Keep your data safe when you travel for the holidays

Every material thing in our lives can be replaced. Memories can’t. But the digital era means that our memories can be backed up.

That’s especially pertinent as you get ready to leave your computer—and the memories you have stored on it—for an extended vacation. Whether you’re traveling for the holidays or as part of some other well-deserved break, you may be taking some time off, but the myriad problems that can still befall your digital equipment—theft, natural disasters, or just plain old failures—are still very much on the clock.

So when you leave town for the holidays—a time when a house may be empty for an extended period—spare a thought for both the computers and drives you leave behind and the ones you take with you. I recommend a strategy that starts with backing up data before you leave and includes keeping backups of new photos, videos, and files you create while on the road.

Before leaving

We’ve tackled the topic of backups before, and that advice remains as relevant as ever: Always have at least two recent backups of critical or precious files (preferably one local and one off site), as well as an up-to-date clone of your startup drives. This gives you multiple paths for restoring your data. It sounds excessive, but Internet-hosted backups make this strategy practical.

CrashPlan can archive new and changed files to local and remote systems under your control at no cost, or to its central hosting service, CrashPlan+, for a fee.

My strategy at home is to use CrashPlan for both local and Internet archives of documents. (Local, networked, and peer-to-peer backup services are free; Internet-hosted backups require a service plan with variable pricing.) I back up files between two computers on the same network, and also send data from all our home computers to CrashPlan+, the name given the service’s Internet storage side.

When using CrashPlan, you can pause backups—a great feature for preventing excessive bandwidth use when you’re on the road.

As a Mac user, I also turn to SuperDuper to make nightly smart incremental updates to both my desktop machines, one of which is my work computer and the other that acts a home-entertainment system. Carbon Copy Cloner is another backup alternative for incremental updates. Windows users have cloning options of their own, including free offerings like DriveImage XML, CloneZilla, or EaseUS Disk Copy Home Edition. Plenty of commercial alternatives exist on the Windows side, too, including EaseUS’s Technician Edition.

This sort of document-plus-clone backup works whether you’ve chosen Carbonite, Mozy, or other options for hosted backups, and Carbon Copy Cloner, Time Machine, Windows Backup, or Retrospect among many software tools for local archiving or cloning. Of course, using a cloud-storage system like Box, Dropbox, or SugarSync also gives you cloud-stored backup as well as access to anything you’ve placed in synced locations.

SuperDuper lets Mac owners perform manual and scheduled clones of drives for full backup and restore. (Click to enlarge.)

Before I leave town, I make sure that all my backups are fully up to date, even if that requires manually launching or overriding settings so that I know I have a full set of files tucked away. If a computer is stolen when I’m out of the house or an accident takes out my home or the systems inside of it, where I left the state of things is one less thing to fret about.

For the devices I bring with me, I also make sure I have current copies of data. In my case, my iOS devices are all set to backup to iCloud, which is automatic. I can check on an iCloud backup via Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup where I can see the last backup and tap Back Up Now to force one to happen. If you’re using iTunes on a Mac or in Windows to make local backups, be sure to connect your iOS device (via USB or be sure it’s on the same Wi-Fi network), and right-click it in the Devices list in iTunes, then select Back Up.

Android devices and apps tend to store their data in the cloud (you’ll need to check with individual apps, though). You should also check to see how easy a backup (and potential restore) is for your particular device and OS version to make the right choices. Windows Phone 7 and 8 work with Windows Live to store some data in the cloud, but you can purchase third-party apps to make full clones or other backups.

The laptops my wife and I carry typically aren’t cloned nightly, although all our images, documents, and other created files are. Instead, before we leave on a trip, we try to remember a day or two ahead of time to plug in an external hard drive to each machine, run cloning software, and give ourselves a full restore position if a machine is stolen, lost, dropped, or gives up the ghost. We also check that our document backups are complete and up to date.

If I were a bit more paranoid—or simply better organized—I might take encrypted clones of my drives and store them in a safe-deposit box or with a friend when I leave town, too. (Note to self: Get more paranoid and make more friends. Possibly mutually incompatible goals.)

On the Road

The advantage of cloud-based synchronization and Internet-hosted backups is that these data streams follow you wherever you go, so long as you have sufficient bandwidth to keep the uploads up to date. I know that when I travel for business or pleasure, I often record gigabytes of photos and short videos. That multimedia is what I’m most worried about having copies of away from my camera, smartphone, or computer, given the likelihood of a handheld device going astray—or even falling overboard on a trip.

As I draw data from cellular links over a mobile hotspot on my phone, I make sure to disable backups and syncs lest I burn through tens or hundreds of dollars in overage fees. (Dropbox has a Pause Syncing button in its menu, for instance.) When I can slurp from free Wi-Fi at a Starbucks or other venue, I turn back on those features and try to push as much data as I can while I’m sipping my vente latteccino green chai with soy shavings.

When visiting family and friends, I’m careful to be sure I don’t overwhelm their networks. Some homes I’ve stayed in rely on satellite links, which come with strict low limits after which service is throttled to painful old modem speeds. Other hosts have had DSL and cable subscriptions that are capped, after which service may be discontinued, throttled, or stuck with overage fees.

If enabled, Dropbox’s Camera Import option automatically copies images and videos when a memory card is attached via a reader or in an internal slot, when a camera is plugged in, or when a smartphone is connected. (Click to enlarge.)

Dropbox has a terrific aid for backing up photos and videos added to or taken on mobile devices as well as on cameras. Provided you haven’t disabled the feature, plugging in a camera card via a card reader to your desktop or attaching a camera using USB triggers Dropbox to ask if you want to copy pictures into the local Dropbox folder, which is then synced remotely whenever you’re connected to the Internet. You can also use the Dropbox mobile app to upload new multimedia directly.

Additionally, you can take steps to make sure you don’t lose received or sent mail. Despite being an atavist who loves the POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) standard, I recognize that IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) has many advantages as it can be set to synchronize folders and messages to the server; many mail providers can also capture all outgoing messages, too, as it passes through their servers via your account. If you have IMAP enabled, you won’t lose messages if all your computing hardware goes poof, as it will be retained on the server. (I set my mail program to not delete my POP3 mail, too, but it’s not designed as well for that purpose.) It’s true also if you opt for Webmail instead of POP3 or IMAP for reading messages.

Travel safe

An hour of prevention is worth a month of recovery. Take steps before you leave to be sure you have complete backups, and remain vigilant on the road that new files, photos, and other folderol you create are backed up. This can reduce the heartache when things go awry, and keep precious digital memories safe even if material ones fade.

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