SD Card Essentials for Travelers

What To Buy and Why

SD card
© Dave Dean

Looking to buy an SD card for your next trip, but confused by the dozens of different options? Here’s what you need to know about choosing, using and looking after that important little piece of plastic.


Which Type Should I Buy?

The first question you need to answer is: what sort do I need? While in the past there have been many shapes and sizes of storage cards available, the market has finally settled on two main types. For larger equipment such as cameras, SD cards are most commonly used. For smaller devices such as tablets and phones, microSD cards are typical.

You can buy a cheap adapter to convert from microSD to SD, but not the other way around. While these can be convenient (for moving photos from a phone to a laptop, for instance), they aren’t recommended for full-time use. If you need a full-size SD card in your camera, buy one – don’t use an adapter.

It’s also worth noting that SD and microSD cards have evolved over time. The first SD cards supported up to 4GB of storage, for example, while SDHC cards can be up to 32GB and SDXC cards go as high as 2TB. You can use older types of card in newer devices, but not vice versa. Check the instruction manual for your device to work out what kind to buy.


What Capacity Do I Need?

In general you can never have too much storage space on any device, and that’s as true for cameras and phones as anything else. Prices are coming down all the time, so there’s no need to skimp on capacity. There are, however, a couple of caveats:

  1. The larger the card, the more you stand to lose if it gets damaged or lost. Don’t let all that extra space be an excuse not to back up your photos and other files.
  2. Not every device can handle every card capacity, even if it supposedly supports it. Again, double-check the manual to find out exactly what will work in your device.

What Speed Do I Need?

Just to add to the confusion, as well as different sizes and capacities, there are also different speeds of storage card. The maximum speed of the card is given by its ‘class’ number, and unsurprisingly, the slower the card, the cheaper it tends to be.

If all you’re doing is taking individual photos, you don’t need a particularly fast card – pretty much anything Class 4 or higher will do.

When you’re planning on using your camera’s burst mode, however, or shooting video (especially in high definition), it’s definitely worth spending more to get better performance. In that case, look for a card that has Class 10, UHS1 or UHS3 stamped on it.


How Should I Protect My Data?

SD cards are small and fragile, used in all kinds of conditions and have large amounts of data moved to and from them. Unsurprisingly, then, they’re among the least reliable forms of storage in common use. A few basic tips will help you protect those vital photos.

  1. As mentioned before, back up regularly. This really is the most important tip of all – any data stored in only one place is data you really shouldn't mind losing!
  2. Keep the card in a device or protective case. Most cards will come with a plastic case when you buy them – leave them in there when not being used, or buy a dedicated carry case if you have a few of them.
  3. Dirt, dust and static electricity will cause problems sooner rather than later, so try to only take the card out when you’re in a relatively clean environment, and handle it by the plastic rather than the metal strips.
  1. Format the card every few months, from within the device that you’ll use it with. Not only will this make it perform a little better, but it also increases the card’s future reliability and helps avoid situations like these.
  2. Always carry a spare – they’re cheap enough, and the last thing you need is missing out on the shot of a lifetime because of a full or broken SD card.
  3. Buy brand-name cards. It’s still no guarantee that you won’t have problems, but they do tend to be more reliable. The few extra dollars are well worth the peace of mind.