of any student wardrobe. They’re comfortable, versatile, and – at least in the case of merino wool t-shirts – quick-drying, antimicrobial, and wrinkle-resistant.
The great thing about Unbound Merino wool t-shirts is that you only need two or three; they stay fresh for so long (weeks, in some cases) that you don’t need a drawer full of them. Just pick out a v neck t-shirt and a couple of crew necks, and you’re good to go. Choose from black, natural white, light forest green, heather red, heather grey, navy blue, and charcoal for a sophisticated look you can dress up or dress down.
The same goes for Unbound Merino underwear. Merino boxer briefs are game changers – they’re comfortable, odor-resistant and wrinkle-resistant. Plus, on the occasions that someone might see you in them, they also look fantastic!
A few pairs of merino wool socks are all you need to make it through the academic year. Grab a pair of our Ankle Socks for when you exercise or wear shorts. And grab a few pairs of our All Season Crew Socks to last you throughout the year – in the cold, heat and rain.
With your base layer covered, turn your attention to the second layer. No one’s going to deny you the right to wear that college emblazoned hoodie – it’s practically a rite of passage – but consider supplementing your sweatshirts with a merino wool Raglan Crew Sweatshirt or Compact Travel Hoodie. Because merino wool has strong insulating properties, these sweatshirts are a fantastic choice for colleges in cold climates.
For pants, pack the usual suspects: jeans, sweatpants and/or khakis. If you’re giving a presentation in a business program, or plan on attending a formal event at your college, throw in a pair of dress pants.
For shorts, you only need one or two pairs, as the academic year coincides with the colder months. Check out Unbound Merino’s new Essential Shorts, which are wrinkle-resistance and water repellant to keep you looking awesome.
Formal events abound in a college semester. Even if you aren’t headed somewhere classy, it’s still wise to have a few button-down options in your wardrobe: for dates, special occasions, presentations, and just as an alternative to the daily casual wear. Luckily, in addition to stylish and comfortable merino wool t-shirts, Unbound Merino now offers a Classic Button-Down that’s light and breathable. It’s also resistant to wrinkles, so even if it goes straight from your suitcase to your body, it’ll look fantastic.
Essential for lugging around your textbooks and laptop, you can go with the classic backpack (JanSport, Herschel, Fjallraven, etc.) or, if you don’t anticipate carrying much at a single time, grab a simple commute bag.
Other Wardrobe Essentials
A Rain Jacket
A Winter Jacket
A Couple Hat Options
For the Kitchen
The college kitchen is pretty minimalist. There are no sous vide machines, 5-piece skillet sets, stand mixers or food processors. You need a streamlined arsenal of multi-purpose cooking utensils that can help you make whatever you're craving. Even if it is just canned chili.
The Instant Pot’s meteoric rise in fame is for good reason. This thing acts as a pressure cooker, a slow cooker, a rice cooker, a sautee pot, a soup warmer… the possibilities are endless. Essentially, if you’re cooking anything wet – stews, soups, beans, braises – this is your go-to device.
Cast Iron Skillet
The instant pot can manage your stews and braises, but for your deep-fries, sears, sautées and even baking, keep a cast-iron skillet on hand. Famously great at retaining heat, this versatile piece of cookware handles anything you need browned, from steaks to pancakes. Lodge is still the most trusted name for a cast-iron skillet, but, in truth, any garage sale cast-iron can be restored to its former glory with a little elbow grease (and some real grease).
With the trifecta of the Instant Pot, a cast iron skillet and pasta pot, you have your stewing, braising, frying, baking and boiling covered. Even if you do just keep a pasta pot on hand for boiling pasta, you’ll probably get your money’s worth from it. You can also add a saucepan, for smaller portions.
Chef’s Knife and Cutting Board
Don’t trust the communal knives. They’re often flimsy and dull, which, counterintuitively, can lead to more cuts and accidents. Invest in a quality multi-purpose chef's knife like the Wüsthof Classic 8-inch, or (our personal favorite) the Misono UX10 Gyutou.
Kettle and Pour Over Coffee Dripper
For a stellar coffee set-up that doesn’t take up a ton of space, all you really need is a good kettle and a pour-over. If you want to nerd out on coffee, go for a gooseneck kettle, whose thin spout allows you to distribute hot water over the coffee grounds evenly. As for a pour-over dripper, anything will work. Optionally, consider investing in a burr grinder to achieve the optimal, even ground size.
Other Kitchen Essentials
Cutlery and Dishware
For Bedtime and Leisure Time
There’s an old college adage that goes: sleep, study, party – pick two. While studying is an integral part of the institutional experience, you also need to make room for rest and leisure. Here are a few items that help you stay relaxed and entertained.
Part of the essential pack for your college dorm, a comforter set's primary duty is to keep you warm but not too warm. Choose your comforter according to room temperature. For rooms 74°F and up, go with a super lightweight comforter. For rooms 69°F to 74°F, go lightweight; 65°F to 69°F can go medium weight; and for anything below, you’ll want a heavyweight option.
Your noise-canceling headphones can fend off loud neighbors while you study, but they're too bulky to wear at night. For a good night's rest, keep a pack of earplugs on hand.
College life can get hectic. Consider a yoga mat a small investment in staying centered amid the chaos. The pros are partial to the Manduka Pro Yoga Mat, which doesn't stretch, smell, or wear out like other mats. But unless you’re a hardcore yoga practitioner, a run-of-the-mill mat should suit you just fine.
Turn any TV into a multi-channel, multi-platform smart device with the simple and small Roku Express box. If you prefer your leisure time on the couch instead of the yoga mat, this is a solid investment. They’re only around $40, though you’ll still need to spring for streaming accounts (Netflix, Hulu, Prime, etc.) to make the most out of it (the free Roku channels are, to be kind, hit and miss).
More Bedtime and Leisure Time Essentials
Sheets and Pillow Cases
Your Preferred Gaming Console
September is always a mad dash to the start line. If you haven't purchased everything you need by the first day of class, don't worry. Take your time, buy things item and by item, and enjoy the beginning of the college semester. For merino wool clothing that keeps you cool in the heat, warm in the winter, and fresh all year long, check out our mens collection on our website.
Have we missed anything important? Let us know in the comments.