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2013.03.06

Trips often provide incredible opportunities for photography. Given the slim chances of returning to the same place, this creates a strong incentive to shoot as much as possible which  results in huge volumes of digital images and videos. As data volumes rise, the fear of losing all those one-of-a-kind images reaches a new level.

While we have already covered general strategies for Backing Up Digital Media at home, on-the-go temporary backups require a strategy adapted to travel constraints. Weight and bandwidth produce the majority of such constraints which vary somewhat depending on how and where you travel.

Having a backup implies there is a primary copy somewhere. Nearly all digital cameras record images and videos directly onto a flash memory card. With enough cards to cover an entire trip, this easily becomes the primary copy. This is a great option for a primary copy since flash memory is very reliable and durable. Otherwise, data has to regularly be transferred onto another device which is going to be your primary copy.

Laptop DVD Open

Several storage options exist for either a primary copy or backup copy. Remember that without enough  memory cards,  there needs to be two copies in order for one to be a backup. This can be on devices of the same type or not but cannot be on the same physical device. The usual options for digital media storage on the go are:

  • Optical Disk: This is the most reliable option with sizes of up to 50GB for a Dual-Layer Blu-Ray disk. 4.5GB DVD are among the cheapest-per-disk and most widely available. They are relatively slow to burn and write errors are costly.
  • Portable Hard-Disk: This is the easiest storage media to use. Traditional hard-disks are very fast and Solid-State Disks (SSD) are extremely fast. While the former are the cheapest-per-volume, they are very fragile. The latter are rather expensive but ultra-reliable over the short-term and extremely durable.
  • Cloud Storage: This is a rarely feasible option while traveling considering typical upload speeds and variable reliability of internet connections around the world. Even using fast connections in the modern world, transferring over a few gigabytes daily should not be depended upon. However, when possible, this can be extremely reliable as it gives both duplication and distribution at the same time.

Optical disks have several additional advantages:

  1. Disks have no value, unlike a laptop or portable hard-disk. This means they are not themselves a target for thieves. Just avoid leaving in a laptop or camera bag. Otherwise, they may be taken unintentionally.
  2. Storage is cheap because blank DVDs are cheap. You can burn as many as you want.
  3. Distribution is easy:  Mail a copy to yourself every few days for an easy way to get both duplication and distribution of data.
  4. Replication is simple. Just burn everything twice or more.

There are two reasons to avoid portable hard-drives while traveling:

  1. Those based on traditional hard-disk drives are fragile. One drop and a it is dead. Having moving parts is what makes them most fragile. With some models, you can get around this by replacing the disk with an SSD which solves this problem for a hefty price. It does not avoid the next point though.
  2. These devices are valuable. Because they cost money, the will be a target for thieves just like a laptop or camera.

Portable hard drive with a small form-factor have one more issue which is that they stop working above 10,000′ (3000m) from sea level. This includes some but not all iPods. Although this specified altitude is not a hard-limit, every single iPod in a group I was traveling with failed once we crossed 3200m of altitude.

Having your own laptop simplifies things as it can serve as portable hard-drive and may have a built-in burner. Those with burners tend to be somewhat larger but they are practical. Those who travel with one are able to make integrity checks on each copy to ensure its validity.

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