Taking a laptop computer with you when you go backpacking can pose some difficulties – how to avoid it getting smashed up or stolen? Here are a few ideas to keep your computer and your data safe
My laptop disappeared off the back of my motorbike whilst I was driving up a dirt track on Koh Tao in Thailand. I watched it bounce back the way I had come, cartwheeling down the hill and managing to unerringly crash into every big rock it could find before it came to rest. Not a good day.
What I learnt from this was:
a) not to be so bloody stupid as to attach unprotected laptops to the back of motorbikes and hope they stay in place and b) the most expensive item by far in my meagre luggage was also the most fragile and easy to break.
Having learnt my lesson the hard way, here’s how I look after my laptop these days when I’m travelling. So far, following the below means I’ve managed to avoid breaking or losing anything and also kept all my photos and writing from on the road intact, which is the main thing.
1) Don’t take your laptop travelling if you can’t face losing it
The biggest danger to your laptop when you’re travelling is you. Theft of your laptop is possible, but on a long trip it’s actually far more likely you will break it or lose it yourself. Therefore it’s much better to take a laptop with you that you can face losing or getting destroyed. It’ll be a bad day, but it won’t have the same “in mourning for a month” effect as dropping your brand new MacBook Pro in the ocean when getting on a boat or similar. There are super-rugged laptops out there that can resist being dropped and having coffee spilt on them, but they’re super-pricey too. Plus being “ruggedized” doesn’t help you when you leave your laptop on a bus.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s a good idea to consider either buying a super cheap laptop (second hand perhaps) to take with you, or use going travelling as the perfect justification to upgrade to a brand new system at home and take your older laptop with you. Ebay, for example, have a ton of cheap laptops – scroll down the page to see the latest Ebay auctions.
It depends what you want to do with your laptop while on the road, but I would guess for most people it’s a combination of word processing, managing digital photos when travelling, playing MP3s and the occasional bit of internet use. You don’t need a state of the art system to do any of that.
You can get dedicated laptop insurance to cover you for theft or damage, which is worth investigating if you decide to take pricey hardware on the road with you.
Assuming then that you do take your laptop travelling, here’s some more ideas on how to look after it and your own sanity.
2) Get a decent laptop backpack
All you really need to protect your own laptop is a decent bag specifically designed to carry a notebook. I have a Samsonite sport backpack which was pricey but worth every penny – it’s rugged, with a thick padded bottom and laptop compartment with a lock-in strap, it holds a ton of other stuff in well-designed inner compartments that let you get at things easily, and it has substantial shoulder straps and a mesh backing to let your back breathe a little easier.
You should also find some buffer material to on your keyboard to help protect the screen when you close your laptop. I use the thin foamy sheet that came in my laptop’s packing materials. I also slide the laptop into a sturdy plastic carrier bag (from my local Mac store, actually) when I’m putting it in my backpack. The plastic bag stays permanently in the laptop compartment and I simply pull the laptop in and out and fold the plastic over the top. That way it’s got a second skin to protect against any rain. (Backpacks are generally water resistant but not waterproof). Both these things take only a second to do before you head out, but can help protect your laptop substantially while you’re on the move.
With a laptop backpack, it’s a lot more convenient to carry your notebook on your back and it’s also a lot less obtrusive too – if you carry a laptop briefcase, you’re basically saying “hey, look at me, I’m packing thousands of dollars of hardware.” You probably won’t get mugged, but you’re going to have a hard time getting rid of touts because you’ll have a big neon dollar sign floating over your head. Plus you have one less hand free for dealing with tickets, ice cream etc.
Ensuring you have a well-designed backpack is crucial for comfort – even the lightest laptop can weigh you down after 10 minutes walk in 30 degree heat. That obviously also goes for using the backpack for other-non-laptop-toting activities. You’ll forget about the extra few shekels you spent to get the bag very quickly. You won’t forget the continual discomfort a cheap, badly-designed bag will cause you so easily.
Having a well padded, water resistant bag also provides a haven for your other electronic goodies, like an MP3 player and digital camera. The Samsonite comes with a thoughtful pull-through hole specifically for your headphones cable, letting you leave the player safe in the bag while you walk.
3) Store all your data on a USB Thumb Drive
Even though I house my laptop in a pretty expensive bag, it’s not the most important thing to me. The data on it is the most important thing to me. It makes sense to keep all the data you generate while travelling on a USB Thumb Drive rather than on the laptop’s hard drive itself – so if you lose or trash the laptop, the data is not lost with it. Ideally you’d save the info to the hard drive and back it up to the thumb drive, but when you’re travelling, it’s easy to get pretty sloppy about that sort of stuff. To keep things simple, saving straight to the thumb drive means you can always have the data on you. You can figure out someway to make sure it’s attached to an inner pocket or whatever. Because, of course, if you lose the thumb drive, you’re screwed.
This is glaringly obvious, but it’s worth thinking about. Backing up your data when travelling can be a bit of a pain. If you are travelling in South East Asia, for example, internet connections et al can be very flaky – forget trying to shift 2 gig of data to a remote backup server when you’re in Malaysian Borneo.
What I resorted to was simply burning CDs or DVDs of my data – although of course you need to remember to bring blank discs or find an internet cafe that can sell one to you. I’d burn one to carry in my luggage and mail the other one home. Possibly overkill, but you get the point. Nowadays, it might be worth thinking about bringing several additional blank thumb drives and simply backing up your data on one of those and posting it home. These days it’s $10 for a 1 gigabyte USB Thumb Drive! You would have to statistically incredibly unlucky to lose your thumb drive AND a backup of it in your luggage at the same time – but it’s possible. Sending a copy home acts as a lo-fi remote backup.
5) Universal Adapters and Power Surge Protectors
These are very dull but necessary things that can really catch out travelling laptop users. You need a universal adapter that lets you plug into the mains of whichever country you’re in. You probably want to invest in one that has an inbuilt power surge protector, because in many parts of the world – like South East Asia – the electricity fluctuates a lot. If you don’t use a power surge protector, you run the risk of your entire laptop being completely fried and rendered utterly useless. It’s one of those things that seem improbable until it happens, and I’ve seen it happen to two different friends, so I’d definitely recommend getting a decent adapter and surge protector. Amazon has a variety of universal adapters, some with surge protection built in. I think it might be wise to have the two separate, and get a dedicated surge protector.
6) Keep A Clean Machine
It’s very unlikely even if you lost your laptop while travelling that someone would actually exploit the data on it – but why give them even the remote chance? Making sure stuff like bank details, especially online banking info, is not stored on a travelling computer is very important. If you buy a new cheapie laptop for travelling, this isn’t really a problem – unless you slap all your sensitive info onto it the moment it comes out the box – but if you’re taking your venerable old notebook, then there might be important stuff on there you’ve forgotten about. Making sure you have a strong password to log in to your operating system at startup is obviously vital.
7) Move all your Email To Gmail
Even if you do take your laptop with you, don’t expect to be able to regularly connect to the internet with your laptop and access your email – a lot of the time, those sorts of facilities just aren’t available. However, interest cafes are ubiquitous these days pretty much everywhere (even if they sometimes suffer mindcrushingly slow connection speeds) and being able to get your email anywhere is one of the most important requirements of travelling.
Best to plan ahead and open a free Gmail account, which is easily the best of the free webmail providers these days, with a huge amount of storage and excellent search and retrieval of your emails. Make the swop a few weeks before you go – you can direct your existing email account to forward to your Gmail account. You can also download all your email from Gmail to your laptop when you do get a decent internet connection using the Pop3 protocol and a decent free mail reader like Mozilla Thunderbird.
That’s pretty much it. If you have any laptop travelling tips, please let me know below!
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