Digital nomad survival tips you can use anywhere

Living in Europe, the Middle East and Africa taught me that the conventional wisdom about mobility is all wrong
  • (Computerworld (US))
  • 12 October, 2013 11:05

I'm a digital nomad. You're a digital nomad. According to my own definition, anyone who is able to work in various environments because of digital and mobile technology (home, office, Starbucks, plastic lounge chair by the pool while on vacation) is a digital nomad.

However, for the last year and a half I have lived truly nomadically. My wife and I put all our possessions into storage (except for two backpacks and two large dufflebags) and now live internationally, choosing countries to stay based on, well, whim more than anything else, and working from wherever we go.

During that time I've lived in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. I've been robbed, stranded, and, worst of all, disconnected from Internet connectivity and reliable electricity.

While living this lifestyle, I've learned a lot about being a digital nomad -- mostly the hard way -- and gained insights useful for anyone who can work with mobile technology or who travels abroad for any length of time.

So I thought I would share my hard-won knowledge with you. Let's start with the basics.

How to choose and use a backpack

The most important feature of a backpack is security. But the best way to achieve backpack security is different than nearly everyone imagines.

There's a whole sub-industry of backpack security that treats the problem as one of fortification. A company called Pacsafe is the leading brand in this space. Wire mesh backpack linings or covers are designed to prevent crooks from cutting into your bag. Zipper locks and hidden pockets prevent easy theft.

The marketing around these bags suggests that you're going to leave your backpack behind in some hotel room or hostel and you'll want to lock it down to prevent theft.

The belief that locking a backpack to, say, a pipe or desk and fortifying it will prevent theft is false. A determined thief will cut through the cables, rip out the pipe or figure out some other way to steal your stuff.

The best protection is social engineering and also following some basic guidelines. It starts with the backpack selection.

There are high-quality backpacks on the market, fortified or not fortified. If you have a conspicuously high-quality backpack, you'll make yourself a target for theft. For example, the SOOT Electropack project looks promising. And I've been tempted by the Pelican ProGear S130 Sport Elite Laptop Backpack. These are great products if you never leave the safety and comfort of safe and wealthy places.

But carry these packs into most countries and you might as well tape a sign to it in the local language that says: "Very expensive gear inside: Please steal me!" And a determined thief will do so.

The most important security feature in a backpack is to be boring. Buy a black backpack without fancy features or designer logos. The plainer the better.

The second most important security feature is that it hold everything of value and still be comfortable to wear.

This is how laptop theft typically happens to travelers abroad. "Watching" your laptop -- or even using it -- is no deterrent at all.

Gear up in such a way as to never have to leave your valuable electronics behind. Make sure everything fits into one backpack. (In my case, I carry a MacBook Pro, iPad, iPhone (my Android phone lives in my pocket), Google Glass, chargers, cables, extra credit cards and more. The total value of what I carry in my backpack is about $5,000.)

Then never, ever leave it behind. Always have your backpack with you.

When you're in a coffee shop, don't place the backpack on a chair or on the floor next to you. Put it on the floor between your legs and under the table.

Finally, whenever you're in a situation where anyone can be close to you and behind you, put the backpack on backwards so it's in the front, to prevent razor-blade access. The most likely way thieves will steal stuff is to divert your attention. If something happens that's attention-grabbing, always move the backpack to the front and keep your head on a swivel.

How to keep your laptop from being stolen

After surviving many trips abroad, working often in coffee shops, I laugh whenever I hear someone at Starbucks saying to a stranger: "Will you watch my stuff while I go to the bathroom?" This provides you with exactly zero protection against theft.

Here's the global best practice for stealing a laptop from an American innocent abroad: Grab it and run.

The commonly used defenses against this crime are all perfectly wrong. Sitting there won't deter them. They'll steal it even while you're actually typing. If you can out-run a teenager familiar with the surrounding streets (Good luck with that), he will drop it before you catch him, destroying the laptop. If you chain it to the table, he'll drop it and smash it trying to get away. If you chase after the guy with the laptop, his partner will casually walk off with your backpack.

To protect your laptop, follow my three-second rule: Make sure a crook can't run from your laptop to the door in less than three seconds. Find a place to work that's tucked way back in the corner with lots of tables and chairs between you and the door. And make sure a thief can't approach your laptop without you seeing them. It's more important that you keep an eye on who's approaching your table than your stuff.

Second, if you need to leave the table for any reason, but want to maintain your claim to it, leave easily replaceable personal items on the table and take your laptop and other valuables with you, even into the bathroom.

Third, don't appear to have an expensive laptop. That Apple logo screams "black market retail value!," so buy a cover that makes it look like a cheap laptop, or something other than a laptop.

And fourth, confuse crooks with the unexpected. Most criminals are looking for specific things -- wallets, high-end smartphones, expensive laptops and iPads. I walk around wearing Google Glass with confidence. Nobody is going to steal it because that technology is not on their radar yet. Criminals are confused about what it is, so they leave it alone. Likewise, you can confuse crooks by making them unsure about what you've got.

I'm a huge fan of Twelve South's BookBook line: Phone, tablet and laptop cases that look like old leatherbound books. This will at best make them think you've got a book and in the worst-case scenario confuse them before they figure out that you've got some unknown type of electronic device. That delay in reaction makes a big difference.

Nobody wants to steal your book. They'll never know your "book" is actually an iPad wearing a Twelve South BookBook cover.

How to get good Wi-Fi

The quality of Wi-Fi connections vary wildly around the world and tend to be very bad in most countries. It's common for the staff at restaurants and coffee shops to know nothing about the network. Often either the router or the Internet connection isn't working, and nobody knows or cares why.

Always check for actual data throughput by connecting and doing something before you sit down. Check performance by loading a picture.

Favor hotels over other establishments because their Wi-Fi is usually more reliable. Performance in hotels varies by location, so walk around to find the best spot before checking in, then request a room closest to the Wi-Fi sweet spot.

Carry a long Ethernet (RJ45) cable and plug-in for a wired connection to the router if you can.

If your cable can't connect to the router, try rolling your own Wi-Fi network with a wireless travel router. I recommend the Asus WL-330NUL All-in-One Wireless-N150 Pocket Router because it's tiny, and also light enough to hang from a router (which is often wall-mounted). Be bold. Just step right up to the router and plug in. The proprietors will most likely shrug and forget about it.

How to get mobile data easily and cheaply

I can answer that question in three words: Switch to T-Mobile.

While international roaming is massively expensive and problematic on other carriers -- (cough!) AT&T! (cough!) -- it just became free and automatic on T-Mobile.

T-Mobile US announced this week a new plan that provides unlimited texting and data in about 100 countries and into which every T-Mobile customer will be automatically enrolled at the end of the month.

If you have T-Mobile already, do nothing. Just go abroad and the free, unlimited data is there.

Let me tell you a story about T-Mobile. My wife uses it so that she doesn't have to pay for wireless while we're abroad. So we went to Italy recently and were gone for two months. She didn't even notify T-Mobile. But she didn't use it, and they didn't charge her. After two months, we landed at JFK airport and, while still in the plane she fired up her iPhone and service was just there, including her old phone number. She paid for the current month by phone, and everything continued uninterrupted.

Thanks to unlimited international roaming, however, T-Mobile has given her a reason to keep paying for service while abroad.

How to keep gadgets charged abroad

Reliable, available electricity can be problematic. The solution is very simple, actually. Make sure to give priority to battery life when choosing your electronics, and always carry and use a portable battery pack.

Look for two things in a battery pack: High milliampere-hour ratings (the more the better, but at least 10,000 mAh for just phones and tablets and at least 18,000 mAh if you want to charge a laptop) and high construction and durability ratings from other users (Many batteries are powerful but shoddy and unreliable).

Always charge everything whenever you get the chance. Turn off Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth when you're not using it, and turn down screen brightness to conserve energy.

I'm a digital nomad, and so are you. These tips and best practices will help you hang on to your expensive mobile gadgets and keep them connected and powered as well -- whether you're sitting in a hookah joint in Marrakesh or a Starbucks in Poughkeepsie.

Believe me when I tell you that I've learned these things the hard way. But you don't have to.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.

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