I’ve been traveling full-time or living abroad for the past 15 years. All the while I’ve worked one job or another as my writing and mentoring career developed. I’ve pitched editors from the deck of a tiny wood cabin on a Caribbean island and met deadlines while in airports. I’ve videoconferenced clients while in coffee shops, friends’ houses, and temporary rentals all over the world.
I love the freedom I have to make choices for my life. Now, it looks like more of us will be moving out of the traditional office setting and creating a different vision of our work lives.
This guide will help you decide what to keep in your backpack so you can travel light while living and working anywhere you want.
The gear you need will vary, obviously, depending on the work you do. But the following list allows you to perform basic office functions as well as create media-rich content, run meetings and workshops, and collaborate with clients.This home office setup guide covers most of what you’ll want, but obviously, the larger equipment won’t fit in a backpack.
Choose Your Laptop
To decide which laptop fits your needs, make a list of the work you do. Then choose one that balances processing power with the cost and weight of the equipment.
I use a 14-inch MacBook Pro. I need something more powerful than a Macbook Air, plus I want the additional ports. The small screen saves about 1 pound in weight, which isn’t much, but it adds up as you place your gear in your pack.
Check out these laptops under $700 and these good deals.To keep your laptop charged and connected to your accessories, carry a multiport hub, and don’t forget all the necessary chargers and cables. And don’t forget any gear and accessories you may need to do what you normally do: headphones if you need to block out noise and work, a microphone if you record audio, and so on. Just remember to shop smart. You’ll have to lug all of that gear with you wherever you go.
A solid internet connection is crucial for working on the road. Luckily, it’s easy to find a connection just about anywhere you go. Don’t underestimate the ubiquity of free Wi-Fi! It’s generally available at cafés, restaurants, and especially if you’re a guest at a hotel. When you’re a customer, most businesses will have no problem connecting you.
When There’s No Internet or the Internet Sucks
I ran a writing retreat at a mountaintop yoga resort in Costa Rica. It was beautiful and full of monkeys, but no internet. To solve this, I purchased a local SIM card that included internet access anywhere in the country.
There are three sizes of SIM cards that fit into just about any phone. You’ll need a tiny pin to pop open the part of your phone that houses the chip. A small paperclip works well, and it’s worth keeping one tucked away in a safe space in your pack.
Create a Hot Spot on Your Phone
Whether via a local chip or through your own service, it’s simple to go to your phone settings and set up the hot spot. You also have the option of creating a password to maintain your privacy and protect your precious data minutes.
When You Can’t Connect
For those times when internet access is elusive, back up your work on Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox or another cloud storage option and make sure it’s available even when you’re offline. It’s an excellent option for working on flights or when you’re in transit. These cloud services also automatically sync your offline work when you reconnect.
One Bag to Carry It All
Your backpack needs to be lightweight, durable, and comfortable to carry. You’ll want pockets of varying sizes, including small, easily reachable ones for compact items that might get lost easily or things you’ll need quick access to, like your ID, keys, transit passes, and so on.I carry SwissGear’s Wenger Ibex 17-inch Laptop Backpack. I love the “quick pocket” on top to store things I need often, like my cell phone and keys. The reinforced wire handle on top makes it easy to grab and run for a flight or bus.
For more options, check out WIRED’s 2021 review of the best backpacks for work.
How Your Smartphone Fits In
Almost anything you do with your computer you can do with a smartphone. Load it with the apps you use regularly to access your data, edit documents, manage social media, or run meetings.
Smartphone photography and video are of excellent quality. You won’t need to buy additional equipment unless you’re a professional photographer or videographer. Extend the capabilities of your phone with add-ons and accessories like these.
By the way, you’ll need an unlocked phone when using a SIM from a service other than your carrier. Most US phone carriers charge a fee to unlock phones if you bought it through them. Or you can always buy an unlocked phone and use any service you want.
Being on the move is hard on your equipment, so save yourself some grief and buy a phone case.
Can You Hear Me?
Headphones are crucial, especially when you’re moving around and doing work from multiple locations. I carry both wireless and wired versions. Wired headphones offer better sound quality and a more reliable connection. They also don’t need to be recharged and can be significantly cheaper. Wireless headphones and earbuds allow for greater flexibility and movement, perfect for listening to music or an audiobook while exploring a new town.
Is This Thing On?
Many headphones have a mic attached. You can also buy a stand-alone for top-quality sound. I have a Blue Yeti. It’s larger than I’d normally choose to carry. The sound quality is good for the price, so I pack it in my backpack only when I know I’ll need it. Fei Wu of Feisworld recommended it when I was a guest on her podcast. Fei is an expert at podcasting and creating high-quality videos, livestreaming, and Zoom workshops. For other microphone options see WIRED’s USB microphone recommendations, tips to level up your home recording studio, and our roundup of podcasting and livestreaming gear.
Apps and Tools
Google tools are my favorite for collaboration, and they’re free as long as you have a Google account. They make it easy to share your documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with anyone who needs to edit or give feedback.
Password managers protect your online accounts and let you share access with others, especially people back home or others who do work on your behalf. My IT manager, for example, needs my website passwords when he helps me troubleshoot a problem long-distance.
Virtual private networks protect your system from hackers and allow you to access your usual websites while traveling internationally. Don’t use the free services. They're likely to track you and potentially even steal your personal information.
With Skype’s free service, you can meet with as many people as you want for as long as you want, make international phone calls for as little as a few cents per minute, and purchase a phone number from the locale you choose.
I live in Argentina for most of the year, but when I call people, my phone number shows up on their caller ID as an Atlanta number. With the app on my phone, I make and receive calls from anywhere as long as my phone has internet.Google Voice offers a phone number free of charge that allows you to consolidate all your numbers into one phone line that you can answer on your phone or computer. You need a Google Account and an existing phone number to use it. There’s a charge for international calls.
Zoom is wonderful for group meetings and webinars. The free version lets you meet with one person for as long as you want and 45 minutes for groups. For longer group meetings, you’ll need the premium service.
People in the US don’t use WhatsApp as much as people do internationally, but it’s wonderful for staying in touch when you’re moving around. You add a new contact to your phone’s address book and voilà, you’re ready to send messages, video, and audio. Groups are great for travel or project communication.
Keep in touch via social media if you want to stay connected but don’t want to give out your phone number or email. The only caveat is that when you’re on too many platforms, you end up with too many places to check. Choose one or two platforms that best suit your work needs and stick with them.
Backing Up Your Work
Have you ever lost an entire hard drive’s worth of work? I have, and it still hurts. To avoid that happening again, I keep one backup on a portable storage drive at home for emergencies and carry a second with me. Plus, I’ve automated my computer to back up to the cloud.
Every type of computer makes it easy to automate your backups and keep them safe in the cloud.
The key to working on the road is flexibility. Plans change. Things break. You can’t anticipate everything, but the longer you spend working from your backpack, the more you learn to rely on yourself and to update as you go.
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