Backing up Your Data on the Road

backing up photos

Are you fully backed up if all your electronics get stolen or lost while you’re traveling? Or your hard drive crashes?

When I first backpacked around the world in the 1990s, pre-internet, my back-up files were pieces of paper. Bank account numbers, passport copies, and an address book. All our music was on cassettes and then CDs. Photos were rolls of film in a lead bag. Our system with the latter was to get photos developed, ship the prints home, and hang onto the negatives until we knew the prints made it. Then the negatives went into the next batch.

full hard driveEverything backs up faster now and you can put all the vitals on a USB drive, but photos and music have ballooned in terms of storage capacity. When digital cameras first came out, the average photo was less than half a megabyte. Now it’s not uncommon for each one to be 5MB, more if you’re shooting in RAW. Each song is a few more megabytes and if you have videos stored, add a zero or two to the file size.

What happens to all that if you lose your phone, your tablet, or your laptop? Here are a few options for keeping your memories in your possession no matter what happens.

Online Backup

This can be a blessing and a curse on the road, where fast-WiFi is seldom a given, even in developed countries. So if you’re using some automated program like Apple’s or Microsoft’s, your device can get crippled every time you turn it on as it tries to back up all those photos and videos you just shot. I prefer something where I have more control. I can use online backup when my connection is good, maybe letting it run while I sleep, but leave it off the rest of the time.

online backup


I’ve been giving iDrive a whirl lately and apart from a few bugs I ran into, I like the value it delivers. You can get 5GB just to try it out, but if you follow this special discount link, you can get a terabyte of data for only $14.88 for the first year! In comparison, competing services charge $10 a month or more for the same amount of storage.

One nice feature of this program for travelers is that you can control the amount of bandwidth it’s using in the network settings. So if you’re trying to surf the web while it’s backing up and your browser is sluggish, you can dial back how much iDrive is using. You need to dive into your settings when you first install it anyway or otherwise it’ll just start backing up your desktop, My Documents, etc. without you asking, and creating a daily schedule. There’s no set-up wizard. Once you access settings though, you can control what gets backed up and what doesn’t and you can turn off the scheduling altogether. Get 1TB for $14.88 here. (75% off)

Dropbox and Google Drive

If you’re already comfortable with Dropbox or Google Drive from the free storage you get up front, you can up your account to 1TB with those as well. It’ll cost you $10 a month though for either one, and as soon as you stop paying the subscription fee you lose your access. Both are great for file sharing though or for just storing key backup documents. You get 2GB free with the former and 15-30GB with the latter depending on whether you have their apps installed. Frankly I’m scared to death of trusting Google with any more of my data since their “one log-in for everything” system is an invitation to have your whole life hacked in an instant. When it comes to your data, it pays to be paranoid, in my opinion.


As with most things Apple, this option costs twice as much because…it just does. All those people who pay extra to have an Apple logo on their device also pay extra here: $20 a month for 1TB of data. And you have less control over the back-up process too. (The free plan gives you 5GB.)


Microsoft’s cloud storage solution is a bargain if you’re already using Office. You now pay an annual fee for Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc.) and they throw in 1TB of data OneDrive storage for free, for each registered user. I’ll return to using this once I’m living in the USA again, with my Verizon FiOS service. Like most things Microsoft though, there are some bugs and workarounds to put up with. And as with iCloud, it thinks it knows what’s best for you and will back up everything constantly unless you dig into the settings and take back some control. You can get 15GB for free to try it out.

External Hard Drives

external hard drive backupIf you frequently go on vacation and then return to a home base, a full-blown external hard drive is your best bet. It’ll hold everything you need to store, will transfer data more quickly than the internet, and won’t disappear all of a sudden like my daughter’s Microsoft iDrive data did. You can now get a robust, full-size 5TB external hard drive from Seagate for $130, or 2TB for $85. If you’re a couple, you could back up data from two laptops on this, or store loads of movies to transfer onto other devices for plane rides. If you’re a DSLR photographer who is on the road a lot, something like this will keep all of your photos instead of just some of them.

If you want something small to easily fit into your backpack, the thin ones are now well under $100 for 1TB of storage. I bought the Western Digital My Passport Ultra Portable recently for less than $60 at Amazon. The interface is way clunkier than it should be, but other than that it has been working well. I sleep much better knowing I’ve got a decade’s worth of digital photos, videos, and articles backed up somewhere that’s not in some far-off server that could implode someday.  There’s a Seagate version that’s about the same price.

Temporary Safe Back-ups

If nothing else, assume the worst when you’re shooting photos and videos while traveling and at least have a short-term backup plan in place for what you just stored. SD memory cards have gotten very cheap, so you might as well carry three or four of them so that if something happens before your laptop has backed up, you still have the photos on that card. USB thumb drives have also gotten to be very cheap and you can now buy one holding 16GB for less than $10 and 128GB for under $35. See all the options here. If you have the kind of job where you go to trade shows regularly, you’ve probably got a dozen of these thumb drives lying around that you got for free. It’s a good idea to carry one that has passport copies, medical records, key phone numbers, and a passwords backup (encrypted or password protected of course).

You can get around that last part by using LastPass, a great free service that stores all your passwords and will generate very robust new ones so you don’t have to remember 30 different ones in your head or leave them vulnerable in your browser.

I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t suffered some kind of loss on the road, whether it’s an eaten ATM card, a stolen wallet, a crashed hard drive, or an account hack. You always need a backup plan and redundancy will save the day.

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