The Mongol Rally is the ultimate road trip for 4 plugged in travel bloggers and social media addicts. However traveling across 15 countries for 10,000 miles presents some challenges for even the best techie geeks. I decided to enlist the help of Anil Polat from FoxNomad and Tech Guide For Travel to be our official Mongol Rally Team IT Manager – no geeky glasses or pocket protectors required. He’s an expert at managing your bits and bytes while traveling but we’ll put him to the test in this interview…
Q: We need to stay plugged in during this 6 to 8 week journey across 15 countries. Our goal is to still put out one short daily blog post, and be able to tweet regularly and update facebook (including uploading small images). What will be our best solution to accomplish this as we cross countries? And what is the realistic solution to accomplish this as we cross countries?
A: I’d first start by checking out WeFi and Jiwire to map out free wifi hotspots and other open connections along your way first. I would also be sure to have Ethernet cables with you for the wireless connections you have to pay for, so you can share a paid connection with one other person . Although that tactic makes for a slower connection for both people, it cuts your Internet costs in half.
For more desperate times – A phone cable might come in handy as well, as you can probably find dial-up connections in all of the countries you’re traveling through. You can search ahead of time to keep a few handy. Furthermore, on the hardware side you can dish about $30 to get a strong USB wireless antenna, effectively widening the range of wifi signals your laptop can reach by several times.
To further Internet-prepare, I’d recommend learning how to, and enabling tethering on each of your mobile phones. Tethering allows you to use your mobile phone data plan to connect your laptops to the Internet. The method varies by phone and it’s almost always an expensive way to get online. However for a few minutes of urgent connectivity it might be worth having the option at hand. There are two good apps for tethering, one is MyWi ($10) and the other is PdaNet ($30). There are free methods as well but they’re very cumbersome and take some time before each connection. AT&T has enabled tethering on their phones if you happen to be using them, so you wouldn’t need an app in that case.
There are also USB modems which let you connect to the Internet over 3G mobile connections that will likely cover much of your route. The major drawback being the price. Generally such services run for $250/month with a limit of about 500 MB. A more expensive but reliable connection would be a portable satellite kit. You’d have a solid Internet connection practically anywhere, even in the most remote of locations. This solution is expensive though, starting at $2,500 for the hardware and costing about $1,000 per month for the data connection itself.
Q: How can we stay ‘juiced up’ with power during our travels? Most places will have limited plugs and sometimes we’ll be camping with no plugs. I expect we’ll have a minimum of 3 laptops, 4 smart phones, 2 SLRS, and a video camera. Is there one solution that could potentially charge all of these things? Wishful thinking?
A: I would suggest making your laptops the “power stations” if possible – so we’ll work on getting them outlets. All of your other equipment and batteries should be chargeable by USB. Just about anything has a USB-to-most-anything-else adapter so try to get the SLR batteries, smart phones, and video camera compatible with USB. (Something like this can give you even more USB charging space ). Charging over USB slows down the process for the devices (and laptop as well) but saves you precious outlets when they’re at a premium. A power strip with surge protection can also give you more plugs when there’s only one available. Neatly enough, some even have USB ports as well for even more charging options
When you’re using your laptops and have limited access to a power, make the most out of what you have. Give yourself more battery life by shutting off wifi (use only as needed), dimming the screen, and keeping you laptops cool by not putting them on your lap, aka. warm legs. Running only one or two applications at a time will also make your computer processor work less, run cooler, and extend battery life ever so much. When you’re not using your laptops, shut them down or put them in hibernate (not sleep) modes so they don’t leak power while you’re driving.
Finally, I don’t know if any of you are on the laptop market, but an inexpensive netbook (~$200-300) would be a good choice for the trip. They typically have nearly twice the battery life of a standard laptop.
Q: Any recommendations on how to keep all of this expensive equipment safe, secure, and hopefully not stolen? We’ll be staying in a new place every night and sometimes will be camping by our car. There will inevitably be times when we have to leave the items in our car. In addition, we will want to be discrete at border crossings.
A: A good laptop lock goes a long way and I would also recommend encrypting each of your laptop hard drives or at least the sensitive folders. TrueCrypt is not only free, but easy to use and very effective. Additionally, ProjectPrey can help you track, lock, and delete any laptop data remotely if you are unfortunate enough to have them stolen.
Good physical storage would be a safe bolted somewhere into the car itself. Several companies make these (for typically guns) and a large one installed by a professional would at least be a major obstacle for a thief in a hurry. It’s not discrete of course, but smaller ones for your passports, money, and other valuables might be worth considering.
Q: Since we don’t have a ton of space, do you have any ideas for backup solutions for all of this digital data we will be capturing. Is there a solution that we can all use so that we can save space in the car?
A: I’m a big fan of CrashPlan and would suggest you use it in two ways. This first method is free – CrashPlan lets you set up other computers as backup destinations. You can all designate each others’ laptop as a destination for part of your data, as well as any desktops you might have access to (for example sitting at your parents’ house.) Since you’re all using Macs, it’s even easier to set up the local network for backup sharing. You just select “Create network” under the Airport wireless icon – on the upper right of the top menu bar. Once everyone joins that local network, CrashPlan will be able to send the backup information between you all. Also Crashplan encrypts all of the data so each backup can’t be read by the host.
The second backup setup involves purchasing their Unlimited Family Plan. It’s $12/month or $119/annually for unlimited online backup storage for up to 10 computers. Yes, it sucks up a bit of bandwidth and requires an Internet connection but runs quietly in the background without interaction after the initial setup.
Another reason you overlap the two methods. Depending on the specific operating systems you’re using, it’s possible to setup a wireless local area network (LAN). That way you can backup to each others’ machine when you don’t have Internet for extended periods of time.
Q: We will be going where there are no roads which basically means there will be a LOT of dust. Is there any way that we can keep our equipment clean in this type of crazy road trip environment?
A: Dust is a tricky one but by using cans of compressed air regularly you can prevent the buildup around sensitive components. Most electronics manufacturers will have specifications on where focus cleaning in their manuals or will tell you if you ask. For laptops that’s usually around the air vents but for all electronics equipment any openings (e.g. around buttons) should be cleaned often. You could also consider anti-static and dust wipes.
I loved all of Anil’s advice – I have a lot of follow up to do! If anyone has any leads or names of companies who provide portable satellite kits, please let me know! Else – we are definitely looking into a USB modem and 3G connection. I love the idea of the Ethernet cables as I think it’s always good to have one in your pack. Also I did phone tethering for the first time in Sri Lanka – and it was awesome – and quite cheap there. Love the power strip idea – will look into it. Plugs are a hot commodity when traveling with bloggers! Also like the idea of physical storage box somewhere in the car. I think the car is less likely to get stolen than the electronics in the car! I will make sure to write a follow up to this post with what we all decided to do – what worked, and what didn’t.
Anil not only consults for us when I ask him nicely, he also does other IT consulting and has written a great ebook that every traveler with laptops should have – The Ultimate Tech Guide for Travelers. You can read the review of it on my career break travel site. The best part though is the book comes with Anil – the tech geek himself! For a full 6 months after purchasing The Ultimate Tech Guide For Travel you get one-on-one technical support for anything you read in the book.
If anyone else has advice or gear leads for us – please share it in the comments!