The Autodidacts

Exploring the universe from the inside out

5 Best Pocket Notebooks (and how to make your own that beats them all)

The Contenders

Here at Autodidacts.io live three avid list-writers and note-takers. When you spend 90% of your waking hours in the company of an object, it's nice if you like it. I've done a good bit of research into the best (and worst) options out there for the everything-pocket-notebook, and present my findings here.


My Criteria for an Excellent Pocket Notebook

Must-Haves

  • Tough enough to last for at least a month in my back pocket without falling apart or looking shabby.

  • Classy enough not to be a disgrace when pulled out it out in any situation (business meetings, hackathons, social gatherings)

  • Removable pages so notes can be transferred out at the end of the day and archived/recycled. This might seem unnecessary, but try it for a while and I think you'll agree it's amazingly empowering to have a completely fresh slate at the start of the day.

  • Fountain pen friendly recycled paper

  • Fits nicely in a back-pocket

  • Affordable enough not to break the bank when you have a brilliant (and long-winded) idea.

Nice-to-Haves

  • Dot grid paper

  • Refillable pages

  • Leather cover

  • Reporter format

The Contenders

After extensive testing and searching, here are my top five options.

Rhodia No.13 ($3) Rhodia No.13

These were my go-to pocket notebooks for several years. They're excellent in many ways: affordable, good quality French-made paper, tear-away pages, lots of writing room but small enough to cram in a back pocket. I probably went through a good 20 or 30 of these over the years I was using them. The reasons I eventually looked elsewhere are: they poke out of my pocket by about an inch (this looks odd and means they tend to fall out when I'm sitting down or riding my bike), and I eventually came to find the black plastic covers, although durable and effective, to be less-than-charming.

https://www.jetpens.com/Rhodia-Pad-No.-13-A6-Lined-Black/pd/12626

Field Notes ($4.50) Field Notes

This is my brother's pocket notebook of choice. They are classy, minimal, and nondescript. The forty-eight 3.5×5.5 inch dot-grid pages are slim in the pocket. My main reason for not adopting them was the lack of reporter format and tear-away pages.

https://www.jetpens.com/Field-Notes-Pitch-Black-Memo-Books-3.5-x-5.5-48-Pages-Dot-Grid-Pack-of-3/pd/11185

Traveler’s Notebook ($50) Traveler’s Notebooks, Passport Size

These notebooks are somewhat legendary and have a cult-like following. They have many wonderful features: perfect size for the back pocket, beautiful leather cover with simple construction, and refills that come in plain, dot grid, or lined paper as well as various specialty options.

The initial investment is hefty, but refills are $4.20 and the cover should last for decades. The only drawbacks of this notebook for me were that it didn't come in reporter format or have tear-away pages. Other than that, this may be the best option out there for the serious (or seriously style-conscious) note-taker.

https://www.jetpens.com/TRAVELER-S-COMPANY-TRAVELER-S-notebook-Starter-Kit-Regular-Size-Camel-Leather/pd/15935

Rite in the Rain ($4.95) Rite in the Rain

Some of the more rugged folks I know use these Rite in the Rain all-weather pocket notebooks. Their unique feature is waterproof paper. They're also just the right size for the pocket, have a durable plastic cover, and are available in reporter format and side-bound. They come in a variety of sizes and colours. The waterproof paper doesn't work so well with fountain pens, but is good with pencil or ballpoint. They're made in Tacoma, Washington.

https://www.riteintherain.com/4x6-top-spiral-notebook

Moleskine Cahier Journal ($4) Moleskine Cahier Journal

These are a simple and affordable pocket notebook. Nice size, unassuming design, slim in the pocket. They come in grid, plain, or ruled paper in a variety of different colours.

https://us.moleskine.com/cahier-journal-brown/p0408

Option #6

For probably 99% of the note-taking public, one of the above options should hit the spot nicely. If you're like me, however, and didn't find any of them quite right, I invite you to take the notebook hunt to the next level: build your own.

Version 0.5 of the Pocket Pad

After about a decade of looking for, testing, and using the various options out there, I haven't found a single notebook that matches my criteria for the ideal pocket pad.

I eventually decided to have a whack at designing and building one myself, hoping to create the perfect affordable, sustainable, versatile, elegant constant companion for a life of learning, creativity, and ideas.

Introducing the D.I.Y Pocket Pad

The Creative Commons Pocket Notebook Pocket Pad, V.1

Design and Features:

  • Sized to cram in as much writing room as possible without sticking out of your back pocket

  • High-quality dot-grid paper that can be easily reloaded (or re-arranged!) with a primitive simple twine and punch binding strategy

  • Super durable (and cool looking) leather cover

  • Zero plastic waste and 100% recycled paper

  • Tear-away pages

  • Reporter format for on-the-go notation

  • Lays flat open for max writing area

Experiment with the design, and make it your own! Cover material can be whatever you choose; leather is classy, durable, and seems to help it avoid sliding up out of the pocket, but recycled plastic, rubber, or vinyl could work well also. Cardstock reinforced with Gaffer's tape is what I used for the first several months. This worked surprisingly well, and was great for while I was fine-tuning the size, but it did gradually start to decompose on me.

Here's the file I use for refills. Each sheet gets printed on standard 8.5×11 Letter paper, then cut along the trim marks into four separate sheets. The grey dots get punched for the binding with a 4mm punch. I've been planning to get an offset run of these refills printed and trimmed, but in the meantime have been printing them myself as I tweak and finalize the design. Printing and trimming myself, the cost works out to only about 50¢ for each 40-sheet refill.

Dot Grid Refill Sheet

The cover material is cut into a 4×11 inch rectangle. The holes for binding can be located by placing the stack of pages on the leather, and punching on the grey dots once you've aligned the pages how you'd like them to lay on the back cover.

Binding

The binding is simply a 7-inch piece of twine that gets threaded through the punched holes in the paper, down through the back cover of the notebook, and back up the other hole in the paper and tied. I've secured the ends of mine with letter sealing wax to keep it from fraying. I thought I might have to secure the pages with more loops of string to keep them from wandering, but that's turned out not to have been necessary. The single loop has worked perfectly for me during the 8 months I've been using and testing it.

Binding from the Back

I hope you enjoyed this article. If you'd be interested in a more detailed build tutorial, or have a favourite pocket notebook that we've missed, leave a comment below.

Resources and Further Reading

The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/the-pocket-notebooks-of-20-famous-men/

Our favourite online sources for pens, pencils, paper, and ink: https://www.jetpens.com/ & https://www.wonderpens.ca/

Our favourite local Vancouver shops: Paper-ya (Granville Island) & Vancouver Pen Shop