Backup your data: six steps to absolute safety

Backup your data: six steps to absolute safety

What would you do if one morning you open the lid of your laptop and … nothing happens? Or the screen greets you with a blinking question mark. There are two kinds of people on this world:

  • those who calmly reach for their backup drive
  • those who start to panic.

Surely it would be an enormous loss if your calendar, all your images, videos, contacts and documents were suddenly gone, right? But if you are running a business from your laptop and your data exists only on the internal hard drive, then your existence might be in danger.

Our Story

Katja and I are not digital nomads (yet!), but in 2014 we started on a 6-month world trip and currently we are one a 6-month trip through Europe. And during our trips we are working not only in hotel rooms, but also in airports, on buses, in the bush, at night on a volcano climb, and in the rain forest.

jungle tree with spikes

Jungle heat and humidity: less than perfect conditions for a laptop

And it happened in the rainforest… On day 3 of an amazing trek in Ecuador’s jungle we setup our tent, wrapped the fish we had caught in palm leaves, set it into the remains of the fire to roast and opened the laptop to write our digital diary. At first everything was fine, but in about 60 sec the screen suddenly went blank. Instead of booting up, it showed a grey screen with a question mark. Oh no, what the … ??? !!!

Fortunately we had prepared for this moment. So with just slight irritation I reached into the dry bag inside Katja’s backpack, took out the backup hard drive, and in just 2 minutes I heard the happy Mac boot up sound. A week later, still booting up from the external drive, I started writing this article.

Looking back, I’m even happy that things worked out this way, because while preparing for the world trip all these thoughts about data safety were just boring theory. Now we know that things will go wrong, so we strongly advise anyone (whether you are a traveler or not) to go through the following 6 easy steps:

1. Should I backup my data?

Yes! Even if it feels like buying a rain jacket on a sunny day — you should definitely make backups.

The sooner you start, the higher the chance that your data will be safe after a hardware crash, theft, water damage or a power surge.

2. How often should I make backups?

Every time you complete something important on your computer.

And a few times in between.  😉

3. What hardware do I need to make a backup?

That one is quite straight-forward: you need a 2.5″ external hard disk, like in the picture below (some examples from Amazon). The manufacturer is not important, but do get one with USB3 and with 1.5 — 3 times the capacity of your internal disk.

Obviously you have to manually connect the external drive to your laptop to make a backup and disconnect it for transport and storage.

Tip: If you are using a Mac, you probably need to format your new drive before you can use it: attach the drive to your computer, open the DiskUtility, select the new disk, click on “Erase” and select the format type “Mac OS Extended (Journaled, Encrypted)”.

Our various external backup drives

Our various external backup drives

Note: If you use your computer only in your home or only in your office, you have two additional possibilities:

In these cases the external disk is permanently reachable by your laptop, so you can schedule your backups to take place automatically. The advantage, of course, is that you cannot “forget” to make a backup.

4. Which backup method is right for me?

First, two things:

  1. I’m not trying to provide an exhaustive list here, so I’ll stick to the most relevant information.
  2. If I’ve written something wrong or incomplete, please let me know. I’ll be happy to correct it for everyone, and give you credit for your input.

A. Disk image

A disk image is a copy of an entire disk partition stored as a single file. If you don’t know what a partition is, you probably have the same setup like 90% of all computer users: a single physical disk with a single partition on it. This partition holds your operating system, your settings, all applications and data, so to back up everything, you’ll need to simply create an image of that one disk partition.

If you have several hard drives or a drive with more than partition (for example a C: and a D: or several disk icons on a Mac), then you’ll have to make a separate image of each partition.

I’ll tell you below how to create disk images, but first let’s look at what you can do with a disk image:

  • Something goes wrong with a file: you delete a file or a series of file unintentionally. It’s not quite straight-forward, but you can manually copy the single files from a disk image back onto your hard drive.
  • Something goes wrong with your computer. a virus corrupts your system or your hard drive breaks. You can reformat the hard drive (or get a new one) and then with just a few steps restore the contents of the disk image onto the empty drive. Magically your computer goes back to the exact same state (operating system, settings, applications, data) as it was when you made your backup.
  • You buy a new computer and want all your data and all your settings to be transferred to the new machine. No problem: make an image of the old computer and restore it onto the new one.
laptop backpack boat

We had our laptop with us at all times

B. A bootable disk image

In addition to the advantages described in section 4A, you have these additional possibilities:

  • Your hard drive breaks. Instead of waiting impatiently for a replacement, you start your computer from the bootable image and continue working. The disk image is updated with all your changes. When your new drive arrives, you replace the broken one, then restore from the bootable image onto the new (empty) drive. (This is exactly what we did in the jungle when our drive broke.)
  • Your computer gets stolen. You attach the external drive with the bootable image onto another computer, boot up and continue working. The disk image is updated with all your changes. When your new computer arrives, you restore from the bootable image onto the empty drive of the new computer and continue working.

C. Backup with history

This type of backup stores the entire content of all your partitions every time you perform a backup. Browsing your previous backups you can “travel back in time” and retrieve older versions of any file on your drive. Amazing, right?

The underlying technology is of course smart enough to make a complete backup only the first time, and after that it records only those files which changed since the last backup. Unfortunately a backup with history is not bootable, so if you want to restore from it, you have to create a bootable system on the “receiving” computer first. (More on this later.)

D. Backups in the cloud

There are many different solutions in the cloud, so it’s nearly impossible to make a general statement about this type, but let’s try it anyway:

  • Backups in the cloud are stored on professionally run servers and usually there is more than one copy of your data. So you can be pretty sure that your data will not disappear.
  • You have to trust your service provider to keep your data safe from anyone other than you.
  • Be careful of solutions which only backup parts of your data. Like only your e-mail, only your settings, only the data of one or more applications, etc. Or you manually copying select directories onto cloud services like Dropbox or Google Drive. If something bad happens, how long would you need to build a running system from scratch with all your contacts, applications, browser favorites, etc.?
  • Since we are talking about backing up all your data here, you are very dependent on a fast and stable internet connection, which is usually not always available to travelers.

If you still want to go this way, look for a specialized cloud backup provider which (a) makes an automatic backup when you are online, (b) stores a bootable image of your data and (c) makes incremental updates. We’ve heard good things about Carbonite and Crashplan, but don’t have personal experiences with them.

Katja laptop bamboo raft

Katja writing diary on a bamboo raft in Bangladesh

5. Which software should I use?

We are very satisfied MacOS users, and we cannot write anything meaningful about Windows. If you, dear reader, are an expert in Windows backups, please get in touch and let’s add a specific how-to about Windows also.


On MacOS getting started with backups is very convenient. Since 2007 Apple delivers the software TimeMachine pre-installed on every Mac computer. TimeMachine creates backups with history (see section 4C above), and is extremely easy to set up and use. Simply attach you new external disk to your computer, tell TimeMachine to use it as an encrypted backup drive, and let it perform the first backup.

If you now seep the drive attached, TimeMachine will make a new backup every hour (containing only the files which changed during that hour). However you can also disconnect the external drive and put it in a drawer. When you attach it again, TimeMachine will automatically make a new backup (containing only the files which changed since the last backup). You don’t have to do anything else other than attach the drive once or twice a week and let it do its thing.

Here are more detailed (but still very easy to follow) instructions in English and German.

Every new backup takes additional space, so eventually (probably after 6–18 months) you backup drive will fill up. At that time TimeMachine will start removing some intermediate backups to make space for new ones. If space permits, TimeMachine will keep hourly backups from the last 24 hours, daily backups for the last month and weekly backups from all previous months.That’s really smart, isn’t it?

TimeMachine ist an amazing piece of software which everyone should start using today!

SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner

We know and use SuperDuper, but Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) seems to have nearly identical functionality. Using these applications you can create bootable disk images and thus enjoy all advantages listed in sections 4A and 4B above). SuperDuper’s manual is extremely helpful and easy to understand. To get to it first install the software and then go to the menu item “help”.

You can use SuperDuper free of charge but with the limitation that you can only create new images (which takes 1–3 hours). If you pay $27.50 for a license (plus applicable VAT in the EU), you will be able to update an existing image to the newest state of your data, which normally takes only about 5–15 minutes. CCC is priced at $38, but you can use the software it on all machines in your home.

Note that SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner are not meant to replace TimeMachine. Instead they complements each-other perfectly.

Bojidar Bangladesh crowd

Boji sharing travel photos with kids in a Bangladeshi village

6. Absolute data safety

As you surely know, there are no absolute guarantees in life, but with the methods described in this section you can get really, really close to 100%.

Make multiple backups

Since 2012 (OSX 10.8 aka Mountain Lion) TimeMachine can build separate backup “chains” on different drives. So you can use several external drives and build a complete backup with its own history on each drive.This way you can attach two different drives, preferably at different times and even with different frequency, you get a complete backup with its own separate history on each drive that you backup to.  and auf mehreren externen Festplatten unabhängige und in sich vollständige Sicherungen erstellt. Du kannst auf jeder Platte beliebig häufig (oder selten) sichern und es bietet sich an, eine Festplatte zu Hause und eine im Büro oder bei Freunden zu lagern. Wegen der räumlichen Trennung bist du so zusätzlich vor Einbruch und Brandschäden gesichert.

Use different backup methods

TimeMachine is amazing, but for more safety and added convenience we recommend that you create a bootable disk image on a separate external disk.

Not only do you now have two separate backups on two separate drives, but you are also using two different technologies, and you have a bootable version of your data.

Store your backups in different locations

Now that you havetwo (or more) backup drives, go the extra mile and store one of them in a different location. Now if there is a fire or if someone breaks into your house and takes everything, you’ll still have a copy of your data elsewhere.

You can store the second drive at work or at your friends’ place. Since you encrypted the external drive when you formatted it, no one can access your data without your encryption password.

We recommend that you keep the TimeMachine copy at home (so you have easy access also to old versions of your data) and the bootable disk image at the external location.

Our backup strategy

At 1001 we are big fans of backups, and we are making 3 different backups: TimeMachine and two bootable images made with SuperDuper.

When we are not traveling, we keep drives 1 and 2 at home and we backup every 2-3 days onto the TimeMachine drive and about once every two weeks onto drive 2. Friends of ours are keeping drive 3 in their apartment. We visit them every 2-3 months, drink a glass of whine and refresh our backup.

Before we leave for a longer trip, we always refresh backup 3 and we travel with our laptop and with backups 1 and 2. When we are walking around, Boji usually carries the laptop in his camera bag, backup 1 is in the hotel room and Katja carries backup 2 in her backpack. Alternatively, if we feel that our hotel room is really safe, we might leave the laptop in the room and then Boji takes backup 1 in his bag and Katja takes backup 2 in her backpack.

This way in order to lose all of our data, someone would have rob both of us and break into our hotel room. But we would still have backup 3 at home, so not everything would be lost…

Have we ever needed our backups?

Yes, we’ve needed backup 1 at least a dozen times through the years, mainly to recover inadvertently deleted files. This has happened both at home and while traveling.

And we used backup 2 to boot from when the internal SSD of our laptop died in the jungle of Ecuador. We could even continue working and communicating with our readers during the 8 days it took for Apple to send us a replacement drive. Luckily, we’ve never needed backup 3 yet, but we are very happy to have it anyway.

laptop mountain

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