Keep your backups safe!

As outlined in my earlier articles (including the recent one about my field image-processing workflow) I’ve put some thought into maintaining efficient and safe backups as part of my routine workflow. While travelling I generate a lot of valuable files, and if I lost them I would only have the memories and the experience left. Insurance can replace equipment, but it can’t replace files! By having all my files on the laptop and duplicated onto an external drive (sometimes two backup drives) I have a lot of protection.

If my laptop is damaged, lost, or stolen, I could access all the external files on another MacBook. If I got a replacement machine I could even reinstall all the software and setup from the external drive. Even without a replacement or borrowed laptop I could still download new cards directly to my Nexto drive. 

If my hard drive is damaged/lost/stolen I could obviously continue without it. But I would also still be able to use the second (Nexto) drive as the backup.

However, I still need to do sensible things with those backups in order to be protected!

Antarctic wings (A2_053032)

Be aware of where your files are

On our recent African trip, when we left our bags/clothes/etc in camp while out on game drives in Kenya, we did take our laptops with us (mine was slotted into its place in my camera bag). Back in camp, my two backup drives were stored in separate bags/locations. One of those drives was always up to date, while the other was at most several days old.

When we reached Zanzibar and went on walking tours of Stone Town, I wasn’t carrying that big camera bag, and neither was I about to take my laptop with me into the hectic town. I left my laptop and one of the drives at the hotel, but took the main backup drive in an inside pocket of my jacket.

Wherever possible I didn’t leave everything together, and always had one copy with me. Sometimes compromises were made though. On ship-borne expeditions such as our polar trips where we’re on a small ship and know everyone on board, there’s little risk of theft and it’s often a reasonable compromise to leave the laptop and drives in your cabin for the entire voyage.

Some people have additional backup strategies:

  • Copying “selects” to flash storage which is easily carried in a pocket. I usually find the choice of which files to add to this backup is an added complication, but it can be manageable.
  • Burning CDs/DVDs of files to occasionally post home. Given the small capacity of these media this has the same issue, but can be a useful addendum to your backup strategy especially for extended trips. Not that I would trust some of the third-world postal systems I’ve encountered to deliver anything safely! Also, a stack of optical media can take up more space in your luggage than an extra hard drive. My laptop’s actually had the DVD drive replaced by a second internal hard drive.
  • Uploading files to “cloud” storage. Of course this only works with decent Internet connections and free/cheap data. Uploading any sizeable data would be a challenge in many of the locations we visit.

Don’t get lazy

But whatever you do: don’t get lazy. Travel through busy cities and airports/etc opens you up to many risks, so try not to get caught out by putting all your eggs in one basket. If someone stole my camera backpack in transit (which would be hard to do short of mugging me) they would get my big cameras, my laptop, and possibly one of my backup drives. But the other backup drive will be somewhere else (e.g. in a companion’s backpack).

All it takes is one day where you don’t think things through clearly, and end up with all your files (source and backups) in one bag, and the odds are that this will be the day that this bag will be stolen (or dropped, etc). The sinking feeling when you realise that all your hard work has disappeared is not pleasant! Actually, it’s almost the same feeling you get when your computer crashes and you realise that you hadn’t actually updated your backups in a while…

Yes, this has just happened to someone I know. Don’t let it happen to you!

Christmas morning view (A2_031241)


  1. (nods)

    Also, automatic cron jobs for the win. No good having external backup drives if the data hasn’t been copied on to them…

  2. Ah yes, but if you’re backing up something like an Aperture or Lightroom catalog, you need to make sure that the database is closed before you copy it (so you get a viable copy). So sometimes a manual procedure is safer.
    Also, auto backups only work for the first line of defence. If your tertiary backups are on external drives, manual intervention to connect them (and disconnect again when the backup is complete) is required.
    Automation can only take you so far (and for that matter when I’m travelling I have no idea at what time I’m going to be doing the backups! :).

  3. Good read, David.
    I took on board some of your advice in the past and still make 2 copies as soon as I come home – one Raw to a separate HDD, a DNG created while importing to Lightroom catalogue in another HDD, then the LR catalogue drive with its collection of DNGs get backed up in yet another clone. Sadly they are in one location at the moment, and while I have not got as many valuable content as you do, I realise I will have to start building a remote/off-site backup routine sooner or later, even if it is just a matter of taking a physical clone drive to a friend’s house.

Leave a Reply