Keep Your Data Safe and Organized While Traveling

A simple, safe, and cheap backup strategy to use on the road

A recent visit to Machu Picchu put my system for traveling to the test. There are extreme baggage limitations and it is quite remote.
A recent visit to Machu Picchu put my system for backing up my data while traveling to the test.  The locations were quite remote and there were extreme baggage limitations.

I want to admit something at the outset: I hate spending money on backup and data storage.  I refuse to buy expensive things like drobos or raid drives.  Buying that stuff does absolutely nothing to advance your photography.  There is nothing you can do after that purchase that you couldn’t do before.  It is sort of like buying insurance: we all know we are supposed to do it, but we all hate doing it.

On the other hand, my pictures are precious to me.  I do take precautions to store them.  Oddly, that’s even more so the case when I’m on the road.  Before I have studied my pictures on my computer, I’m always convinced they are going to be masterpieces (Sidenote: for this reason, flights home from trips, which is when I generally first look at my pictures, are always times of great disappointment for me).  I want to make sure these pictures are protected.

I’ve talked elsewhere about an approach for both backing up your photos and organizing your photos.  If you haven’t perused those articles yet, you might want to do so because there are some principles we are going to use here.  Following up on that, now let’s talk about how you keep your photos safe and organized while traveling.  I actually spend quite a bit of time on the road these days, and I have developed a system that I think works really well.  And you know it won’t cost a lot, since I hate spending money on this sort of thing.

Before we get into the system, let’s talk about what we want.  We want a system that is (a) safe, (b) simple, and (c) cheap.  When it comes to safety, it is conventional wisdom that you want three versions of your data stored in three different places.  That’s not so easy when you’re traveling, but that’s where we’ll be headed.  We’ll do it as simply and cheaply as possible.  Now, on to the method.

Version 1: Your Memory Cards

The first version of your pictures is simply your memory card itself.  Do not record over your memory cards while you are on the road.  Keep your pictures and just make sure you have enough memory for the whole trip.  Memory cards are essentially solid state storage and they are quite sturdy.  In many cases, this is all you need.

Keep the memory cards in your suitcase or duffel.  Be sure to have a way to mark them as “used” or “unused.”  I personally keep them in separate cases.  I keep the blank cards in one case and then as they get used I put them into a separate case.  I once got my cards mixed up on a trip, so I am careful about that now.

You can also use different memory cards to help stay organized.  Swap out your memory card at the end of the day or after visiting a discrete location.  That way you can easily label the folder where you will ultimately store these files.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Back to using memory cards as storage, the good news is that you likely already have these so they will cost you nothing extra.  If you don’t have enough, just go buy some.  If you need help deciphering the numbers on the memory cards, check out this article.  Memory cards are getting cheaper and cheaper.  Fast 32 GB cards are now routinely less than $10.  It is getting to the point where buying an SD card is like buying a roll of film.  In fact, I know a guy who doesn’t ever re-use memory cards anymore.  He just keeps them forever as backup storage.

Version 2:  Your Laptop

Next, copy your photos from your memory card onto your laptop.  This will be the second version of your photos.  Most laptops have a port where you can just stick the card directly into the computer.  If not, you can pick up a card reader very cheaply.

Most of us are already carrying laptops, so this is not an additional burden.  If you don’t typically carry a laptop, or you don’t have one, it is time to go get one.  Lest you think I’m being overly cavalier with your money, let me point out that you don’t need anything very robust and you can now pick one up for under $200.  Further, the smaller the laptop the better for traveling purposes, and these tend to be the cheaper models.

If space or other considerations prohibit the carrying of a laptop, you can use a portable drive.  These tend to cost as much as the cheapest laptops, and obviously they do not allow you to edit your photos while you are on the road.  But they will work, and I have used them many times while on the road.  What’s more, you will be able to use this as a platform for copying the files and making additional versions, which is what we’ll do next.

You might wonder if you can store your photos on your phone or a tablet.  I have tried a few systems for doing so, but so far my attempts have been unsuccessful.  I read, for example, about a card reader that connects your card to an iPad, but it didn’t work.  I could be wrong, but I do not believe there is a good system for doing so at this time.

Keep your laptop in your camera bag, if the bag has a laptop sleeve.  That way the laptop will be in a separate location from your memory cards.  If your camera bag does not have a laptop sleeve, put it in your suitcase or duffel bag (or whatever you are using to carry your clothes and other items around) and transfer your memory cards over to your camera bag.  The important thing is to keep the laptop and memory cards in separate places, so if one bag gets lost or stolen you still have the other one.

Version 3:  Flash drive or External hard drive

The final version of your pictures will be on a small flash drive.  Just copy your photos from your laptop and paste them into the flash drive.  You now have three versions of your picture.

This should not cost you much.  You can now get 128 GB flash drives for only $20.  For most trips, that will be plenty of storage.  If you are going someplace for a long time or otherwise have extreme memory needs, just get two flash drives.

Rather than a flash drive, you can use an external hard drive for the same purpose.  I have done so on occasion, and that works just fine.  You will likely have more storage that way.  External hard drives are more bulky though.  That matters because of where you will keep this version of your photos.

You should keep the flash drive on you at all times.  Put it in a pocket you won’t otherwise be using.  In cooler climates, I wear fleeces or jackets (or both) with small side pockets.  I put the flash drives in there and don’t use that pocket for anything else.  If I’m not wearing a fleece or jacket, I keep the flash drive in a side pocket in my pants.  I typically wear waterproof khaki pants, which tend to have small side pockets.  Avoid putting the flash drive in your normal pockets because you don’t want there to be any chance of them popping out when you are pulling something else out of your pocket.

Now, even if all your bags get stolen or lost, you still have a version of your pictures.  You are covered in case of catastrophe.

What’s more, this version is the one you will transfer to your home computer, if you are going to do so.  You can just plug in the flash drive and copy and paste the photos to your computer.  For that reason, if you edit photos along the way during your trip, be sure to save the new files on this drive so they get transferred too.

Saving to the Cloud

One question you might have, however, is whether it would be better to save to the cloud.  It might be.  For non-photographers who are taking JPEGs and smaller-sized files, it is probably a fine way to go.  However, you will be dealing with huge amounts of data (from the creation of RAW files, which are very large) and it might not be practical.  If you only take a few hundred pictures you are still dealing with gigabytes of data and upload times will be quite long, even if you have a good connection.  If you have a bad connection – or no connection – you can forget about it.  Frankly, that seems to be the case for us more often than not.  For this reason, I don’t view saving to the cloud as a great option at this time.  I’m sure that will change though.

The Result:

Let’s take a look at what we have wrought.  Remember that we are looking for a system that (1) provides great safety, (2) is simple, and (3) with minimum cost.

  • Safety:  You will have three versions of your data in three separate locations.  At least two of these versions are solid state memory, so you will have no corruption problems.  You have two versions in two separate bags, so if one gets swiped or lost you still have the other one.  You have a copy on your person in the event that everything you own is lost or stolen.
  • Simple:  This system is simple, with a minimum of moving parts.  All you do is download your pictures to your laptop and then immediately make a second copy to a flash drive.  The time involved is not great and you only mess with it once.
  • Cheap:  Likely, you already have memory cards, a laptop, and a flash drive.  If that is the case, it actually costs you nothing at all.  Even if you have to go out and buy a laptop and a flash drive, the cost is not great.

Remember that it is your data, and you can do this however you want.  There is no right or wrong way.  Just be safe, but don’t spend too much money or mental energy on it.  Save that for the trip itself.

Categorized as Travel