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How Did You Back Up While on Your Trip?

My wife and I recently returned (or rather are returning; I’m writing this at 31,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean) from a three-week trip to Australia and New Zealand. Being who I am and doing what I do, both for fun and for business, you can imagine that some technology accompanied me: my laptop and my digital camera.

Prior to leaving, I put some serious thought into how best to ensure that I was prepared for various misfortunes that can happen on the road. Given how often I cajole, preach and harp on “back up, back up, back up!” I also needed to set a good example; Nothing would be more embarrassing in my position than suffering catastrophic data loss that could have been prevented by some form of backup.

Understanding what I needed to do began with a simple assessment of what data I would have, what might go wrong, and the relative priorities of it all.

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Just taking a laptop and a camera on a trip means you’re taking a lot of data with you. Operating systems and applications, of course, but also programs, the data used by those programs, email, photographs, and more.

As I looked at the data I would carry and generate while on my trip, I came to a realization that there was really only one class of information that was truly and irrevocably irreplaceable: the photographs I would take on the trip itself.

To make that even more scary, I frequently get questions that begin with “Help! I’ve lost all my pictures!”

Clearly, photos warrant serious consideration.

Literally everything else could be recovered — at cost or inconvenience, perhaps — but it could be recovered. My laptop and camera could be replaced. The operating system and applications could be reinstalled. The data carried with me was backed up at home prior to leaving. My email is backed up on both my own email server and Gmail. The only thing I would truly lose if I lost both my camera and laptop would be copies of any email I sent after leaving home (a loss I was willing to accept), and all my trip photographs (a loss I was not willing to accept).

My backups took two forms.

External hard drive

When I travel, I carry a Seagate FreeAgent Go 500-gigabyte external USB drive. At the end of each day, I do a system backup. In my case, that’s a custom script, but a traditional daily incremental backup using any of a number of backup tools would have been just as appropriate. This duplicates everything that changed since the prior backup. On this trip, that means that photographs downloaded from my camera are copied to this backup daily.

I also took the extra paranoid step of making sure that the external hard drive and my laptop never traveled together: as I type, the hard drive is in my luggage and my laptop is with me in the airplane cabin. If I lose my luggage, I still have my laptop. When we left for day trips and the laptop remained at the hotel, I threw the hard drive in my backpack that came with me. If my laptop were to be stolen, I’d still have my backup.

The thinking here is something along the lines of off-site storage. It’s all well and good to have a backup, but if that backup gets stolen, lost or destroyed along with the original, it does you no good. Hence, I tried to make sure that when practical, the laptop and the backup drive were in the same place together as little as possible.

But my paranoia didn’t end there.

Postal mail

This was a pretty special trip for us, and the pictures I was to take would be incredibly important keepsakes. Even though remote, the possibility of losing both the laptop and hard drive — and all my photographs — was something I didn’t want to let happen.

One approach that I discarded early was to upload everything daily to my own server; I have lots of space there, after all. Unfortunately, internet connectivity was to be questionable, slow, and often expensive. It wasn’t practical to upload what in the end turned out to be roughly 24 gigabytes of photographs (roughly 2,300 images).

Instead, I went old school.

Before I left, I purchased 10 four-gigabyte compact flash cards and prepared self-addressed envelopes in which to mail them home. At the end of our stay in each city, I copied the accumulated photographs to a CF card and dropped it in the mail. Some of my photographs would be home before me, and the rest would trickle in shortly after my return. Even if the absolute worst happened and we lost everything short of our lives, we’d still have our pictures.

A note About sequencing

The rule of thumb when considering important data is to never have only a single copy. Always have a backup.

I kept that in mind even as I downloaded photographs from my camera to my laptop.

A common approach is to “move” photographs — deleting them from the camera as they are placed on the laptop so as to make room on the camera’s memory card for the next day’s pictures. But that still results in only one copy of the pictures, and a copy operation that can, in some cases, be destructive (if a hard drive goes bad during a move, for example, the file being moved could conceivably be lost).

My approach was to follow this sequence:

  • Copy the photographs from the camera’s memory card to my laptop. This immediately created the desired two copies of everything.
  • At some point, I would backed the laptop, effectively creating a third copy of the pictures on the external drive. (One in the camera, one on the laptop, and one on the external drive.)
  • Only then would I delete the photographs from the camera’s memory card.

The result: two copies as soon as possible and never less than two copies thereafter.

A note about security

I’ve not talked about security, because this is primarily an article about backing up, but the two cross paths, as you might expect.

The question to be answered is this: will someone have access to my personal data if:

  • My laptop gets stolen?
  • My backup drive gets stolen?
  • One of those compact flash cards I dropped into the mail gets intercepted?

Long-time readers will know at least one of my solutions is TrueCrypt, and will recognize the other: 7-Zip.

My laptop’s data is encrypted in a TrueCrypt volume. Without the passphrase, it’s so much random data to a thief.

My backups use 7-Zip, and they’re password-encrypted with an exceptionally strong password.

The surprising one as I was setting all this up was the compact flash memory cards that I was mailing to myself. I decided I didn’t really want some random person to have access to my photographs should the memory cards fall into the wrong hands. So I encrypted those too: each four-gigabyte memory card contains a single file: an encrypted TrueCrypt volume inside of which are the photographs I’m mailing home. Once again useless without the passphrase.

Are you protected?

I’m sure that some of you will consider the approaches that I’ve taken excessive, and I can understand that. Others may have different ideas to achieve similar results that work better for them.

I share my paranoia and my approach for two reasons.

First: you would not believe the number of people I hear from that have lost their precious photographs because they’ve not performed even the most basic of backups — sometimes never even downloading from their camera. If you take away nothing else, take away this: have two copies of everything as soon as is practical.

Second: even when you do back up regularly, it’s easy to overlook scenarios like losing both your original and backup, which is especially easy while traveling — often when what you might lose is more valuable than ever. It’s worth thinking through the scenarios, the importance of what you have, and taking appropriate measures.

Losing all your vacation photos can be painful, and taking the trip again just isn’t the same.

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13 comments on “How Did You Back Up While on Your Trip?”

  1. I have always carried a portable hard drive for back-up, which also contained a back up of all the data on my home computer in a true-crypt volume. Your idea of mailing the 4 gb SD card is a stroke of genius. I actually lost some photos due to a computer problem and since the files were corrupted and not lost I inadvertently overwrote the backup with the corrupted data during a later backup. Emailing myself SD cards would have prevented this.

  2. Well i hope you enjoyed the weather in Australia, it been far to hot and humid over here of late!. In regards to backup I use Bitser when im away as its got all the 7-zip compression and encryption functions but also a nice backup gui similar to the old NTBackup checkboxes which is quite handy.

  3. glad to know you enjoyed your well earned rest and spent time together,we should all do this
    i personly back up every thing photos more so but i’ve never backed up to my flash drives daily,and
    thanks for 7 zip tip i will down load it now, look forward to the new newsletter Leo.regards john

  4. I still find it amazing how many people erase the photos from their camera immediately after downloading it to their computer. Murphy’s Law kicks in way too many times, crashing the HD soon afterward.

  5. Leo

    I have not yet read this article (naughty boy). I was keen to say, I hope that you and your family have had a wonderful time an a well overdue rest.

    PS: I am glad that you are ‘backup’ and producing Ask Leo. Kind regards

    Ron Barker

  6. Leo, me ol’ china plate. Wish I’d have known you were in Oz, would have loved to say g’day!!

    Sincerely hope you enjoyed your break downunder mate. Nice to have you back on deck though.


  7. I would have thought you might have used one of the online backup services like Mozy or Dropbox to augment your backup strategy.

    I considered it (actually using my own servers, but the same idea), but my internet connectivity was not reliable enough, or fast enough, to backup that quantity of data while I was out and about.


  8. Sometimes the camera or a flash memory card from a camera gets lost and found. I want mine back!

    So the first photo on every card of mine is a shot of my home computer monitor with a large type document giving my name, contact info, and address, and “Reward for Return” in a prominent font.

    If the card (or the camera and card) is going to get back to me, some one has to know where to send it. Don’t encrypt this photo!


    I also starting putting a “readme.txt” on my memory cards with that information as well. But an additional photograph wouldn’t hurt too :-).


  9. Good to know there are other “paranoids” out there, but I have a third/fourth backup plan for my pictures. I also send them to Snapfish or Shutterfly. They keep the digital size for 3-4 months, and during that time you can always buy a CD from them (inexpensively) if anything is lost or stolen. I generally back them up monthly on a CD too, when I’m home-keeping those in a bank vault, as well as backed up on a Seagate.

    As I’ve mentioned in a couple of places now, online solutions like that only work if you have a reliable internet connection that is capable of transferring all your photos in a timely fashion. Not only did I not have a reliable internet connection for most of the trip, even when I did transferring 23 GIGAbytes of photos to an online repository would never have worked.


  10. The snail mail home is fine IF you’re in a 1st world country, maybe even a “2nd”. But 3rd world, it’s debatable if it’ll get there, especially if the envelope has “something” in it. Even a registered package can go missing.

    You could either opt for the expensive private carriers, or keep the card elsewhere in your luggage. Certainly not the 3rd path of mail, but it is a 3rd copy.

  11. Leo, you did the right thing, you weren’t paranoid, but smart. Besides being stolen, computer equipment is prone to failure at any time. A warranty covers your hardware, but not your precious moments. I regularly place photos and important emails on those 4GB flash cards. They are inexpensive and reusable, and probably one of the best items bought in preparation for your trip.

  12. No, you’re not paranoid Leo. Last year I was in Australia and New Zealand and was backing up to both my laptop and a 4 GB flash card. Even with that, I lost over 100 pictures from the Queenstown area. I think I was “moving” them and somehow deleted them instead without noticing. Of course, I formatted the camera card when I got home, thinking everything was backed up! Lesson learned, I am currently in Hawaii and am triple backing up (flash card, computer, dropbox) the latter when I have fast and free internet.


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