Saving Your Digital Ass

Saving Your Digital Ass

Let’s face it; we live in a digital world, even when traveling.  At a minimum, our photos and work is digital versus on film and paper. When I was in South America, before digital cameras were mainstream, the longer I traveled, the larger my collection of film grew.  Considering our laptop serves the same purpose as the rolls of film and many others, while weighing a similar amount, the switch to digital was positive, but created new issues as well.

The major problem with the digital life is the risk of losing your data.  SD cards, USB flash drives, hard drives and laptops fail, get stolen, or broken.  There is little you can do to prevent these things from happening, but you can keep your files safe.  This will help you focus on where to eat instead of protecting your digital ass.

TRAVEL TIP: The key to protecting your digital ass(ets) at home or on the road is redundancy.  The more copies you have, the better off you are.  What if I told you that you were 75% less likely to lose your data if you carried one six-oz portable hard drive?  Here’s how: as a guesstimate, 25% of hard drives on the road will fail (failure rates will be higher if traveling on 3rd world buses).  If you carry two hard drives the probability is multiplied (25%*25%) to give you a 6.25% probability of failure.  That’s a 75% risk reduction.

Organizations with important data such as Google, Wikipedia and Bank of America use a system called RAID to backup their files.  RAID literally means: Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks.  In layman’s terms, they have multiple copies of files, on multiple devices, in multiple locations.   This means if a device fails or a datacenter burns down while two men in a bare are arguing over who was the winning quarterback in the 1999 Superbowl, Google is to find the answer on Wikipedia and Bank of America is able to process the loser’s charge for the drink he owes the winner.

What do they do, that I need to do?

  1. Backup files and photos on multiple devices
  2. Keep the devices separated when not in use


How do I do this?

Buy two or more storage devices, ideally identical, that will give you ample storage for this trip and beyond.  Buy more capacity than you expect to need.

Out backup team. We carry two 640GB portable hard drives, and several large USB Flash Drives (not pictured here). Since we had extra space than we needed for backing up our photos, we brought with us an archive of our former trips to help illustrate articles.

There are slightly different procedures for backing up your computer and your photos, which I will share over the next several days, but the principles are the same: as often as possible, copy your files to multiple backup devices.  Copy to both devices at the same sitting, to ensure each is comprehensive and identical.  This will allow you to know that if one device fails, the you still have another copy.

TRAVEL TIP: If you are on the road and just need to backup your photos on a hotel computer or Internet café, it is easiest to clear your camera after each backup.  This will allow you to know, each time you sit down, all you need to do is copy the entire contents of your camera over to the backup devices.  This will save you organizing nightmares and ensure that you are getting all your photos on the backup devices.

The second, but equally important, step to protecting your digital ass is to store your backup devices separately from each other and your data source.  Simply put, keep them in different bags, ideally separate from each other.  For example, we are carrying a laptop, camera, and two backup hard drives.  Our bags are a daypack, a duffle, and a backpack.  The hard drives that we use for backup are never together, this way, if one bag got lost, stolen, or swallowed by an elephant, we still have one backup.  The odds of losing any one bag is much higher than losing all three.  This is redundancy in physical location, backing up the redundancy in data storage.

“That’s just silliness, when I’m on vacation this is the last thing I want to think about,” would say my father-in-law.  To which I would respond, “but it doesn’t require that much effort and imagine you had lost you camera in Cambodia instead of Mexico.”  At this point he would be eating some food he had hidden in the pantry shouting “woo doggies” and the conversation would have shifted, but believe me, doing this is pretty easy once you choose your backup device…


Do you realize how lucky you are?  We live in a time of cheap, portable storage devices that you can easily back things up with.  When I was a kid computers didn’t even have hard drives, when they did a 20 megabyte one was “more than you would ever need.”  Now though, with all your photos, movies, and other files, you need a lot more space.  Depending on your usage and trip duration, you can probably get by on 8GB a week (that’s what we use and we take 800-1000 photos a week).  Here are your options:

  1. USB Flash Drives (aka “thumb drives”).  These are tiny, virtually indestructible, and fairly inexpensive.  The downsides are that there is a limit to how large they come (64GB is the largest common size) and they are slow.  If you need to copy 8GB at one time, be prepared to wait.  For most trips, two of these are all you need.  The best part is that they are commodity products, buying the cheapest ones won’t give you any problems.  Even if one fails, you still have a second copy…don’t you?
  2. Hard Drives.  When you need lots of space or are traveling with a laptop, this is your only option, which is good and bad.  The great part is that they are cheap and fast.  The bad part is they are really prone to failure. A hard drive is literally a record player; there is a spinning disk with a reader arm.  While you are getting motion sickness on the bumpy bus, this reader arm is bumping around in your luggage.  It can, and often does, break, leaving the data on the drive inaccessible.
  3. Solid State Drives (SSD).  This is the future, mixing the best of USB flash drives with speed exceeding that of Hard Drives due to parallel read/write, this is the Holy Grail and it’s coming soon.  Currently these are way too expensive to be worth it.
  4. Online Storage.  This will be a reality one day and I will use it as soon as possible.  The reality is that outside of Japan, Korea, Singapore and Western Europe, most public Internet connections are way too slow to make this work.  Especially if you are traveling in the 3rd world, getting fast enough upload speeds for many photos is a pipe dream.  If you don’t mind sitting in an internet cafe for hours on end, then this is the solution for you.


This article is one in a series on protecting your digital ass(ets).  Here are the other articles:


Part 2: BACKING UP PHOTOS: You can replace your clothes, backpack or husband, but photos are irreplaceable

Part 3: BACKING UP YOUR COMPUTER: At home or on the road, your photos will end up on a computer, backing that up becomes priority number one

Part 4: OH SHIT! When accidents happen to your electronics

After all the articles have been posted they will integrated into the Preparation Section.


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» Mom A :
Feb 7, 2011

I however, wife of thinkChua’s father-in-law, will be following this series avidly. Please complete before July when we take a month long trip. Great article! May the tech gods be with you, as well as all of those other guardians we have been exhorting to hover over you two to guarantee your safety when x&@# happens despite your own good travel instincts.
Mom A

P.S. In father-in-laws defense, he is contemplating a smart phone. Please send advice by separate e-mail!

» Donna :
Feb 7, 2011

This is great information! How did you know I was updating some of my computer crap??? Yes, with the new Time Machine on Mac, I’m actually buying an external drive for backup … something I’ve not been good at doing on my own. :-( I won’t, however, be lugging my new laptop along to Europe … although I will probably haul it along on car trips. I like seeing my pix on a bigger screen than the camera’s! And I got Skype installed on the laptop, but have to get the G5 OS updated before I can get it installed on it. Hopefully by the end of the week. Keep that high tech stuff coming … like it way better than Mac Life or Popular Photo! Send some warm our way okay? Donna

» bka :
Feb 8, 2011

the irony of me being”quoted” let alone mentioned in a blog on technology is i guess ironic!……having just purchased 4g smart phones, you once again are behind me techno wise, how ironic is that…..i have more to say, but the computer cord isn’t long enough to reach the pantry………speaking of “woo doggies”, have you ate one yet?…..we ate at que viet tonight in your honor, almost like being there……by the way, there is a border war going on over there, be safe… bka

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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