DEF CON 27 (2019) Travel Debrief

Hi there! It has been a while since I made a post on my blog, and I figured what better than to do a wrap-up of my very successful DEFCON 27 trip. It was a blast and I got to meet up with some of my best friends for the first time, and it was as successful at every stage of the trip as it possibly could have.

The Definition of Success

It is really important to start with why my trip was successful, because success at a conference is going to be different for everyone attending. Here are the things that I wanted out of my trip:

  • Don't pack anything I didn't need (Pack light, pack efficiently)
  • Spend as much time as possible among friends
  • Respect my own limits and boundaries
  • Eat well, stay hydrated, be presentable, and get plenty of rest
  • Bring home cool swag, but don't overspend

So, what did my DEFCON 27 experience look like at the end of it all? Here is it in list form:

  • I used (nearly) everything that I packed.
  • I did not have any time where I was alone and wondering what to do.
  • I was among friends at almost all times.
  • I was comfortable dipping out when I was tired or didn't feel comfortable, and had ensured I always had a way out if it was needed.
  • My group and I ate meals often, and ensured each other were staying properly hydrated.
  • There were not any times when I felt gross or that I wasn't presentable to new people I was meeting (yay frequent showers).
  • I actually slept better in Vegas than I have at home all year. I got all my necessary rest and more.
  • Brought home a Plunder Bug, Packet Squirrel, and a Proxmark 3 RDV4.0. Also brought back the Blue Team Village badge!
  • I started with $1,000 USD. I bought my friends a lot of meals and presents, covered taxi costs, bought my swag and badges, and had exactly $3 USD left over!

Big Important Packing List

Loadout debrief

A super important part of traveling light is keeping track of the stuff you used and the stuff you didn't. Learning from your trips, cutting what you didn't need, and adding what you did makes future trips more successful! So, let's do that.

Stuff I packed but didn't use

The list of stuff I didn't actually use is way shorter than the list of stuff I packed. In fact the list of things that I packed but did not use consists of seven items:

  • Swimsuit (friend forgot their swimsuit, so pool stuff canceled)
  • Wifi Pineapple
  • TS100 soldering iron, and solder
  • small screwdriver
  • rubber bands, velcro ties, freezer bags
  • USB-C USB hub and Ethernet adapter, and ethernet cable

Out of those items, I will likely only leave the WiFi Pineapple behind next year.

The TS100 and small screwdriver I will keep in my luggage because they would be invaluable if a badge broke during the conference. The rubber bands, velcro ties, and freezer bags take up such a small ammount of space that I likely won't dispose of them, and they could come in handy in the right circumstances. I will certainly keep the USB-C hub/ethernet adapter and cable, because it fits in my charging kit and can come in useful at the hotel or at the conference in the future if I take part in a CTF or go to the packet hacking village.

Items that I packed and didn't expect to use, but ended up being invaluable

Earplugs. I did not expect to actually use the earplugs by mid-day friday, but I ended up handing out two sets to my friends and using the third set when the DJ at the bar kept turning up the music slowly. Next year I plan on packing an extra pair to share with another friend, since our walking-around crew tended to be about three to four people. The earplugs were also invaluable at the airport and on the flight home where there were many screaming infants shrieking the whole way. Lesson: Pack earplugs, you will be happy you have them.

Things I wish I had packed

Three items: A hairbrush, a USB-C/Thunderbolt to HDMI adapter (and HDMI cable), and a spare (unlocked) phone.

The hairbrush was an item that was actually on my packing list, but I had needed to use it at home the morning of my flight out and I just forgot to toss it in my bag. A friend ended up buying one and bringing it to me at the conference for Saturday. Thanks, by the way!

I wanted to watch a movie on Netflix at the hotel but I had completely forgotten that my laptop does not have a port that any hotel television is going to be able to plug into. I am going to purchase an adapter and cable and maybe put together a "hotel room kit" of stuff I bring that I only need at the hotel. It might just end up being an A/V kit, in which case it'll be useful if I ever do a talk.

A spare, fresh (unlocked) phone. Oh boy. My friend lost their phone on Friday, and we spent all of Friday night and Saturday night trying to find the phone and then to get them access to their accounts, but were unsuccessful at both. MFA doing what it's supposed to, I suppose. Anyways, wisdom is learning from the hardship of others, innit? I am going to start bringing DEF CON's favorite hacker accessory: A spare "burner" phone. I'll get one when my budget allows.

The spare phone will likely go into my "Essentials" kit, from above, and I will move the pens and notebook elsewhere. It will become an emergency "get running at 100% and lockdown old devices in minutes" kit with one of my yubikeys, my dedicated hardware password manager, and that 64GB flash drive with an encrypted backup of important files from my laptop. This is a kit that I've wanted to put in place for a while, so now is as good at time as any.

Other lessons learned

I learned some things just about traveling in general that I will keep in mind for next year.

  1. A 100% disassembled soldering iron will not make it past Canadian TSA
  2. Since my duffel bag is carry-on sized, I can 'courtesy check' (aka 'gate check') it for free. No baggage fee, but I still get to bring tools and lockpicks both ways in my small bag.

It wasn't a new lesson, but having the packing cubes and other various kits/bags made sure that I knew where everything was and made forgetting anything next to impossible. When I checked a kit, if there was an open space in it, there was something missing (and I knew what it was). When I was repacking my cubes, if I forgot anything it would be obvious by the size/shape of the cube. Organization good.

What did I actually carry around at the con?

My GoRuck GR1 was primarily for getting my laptop and tech to Las Vegas for the conference. Most of the contents stayed back at the hotel room. My main bag was the Mec Cascade Field Bag, which I had packed in my duffel (it squishes up real good). Here's what I actually had in the Field Bag (all from the lists above):

  • Insulated Water Bottle
  • Kindle Paperwhite (Gives a little structure to the bag and gives it a bit of weight, so it's not all floppy)
  • Battery bank, USB-A to USB-C Cable, and USB-C to USB-C Cable
  • Some CLIF bars
  • Pen, small notebook
  • Earplugs
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Anti-static bag filled with stickers to hand out and trade
  • Passport and wallet

The bag actually had loads of space left over for whatever goodies I picked up between trips back to my room. Plenty of space for collecting stickers, badges, and buying stuff at the vendors or more water/snacks. Never wanted for or needed anything that I had left back at the room. For the things that I came to do, I always had what I needed on me at all times without being overburdened, and everything had a place to go back to when I wasn't using it.

Enough of packing lists and load-outs. What did you do?

The last time I went to DEF CON, it was okay, but there were a bunch of issues. The hotel I chose was too far away from the convention, I didn't bring enough money, I didn't know enough people, and I spent most of my time wandering around trying to find someone to hang out with. This year was a full shift.

I stayed at the Flamingo, which happened to be where Blue Team Village was. This ended up being a 15-30 minute walk from the farthest conference floor at Planet Hollywood, with most of that walk being inside. I take this moment now to recognize that I am an able-bodied person who walks quickly, and who can navigate casinos with ease. There was a back exit from Paris (just stick to the left wall when entering from Bally's and hitting the Paris casino area) that let you skip the crosswalk that would get you stuck out in the heat, and put Planet Hollywood only a two or three minute walk away. The longest and easily the worst part of the trip was the crosswalk between the Flamingo and Bally's. I paid for taxis a total of three times, spending a grand total of $100 (To and from airport, and once to meet friends. I over-tipped quite a bit).

What did I do with full access to all the conference areas without worrying about trips or costs? I met up with a friend on Thursday, and then met up with more friends on Friday, and we stuck together every day throughout the con. We're all a bunch of introverts and none of us were particularly great at approaching new people or trying to make new friends, so we stuck to our own and enjoyed our time together. I didn't head out to any parties, or spend too long in areas where the music or sound was too loud.

Our group was very good at checking in on each other and making sure everyone was okay. We ate plenty of meals and made sure each other had plenty of water when we were walking around. At least on my end, I was okay taking off to my room fairly early (typically before or around midnight), and I fell asleep pretty quickly.

Advice and Lessons Learned

I think that I had the best possible experience, for the type of experience I was looking for. Much of my travel and conference advice still stands true, so I am just going to call out some of the more important ones, and update them with new advice. Mostly, just go read that other post, it was much more information.

  • Never check a bag if you can avoid it. This lowers the chance of your luggage being stolen, lost, or mishandled. If you do check bags, keep all your valuables in your carry-on. If your bag is carry-on size but you have some non-carry-on items, your airline might allow you to courtesy or gate check your bag for free.
  • Print your boarding passes. The rest of this tip used to read "unless you have a battery pack", but now I will just say: Just print your boarding passes. See above regarding losing your phone.
  • If you drink lots of water like I do you will have to dump your water into a garbage bin at every security checkpoint. This goes for all beverages. Dump it out before you're at the front of the line.
  • Ask for consent before taking people's picture or touching them for any reason. It makes a huge difference, even if you know the person really well.
    • Making eye contact and doing the open-arms-hug? gesture and asking, "Hug?" is easy to execute and isn't awkward. Respect their decision if they say no.
  • If you are better known by your online handle than your real name include your handle in your introduction. "Hi, I'm Malachite, also @AwfulyPrideful and @MalachiteOS on Twitter."
    • Also, try to bring a picture you can pin to your badge or something with your avatar on it. A lot of people do much better remember that than names and handles.
  • Most important tip of all: Don't push yourself. If you get anxious and can't be on the conference floor for long periods, just duck out and recharge. Under no circumstance should you force yourself to stay at the conference all day. You will exhaust yourself and ruin the experience if you do.
  • Stay hydrated, bring snacks. You will have a better experience this way, I promise you. My personal choices are tap water (yuck, but free) and CLIF bars (trail food, keeps energy up sans meal).
    • Staying hydrated means drink small amounts of water every 15-20 minutes. Drinking lots of water all at once will not hydrate you since your body will only absorb a bit of it at once.
  • Con Flu is real. Wash your hands often, or carry around hand sanitizer and use it often. The alternative is to not touch anything, but that won't save you.
    • Good strategy is that if you are about to touch your face, eyes, or nose, stop and use hand sanitizer or wash your hands with soap and water.
    • Honestly though, last I heard most people get 'con flu' on the trip home from the conference.
  • Wear good walking shoes. You will be on your feet most of the time, either walking around or standing in lines. Get good insoles / inserts for your shoes. Your feet will thank you for it.
  • Carry lots of cash for tips. Tipping your service people is really important, and people attending conferences are known not to tip well. Also thank them and be patient because it's really busy and hard for them too.
  • If you are at a bar or party, always order your own drink and keep your eyes on it. Stick with friends. Look after each other.

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Devon Taylor (They/Them) is a Canadian python developer, network architect, and consultant. Their blog covers technical problems they encounter and design and media analysis. Their twitter You can support their independent work via Patreon (USD), or directly through Ko-Fi (CAD).