How To Back Up Your Photos & Videos When Travelling - A Definitive Guide

Nowadays, when you go abroad, you probably take a smartphone and maybe a digital camera with you to document your trip and capture those special moments through photos or videos (or both).

Now this data is obviously extremely precious, since for many people it is the only record that they will have of their trip, the only proof that it ever happened.


We’ve all heard the saying “photos or it didn’t happen”.


But what makes those travel photos and videos truly priceless is the pleasure and sometimes surprise they can stir in you when you revisit them in later years.


Looking back over old photos and videos is the best way to reawaken those faded travel memories and to metaphorically transport yourself back to that blissful time in your life.


But the harsh truth is that if you don’t protect all that data carefully, you may lose all those precious images long before you reach a ripe old age.


If you’ve ever lost images from a past trip before, you know that dreadful sinking feeling that hits you like a freight train the moment you realize what has happened.


Losing that irreplaceable data is almost as bad as losing a part of yourself and it’s something you want to avoid at all costs.


The good news is that all your digital images can be preserved more or less indefinitely, provided that you back them up the right way from the beginning.


Back them up the wrong way however, or even worse, not at all, and you stand a high chance of losing all that precious data before you even make it home.


In this article, we’re going to cover the ins and outs of backing up your data while travelling but first I want to briefly discuss the basic concept of data backup and why you really need to be backing up your images before you get home.

What is backing up data and why do you need to do it when you travel?

Backing up your data means that you create a copy of all your precious files and store the copies in a different location to the original files.


Ideally you want to have copies of all your files in three different locations, though two copies are still better than one.


And the reason you need to back everything up is because data stored in only one location just isn’t secure.


When you’re travelling there are countless ways that you could lose all your precious photos and videos before you can get them back to the safety of home.


SD cards can get lost and corrupted, phones can get dropped in the toilet, hard drives can get dropped, laptops can get stolen, files can get accidentally deleted, USB sticks can get forgotten, fires can burn down guesthouses with travellers’ stuff inside them.


Lauren from Neverendingfootsteps has had her fair share of photo-related catastrophes, which resulted in her losing a lot of invaluable data.

She shattered an SD card filled with images, had a hard drive fail at the bottom of her bag and dropped her phone in the toilet, losing two weeks worth of photos.


One of my own 32GB SD cards (with several hundred photos and videos) recently got corrupted while I was copying all the files from the card over to my external hard drive. 


All of the photos and videos that were on the card at the time got completely erased before I had even copied half of them over to the hard drive. The data vanished from the card without a trace.


Now luckily I was able to recover all the deleted photos using a piece of free open source recovery software called TestDisk, which I highly recommend. 

The videos, however, were recovered in a fragmented file format and I have not yet figured out how to make them playable again.


A second less obvious reason why you need to back up your files is because it will probably keep haunting you if you don’t.


Your brain will frequently generate pangs of uneasiness to remind you that your precious files are not secure and could be erased at any moment. For the peace of mind alone, it’s worth backing up your data.


Let’s now dive into the various strategies that I recommend for backing up your photos and videos on the road.

How to back up from an SD card when you're travelling with a laptop

We will later discuss ways to backup your photos and videos without a laptop, but travelling with one does give you a lot more options.


Not only can you back up your photos and videos directly to a laptop but a laptop also allows you to easily copy your images to other storage devices like high-capacity SD cards, USB flash drives and external hard drives.


The laptop is important because many storage devices don’t provide a way for files to be directly copied onto them from an SD card, requiring you to use a laptop or other computer as an intermediary.


Other than carrying a laptop, the foundation of a good backup strategy is to carry enough SD cards with enough total storage capacity to last you the duration of your trip.


The idea is that whenever you fill up an SD card with data, you swap it out for a new empty card leaving all the files on the old card. You then just keep repeating this process until the end of your trip and you should never have to format (erase) any of the cards.


This way your SD cards hold one copy of all the photos and videos you took during the trip and you can then make a second (and preferably third) backup copy using any of the following:


Many modern laptops have an SD card slot where you can insert your camera’s SD card directly into the machine and then copy your photos and videos from the card to the laptop's internal hard drive.


If your laptop doesn’t have such a slot you’ll usually need to buy an SD card reader device that plugs into one of the USB ports of your laptop. Anker makes a good one with fast data transfer rates (5 Gbps) that can read SD cards and microSD cards at the same time.


Laptops used to be very cumbersome machines to travel with but in the past few years we’ve seen the emergence of Ultrabooks and other ultra-thin and ultralight laptop models that weigh less than 1 kg.


My own laptop for example, the 11 inch Macbook Air, weighs just 2.38 lbs (1.08 kg), and is so small, thin and light that I find it a joy to bring it with me in my carry-on whenever I go overseas.


If even this sounds too big, there are smaller laptops than this, like the 10" Microsoft Surface Go or the 7" GPD Pocket 2 


While a compact laptop is a great backup solution for a while, no internal hard drive has unlimited storage space and it’s possible that you will eventually run out, as happened to me.


If or when that day comes, you may wish to shift your files onto a dedicated data storage device like an external hard drive.

Backup memory card

SD cards just seem to keep getting bigger and bigger with 512 GB cards already on the market and plans from SanDisk to release a 1TB SDXC card some time in the near future. 


One backup strategy that some travellers employ is to carry one very large memory card for backup purposes, and multiple smaller capacity  cards for everyday shooting.


The idea is that any time you fill up one of the smaller memory cards, you swap out the card for a new empty one, leave all the files there on the old card and then copy them over to the large memory card to create a backup.


The actual task of copying the photos over to the backup card is probably going to be difficult unless you’re travelling with a laptop or have access to a computer.


However, if your camera has dual memory card slots you may be able to write the images you're shooting to the two cards, with one of those obviously being the backup card.


One combination of cards that could work well in practice might be eight 32 GB cards for all your regular shooting and then one 256 GB backup card.


To implement this strategy you’ll need to have an idea of how many photos you’re going to take during your trip and how big each photo is going to be so that you can buy cards with sufficient capacity.


The advantage of using an SD card to backup your photos is that it’s unlikely to break if you drop it onto a hard surface, as might happen to a hard drive, for example.


The drawback is that SD cards can still get crushed or damaged in other ways and they’re small enough to get lost easily. 

The other issue is that SD card storage costs more per MB than storage with an external hard drive, so this approach wouldn't be our number one choice.

USB flash drive

USB flash drives can have a staggering capacity of up to 2 TB these days and make for a really lightweight, compact and ultra-portable backup drive for all the photos and videos you take during your trip.


Again, to actually copy files from your camera’s SD card onto a USB flash drive it’s going to be much easier if you have a laptop or access to some kind of computer.


The drawback with using USB sticks for storage is again that they cost more per MB than external hard drives.


They’re also still small enough to lose and it’s easy to forget to remove a USB stick from a computer when you’re using it to print off documents in a cybercafé or printing shop.

External hard drive

External hard drives are compact portable storage devices that you can carry with you wherever you go. 

Generally people buy them in capacities ranging from 1 to 4 TB, though you can buy drives with capacities of 10 TB and higher.


An external hard drive is actually what we currently use to back up all our photos and videos on the road and the specific model we carry is the Toshiba Canvio Basics 2TB, which is also available in 1TB,3TB and 4TB capacities.


External hard drives are cheaper per MB than most other storage options and we already crossed the point of having more photos and videos than our laptops could ever possibly hold a few years back.


Also, our external hard drive is physically large enough that we wouldn’t worry about losing it as much as we would worry about losing an SD card or a USB flash drive.

Cloud backup

The problem with using two or more physical storage devices (SD card + laptop, SD card + USB stick, etc.) as your sole backup strategy on the road is that if some misfortune like fire, flood or theft suddenly strikes and takes out one of your storage devices, there’s a very good chance it’ll take out the other one too.


Cloud backups keep a copy of your data on a remote Internet server in a completely separate location that’s not connected to the events you’re experiencing on your travels, so it gives you an extra layer of protection for your files.


Jodi of Legalnomads learned the value of having a cloud backup the hard way when her partner’s apartment was robbed

The thieves took her Macbook Pro laptop along with a 500 GB hard drive, a netbook and a 32 GB flash card, and these three storage devices held the only three backups of all her travel photos.


Of course, cloud backups can be problematic when you’re travelling in places that lack a reliable Internet connection, since in scenarios like these it can be impossible to back up new photos to the cloud as fast as you’re taking them.


But if you do happen to be travelling somewhere with reasonably good Internet, then cloud backups are definitely viable and you should be using them to afford additional protection for your files.


Some cloud backup options are free while others are paid, and some providers offer both types of plan.


The free plans tend to severely limit storage space and additional features, but can serve many travellers up to a point, especially if you’re only a moderate shutterbug and if you’re willing to sign up to multiple services in order to maximize your free storage.

Free cloud backup options

Google Photos Google Photos lets you store unlimited photos at resolutions below 16 MP. If you want to store “original size” photos at higher resolutions than this you get 15 GB of free storage for those, although this storage is shared between your Google Photos, Google Drive and Gmail accounts.

DropboxWith a basic Dropbox account you get 2 GB of free storage space. You can also get an additional 500 MB per referral and can earn up to 16 GB in extra storage in this way. 

Microsoft OneDrive Microsoft OneDrive gives you 5 GB of free storage in the basic plan.

iCloud -  Apple users get 5 GB of free storage with iCloud, which can be mostly allocated to photo storage

pCloud - This company gives you 2GB of free cloud storage for signing  up and then lets you easily earn another 8 GB by performing a few simple tasks like referring the service. 

Amazon DriveIf you happen to be an Amazon Prime Member you get unlimited photo storage with Amazon Drive at no additional cost, and 5 GB of video storage. If you're not a Prime member, you're out of luck.

DegooDegoo gives users a whopping 100 GB of free cloud storage. You can also get an additional 3 GB for each referred user, up to a maximum of 500 GB. The free plan also supports backing up content from an unlimited number of devices, including mobile devices.

Mega - This cloud storage provider gives users 15 GB of free storage and then an additional 35 GB that expires after 30 days. The 15 GB is at least yours to keep forever.

Paid cloud storage options

When it comes to paid cloud storage options you can usually count on getting a lot more space to play with and far fewer limitations in terms of features.


Most travellers will be served very well by a personal plan with a cloud backup service called Backblaze.


At just $5 a month (or $50 a year, $95 for 2 years) for unlimited online storage, Backblaze surpasses most other competing services in terms of sheer value for money.


The company doesn’t impose any limits on upload speeds, which is extremely important because your initial backup is probably going to take long enough already.


For that monthly fee you can back up an unlimited number of files from one computer and also from an external hard drive. You can restore files you’ve uploaded to the cloud to mobile devices but you can’t back up from them.


If there’s one annoyance about Backblaze, it’s that any files uploaded from your external hard drive will be automatically deleted from their servers if the drive is disconnected for 30 days.


If you want to try it out, the company offers a 15-day free trial for new users.


A second cloud backup service that’s well worth mentioning is Crashplan.


This used to arguably be the best cloud backup service for most travellers but in 2018 the company decided to abandon the consumer market for the more profitable business market.


Now instead of a personal plan you can only buy a small business plan, which costs $10 a month per computer for unlimited storage, making it twice as expensive as a personal plan with Backblaze.


However the extra monthly cost is somewhat justified as you do get a better overall service with Crashplan.


You can backup an unlimited number of external hard drives (instead of just one) and Crashplan also won’t remove files automatically from its servers, even if you delete the files from their backup source. It’ll also keep unlimited file versions available for an indefinite length of time.


Ultimately we think that Backblaze will be the best option for most travellers, but if you have multiple hard drives to back up, or wish to always have access to all previous versions of your files, you might be better off with Crashplan.


If you think you might be interested in Crashplan, you can try their 30-day free trial at no risk.

A few tips for backing up 

  • You should ideally be creating a backup of your photos and videos at the end of every day, even if you didn’t manage to fill the SD card you were shooting with.
  • When organizing your backups you’ll probably want to create a new folder for the trip you’re currently on, and then create lots of sub-folders within that main folder to organize your photos according to the location or time they were taken. This makes it much easier to find what you’re looking for when you go back to retrieve something in the future.
  • It’s also really important to open up a few of your backup files after they’ve finished copying, just to make sure that the files are okay and there weren’t any errors in the copying process.
  • Be very careful that you don’t accidentally disconnect anything from your laptop while the files are copying from one storage medium to the other, as data can get corrupted this way.
  • If you’re trying to back up data to the cloud while you’re travelling it’s usually best to do it overnight at your lodging, as the Wi-Fi network will be less overloaded with other users and file uploading should proceed more rapidly
  • Unless you have a plan with unlimited data, it’s best to wait until you have a Wi-Fi connection before you try to back up anything to the cloud.

How to back up your photos and videos without a laptop

Above we discussed several ways to back up files from an SD card, but we kept mentioning how it would be very challenging to do these backups if you weren’t travelling with a laptop.


That’s because technology is not yet well geared towards directly transferring data from SD cards to storage devices like USB flash drives and external hard drives.


However, there are ways to circumvent this vexing problem of our times and we’re going to go over them a few of our favourite solutions right now.

Find a computer

One potential solution if you didn’t have a laptop would be to use one of the computers in a public library, hostel, hotel, airport, or cybercafé as an intermediary for backing up your files. 


You might also get access to a computer if you stay with friends or family or do Couchsurfing or Housesitting in locals’ homes.

It's important however to be aware of the risks of viruses when you're plugging in external hard drives and other storage devices into unknown public computers.

Use a camera with built-in Wi-Fi to transfer files to a mobile device

Wi-Fi is now a commonly integrated feature in high-end and mid-range cameras, allowing you to wirelessly back up files from the camera to another device like a phone or tablet.


Usually you set up a new wireless network name and password with the camera itself and then connect your device to that network, or you sometimes connect both the camera and device to another Wi-Fi network, or sometimes Bluetooth is used instead of Wi-Fi.


The limitation with this method is that you probably won’t have much space for holding photos and videos on your phone or tablet, although this can usually be remedied by popping in a microSD card to get additional storage capacity. 

Use special card readers that can transfer files directly from an SD card to your mobile device

For those with an iPad or iPhone the Apple Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader lets you quickly copy photos from your camera’s SD card to your iPhone or iPad. USB 3 transfer speeds are even supported if you have an iPad Pro.


You just have to plug one end of the cable into your device, insert your SD card into the adapter at the other end, and then use the Photos app (automatically launches) to import any images from the card to your device.

Those with Android phones that have USB OTG (On-The-Go) support can import photos to their device from an SD card or microSD card in the same manner as Apple users.


The gadget that makes this possible is called an OTG card reader and it simply plugs into your Android phone or tablet via a micro USB or USB Type C connector.


You can also get combination devices like this, which has connectors for both Android and Apple devices and will allow you to import files from an SD card to either.

EHDs (external hard drives) with inbuilt SD slots

Some external hard drives now come with inbuilt slots for SD cards, allowing you to directly upload the files from the card onto the hard drive.


One example that stands out is Western Digital’s My Passport Wireless Pro, a portable hard drive with an inbuilt SD card slot that operates at USB 3.0 speeds. 

The drive also has a slew of other capabilities, including being able to act as a router, a media streaming device and a 6,400 mAh power bank.


To backup any files on the SD card to the drive all you need to do is insert the card in the inbuilt slot and press a button. It’ll immediately start copying the files to the hard drive while the 4 indicator lights tell you how close the process is to completion.


Also the device is programmed to only copy new files, so every time you insert your SD card it’ll just copy over the images that haven’t already copied to the drive. 

Other useful devices

The RavPower Filehub Plus is another very popular solution for backing up files from SD cards to an external hard drive, USB flash drive, smartphone, tablet or other storage device when you don’t have a laptop.


This is a multi-functional device that acts as a wireless travel router (converts a wired hotel Internet connection to a wireless one + bridges and extends an existing hotel Wi-Fi connection), a power bank (6,700 mAh battery), a file transfer hub and a wireless media streamer.


To back up files from an SD card using the RavPower, you have to first insert the card into the inbuilt slot and then connect the RavPower to the external hard drive, USB stick or device that you want to back up your files to.


Now power on the RavPower and connect your phone to the device’s Wi-Fi network. You then need to launch the app on your phone and from this app you can do pretty much whatever you want, copying files between the SD card and any devices that are connected to the RavPower.


Another similar product made for people who like to travel without a laptop is The Gnarbox, which is basically a mini-computer that even has built-in photo and video editing capabilities, allowing you to whip up edits on the fly when you’re without your laptop.


Measuring 6” x 3” x 1.16” and weighing approximately 1.1 lbs, with a 3200 mAh battery, The Gnarbox has inbuilt SD card slots so that you can quickly get your photos backed up from the card without needing a laptop.


All you need to do is launch the app and connect your phone or tablet to the Gnarbox’s Wi-Fi network and then you can easily transfer all the files from the SD card to The Gnarbox.


It comes with 128 GB of its own storage but you can always connect an external hard drive to it if you need additional space.


The Gnarbox will especially appeal to adventurous, outdoor-loving travellers since it’s an extremely rugged hard drive that’s dustproof, shockproof and waterproof to 1 metre for 30 minutes.


All things considered the Gnarbox is a lot more expensive than some of the other options we’ve mentioned and comes with a lot of additional features that you may not need, but it will definitely still appeal to some.

How to back up photos and videos from your phone

With smartphone cameras becoming as advanced as they are nowadays, many people don’t even bother taking a digital camera with them whenever they go abroad.


But smartphones with high-quality inbuilt cameras are lucrative pickings for thieves, so it’s extremely important that you’re backing up all those snaps if you’re relying on your phone to do all your photography.


If you’ve got a mobile device that’s starting to fill up with irreplaceable photos and videos during a trip, the first thing you ought to do is make sure that all your images are being automatically backed up to Google Photos or iCloud whenever you connect to Wi-Fi.


Within these apps you should be able to find the setting to enable backups and it’s generally best to leave the option for cellular data backups disabled.


In addition to automatically creating online backups, you'll also want to create another backup of all your phone’s images and videos on another device like a laptop, USB flash drive or external hard drive.

Doing this second backup will allow you to delete all the images from your phone (which you'll probably need to do eventually) and still retain two copies of all the images.


Of course, it’s fairly straightforward to copy photos from your phone to various storage devices if you’re carrying a laptop, but how can you accomplish this task without one?


Well one very useful gadget is a USB OTG (On-The-Go) cable with a male Micro USB connector at one end and a female USB adapter at the other end.


If your phone is one of the newer Androids that uses USB Type-C it’s even easier, since you can then plug a USB Type-C flash drive directly into the phone without needing any adapter. 


Once the USB flash drive, external hard drive or card reader is connected to your phone using whatever method suits best you should be able to copy files between your phone and whatever storage device you have connected.


Check out this guide for more detailed instructions as well.


Also worth mentioning here is the SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick, a USB flash drive (sizes 32 – 256 GB) that works just like a normal USB stick but also allows you to wirelessly copy your camera roll to it from your phone or tablet.


The drive creates its own wireless network, which you can then connect your device to and then use the accompanying app to start copying files over to it. 

What's our file backup system?

The solution we use for backing up all our data is to carry two external hard drives with us at all times on the road.


In most of the countries where we’ve been travelling the Internet is too slow or unreliable and we haven’t been able to rely on cloud backups.


We also have way too many RAW photos and videos to keep any more than a small fraction of them on our laptops, so we don’t really use our laptops for file storage.


So the solution that works best for us at the moment is so keep copies of all our photos and videos on two external hard drives, and to protect those hard drives as best we can.

Putting files into permanent storage when you get home 

When you get home from your trip, you’ll have an opportunity to back up all your photos and videos to a more permanent storage location.


The first thing you might want to do is to copy all the images from all your SD cards onto your desktop computer (if you have one).


Everyone has their own way of organizing their files, so how you go about it really comes down to your own personal preference. Some people prefer to organize files chronologically whereas others prefer to organize them according to where they were taken.


After copying files to their desktop computer, some travellers then copy them to a permanent data storage device known as a Drobo

This is a consumer RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) system that’s designed for permanent storage of your files. It has multiple hard drives and in the event that one of the drives should fail, you simply swap out the drive for a new one and you won’t lose any precious data.


Some very serious photographers take things a step further by having additional Drobos in their home or by keeping a second Drobo in a neighbour’s house in case the one in their own home is destroyed or burgled.


Once you’re home you’ll also probably have access to better Internet so you might consider backing up all of your images to the cloud.


No matter what kind of traveller you are, if you’re creating images on the road, you need to be backing them up as you go.


With hard drive storage now costing less than $0.03 per GB in today’s world (as opposed to $500,000 per GB in 1981) and unlimited cloud storage available from $5 a month, it’s cheaper to back up your data now than ever before, so there’s really no excuse for leaving your files vulnerable to disaster.


In the article we discussed how travelling with a laptop makes backing up your photos and videos much easier, but we also saw how there are still viable solutions for those who don’t want to risk bringing one.

We also provided some tips for the actual process of backing up your data, talking a bit about backing up files directly from mobile devices, and went over how to permanently back up your data after getting home from a trip. 

Yes backups are a bit of a chore, but they'll protect you from something a hell of a lot worse down the line. Don't neglect them out of laziness!


If you liked this article, please share it with other travellers. We’d love to know what is your method for backing up your photos and videos when you’re travelling? Please leave us a comment below with your thoughts on this matter.