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How Should I Back Up When Traveling?

Things to consider when you’re away from home.

Backing up while on the road can be a challenge. I'll review what's practical and how to keep your data safe.
Laptop on hotel bed with suitcase in the background.
Question: I use a cloud service as the primary backup of my personal files, and do image backups to an NAS at home. I’m using a service that allows me to access my home network while I’m away. I have not had a single image backup complete successfully to my NAS at home while travelling. Could one workaround be to do the backups onto a local external hard drive and then transfer the backup files back to my home server?

I would not expect a huge file copy of an image backup to be reliable, no matter how you do it. So, to put it bluntly, I wouldn’t even try.

However, backing up while on the road is something I’ve thought about a lot — each time I travel, actually, since things are always changing.

Let’s review why sending image backups home is impractical in my opinion, and what I recommend you do instead.

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Backing up when travelling

Image backups should be done locally to an external hard disk accompanying you. It’s impractical to copy them elsewhere, though. Instead, use online backup tools to back up your important files, or cloud storage like OneDrive or Dropbox to automatically save work in progress and simultaneously replicate it to machines back home.

Long distance image

Let’s say you have a gigabit internet connection (approximately 1,000,000,000 bits per second, or 125,000,000 bytes per second).1 Let’s also conservatively say your image backups are 250 gigabytes(250,000,000,000 bytes).2

Under absolutely perfect conditions, it would take a little over half an hour to transfer your backup image from your remote location to your home. “Absolutely perfect” never happens. Several things will significantly affect the transfer time.

To begin with, overhead data transfer rates are more like 80% of rated line speed, at best.

Internet connections compete for bandwidth. That means anything else on your machine using the internet at the same time will slow down the transfer. In addition, you may compete with other network users or ISP customers at either end. For example, if your neighbor is using the internet heavily, it’s possible it could slow down your connection, sometimes significantly.

But it’s about more than internet speed. ALL the equipment in the path — your computer(s), your home network, your NAS — must all be capable of sustaining that speed. Any single device that does not (say one of your devices has a 100mbps network connection, ten times slower that the gigabit internet) becomes the limiting factor.

Pragmatically, copying image backups across the internet takes hours and sometimes days.

It gets worse. The software performing the copy — the backup software directly or the copy command done separately — needs to reliably recover from interruptions. They often do not, and a single hiccup could interrupt the entire operation.

Bottom line: it’s just not practical. Too many things can and will go wrong.

Local image

You’re absolutely on the right path by backing up to an external hard disk you carry with you. There are many portable external drives that are perfect for this.

I carry one with me whenever I travel for this exact purpose.

I back up to the external drive, but that’s as far as the image backup goes. I don’t try to send it home or anywhere else across the network. It’s just too big.

That image backup protects you from system failures, malware, and other common issues. The only thing you’re not really protected from is losing both your computer and external drive at the same time.

For that, we take the next step.

Backing up files remotely

It sounds like you’re also using some kind of online backup service that is backing up a subset of your files. That may well be enough.

My approach instead uses tools like OneDrive or Dropbox to back up my work in progress. That way, as files change throughout the day, they’re automatically replicated to the cloud without my having to lift a finger.

This protects me from the scenario of losing everything all at once, because even without my laptop or external drives, the stuff I care about has been copied elsewhere.

As it turns out, that provides a secondary layer of security as well.

Backing up at home

Say I’m on the road, and I work on a file stored in my Dropbox. As soon as I hit save, this happens:

  • The file is updated on my local hard disk.
  • Dropbox uploads the file to its servers.
  • Dropbox then downloads the file to my machine(s) at home which are signed into the same Dropbox account.
  • My nightly image backup on my machine at home includes the updated file.
  • Any image backup I create3 of the laptop that’s with me also includes the file.

My work in progress as I travel is well and thoroughly backed up.

Not backing up at all, sort of

Honestly, much of what I do these days doesn’t fall into the scenario I list above.

For example, as I type this article, it’s being saved directly to the Ask Leo! web server, not on my machine at all. This would be the equivalent, perhaps, of doing all your work in Google Docs or Microsoft Office Online. The files you’re working on aren’t on your machine, but rather stored natively in the cloud.

That’s convenient as far as it goes, but be careful to ensure the work is somehow getting backed up as well.

My server gets backed up regularly.

My OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Docs are all included in my local image backups because I have those utilities installed on my machine and configured to download everything, all the time.4

Make sure anything you’re doing online is somehow being backed up. If it’s in only one place, even if that “one place” is an online cloud service, then it’s not backed up.

Do this

Don’t rely on the internet for huge file copy operations when travelling, particularly backups.

Instead, make sure you have a strategy that backs up the things you care about appropriately, taking in to account internet speeds and other services and tools you’re already using back home. You may find that something as simple as doing your work in OneDrive or Dropbox folders coupled with the backups you’re already doing at home covers the bill.

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Podcast audio


Footnotes & References

1: I’ve never seen that fast an internet connection while travelling. Consider yourself lucky if you have one.

2: Half the size of my primary machine backup, but I’m an edge case.

3: Full disclosure: I do this rarely while I’m travelling. So much of what I work on is cloud-based or cloud-hosted that the image backup of my machine is often more hassle than it’s pragmatically worth. This decision depends heavily on exactly how you use your machine while travelling. When in doubt, back up.

4: All of these services now have options to save disk space by downloading only on demand. This defeats the backup process. On at least one machine with lots of disk space, I have those services configured to download everything, all the time, specifically so they’ll be included in my local backups.

7 comments on “How Should I Back Up When Traveling?”

  1. I assume you don’t compose the text for articles directly online, but type them into a word processor or text editor before uploading.

    And gigabit Internet bandwidth while traveling??? 50 Mb is an exceptionally fast bandwidth on a public or hotel WiFi.

    • Nope, they’re generally typed directly into the WordPress interface. What times I’ve composed offline there’ve just generally been too many minor formatting annoyances when pasting it. And I’ve rarely had a problem going direct.

  2. Posted on YouTube as @MrSnowMen 4 days ago

    Thank you for a great video.
    You said what I tell people.
    BackUP, BackUP, BackUP.
    One quick thing I found when using ThunderBird as a poormans backup.
    I use filters to automatically move emails to folders from /inbox/. EG: Ebay emails to /inbox/ebay/ on my main laptop.
    I have found that when I look on my second machine that is also running IMAP, Thunderibird.
    Emails have been removed from /inbox/ but they are not in the /inbox/ebay/ folder.
    (I am not running the same filters on the second machine), just a simple sync.
    It is only when I do a pre-offline sync on the second machine, this is when the second machine fills the /inbox/ebay/ folder with email.
    Unfortunatly, this is a manual process,
    Have you noticed this. (GMAIL don’t do folders like other mail products, I think they use tags?)
    Well, thanks once again for your help. Take care

  3. I’ve always been wary of contunuous backups that have corrupted files overwriting good files. That recently happaned to me, causing the loss of a large Lightroom Classic catalog. It’s saved by the 2d backup, I hope. Am I doing anything wrong here?

    • OneDrive and Dropbox have Recycle Bin to recover deleted or overwritten files withing 30 days of deletion. And if that fails, you should have a system image backup set to recover corrupted files, or damaged or compromised system drives.

  4. The danger of losing files because they are “only in Dropbox” seems non-existent: the originals remain in the Dropbox folder on the first computer. Or have I misunderstood something ?

    • If you lose access to your dropbox account, and the hacker empties it, then the files are gone across all devices unless you have them backed up in an additional, non-Dropbox place.


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