Staying plugged in: Managing your digital devices while traveling


The increasing efficiency, compactness, and affordability of high-quality electronic devices has been a huge boon for backpackers. Since today’s tiny computers pack a lot of punch for not much weight, there’s little downside to packing them. And in the past decade, at the same time computers have become smaller and lighter, the world wide web has truly gone world wide. Although not always fast or reliable, access to WiFi is now available in most backpacking hotspots.

While there’s an argument that totally disconnecting from the digital world is a better way to truly immerse oneself in the places you’re going, it’s hard to resist the many perks of staying plugged in. Having just one or two basic devices makes it much easier to stay in touch with friends and family, upload and securely store photos of your adventures, and do travel research on the go.

That said, it’s wise to do a bit of preparation before you sling all your favorite gadgets into your bag. Here are some tips on how to manage your digital life while backpacking.

Get a VPN

A VPN (virtual private network) is like an invisibility cloak for your digital devices while you’re connected to the internet. By connecting to a VPN, you’re able to hide your devices’ IP addresses and encrypt the data you send and receive, which has a couple of really nice benefits.

The most important reason you should pony up the money for a VPN ($3 - $10 per month) is that it enhances your privacy and security while on the web. (Free VPNs exist but they come with some severe restrictions.) Masking your device’s IP address and encrypting your data makes it harder (though not entirely impossible) for someone to hack you. It’s a good idea to always use a VPN, even at home. But it’s especially important while traveling, since you’ll be using many different WiFi access points and won’t know how secure they are. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself in a cafe in need of WiFi to access sensitive info like your bank account or email, and you’ll be relieved that you have the added protection of a VPN.

Another benefit of a VPN is that it gets around annoying country restrictions that pop up in applications like Netflix and Spotify. Because of copyright rules, you may not be able to watch your favorite show or listen to your playlist while abroad. The VPN gets around this problem by making it seem like your device’s IP address is from your home country.

There are a lot of different VPN service providers out there, but the key thing for travelers to know is that not all of them work in every country. In fact, most of them only work in a handful of countries. Although it was a little more expensive than some competitors, we use ExpressVPN because it covers almost all the countries we’re visiting in Latin America for a reasonable price. Although it sometimes randomly disconnects, overall we’ve been pretty happy with the service.

Get cloud backup storage

Cloud storage is really important to us because we love to take photos. It’s not a happy thought, but if we were to have our camera (and memory card) stolen, our travel insurance would help us buy another camera but wouldn’t replace the photos. There are a number of different cloud services out there, but we've opted to use Google Drive, which works well and is really cheap ($1.99 for 100 gigs). If your internet connection is slow, it can be a pain to upload a big batch of photos all at once, so we try to make a habit of doing little bits every night. If you procrastinate and try to upload 1,000 photos at the end of the month, it’s going to be challenging. It also means that if something were to happen to your camera before uploading your photos to the cloud, you risk losing more photos.

Chromebooks and netbooks are great

Both of us love our Macbooks, but they’re not ideal for backpacking. First, they’re heavy and fairly bulky. Second, they look valuable, so whipping them out in any public space runs the risk of attracting unwanted attention. It signals “I’m a tourist traveling with expensive items!” And last, if something were to happen to them, it would be very difficult to replace the years' worth of content stored on them.

So, we opted to leave our Macbooks behind and brought along an ASUS C202S Chromebook. It was super affordable (~$200) and allows us to do everything we need: manage our website, check emails, listen to music, stream movies, etc. One attractive feature of a Chromebook is that everything is done through the Chrome browser, which means it’s easy to automatically store all your documents and photos in the cloud. (Our computer also came with free cloud storage for two years.) It’s small and lightweight; it doesn't look flashy; the battery life is solid (over 8 hours of heavy use on a single charge); and it can withstand the occasional drop or spill.

Store sensitive information in the cloud

Again, not fun to think about, but it is possible that your stuff may get stolen. If you keep all of your passwords saved on your computer, and you lose your computer, what do you do? We use an application called LastPass to manage and store our important information. It’s great because we can access it from our computer or phones, and if we’re in a really bad situation, we could access our information from another computer.

Along the same lines, it’s also a good idea to keep scanned copies of your passport in the cloud. In case your passport gets stolen, you’ll have a backup that you can access from any computer with internet access.

What to do with your phone

We brought three smartphones with us. We each have an iPhone and use them for everything except the phone part, since international data plans are insanely expensive through AT&T. When near WiFi, we can still text, call, and FaceTime with other iPhone users. This is true even for Jared, who gave up his personal cell number and completely shut off his AT&T account before leaving the US. With non-iPhone users, we rely on Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger to communicate. Thanks to these various apps, we’ve found it possible to stay in touch with everyone back home for free. For local use, we have a relatively inexpensive unlocked LG smartphone. All we have to do is buy a SIM card wherever we are and pop it in. Many local plans in Latin America offer pay-as-you-go options, which works well for travelers.