I was lucky enough to go to BlackHatUSA and DEFCON in 2017. After I returned I wrote about my experiences here. I also wrote a blog post with point-form travel and conference advice. I have updated it below.
I have made a dedicated post for conference/convention travel advice. It will be updated as I learn better strategies for traveling.
General Travel Advice
This advice is not specific to BlackHATUSA or DEF CON. This advice will serve you well in all your travels.
- Never check bags if you can avoid it. This prevents loss, theft, or mishandling. If you check bags then keep all your valuables in your carry-on.
- Pack light; leave room for treasure. If you plan on collecting lots of treasure then pack an ultralight duffel in your carry-on. They pack small and you can check it on the trip home.
- Your personal item should be a cross-body bag or backpack. The 'personal item' is the one that goes under the seat in front of you on a plane. Keep your valuables and electronics there.
- Your carry-on item should be a frameless soft-bodied item. Pack your clothes and toiletries in this bag. Since you will be the only one handling it, you do not have to worry about it getting roughed up.
- Smaller airlines have tighter carry-on requirements and hard-shell and rolling luggage can be refused. You can squish soft-bodied luggage to fit.
- Check out other people's conference packing lists. They will give you an idea of what you should bring with you.
You can get away with packing less if you know how to do laundry in the sink of your hotel room. You just need a large enough sink and your shampoo. Someone I met at DEF CON was nice enough to teach me how, and I am passing that on to you.
- Half-fill sink with water. Put a couple drops of shampoo in the water.
- Swish clothes in soapy sink-water.
- Rinse clothes.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3.
- Wring clothes out as best you can.
- Roll up the clothes in a hotel towel then stomp the towel. This will soak up additional moisture.
- Hang to dry.
Cotton is comfortable because it is soft and wicks moisture, but it holds moisture and becomes odorous. Cotton clothes also take forever to dry even in well-ventilated areas. Synthetic fibers don't absorb moisture as well but dry quickly and are less prone to stinking. If you intend on doing your laundry in your sink then pack a clothesline made of medical rubber that ends with hooks or carabiners. Braided rubber grips clothes without pins, while suction cups will fail you. Once you get the routine down doing your laundry takes a couple of minutes, meaning you can pack lighter.
Often overlooked fact: Odor is caused by bacteria, which thrives in moist environments. Even if you shower and scrub every day, if people are complaining about B.O. it is your clothes. Doing your laundry is important.
- Print your boarding passes. Unless you travel with a battery pack and can ensure your phone is always available do not rely solely on electronic boarding passes.
- If asked about your lockpicks: refer to lockpicking as lock-sport and always have practice locks in the same bag as the lockpicks. If you bring intrusion tools pack them in checked baggage if possible.
- In my experience, airport security has shifted focus towards getting people through as quickly as possible. Shoes on, belt on. Sometimes stuff goes through x-ray sans bin. This is not always the case.
- RFID-blocking wallets will set off the metal detector. Even if the agents say it won't. Put it in the bin.
- Customs is all electronic now. Stop at a terminal, follow the prompts, give your receipt to the person at the exit. Quick, quick.
- 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.
- If you're traveling from Canada you will likely go through TSA pre-clearance which is just US customs/border but before you take off rather than land. No special rules/precautions.
This advice is more specific to my personal experience at BlackHatUSA and DEF CON, but can also be more broadly applied to other conferences as well. Take what you see useful, leave what you don't.
- Never, ever, do BlackHatUSA on your own dime.
- Book everything as far ahead in advance as possible. DEF CON 26 will be on August 9th to the 12th, 2018. Hotels charge for the first night when you make your reservation but everything else gets charged when you check-in. Booking ahead is always cheaper.
- Do not do mobile check-in if any member of your party is under the age of 21. It will cause headaches. Just check-in at the desk.
- If you have mobility or anxiety issues, book at Ceasers for DEF CON, and if you can manage it try to get in on the floors that have a direct elevator to the conference areas. This will make your life substantially easier.
- If you have mobility issues this lets you skip the casino floor and the mess everyone else goes through to get to the conference area. Also take some time on Thursday to find the elevators in the conference area so you don't have to find the signs while the halls are crowded with people.
- If you have anxiety issues, booking at the Ceasers in any tower gives you a quick and free way to get away from the conference area to your own quiet space so you can recharge.
- Most people's first year at DEF CON is spent learning how DEF CON works and where to spend their time. Don't get discouraged because you feel you didn't do enough your first year.
- The villages at DEF CON are closed on Thursday for set-up and close early on Sunday to pack up. As such the crowds are thin on these days and the lines are shorter. Take Thursday to wander around with a DEF CON map in hand and find where things will be so you don't have to do it with the crowds.
- 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.
- Never leave a good conversation to see a talk. That is, unless your employer sent you and you need to report on some talks to justify the expenses. Face-to-face networking is a huge deal, so don't pass up those opportunities.
- Hotels partnered with DEF CON stream the talks to hotel TVs. Some people host small viewing parties for talks. If you are invited to one by people you know, you should go. It is good for networking and you can ask people about content you don't understand.
- Bring business cards with basic contact information: name/alias, social media, business email. Asking for someone else's contact information can make them uncomfortable. By offering your contact information instead you give them control of the next interaction.
- If you are better known by your online handle than your real name include your handle in your introduction. "Hi, I'm Amanda, also @AwfulyPrideful on Twitter."
- 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).
- Don't interrogate people. If they're dodging where they work or what they do, leave them be. Remember where you are, and remember that they don't know you.
- If you're gossiping or telling stories, don't name drop unnecessarily. People just don't appreciate it. You also seem more mysterious if you have secrets or "know someone."
- LINECON is real. Start lining up at least half an hour before a talk is scheduled to start. People in line in front and behind you are there for the same reason you are and you don't have to lose networking time. This is one of the easiest ways to meet new people since you already have something to talk about.
- HALLCON is where it's at. Go to a chill area and ask if a seat's open at a table or unofficial-circle-of-people-on-the-floor. Listen to people's conversations and ask some questions. Don't intrude/eavesdrop on clearly personal conversations. You can enter a lot of conversations just by proximity.
Lots of stuff here. I covered how to organize yourself while packing, how to do your laundry, things to keep in mind regarding air travel, useful information for planning your time at DEF CON, and things to do and think about once DEF CON starts.
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Devon Taylor (They/Them) is a Canadian network architect, security consultant, and blogger. They have experience developing secure network and active directory implementations in low-budget and low-personnel environments. Their blog offers a unique and detailed perspective on security and game design, and they tweet about technology, security, games, and social issues. You can support their work via Patreon (USD), or directly via ko-fi.