Sunday, July 17, 2022

Travel with an IRL Streaming Backpack

In the entry How to Stream While Traveling Anywhere, I talked about my most recent trip to Tokyo, Japan, and how I was able to go live my usual three times per day, seven days a week, even from my vacation. I spoke about preparing for the trip beforehand, figuring out what kind of content to make, and talking with my traveling companions to see what they were comfortable with. These are all extremely important concerns, but what I didn’t cover in that entry is the kind of equipment I used during my trip to get the most out of the experience. In this entry, we’ll talk about just that: traveling with an IRL streaming backpack. 

Tokyo is a very photogenic place.

On the outside, an IRL streaming backpack just looks like a regular backpack. But inside, it’s filled with a few key pieces of equipment: a camera, one or more pocket WiFi units, and several portable chargers to power all your devices (as well as a whole bunch of cables). It’s basically an all-in-one accessory to let you go live for several hours at a time, often hands-free with a shoulder mount, while staying connected to the internet much more reliably than with a normal phone plan. This is very useful when traveling, because you can use your phone while streaming to look up directions or read chat, and the internet signal comes from a separate SIM card, so you aren’t wasting your phone’s data to make the broadcast. 


Like with many pieces of equipment, there are three main ways to get your hands on an IRL streaming backpack: rent, buy or build. No matter what option you go with, this thing is going to be pretty expensive. There are many different kinds, and prices vary, so I’ll use rough pricing equivalents rather than hard figures to describe each. 

First, you can just buy a streaming backpack outright. The Gunrun Backpack is probably the premiere choice, and it’ll require next to no setup when it arrives at your door, but that convenience comes with a price. Just to get the backpack itself will cost you roughly what you’d pay for a high-end games PC, and the various subscriptions you’ll need to get the thing connected to the internet can set you back the price of a new game console every month. This is beyond prohibitively expensive for most of us who don’t make huge amounts of money from our streams, especially if IRL streaming is something we only want to do once in a while. But, if you have the money this is a very easy, stable and high-end way to get the job done. 

The Gunrun Backpack is a sleek and
high-end solution, but it'll cost you.

You can also rent streaming backpacks, complete with everything all set up, for set amounts of time. For my Tokyo trip, I rented a Gunrun Backpack from the service
UnlimitedIRL. This wasn’t cheap either- two weeks with the backpack cost me about as much as the plane ticket I used to get to Tokyo, but it was a relief not to have to worry about setting things up. Recently UnlimitedIRL seems to only be accepting limited amounts of rentals, but they’re a great choice if you can get your hands on a booking and don’t want to commit to owning. 

Finally, you could always build your own. When I was looking into streaming backpacks for that Tokyo trip back in 2019, this was also a prohibitively expensive option. No matter how cheap you made the equipment, you couldn’t really get around the astronomical subscription costs for the data, tethering, cloud servers and other services required to actually get the signal to Twitch. But recently, that’s all changed. 


This year, after publishing my book about the Trojan War, I decided the best way to celebrate would be a trip to Greece. It was my first major trip since Tokyo three years prior, and after seeing how much it would cost to rent a streaming backpack again, I figured I’d check for alternate options. To my surprise, a few key discoveries were made in the three years since I was last in the market, which allow someone to build an entire streaming backpack, with no monthly fees required, all for less than the price I paid for my two week rental in Tokyo. All of a sudden, owning an IRL streaming backpack has become a very realistic option. 

The main concept of this affordable IRL solution, pioneered by the Twitch streamer SprEEEzy, is that it sidesteps the few ultra-expensive bottlenecks of the traditional streaming backpack. It uses a slightly less stable, but exponentially more affordable means of connecting to the internet (cutting out one of the major subscription fees), and compensating for that lower connectivity with better video compression algorithms. Then, by using your home PC as a remote relay for the broadcast itself, you cut out the other major subscription cost that would normally be required. This means that with just one prepaid data SIM card (easily attainable anywhere, though I had good success with the Japanese service iVideo) you can go live with pretty good stability, and have no other costs outside of the initial purchase of the equipment itself. For more information about the tech details behind this kit, you can find an excellent series of walkthrough videos on SprEEEzy’s YouTube channel. 

The main caveat with this route, just like when building a PC, is that you need to put the whole thing together yourself. That means a lot of patience, reading, iteration, sending back defective or incorrect parts, and experimenting with software settings. It's not going to magically work overnight, but if you’re like me and enjoy this sort of challenge every once in a while, you shouldn’t have too many problems. Plus, SprEEEzy has a very helpful Discord community where you can ask questions. 


Taken from my IRL backpack, at
the Acropolis of Athens.

Having built my streaming backpack, and having taken the time to really make sure everything worked before leaving, my Greece trip went incredibly well. In addition to streaming, I knew I’d also be traveling to ancient ruins, going to museums, and generally visiting a lot of places that wouldn’t have internet connectivity no matter what kind of data plan I used. So I invested in an SD card for local storage on the backpack’s camera. That way, I could easily switch between doing live shows and recorded shows without interrupting the fun or authenticity of my travel experience. Using this combination method, I was able to do
28 separate IRL episodes from my vacation, all with minimal worry. Many of my favorite historical sites, restaurants and other locations were discovered while walking around during the shows, and the backpack was so low profile that I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb on the street or in restaurants, bothering everyone around me. 

Building a streaming backpack is still a significant purchase, however. So it’s important to only go down this route if you’re sure you’ll get use out of it. I personally already had experience using an IRL backpack from my trip to Japan, and I had done many streams before that just from my iPhone. If you’re interested in becoming an IRL streamer, I would recommend (as I always do in Twitch Playbook entries) to go with the cheapest option first. Assuming you have a decent phone data plan, you can go live directly from the phone in your pocket without paying anything at all. Give that a try a few times, and see if IRL streaming is something you actually enjoy doing. If you think it’ll be worth taking the leap, then this affordable backpack solution by SprEEEzy is a great way to go. If you have more money to burn and don’t want to put things together yourself, you can always buy or rent pre-made kits. Whether you go live from your doorstep or from a city across the globe, a streaming backpack can turn that trip into an adventure not just for you, but for your audience as well. 

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