A Little Technology … How a Long-Term Traveler Backs Up Heaps of Data

When set off traveling in 2008, I never fathomed what a data hog I would become over the years. I left the US with my trusty (but old) PC laptop and a point and shoot camera. And what’s hilarious to me now, is that I felt like I was overdoing it compared to the romantic round the world journeys a century ago—they sufficed with a journal and a pen on their long overland trips. But I had to travel with my laptop so I could work and blog from the road, and the camera was a given.

reading in hammock

My niece Ana camped out in a hammock on Otres Beach in Cambodia as she finished the Percy Jackson series on the Kindle. Those Kindle books=more types of data to store now!

Fast forward to now though, and packing heaps of technology when we travel seems par for the course: I think nothing of traveling with my laptop, a smartphone, my Kindle, my nice camera, and a backup hard drive. I read data on our outrageous and upward spiraling demands on data usage recently, and scientists are looking to DNA, bacteria, and diamonds even as an eventual solution to the compounding effect of each person’s growing digital footprint. No faded photos for us, scratched and worn throughout a century,it’s feasible to think my great-grandchildren could read an archived incarnation of this very blog.

guatemala postage stamps

Enough stamps to get my backup hard drives and some souvenirs from Guatemala to Florida–and yes, I licked each and every one. ;-)

Now, one could argue there’s no need to preserve every nuance of my digital life, but today, I do actually need the data I create, and I realized I needed a more effective way to store the heaps of data I produced every week as a long-term traveler—gigs upon gigs of photos, documents, videos, etc.  In my first two years of travel, I sporadically mailed home DVDs filled with my photos and I backed up information locally on a small external hard drive that I bought in Slovenia eight months into my trip. Sadly, just as I was leaving for Central America, I discovered that one my two backup hard drives was corrupted. And because my backup copies were not meticulous, in one moment I had lost all my photographs from my many months in Nepal and India.

The news devastated me. And I learned four important lessons from it:

  1. Backup often.
  2. Backup everything.
  3. Backup online.
  4. Backup in multiple places.

I haven’t figured out the exact perfect solution to fully storing everything, but between external hard drives, online storage in the Cloud, and remote backups to a home computer, I have the found a workable rhythm and a complete backup system for long-term travelers like me! So let’s look at the highs and lows of each three, as well as why I’ve chosen this exact setup for backing up … each one has specific reasons to be used in tandem with the others.

Backup Online to the Cloud

The best way I’ve upgraded my digital life was through online backup and storage in the Cloud. Most of us use Cloud storage everyday now without even thinking about it. Gmail and Google Documents stores your data in this mysterious “Cloud,” as do photo storage companies like SmugMug, which is where I host all the edited photos for this site—it’s a pretty interface and my preferred choice as a photographer and blogger combo.

But these are both file specific Cloud backups. Full online backup solutions on the other hand, provide complete coverage for laptops and hard drives—they backup every single file on your computer, every single day into the Cloud.

crashplan backup review Back in May, CrashPlan approached me to ask if I was interested in testing out their backup services for a year. I was already sold on this type of service, (my friend Jodi bought Mozy backup services when someone stole her laptop and she lost everything), and I was keen to try an easier way than what I was doing—solely backing up files manually.

So I agreed and here we are, six months later. Below I’ll outline the pros and cons of CrashPlan and online Cloud storage, particularly with international travelers in mind.

Because it’s not perfect, but it is pretty close.

Pros for Online Cloud Storage:

  • Data is immediately backed up. The software checks every file and folder on my computer daily (or even hourly) for changes and backs up files immediately into the cloud.
  • Automatically sinks and checks your entire computer. I never have to “remember” to backup certain files or folders, the software does it automatically each day at during the times I specified.
  • Can restore to my backup if my computer is stolen. CrashPlan won’t save my computer, but all the data is secure and I can restore it to a fresh computer if mine is lost/stolen/broken.
  • Access your files immediately online. My laptop crashed a few months ago, before CrashPlan had even  finished the initial backup, but it saved my life by allowing me to quickly grab my client’s most important files until I got my laptop repaired.
  • Ability to set percentage of processor used for backing up. The program can easily run in the background without me noticing very much, but for the first months of the initial backup I kept the computer on all night and let it use full processing power.
  • Seed drives allow an easier initial backup. I did not use a seed drive, but Dan and Audrey had great success using CrashPlan’s seed drive, which you fill with your data and then mail to them—it’s faster than doing that first backup entirely through the internet.

Cons to Backing up to the Cloud:

  • Initial backup time is lengthy. It took eleven weeks to back up the 300 gigs of photos and videos from my home internet connection in the United States. And while that’s a fair amount of time for that much data, for a traveler it’s worth knowing ahead of time so you can buy before you leave, and/or time it to when you will have solid internet connections (or do the seed drive service).
  • Backing up each day relies on an internet connection. Your files only backup when you are online, so if you’re in a country without much internet, or with slow internet speeds (I’m looking at you India and Bali) it can take many days and a lot of bandwidth to back up a lot of photos and video.
  • The backup uses processing power. I’m a multitasker at heart, so I often have dozens of programs open at once: Photoshop, a browser, Tweetdeck, Evernote, Word … the list is long and I have occasionally paused CrashPlan for a couple of hours when I was hard at work on something else.

Bonus things I happen to love about CrashPlan is: the user interface (it’s intuitive and simple), customer service is speedy to respond, they have tiered pricing plans (which will come in handy when I pay to renew next summer). And for you Mac users, all the major backup companies work for you guys too.

Also, note upfront that “backing up” and “archiving” do not mean the same thing, CrashPlan backs up the hard drives I have, but if I delete a file, so does it (on a delay though in case you need it!). It’s not data storage per se, the service is made as a fail-safe—if something happens to your hard drive, you can use their mirror image of it to duplicate the information on a new drive. Which is what we’ll get to next, the external hard drives as a second step in the complete traveler back up solution.

Love the Clouds

How pretty are those clouds in the Lakes District in England?

 

Back up on External Hard Drives

As a (mostly) solo traveler, all my data is usually stored in one place: me. Even if I spread out the hard drives and store them in different backpacks/luggage, I am the one carrying all my data on a travel day, which makes the thought of theft daunting. But online backup alone just isn’t enough because most backup services are a duplication of what you have on your computer/hard drives.

That means I still have to keep terabytes of information at my fingertips. So, I carry my laptop as the first storage spot—it has a 450 gig hard drive—and a small external hard drive as my backup. Now, all hard drives can fail (as I found out the hard way), and it’s likely best to have two external ones, but I have found the combination of laptop and external hard drive effective for now since I have amble online and remote storage as well.

Best external, portable hard drive options for travelers:

  • Western Digital Passport: This is my current hard drive, it’s tiny (literally the size of a passport), reliable, and durable—mine has traveled through at least 20 countries and is still kicking.
  • LaCie Rugged: This will be the next portable hard drive I buy; my current one is creeping up in age (three plus years of a hard life on the road) and the LaCie rugged looks like it can take a beating. The brand is solid according to my techie friends, so I’ll likely buy one of these in the next few months so that I have my Passport, and this rugged one both.
  • Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt: This one is super fast and fancier than the other two, the device’s transfer rate is higher because it has a Thunderbolt connection.
  • Transcend Information with Military Drop Standards: A reader submitted this one for consideration–he noted that it has similar proportions to the Passport, but very rugged and sturdy!

Remote Backup to a Home Computer

My dad is a computer systems engineer (official title) and at the core it really just means that he enjoys the geeky side of all things computers. When I left to travel his top concern was a way for me to back up to his home computer remotely. Though this was tricky in my first years of travel, CrashPlan has completely free-to-use remote backup software that allows me to now easily access my dad’s computer network—we have four working computers online and running SETI at all times—so I backup to those hard drives. This is the icing on the cake for me in my quest preserve every single aspect of my digital life since it effectively means all my old files and any new files are easily accessible. :)

E.T. and Elliot

Yep, my dad’s computers are left on all the time so we can process radio waves and hope to find E.T.’s home :)

There are ways to do remote backups via FTP (my dad’s first method of choice years ago) but software like what CrashPlan offers (again, this service is free) is easier. Much easier. Like Cloud storage though, it requires a strong internet connection. It also requires hard drive space, a computer that is turned on, and it must have the CrashPlan software installed on both ends (yours and the backup computer). It’s easy to set up, but it’s something you should do before you head out on the road (my mother would never have the skills to install it, but any of my friends could do it easily … if that gives you a gauge of the difficulty).

The Trifecta of Storage Near-Perfection

The last year of my digital life has felt the most secure. After I lost my photos in 2010, I saw how tenuously connected we all are to this digital life. I had no negatives in my hands to simply re-print the photos I lost. My story has a surprisingly happy ending, I gave my broken hard drive to my friend Doug who was studying advanced data recovery at University, and after a year testing different programs on my sad little hard drive, he recovered all the data. I did a happy dance of thanks when he emailed me the news. :)

Pink skin from Holi and picking up the Taj Mahal from Agra.

My life was missing this photo of me–pink-tinged skin and all because of Holi–picking up the Taj Mahal. Thanks for giving it back to me Doug, I won’t be that careless again, I promise! :)

I don’t expect him to create a miracle like that again, however, so I use these three fairly simply methods to ensure that all my work files, my photos, and my documents are secure. The fact that I sometimes have very little access to the internet is the only hitch in this current method—the moment we have global free 3G access I will do a giant happy dance. But since that is decades away from becoming a reality, I will stick with Cloud, external, and remote storage in tandem to keep me traveling.

How do you manage your digital life and data storage?

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  • Lauren

    A great article, thank you. I’m beginning a RTW trip in Feb and as a photographer I’ve been worrying about what to do with all my data. I’d heard about CrashPlan before but forgotten about them. Their pricing structure seems better than Dropbox which I use at the moment, especially as you can choose an ‘unlimited’ option for a reasonable price. Cheers!

    • ShannonOD

      Dropbox can be killer on the fees, though it is really handy if you have an iPad, I know that’s how my friend syncs small flies between devices. I definitely recommend that you look into one of the cloud backup services … it will likely give you a lot more piece of mind in some of the areas with more chances of theft. Although it would be devastating to lose your electronics, at least your photo memories would be secure :)

  • http://www.cubiclethrowdown.blogspot.com/ Rika at Cubicle Throwdown

    I’m using Carbonite as a cloud backup right now as I had my laptop and external hard drive stolen during a robbery at my house in 2010 and so I lost everything. This article should be required reading for anyone traveling and needing to back up their data!

    • ShannonOD

      Oh no, I am so sorry to hear that–home robberies just seem so invasive over pickpocketing and that sort. I have also heard good things about Carbonite, so it’s great that you have the important things secure and in the cloud now :)

  • http://twitter.com/AndiPerullo Andi Perullo, L.Ac.

    Losing data is heartbreaking! I feel your pain!!! I always always always back up on my external hard drive.

    • ShannonOD

      It really is sad when you get that jolt of realizing a whole piece of your memories you thought were there are now gone. It’s crazy how dependent we have become on such a fragile system of technology! :)

  • http://twitter.com/our_oyster Our Oyster

    I’ve been interested in cloud storage for a while now, but here in Australia (where I live at the moment) you have to pay for internet by the amount used – and it is EXPENSIVE so something like this probably would not work for me where I pay 20 bucks for 500 megabytes of internet :S

    • ShannonOD

      Oh wow, I can see your dilemma, because I remember the outrageous usage costs in Australia four years ago–I am sorry to hear it’s still like that! Hard to believe your data is still so pricey. I agree that something like this is probably waaay too much since you’d be paying on both sides of the equation. Not sure what you use now, but something like SmugMug, that you can fill throughout your travels and while you are outside of the country could be good? It would protect your photos at the very least.

  • Mike Fook

    Great article. I wonder if Amazon has cloud backup. I think so. Will check it out…

    At the moment I have my important files on my:

    4 notebook computers

    camera’s SD memory stick

    phone

    wifes phone

    a minimum of 3 external hdd’s

    spread out among 2 website servers

    here and there some important files are on an array of 20+ USB thumb drives

    Google drive

    I still do not feel confident that I have double or triple backups of absolutely every file that is essential (I write), but, that will not happen at this point because I’ve saved files since 1993. I’d need to go through every single storage location and merge it all into one spot so I could see what I have. It’s just too time consuming to even consider. There might be an answer to it eventually – right now I just see it as too much time to spend straightening it out.

    • ShannonOD

      Wow, you data is really spread out! As you noted, it must be very hard to make sure that each of those different locations has an exact duplicate. For what it’s worth, I had slightly fewer spots than you (three old laptops, a few desktops, a couple hard drives) but I took a weekend and merged as best I could, then named that folder “master backup” — and *nothing* is allowed into master backup now unless I simultaneously add it to all three backup spots with that folder. Even if you don’t sort the old files, copying them into one spot, then duplicating that could be helpful! Just a thought, I know how crazy it can get when your files are spread out like that! :)

      • Mike Fook

        It is hard… it’s impossible. I know disaster is looming… but I just don’t have the time to rectify the situation! I have done what you suggested with a lot of the files, but certainly not all were included in those merges. What I need is an assistant that goes through everything I have, merges it, and then deletes duplicates – ensuring the one saved is a valid one that works, and then replicates all that across many different storage solutions. Where can that person be found? lol…

        • ShannonOD

          Yikes! Craigslist? You are in a conundrum for sure. Because with that much at stake, you have to have someone 100% meticulous. :-/ Good luck!

  • http://www.themodernnomad.com/ The Modern Nomad

    I am a full time nomad and a geek, and I have tried every back-up system known to intelligent lifeforms. I actually wrote a blog post of my own about it, and came to much the same conclusions as you. Except I go even further in my paranoia. The Paranoid Guide to Backup

    • ShannonOD

      Heh, you do have the levels of paranoia covered, but I get it and I can’t fault you for it! The idea of losing such a tangible piece of your life, of what you have created is too huge to overlook. Thanks for sharing your own backup system, I haven’t used Backblaze, but I hear good things!

  • Elaine Schoch

    After having my hard drive get fried going through an airport security scanner on the way to Russia I moved to the Cloud. (Yes, I know scanners aren’t supposed to do that but it happened and it happened to my NEW laptop. I wrote a post about it: http://ow.ly/f1EyA) I use Carbonite. It’s good but it took nearly two weeks for the initial backup. VERY annoying. I also use an external drive but I really like your little passport one. It’s going on the Christmas list.

    • ShannonOD

      Yikes! That is terrible, and so hard to deal with if you were just on your way into Russia, what a set-back. I hope they were able to easily fix it up and get your laptop working again. As for the passport drive — it’s great and a perfect item for the Christmas list! :)

  • Colin@Sydney tours

    You’ve got one of the best travel blogs that i have come across. Very informative articles. Online cloud storage is currently the latest storage technology as you can access your data from any where at any time. I think its a good idea especially for travelers.

    • ShannonOD

      Thank you Coin, I really appreciate the sentiment. For a traveler, I do think backing up a spot that is accessible when and where ever is essential. Thanks for weighing in! :)

  • Tom

    Nice write up, I use CrashPlan as well but still trying to find the perfect combination of back ups. At the moment I use external HD’s but they’re not always backed up so I’m not sure if it deletes the backups if I don’t plug the HD in after a while or something :P Since it’s always trying to “synch” with what’s plugged in/local HD. Ahhh, who knows!

    • ShannonOD

      I agree with the confusion … I think it stores things for a month if it isn’t able to sync them, but I really am not sure! Hmm, I feel like now I should go find that out, it’s a chink in my backup armor that I don’t know :)

  • eriksmithdotcom

    I’m a portable hard drive guy. I have a bunch and I never use them more than 6 months, then they go in one of my two fireproof boxes (one at our house, one at my parents) I need to do the cloud storage thing, but haven’t found the time for the two weeks it would take to download it all.

    • ShannonOD

      It really does take ages for the initial backup, and then you pay annually to renew it, but it will run in the background for weeks and months to catch you up, you don’t have to focus on it really much at all, it runs when you are away from the computer, and in the background. Or consider the seed drive service if you were to want it *all* backed up. Good luck! The fireproof safe is a great idea.

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  • http://twitter.com/lengthytravel Lengthy Travel

    On your list of best portable drives, you should add the 1TB Transcend Military Drop Standard ultra-portable drive. It is only slightly larger than the WD but is rugged to military standards so it doesn’t need any extra protection, thus making it probably about the same size/weight in the end. I just bought one so I don’t have much experience with it yet, but I noticed today that the price went down drastically just since I got mine last week. It’s now a steal at $79 but was still a good value at the original $105 I paid (Amazon even credited me the difference in price). Find it at: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B005MNGQ6C/ltravel-20

    • ShannonOD

      Wow, what a great price for a 1TB drive, I will add it to the list now, thanks for sending along the recommendation. Shock resistant and rugged are two huge pluses in a travel hard drive! Thanks for taking the time to share the advice! :)

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