How to use technology and stay connected while backpacking

by Dan Fey on April 20, 2012

Sunrise on top of Kilimanjaro

Sunrise on top of Kilimanjaro, you get full cell service here

Did you know that you get full bars on your cell phone on the top of the highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro?  You could call your mother, “Hey ma… I’m 19k+ feet high on top of Africa”, then snap a pic on your iPhone and instantly post it to Facebook or Twitter.  Below, I’ll share with you the devices to use, how to find internet, and free tools to use to stay connected and share your experiences.

Traveling internationally has changed when it comes to communication.  I’m finding internet connections to be ubiquitous, instant, and fairly reliable.  I frequently walk by empty internet café’s and wonder how they will survive in the next few years.  Many travelers can now use their smart phones and small netbooks with easy-to-find free, reliable, WIFI at McDonalds or at their hostel.

Not too long ago, you needed a calling card and a land-line in order to stay in touch with home.

Which devices to use

Smart phone

Any smart phone with WIFI capability can take you extremely far while traveling, even if you don’t use it for traditional cell phone calls.  Carry it around with you and you can pop in and out of coffee shops, checking/responding to emails or calling friends for free using Skype or Google Chat.  Load it up with music, movies, and books for your down time or just sit back in your hostel and surf the web; most large sites are now mobile friendly.

Just make sure to KEEP your smart phone on airplane mode for the entire trip or you will be charged for international data roaming (extremely expensive) and text messages.  As an added bonus, you can feel safe knowing that if you get in trouble and do not have WIFI, just switch your phone off airplane mode and make an emergency call.

Laptop at the beach

Working on my laptop at the beach in Eilat, Israel

These are my recommended apps on the iPhone for free calling to the US:

  1. Skype – Free voice and video calls to friends and family Skype to Skype (they need to be using Skype too).  Also, you can use Skype for low cost calls if calling local numbers within a country.
  2. Talkatone – Free voice calls and text messages to any US mobile or landline using Google Chat.  That’s right, with a gmail account, you can make free calls and texts to any US number.

*Please note these apps do require a WIFI connection while you phone is on airplane mode


Traveling provides tons of time to catch up on your reading list, but books can be heavy.  You do not want to carry more than one or two, especially if you are packing light.

A Kindle or e-reader is perfect for carrying hundreds of books with you in a light, relatively inexpensive (starting at $80) device that lasts for days on one charge.  It’s also more comfortable than a tiny smart phone screen.  Most e-readers have WIFI capabilities allowing you to purchase additional books on the go.

For even more capability, you can upgrade to a low-end tablet for $150 or purchase a Kindle Fire for $200, allowing you to surf the internet, watch movies and TV shows, and listen to music on a much bigger screen than your smart phone.


A laptop is the ultimate in terms of versatility.  You have all of your applications, documents, and processing power that you are used to on the road.  This is great if you need a computer to work while you travel.  If you do plan to bring a laptop, I have a couple advisories:

  1. Bring a laptop only if you need it.  It is a substantial weight, cost, and time investment, and it will likely be stolen.
  2. Airport security can confiscate your computer and search your hard drive
  3. Laptops are targets for theft so plan for it to be stolen and do not keep critical documents that are not backed-up on the internet.  I highly recommend Dropbox, which acts like a normal folder on your computer, but syncs your files on the internet.  Get the app and you can have access to your files on your smart phone as well
  4. Buy a very small and light netbook or front the cash for a low-end ultrabook.  I recommend a screen between 10.1 and 13.3 inches with a Core-i processor.  Pay attention to the weight.  I am very happy with my Gateway EC39C05u, though there will soon be cheaper, lighter, more powerful laptops available.

How to find internet

Though I have yet to be in a developing country, I’m finding that reliable internet connections are very common.  Don’t bother with an internet café unless you do not have any internet enabled device, there are a few ways to find free WIFI:

McDonalds WIFI Tel Aviv

Catching WIFI at McDonalds in Tel Aviv

  1. McDonalds! – Great, reliable WIFI. I usually buy a small coffee.  Though I have yet to find an outlet to charge my computer in an international McDonalds
  2. Cafes – Cafes can be hit or miss.  Some connections are fast and reliable, some are terrible.  You probably want to test the connection before you setup in a café for too long.  Most cafes do have outlets to charge your computer.
  3. Hostels – Most hostels have free WIFI, making it easy to do some work in the morning or evening
  4. CouchSurfing – if you find someone to stay with on the internet, they obviously have internet
  5. Look for “Free WIFI” or the WIFI logo – many other places and stores offer free internet

Free tools for staying connected

  1. Skype (laptop or smartphone app) – as mentioned above, free Skype to Skype calls
  2. Google Chat (via laptop or Talkatone smartphone app) – free calls and texts to any US mobile or landline
  3. Facebook (laptop or smartphone) for posting pictures, status updates, check-ins, etc.
  4. Picasa – for quickly importing, sorting, editing, and sharing photos on your computer
  5. Blog – Enjoy writing stories and sharing them with the world?  It’s a time investment, but well worth it. is the most popular free platform for starting a blog.
  6. Blistt – is a free service I created for sharing your travel experiences and crossing off travel and adventure goals from you bucket list with your friends.  Blistt is currently in beta testing.  Contact me for a free tour.

So far, I’m pleasantly surprised with the availability, speed, and reliability of internet connections, but I’ve only traveled through the developed countries of Israel, Chile, and Argentina.  I’m curious to see the technology infrastructure of Bolivia and many countries in Asia.

What’s Next?

I’ve found these technologies very helpful, but I also believe there is a lot of room for improvement.

Cerro Catedral Bariloche

I want to spend my time in places like Cerro Catedral in Bariloche

In order to share my photos, I currently have to take many photos on my camera, upload them to my computer, sort through them and upload them to Facebook or Google+.  Facebook is great for sharing a few photos or broadcasting what I’m doing, but it’s not great for recreating experiences.  In order to really share my experience, I need to combine words in my blog with the best pictures or take videos.

While this is a million times easier than it used to be, I find myself wanting to spend that time reading, exploring, meeting more people, going out for a drink, or planning my next adventure.

Since technology and infrastructure are becoming increasingly available, reliable, and cheaper, Ill be looking for a quick, easy, and effective way to share my experiences with my friends, family, and you.

So what do you suggest I use to share my experiences?  What do you use?  What would you like to see?

I invite you to be imaginative with this.  If you could have a perfect tool for sharing your travels on a phone or on a website, what would it look like?  What features would it have?  What would be important to you?  Leave your comment here.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jess C April 3, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Thanks Dan. I found this post extermely helpful. I simply didn’t know you could switch a smart phone to airplane mode and still use wifi or that there were Kindle’s available so cheaply.


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