May 17, 2007

Backpacking with a Laptop
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

Trying to decide if you should shove that laptop in your backpack? I've got a few thoughts on the subject.

Eric, a regular reader/commenter e-mailed me and asked:

I have one more year of school left and I'm thinking about upgrading to a Mac laptop. When I begin traveling, do you think it'd be smart to take it with me? It seems like it would make it a lot easier to store pictures and music; no need for an iPOD. I'll probably have movies on there for long bus rides, and a computer might be harder to steal (since it will almost always be locked up). Also, they have new technology out for Internet virtually anywhere… thoughts? Worth taking or to much of a hassle?

Eric, I think this depends entirely on where you're going to be traveling, for how long, and what you're going to be doing while on the road.

The Cost

Looking at the cost of a laptop from financial standpoint, I always think: "How many hours of Internet time would I get for the price of this device?"

If you're traveling in developing countries, figure no more than US$2/hour for Internet access—often it's less than US$1/hour if you hunt. Here in Thailand I can find Internet for B$20/hour outside of the tourist zones.

I know Mac's aren't cheap. I'm not sure how much the laptop you're thinking about getting is, but I'll take a stab at it and say US$1,800. That's 1,800 hours in an Internet café. If you spent 3 hours a day in a café, everyday, that would be equivalent to 600 days of Internet usage.

Of course adjusting the price of the laptop, the amount of time used, and the rate/hour will give you (wildly) varying results. But since you're not buying a laptop just for reasons of travel, I'll move on.

Weight & Space

The extra weight you can deal with; the space might be a problem. Space inside a backpack is finite, and must be used wisely. You will often see people with an additional "frontpack," a smaller backpack turned around and carried against the belly, to carry valuables and overflow from their backpack.

I don't carry a frontpack (or like them). I don't like the idea of walking around like an overburdened Sherpa. I also don't like the "steal this for all my best goodies" vibe the frontpack gives off. If it doesn't fit in my backpack, it's out. I enjoy my range of motion (and with it the ability to defend myself properly) too much.

I am a big believer that laptops should be computers for the lap, not the desk. I see no point in buying one of these massive desktop replacements that weigh in at 10lbs and rarely leaves your workstation because it's so big.

My ideal laptop would have a 10" screen or smaller, and weigh no more than 1.5–2.5 pounds, with battery. A docking station should be used at home to provide a larger monitor and keyboard. Portable and functional. I suggested the same thing to my boy Babak, who picked up a tiny Sony Vaio and will eventually construct such a setup.

On The Bus

I have spent a lot of time in buses—probably a thousand hours or more—and have yet to see someone watching a movie on laptop. Revealing the possession of such an item is on the long list things that I wouldn't do to ensure happy and safe bus travel.

You always have to remember that there are people in this world that want, and will take, what they don't have. People notice what goodies you have, and I take extreme care to keep things discreet, especially when traveling on long-haul (overnight) buses. Trust issues are part of the reason I can't sleep on such transport.

Your eyes are going to be stuck to the window while busing during the daylight hours; the passing landscape is far more interesting than you would expect. Night is the only time I can think of playing a movie, but even if you did, how long would that battery last playing it? Probably enough for one flick, assuming you've ripped it to the hard drive (so the DVD drive isn't always spinning) and it's not as long as most Kevin Costner movies.

Rides lasting 17–22 hours are typical in South America—it's a big place. When your laptop gives up at the 4-hour mark or your iPOD after 8-hours, what are you doing to do for the remainder? This is why I love carrying an MP3 player that takes (rechargeable) AA batteries; I take two or three AA's for those long bus rides and life is good.

Mac Versus PC

Other backpackers will see a laptop and go: "Nice! Hey, could I borrow that for a second?"

Mac users are still in the minority, and carrying one would reduce the attempts people will make to borrow your baby; but it comes with a price. If you plan on taking your computer to an Internet café there won't be anyone in sight, including the staff, to help you configure it should you encounter problems configuring it for access.

I would also give though to replacement parts and service. Chances are good that you'll burn up a power supply from faulty wiring or a nasty current surge in a third-world country. That laptop is going to become a brick in your pack real fast if you can't get replacement parts for it locally (or can't afford a very expensive DHL package from home).

Archival, Theft, & Oops!

Never, ever, ever use an iPOD to archive your photos. Solid-state memory devices and cards are so affordable these days, it makes no sense at all; pick up a handful of thumb drives or extra cards for your camera instead. Putting photos on an iPOD (or CD) as a novelty, but never as the sole meas of archival. I've heard far to many tales of woe from people who have had their device lost, stolen, broken, or reformatted by mistake and lost everything.

You're laptop isn't going to be any harder to steal than an iPOD (assuming you treat them the same), but the difference is going to be motivation for the thief. Believe it or not, laptops aren't high on the list of things people look to nab. To most, computers mean work. It's as soon as you start openly playing music on it that it becomes a device for fun—a more desirable target.

Laptop rules: Don't let other backpackers use your laptop; don't let locals see you play music or games on it; mind the liquids and insects.

Purpose & Usefulness

I suppose what it really comes down to is how much you want to work outside of an Internet café. If you are designing Web sites in exchange for room and board, or enjoy day-trading from a chair on the beach, then yes, a laptop is a good idea.

If I was carrying a laptop I would probably also go ahead and get a cell phone. The combination of the two would allow me to get Internet access via GPRS, anytime, from the comfort of my bed. I see this setup as essential equipment for blogging from countries without a developed Internet café infrastructure (such as West Africa, where my buddy Andy is currently using such a combo).

Again, it all boils down to what you're going to be doing on the road. If I was blogging for a business (and making money), like Andy, I'd make damn sure I had Internet access anytime—and he does. Since my writing doesn't generate (positive) cash flow, I use a PDA to write offline, and do my thing whenever I've got 'net access from a café.

Sure I'd love to have a laptop with me to watch movies and listen to music in my room; manage the songs on my MP3 player; sort and retouch photos; research with Encarta; play games; read e-books; work on my Web site; and access the Internet from a secure environment—but I don't.

It's about the balance of wants and needs. It doesn't make sense for me invest in such things (at this point). I don't have the space in my pack or the money in the bank.

Related Writings:

Hope that helps you look at things from a slightly different perspective.

Comments:

Timen

May 19th, 2007

I'm going to lead tours through Vietnam for a few months and decided to get a laptop. I need it to process my photos and blog, and need track of the tour essentials.

I bought a 500 euro second-hand iBook. Fantastic.

conorcan

July 24th, 2007

A laptop for 1,800? Come off it!
I bought a laptop 3 years ago for $800 (new) and I've used it at least once a day. It's no slow coach either.

China

Craig | travelvice.com

July 25th, 2007

Hey, they got a lot, lot more expensive (think Sony Vaio). But I suppose my train of thought on that price was the price of a new Mac laptop.

I've since discovered many laptops for sale here in SE Asia that you can pick up new for US$600-800 that are just fine.

eric

February 6th, 2008

What do you use to carry your laptop in when backpacking??

Europe

Craig | travelvice.com

February 6th, 2008

I picked up these goodies in Bangkok, the larger of the two padded cases was for my girlfriend's laptop.

I keep my laptop inside my backpack.

Seems to be working out well.

Dan

March 25th, 2008

You could get something like an asus eee. It's 2 pounds, $300-400, has a 7 inch screen, and can run linux or windows xp if you put it on there.

That would be perfect since it's light enough to carry as well as cheap enough to not cry over if broken.

chris

June 13th, 2009

I recently took a trip to S. America and bought an Asus Eee PC netbook. It is -THE- backpacker computer. Very light, very compact, I think the screen is about 8 or 9 inches diagnally. It's about the same dimensions as a medium sized book. Only cost $290 including shipping. The keyboard is uncomfortably small and takes some getting used to, but after a few days you can type just fine. Can't beat it though. Saw many other backpackers with them too.

Egypt

Craig | travelvice.com

June 13th, 2009

Chris, I couldn't agree more. The Asus EEE is wonderful for travel.

See this post:
ASUS Eee Perfect for Poor, Lonely Backpackers, Full-Time Travelers, Your Mom

The United States

Russ Hearl

March 9th, 2010

Can anyone recommend a wireless internet card/service that can be used on the road while traveling internationally?

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

March 9th, 2010

The only economical option available to you is going to be the use of a Blackberry, optionally tethered to your laptop. More here: http://www.hobotraveler.com/blackberry.php

Argentina

Jess

April 22nd, 2010

This post fails to mention that relying on internet cafe computers is punishment in itself. The computers rarely could be called responsive, and they are plagued down by installed programs and viruses. You should assume an internet cafe pc has aids. It will infect your flash drives.
Also, an update would be that for $300 dollars on amazon/ebay you can buy a 10" netbook which are all the rage. My bf and I brought our laptops and no one has ever asked to use them.
However, if you just want email, then hostel computers are mostly adequate.

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

April 22nd, 2010

Totally correct, Jess. Back in '07 netbooks were still under the radar, but as of '08 really started to take off. Today they can be had for very little money (just $200-300 new with a legit OS) and full of functionality.

Sweden

jocke

September 7th, 2010

Hello Craig! Great post, but im still not sure. Im thinking of bringing my macbook 15" to india, where im going to travel for 5 months. Mostly its because i don't want to pause my music-production-training, but also to keep in touch with family through skype. Its an expensive laptop, and its also quite big, so is it really worth the risk? I'm also wondering, how does your laptop get along with heat (like from being hidden in the backpack).

I understand you can't tell me yes or no, but maybe you can help me decide :) thanks in advance

Jocke

Peru

Craig | travelvice.com

September 7th, 2010

Jocke,
Taking such an expensive piece of technology (which clearly means a lot to you) is only going to end in heartache or wishing you didn't have to expend all the energy protecting it — maybe both.

As much as you'll want to continue your training, you'll likely be overloaded with new experiences, hardships and acquaintances that such things will likely fade from your list of priorities.

Now, after nearly five years of world wanderings I've found myself reneging on some pretty strong statements regarding tech and travel that I thought were correct at the time. Laptops are one of them.

The introduction of inexpensive 'netbooks' to the masses around 2007 changed my mind on such things. US$300 can free you from public computers for things like photo editing/storage, and (with more and more Wi-Fi popping up as the years go on) Internet access.

Would I take a piece of tech like your laptop to a country like India? No way. Both you and your kit are going to go through some extreme conditions (squished, smashed, rain, heat, and thieves, to name a few).

Either get yourself a very worthy insurance policy with a low deductible or leave it at home. Freeing yourself of having to guard your pack/possessions with your life is going to save you a lot of grief.

Investing in a netbook is probably going to be a lot better solution than investing in an insurance policy. Try Craigslist and pick one up for cheap. Even Skype runs on the rusting 486s running Windows 95 you'll likely encounter in India.

As for heat, I try to let my system cool off before packing it away in a lightly padded cover. Where you're likely to have problems is moving your system from a cool A/C room to high humidity (outside). Condensation (as seen on your glasses or camera fogging up) can hurt these things.

The United States

Megan Jones

August 3rd, 2012

This is a very good pro and con list of whether to bring a laptop with you while you backpack. I agree that for the most part, it depends. Everyone needs to consider their own context and see if a laptop is appropriate and needed. I think that people need to start from the mindset that they don't need one and convince themselves that that do rather than starting from the position that you do need one and convince yourself that you don't.

The United States

Jason | Thailand Travel

September 14th, 2012

For someone who needs a real machine while traveling, investing in an ultrabook is a good idea. You will generally get about 13' or smaller screen, less that 3lb weight and a long battery life. A set of basic travel adapters and you are set to go, the rest is just common sense and basic precautions. There so many places with available WI-Fi that it is really a no-brainer.

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