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Tips for Traveling with Technology

There was a Twitter conversation with Martin McKeay and Jerry Gamblin today talking about how geeks handle traveling with all our technology. Jerry suggested that Martin write a blog post, but I decided to beat him to the punch. 😉 This is part of an upcoming series of posts under the heading of Traveling Skills: The Art of Packing. In this post I’ll describe how and what I pack as a geek who travels with technology, as well as why.

My Travel Kit

These are the pieces of technology I pack with me wherever I go. Basically it’s my laptop, phone, camera, earbuds and a few cables and accessories.

  • Apple Macbook Pro, with charger
  • iPhone and USB cable
  • 16 or 32 GB USB thumb drive
  • 8 or 16 GB SD card (can double as a thumb drive in a pinch)
  • SD to USB adapter
  • Mophie Juice Pack and USB cable (iPhone battery/case)
  • Dual USB wall adapter
  • Mini dual USB car adapter
  • 3-foot 3.5mm male to male audio cable (for car Aux input)
  • Nikon prosumer DSLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens (usually, but not always)
  • Shure E2c (old mid-grade) earbuds with Comply Tx-100 foam tips
  • Fenix E05 flashlight and one non-rechargeable alkaline AAA battery (these last way longer in storage than the rechargeable ones do)
  • iPad (usually, but not always)
  • Special mention: 3G Internet card (I used to travel with one of these and they’re great, but I don’t anymore)

I like to keep it simple. I keep all the cables and accessories in a clear ziplock bag so I never have to dig too far for things. The earbuds I usually keep in an exterior pocket of my bag or in my pants pocket.

My Support Kit

There are a variety of things I keep at home to support my travel kit. Most importantly are my chargers. The Nikon rarely runs out of juice, so I don’t have to worry about that. I also have extras of the cables and accessories, in case I lose one on the road I’m not without it on my next trip. I also have a battery charger and use rechargeables. They’re a bit more expensive, but worth it in the long run. All these things would be nice to have, but I really don’t use them often enough to justify bringing them along.

That brings me to my first philosophical rule of traveling with technology…

When in Doubt, Leave it Out

Equally as important as what I bring is what I don’t bring all the time. These are things that are either too heavy, or used too infrequently to justify bringing. If I know the job will call for something special then I’ll bring it, but normally I try to leave as much as possible at home.

Most people want to be prepared for whatever situation they may find themselves in. For geeks that means a lot of technical equipment. Phones, laptops, tablets, portable hard drives, external speakers, adapters, cables, chargers, batteries, antennas, and potentially dozens of other “can’t do without” items. And that doesn’t even include clothing, shoes, bags, books, and everything else. But all this stuff gets heavy and odds are you won’t end up using most of it. Here’s what I always ditch.

  • Small portable speakers. I have a couple of great pairs, but I don’t use them often, they’re heavy and whenever I go to use them I find the batteries have already died.
  • Extra laptop battery. I have replaced the battery once and it may be time to do it again. But I’d rather spend a little extra to have a fresh battery than lug an extra one around for months without needing it.
  • Lots of camera lenses. I just use the one. It was more expensive than going with several lenses, but it’s a way more portable option. Plus, I treat my DSLR as a point-and-shoot anyway – I just want to whip it out and start snapping, not mess with lenses and such.
  • Battery chargers. I only have one thing that requires a battery and I carry a spare. My DSLR has never run out of juice on me while I was on the road. Even on multi-week trips with hundreds of photos!
  • Bigger flashlight or headlamp. I chose this one because it fits on my keychain, is bright and runs on a standard size battery. I don’t use it often and so it’s a compromise as compared with a headlamp or a big maglite or something.
  • External hard drive. Do I really need access to 1TB of movies, songs, funny videos, or whatever? No. Do I need to backup everything over the course of a week? No. (See below for backing up on the road.) These things are bulky, require special cables, heavy and hardly ever get used.
  • Extra laptop. Even when I was traveling for work and forbidden from doing personal things on my work laptop, I never brought a second one. I found that if my phone and iPad weren’t enough then it could usually wait until I got home. (See the next section for ways around that.)

Here’s a tip from my article on adopting a minimalist packing philosophy: Start packing with absolutely nothing, then ask. If the answer to 3/4 is “yes” then bring it. If not, leave it.

  • Do I know it will be difficult, expensive or impossible to buy there?
  • Am I positive that I’ll use it as much as I think?
  • If I don’t bring it, will my trip be substantially worse?
  • Do I use this every day at home?

Consolidate, Standardize and Compromise

Standardize on batteries and cables. Use interchangeable plugs and cables (for example, I have this dual USB adapter) to charge your devices, rather than a specialty one for each device. To the degree you can, get devices that run on standard size batteries so you can just buy new ones rather than having to lug a charger. That also helps in case your proprietary battery dies. And use the same size batteries across devices if you can so you can simplify things.

Ditch point-and-shoot cameras. Annie Leibovitz recommends the iPhone to a point-and-shoot. So do I. They’re way simpler and more portable, and you can share the photos right away. If you don’t like an iPhone, the one you’ve got will probably do just fine. And if not, I’m revoking your geek card. 😉 If you’re a serious photographer there may be no getting around a DSLR, but these days I often leave it at home unless I know I’ll be going somewhere photogenic.

Use the Cloud for everything you can. Yes, cloud security is an issue, but you can find ways around that. Crash Plan or Jungle Disk can replace your portable hard drive for incremental backups. Tablets and smart phones can replace a lot of what you’d need a full size computer for. Google Docs works fairly well for simple editing, and CloudOn is a full-blown Microsoft Office instance accessible through an app. If you ever find yourself seriously in need of a computer, the iPad has apps for that too. Consider LogMeIn to remotely connect back to your desktop at home. Or OnLive Desktop will provide you with a virtual Windows desktop.

International Tips

Get multiple power adapters, rather than one universal one. They’re usually smaller and easier to pack, plus you don’t have to carry them all if you’re not going everywhere. I bring 2 of these small European plug adapters and one of these multi-plug European plug adapters, as well as a 220/240v power converter (make sure you read up on how to use it) for devices that won’t handle that much voltage.

Your Tips

Have I missed something that you always take with you? Is there a good idea that you want to expand on? Let me know what you think.

The Tyranny Of Planning

You remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? They sucked after a while. I kept getting eaten by giant ants or falling into a black hole. Choosing your own adventure in travel can be the same. Take this cartoon, for instance. The image is of a couple at a travel agency looking through brochures. One says to the other “It all looks so great. I can’t wait to be disappointed.”

And it’s true – the more we plan and the more we put into some of the things we do, the less we get out of them. But if we simply go with what we are given, we have a great time. With few pre-conceived notions, we have a smaller chance of being disappointed. The surprise is a part of the enjoyment of the trip.

But ironically, I really enjoy planning trips. Oh, could I catch any good concerts or sporting events while I’m in town? What are the best places around for sightseeing? These types of things keep me up at night searching online excitedly. But it doesn’t make the actual trip any better.

So that led me to undertake the travel experiment that I am currently undergoing: I will plan as little for my next trip as possible, knowing nothing in advance but the dates of departure and return. The planning is essentially in what to pack – and I plan on packing very light.

This is probably part of a larger issue we have in our society with choice. According to Barry Schwartz, we have too much of it and it is ruining our lives. Any time we feel we could have made a better choice, we feel we should have. The more choices we have, the more potential we have to make a sub-optimal one. But if we have few choices, we focus on making the best of what we get.

Final Packing Setup

I couldn’t quite fit everything into my bag that I wanted there and so I was debating about what to sacrifice. The biggest problems I seemed to keep running into was that the shoes I’m taking for the wedding are huge and heavy compared to the rest of my gear. They’re kind of a necessity and I sort of planned on dumping them after the wedding anyway (they’re Scandinavian anyway I think so it’s where they should be buried), so maybe I should just not bring them. But I figured the bride would probably kill me if I wore my dirty hippie sandals to the ceremony. What to do?

I finally decided that I’d just bring a bag of stuff to dump on the trip. I’m not packing up a bunch of things that are bad, it’s just that I have replaced them with newer things so I don’t mind leaving them. I’m considering shipping the whole thing back over to the US from Sweden, depending on the cost. The bag is one I got for free as a door prize. I put my shoes in there along with a white shirt that I don’t wear much anymore and the suit that I’m done with. And I shoved a bunch of candy in there, too. I had extra room.

With the shoes gone, I’ve got a ton more room in my bag. It is only about 2300 cubic inches (~37 liters) anyway and the shoes probably took up about 1/4 of that. Now all my essentials fit quite nicely in my DaKine Day Tripper that I had laying around from when I lived in Colorado.

  • Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, washcloth, towel
  • Emergency Supplies: flashlight, first-aid kit, emergency blanket, twisty ties, plastic bags
  • 1 pair black pants
  • 1 pair zip-off khaki pants (double as swim shorts)
  • 1 pair cotton shorts
  • 5 pairs Ex-Officio underwear (clean)
  • 1 Greene Turtle t-shirt
  • 1 Coca-Cola t-shirt
  • 1 long-sleeve shirt
  • 1 black belt (so I can tell people I know Karate)
  • 1 Dell 700m Laptop (packed in a silicon bag from a fancy clothing store)
  • 2 small mesh clothing bags
  • 3 general reading books
  • 1 travel book
  • 1 Casio Exilim EX-V8 camera
  • 1 old cellphone that works in Europe

I did a few modifications to my gear, as well. First, I have attached to my pack a digital clock and thermometer as well as a bottle opener for the delicious European beverages. I attached the top part of my Osprey Aether bag to it – sure hope that doesn’t get lost or stolen. I also modified my travel book by taking only the parts that I wanted.

I bought a thick book on Eastern Europe back when I wasn’t sure where I was going to go on the trip. That doesn’t suit my purposes now; I’ll only be going to a few of the countries included. Luckily, the book was one of those that sticks all of the pages directly to the back binder with glue. So it’s easy to take it apart. Just bend the pages back until the front and back cover touch, exposing the glue, then use a knife to cut a straight line through the glue. Turn the book over to the binding side and slice where it’s bent. The book pretty much falls apart at that point, exactly where you want it to. If you’re trying to take a smaller section out, you can try the same approach, but you might end up with just a bunch of loose pages. Just staple those together and you’ll be good to go. I recommend putting all of the sections in a plastic bag to protect from the elements. To check out these modifications, check out this flickr set.

Some notable things that I’m not bringing are my Canon S3-IS, MacBook Pro, iPod, Shure headphones and iPhone. All of these things are expensive, add weight, and I’d be upset if I lost them. So why risk taking them? Sure I’ll be giving up some conveniences, but I figure it’ll give me a better chance of connecting with my surroundings rather than hiding from them. In the end I’ll appreciate the immersion more than the temporary respite.