28 Tips for Traveling With a Laptop and SLR Camera
As a digital nomad I need to carry around more tech gear (SLR camera, laptop, hard drives, ipod) than most around the world backpackers. These items are invaluable to my existence and ability to run a location independent business. However, I’m often found in situations where I’m left with little or no protection for my gear. There are many times where I just don’t want to carry it around, but at the same time, I want it to be safe from theft.
In an attempt to keep my Mac Book Pro laptop and Nikon D90 SLR camera and lenses safe I had to take many precautions during my travels to over 11 countries so far. Not all hostels have lockers and with a shared room you don’t know who could be going through your stuff. Especially, if you’ve been seen around the hostel working on your laptop or taking photos. I need my laptop for survival as a digital nomad so I must carry it. If you can’t face losing your laptop or camera gear then don’t bring it with you. Otherwise, be prepared. I’ve developed a system to keep my stuff safe, enjoy these tips and tricks to prevent digital disasters!
- Use a well-made padded case that is generic in design to carry your laptop in. You don’t want to attract attention to your laptop so don’t get a wild design with bright colors. Find a plain black or other neutral color case.
- Get a decent backpack to carry your laptop and/or camera gear in. You want support and something that is functional for your needs, but at the same time you don’t want to get something that portrays wealth. Again, find something with neutral colors and is generic looking on the outside. If you get a bag with all the bells and whistles it sends off an expensive signal that attracts thief’s. Same goes for wild colors and outrageous designs. PacSafe makes theft deterrent backpacks that are slash proof. Check them out here: Pacsafe Daysafe 100 Anti-Theft Backpack, Pacsafe Daysafe 200 Anti-Theft Computer Backpack, and the Pacsafe MetroSafe 350 Daypack.
- Rip off the designer labels such as Nikon or Canon off your gear/backpack and scruff up your backpack. Do not use the camera strap that came with the camera instead buy a generic one that doesn’t advertise Canon or Nikon on it. Or you can Deter Thieves by Uglifying Your Camera. (Thanks Amy & Kieron)
- Get the smallest computer you need for what you’ll be doing. If you’re only updating your blog then a small netbook will suffice. If you’re doing high-end design work, then you might need that mac book pro. In that case, get the smallest screen size you can handle.
- Bring a small combination lock for lockers. If your hostel has a locker big enough for your backpack, use it. Never leave your laptop unattended. If you do, you’re giving someone the opportunity to take advantage of the situation and steal it.
- Protect your cords and chargers the same way you would protect your computer. I left my chargers on my hostel bed and they were gone within a few hours. Why someone would steal chargers is beyond me. Lock up all your electronic items, including chargers. These items can be expensive to replace depending on where you are. At the Nikon store a replacement charger cost me $60, only to lose it 3-weeks later.
- Use a PacSafe backpack cover. Not all hostels have lockers which makes it difficult to lock your items up safely while you’re away. A PacSafe will cover your entire bag with a wire mesh that is impossible to cut. It also has a feature that allows you to lock it to immovable objects (like your bed, a pole, or a seat) This ensures that nobody will be going through your bag and stealing random items while you’re away. It is also useful when you are on buses. You can latch your backpack to your seat and be able to rest without worry. The PacSafe was invaluable to me on long journeys.
- Be conscious of when and where you bring out your laptop and/or camera gear. If you are going down a dangerous alley, it’s best to put it away out of sight. Don’t pull it out on bus rides to type up a blog entry (who knows who’s watching you – and wants to catch you off guard). Remember the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind.” What they don’t see, they don’t know you have.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Be watchful of people watching you, following you, or acting suspicious. When in doubt, get to a public area or walk into a store. Get there as quick as you can! However, being in a public area does not mean nothing will happen.
- Bring a friend. If you are going to go on a photo walk around the city with your SLR camera gear find someone to go with you. It’s better to travel in pairs with expensive gear so that it makes it slightly more intimidating to rob you.
- Change your memory cards often and put them in your pocket (not your bag). When you are going on a photo walk in public places you could be robbed of your camera gear. It happens. By placing your memory cards in your pocket (not in your tech gear backpack or bag), at the very least you still have your photographs if your bag is somehow stolen.
- When in transit, put your memory cards in your pocket if the photos have not been downloaded yet. Sometimes we let our guard down. If your bags are rummaged through on the bus/train/plane and your camera is stolen your photos will be safe with you. I heard over and over again from travelers that they didn’t care about the stolen camera, just the photos.
- Be careful on buses where you put your backpack. If you put it on the floor, sometimes thief’s get under the seats and go through your bags. If you put it in the overhead bin, the someone could grab it on their way out when you’re not looking. For these reasons always put it in your lap. This is where the PacSafe comes in handy because you can attach it to the overhead bin or under your seat and with the slash proof wire mesh to keep your tech items are safe.
- Never put your tech backpack under the bus or in checked luggage. When your bag is out of your sight, you have NO idea what could be done with it. Always keep your backpack with your laptop and SLR camera with you during transit.
- If someone strikes up a conversation with you and asks probing questions like, “Where are you staying?” lie. Do not tell them the hostel you’re staying in or any information about yourself. When you leave be sure that you are not being followed.
- When you buy a laptop, try to get one with international warranty. When you travel, anything can go wrong. You want to make sure that you are able to get your laptop fixed via warranty if available.
- If you do not have a safe place to put your laptop hide it between mattresses on your bed.
How to Protect Your Laptop Data
Now that we’ve covered all the great ways to keep your laptop and SLR camera safe when using them in public, let’s talk about data. The most important thing our laptops and cameras have is the data they hold. The data is invaluable to us. They may have client files, decades of photos, word documents, and other important files. If your laptop or camera is stolen, the biggest loss is the data. The actual laptop or SLR camera can be easily replaced with money, the data can’t.
- Download your photos daily. I know it’s a lot of extra work, but download your photos daily. Anything can happen at any time so it’s best to empty your memory cards as often as possible. I met many travelers who didn’t download their photos at all and when their camera was stolen they lost months of photos. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather lose a days worth of photos rather than a weeks, a months, or a years.
- Have an external hard drive with a back-up of all your important data. If your laptop is stolen, you’ve still got your data.
- Never store the hard drive in the same place as your laptop and/or SLR camera. If your tech backpack is stolen, you’ve lost everything. If you have the hard drive in another safe place (away from your laptop), you’ve saved your data.
- When in transit carry your external hard drive in your pocket on you. It’s small enough. You don’t want to place it in your checked baggage and you want it separate from your laptop and SLR camera, so keep it on you.
- Use a rugged external hard drive. Your hard drive will get beaten up just by being in your backpack as it’s tossed around the world. It pays to have a hard drive that can sustain a hit. I use the Lacie Rugged All-Terrain hard drive. It sustained every hit you could imagine.
- Secure your data. If you have sensitive data for your location independent business password protect your data or utilize Lacie’s Rugged All-Terrain SAFE hard drive. This hard drive provides multiple layers of data protection including biometric authentication (finger scanning).
- Every month, copy all of your new data to a USB drive or burn dvds and mail it to a safe holding place back home. You can never have enough back-up plans. Ask anyone who has lost their data from several data storage places. It will be worth it’s weight in gold, should something happen.
- Utilize an online back-up system. The best way to keep your data safe and easily accessible in case something happens is to upload your data to a server. The company I use is Mozy. Mozy provides 2GB of Free Online Backup and if you need more space then it’s only $4.95/Month for Unlimited Backup. I know that when you travel to 3rd world countries the internet is not always the fastest or most reliable especially when your dealing with large files. Upload in small batches each night as you take new photos or have new data to protect. If your files are too large then go to a major city every month. Large cities, even in 3rd world countries, usually have faster internet speeds. Get a private room (so that you can leave your laptop uploading while your sleeping or away from your room) at a hostel or hotel with wifi and upload your month’s data overnight. It’s only for one-day and likely isn’t that much more than a shared room. Worse case scenario you lose a month’s worth of data. However, if you use all of the methods above, your data will be safe somewhere.
- Keep your laptop clean. Do not have your internet browser save all of your passwords. This is a sure-fire way to give the thief access to information you don’t want them to have.
You may not think all this precaution is necessary, but you will regret not taking action when something happens. I do. I learned my lesson when I lost all my photos from Fiji and Machu Picchu. Implementing these very tactics will not only save your data, but give you piece of mind. It’s not out of the ordinary for something to happen to your original and a back-up.
Use a Tracking Application for your laptop, iphone, or ipod touch.
Most travel insurance will not cover laptops or have very low limits ($500) so should it get stolen, you are shit out of luck. However, there is another option. You can install a theft recovery application on your laptop, iphone, and/or ipod touch before you leave for your trip. The small price you pay for these applications will pay for themselves should something happen.
There are several applications to choose from:
How Undercover Works:
If your laptop is stolen you log on to the designated website and report it as stolen. Next time the machine is turned-on the software is activated. The application begins taking screenshots of your machine in use along with mug-shots of the thief using the built in camera and sends them back to you. The screenshots can help give you information about the thief especially if they log into facebook or other similar website. It will also geolocate your machine within 10 or 20 feet when it is using a wifi or internet connection. You then take this information to the police which can help you recover your laptop. Should this plan fail the application moves to Plan B. When you flip the switch for plan b Undercover simulates a hardware fault, gradually darkening the screen so the machine appears unusable. Hopefully, the thief will bring it in for repair and you can activate lock-down which displays a message that tells users it’s a stolen machine.
Password Protect your Laptop
Password protect your machine so that you can protect your account and data on your laptop. However, make a nonpassword guest account so that it makes it easy for the theft to use your computer. If you have a theft application, like Undercover, you want them to use the computer so it can give you the data you need for recovery. Be sure to use a strong password that does not use real words, birth dates, names, or phone numbers. In order to come up with a password I can remember I find a phrase or quote and use the first letter from each word and capitalize a random letter plus a number that has significance to that phrase. ie: (“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” = twiAbatwdntroop1884)
If you’re a professional photographer it is easy to find insurance for your camera and laptop. On my trip to South America I was given insurance for my SLR camera and laptop via an insurance company. However, that insurance went away when they realized they made a mistake with my account. Currently, there are very few options for insurance but Brook from Brooks on Break found insurance for his gear through State Farm.