How to get your Mac back on track — and keep it working — while on the road

Attentive readers may have noticed that this has been a particularly bad year for me and tech. It has really seemed like every week, some piece of my daily tech gear has decided to smack me in the face. After a few months of this — including doing the iOS and OS X Yosemite beta dance — I’ve created a “go bag” of sorts to help get me back up and running regardless of my location.

Since my main MacBook Pro is a mid–2011 model and has a replaceable hard drive, not all of these recommendations may be applicable if you have a newer MacBook. What follows though, are some tools and steps I’ve taken to minimize my downtime. In the 1990s, I was a roadie and one of the first lessons you rapidly learn is that your backups should have backups, and backing up the backups is a good idea.

The implements

Tools and Bags
All of my little bits and bobs are in a cheap mesh pencil case I got at Staples. It’s large enough to hold what I need, yet small enough to fit into any bag I carry. Aside: My main bag is a large Ogio and my small bag is a Ospry Veer.

Inside this is all of the below, plus the tools I need: a Phillips head and torx screwdrivers and a SIM card removal tool. These three tools cover pretty much all of my needs. I also keep a small pill container to keep screws in.

USB Installers
I keep two USB installers in my bag: an OS X Mavericks and OS X Yosemite beta installer. These are used if I think simply a re-install or repair of OS X will fix the problem. Sometimes the problem is as simple as simply a crucial file gone bad. I’ll take the half-hour hit to see if a reinstall fixes the problem.

To create the Mavericks installer I use Lion Diskmaker, a very easy way to create a USB installer from the OS X Mavericks installer you downloaded from the Mac App Store. For the OS X Yosemite USB installer I followed these instructions.

A spare hard drive with OSX
If the re-install didn’t work, and when I absolutely, positively, need to get back up and running fast, I keep a formatted laptop drive with OS X Mavericks and my mission-critical applications: World of Warcraft, iWork, Office, PDFPen, Byword, 1Password, Dropbox and OneDrive. I’m not so worried about keeping the contents of the cloud drive folders up to date; I can handle the download for the files in a recovery situation. In the worst case, I can download a specific file from the website if I need it. I don’t have a ton of data up in the cloud either, so I’m usually just looking at around an 8 gig download.

A portable hard drive
I keep a small 160 GB drive with the installers for my common apps. This way, if I need to start from scratch for some reason – like my spare hard drive not working – I have the installers for the apps that are on the spare hard drive.

The recovery method

Disaster never strikes at an opportune moment. It seems like over the last two weeks I’ve re-installed OS X more than I’d like. Some of that is due to the OS X Yosemite beta dance, and the rest is due to a bad memory chip that wreaked some havoc.

My first step is to see if Safe Mode, or an SMC or PRAM reset works (for the record, it never has for me). After that, I try to see if re-installing OS X over the bad install works. This usually solves about half of my problems. For the other half, I’ve needed to blow the install away, which is why I keep a spare drive ready to go. Usually in this instance, something on the old drive has gotten so corrupted Disk Utility can’t even reformat or re-partition the drive. That’s when I just swap the drive and deal with the old one when I have a chance.

While you can use the recovery partition on your Macintosh, I prefer booting from the USB drive and installing OS X from there. It just feels a little cleaner to me. Also, if everything goes bad and I need to reformat and re-partition a drive, I prefer to do it from an external source.

Other useful tools

Super Duper is a great way to easily clone your startup drive. Unfortunately, my spare external enclosure is IDE so I can’t clone my drive to that. One of these days, I’ll have to grab a SATA enclosure to make my life a little easier.

Also, good, accessible backups are crucial. I use Dropbox, OneDrive and iCloud to store a lot of data to make it easier to get my files back. I keep my work files synced to my network drive. I also use Crashplan to back everything up to their servers as another point of redundancy.

By keeping these tools handy, I’ve found my recovery time from disaster to fully operational is around 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on if I need to reformat a drive. I also feel very comfortable that I will not loose any crucial data during the recovery.