How To Keep Camera Gear Safe While Traveling

How To Keep Camera Gear Safe While Traveling

I have written previously on DPS about travel photography and a question I get asked often is, “How do you keep your gear safe while traveling?” What I think people are really asking is, “How do I make sure people don’t steal my camera on my next trip?” I have been lucky in that I have returned home with my gear intact from all my trips (knock on wood) and people think I have a mystical power, begging me to share it with them.

I say ‘lucky’ because there is no fool-proof plan to never be robbed. I hope it never happens to you or I and there are some things to be done to help minimize the chances. The world isn’t as big and bad of a place as it might seem. Sure, there are bad areas to travel through, be it Peru or Thailand or Compton. Don’t let the worry stop you from going! Instead, bank the odds in your favor by following these tips and listening to your intuition.

PERSONAL NOTE: To those still worried about traveling with gear; I’ve had more cameras and lenses returned to me after I lost them than I’ve ever had stolen from me. The world, in general, is a good place to travel….and it’s the only one we have!

Listen To Intuition

I can’t stress this enough. Whether you are a worrier or not, listen to your intuition and make a change if it is sounding warning bells. This is your first line of defense; trusting yourself.

Use An Old Bag

Some people suggest bringing an old bag to carry your camera and gear. I personally I don’t do this (I haven’t found the right bag!) but I do think it is an excellent idea. The bag need not be decrepit, just worn-in and not appearing to be a camera bag. The two types of thieves we are trying to protect against here are opportunists and professionals. Opportunists are looking for likely subjects and a flashy new camera bag will attract them.

Tone It Down

If you do have a new camera specific bag and are still worried, tone it down. Get it dirty. Beat it up a little. It might seem lame, yet a well traveled bag is less of a target than a new one. A new bag says, “I have money and likely don’t travel much.” A worn bag is still a target, but, in a field of likely bags, ranks lower for an attempt. Toning it down also goes for your dress. I’m not insisting you purchase local clothes and try to be completely local when you arrive, but take a look at what others are wearing and try to blend in some. Again, the idea is to be less of a target, not invisible (you’re already out of your element and will be noticed).

One Eye Open

When shooting, keep your non-shooting eye open and searching. It’s hard not to get pulled into the subject of your shot but it is important to not be overly distracted, especially in crowded areas. Even if they don’t steal the camera out of your hand (highly unlikely, but it can happen) they might go after your day bag or purse. I also use the reflection on my LCD display as a means to check behind me. It’s easy to hold the camera up to my eye and then pull back slightly, then pan the camera around as if searching for something to shoot, all the while being able to look behind. If nothing else, this is a good idea for general safety.

The Buddy System

Traveling with a friend? Great! Employ the buddy system for shooting just as you would for other travel situations. I often travel alone yet I enjoy having a friend along for the company, camaraderie and added safety. It sometimes takes practice to perfect a system where one person is shooting and the other is casually keeping an eye on things. This is most helpful in a jostling crowd and on city streets. This is also why I like traveling with friends who aren’t into photography. Less arguments about who gets to shoot next!

Swap Cards Often

One of the great aspects of modern memory cards is the size. They are huge! And can store thousands of photos. Trying not to get sucked into the ‘bigger is better’ mentality as it will leave all your eggs in one basket. Swap your cards out often and rotate them around, placing them in unlikely places if you are very worried about being robbed. Do this especially if you have not brought a laptop or external drive to backup photos (see next item). Just captured the best sunset ever? Great! Take the card out and put it in your sock or money belt (if it is well hidden). When you get home the software on your home computer will be able to sort all the images by capture time, so don’t worry about getting them out of order.

Have A Backup Plan

There are many drive manufacturers these days who offer a backup drive for use without a computer and they can be a godsend if disaster strikes (be it theft or an accident). Use one daily to backup all of your shots. This helps protect against corrupted cards (to some extent) as well. Ideally you and the drive will not be in the same place if you are worried of your personal belongings being stolen. Leave the drive back at the hotel in a safe.

Bag In Front

One of the simplest ways to stay safe is to wear your bag up front. I know, it looks funny, but in high traffic places, like a market, it can help. And wear it over both shoulders if there are the straps for it.

Gear Left Behind At The Hotel Or Hostel

Safety Net

You may be worried about the gear left in your room while you are out gallivanting around town. Companies like PacSafe make wire mesh safety nets designed to encompass your bag and secure it to something solid. Of course, you need something solid to secure it to. These nets make the most sense for keeping opportunists out, as they can be broken through if a professional has the right tools.

Hard Case

Another option is to bring your gear in a hard case, such as the ones made by Pelican Cases. These cases are hardened plastic with loops to apply standard padlocks as well as cable locks to secure the case to a solid object. The cases have the added advantage of being water and dust proof to keep gear clean and dry while traveling. They are bulkier than a standard sized backpack though, while some versions offer wheels and pull handles.

Hotel Safe

If your hotel or hostel or other accommodation offers a safe, use it. Place any unneeded gear in the hotel safe but first take a photo of what you are handing over in the presence of who you are handing it to. This is the same as handing over cash to be stored and counting it out and getting a receipt. If the establishment won’t offer a receipt, the photo is your only insurance of knowing what was handed over.

Mini Safe

Many hotels offer a mini-safe in rooms. Use it as well. Many things can fit in one of these units while off for a day of shooting. Any lenses or cards or harddrives or small laptops. They can be used at night as well if the place is extra sketchy.

Write It All Down

Before heading out on a trip, write down the serial and model numbers of all your gear. Make a copy or two and keep this information some place safe. If the worst does happen and your gear is pilfered, it may turn up some place (ideally with the police, but maybe at a pawn shop). Having a list of serial numbers is your best bet to claim gear as your own. Include a picture of your gear before you leave as well (borrow a friend’s camera for this).

Traveling with expensive photography gear can be a bit nerve wracking but it needn’t stop anyone from taking along quality equipment to bring back quality photos. Take some time before your next trip to think about how you can keep your gear safe.

Have a favorite safety tip as it relates to traveling with cameras? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Stuart January 7, 2012 10:58 am

    Here is another idea for a great camera bag that looks less like a camera bag. If you have lots of equipment and don't mind investing in a good bag system, look at the Eberlestock line of police and tactical packs. They are designed for military or tactical police officers. They look more like a hiking pack. They are EXTREMELY comfortable to wear and distribute the weight unlike other packs I have tried. The model of pack I bought was the Phantom.

    In order to protect the camera gear inside, I then ordered a ICU (internal camera unit) from fstopgear. I have the extra large pro which fits perfect inside... almost a tailored fit. My kit includes a 10-20mm f3.5, a Zeiss 24-70 f2.8, 100mm f2.8 macro, Sigma 50-500mm, 300mm f2.8, flash, Really Right Stuff med. size ball head, HyperDrive Colour Space UDMA, (2) 1.4x teleconvertors, battery charger and some other misc. items (all of which are in the one compartment. This still leaves a smaller top compartment for extra cards, batteries etc.

    The gun holder system works great for a tripod... just need an extra strap to secure the top.

    The other thing that I ordered for this which really comes in handy for the telephoto lens is the Gun Rest from Eberlestock. It can attach to many spots on the bag and is designed to hold the barrel of a gun. Works great as a tripod when you don't have time or don't have your tripod.

    From the outside, very few would every guess it is a camera bag. The best part is that I have never had a problem with airlines allowing it as a carry on.

    Just my thoughts!


  • Charles November 14, 2011 03:33 am

    Over the shoulder baby holders or baby slings are now considered stylish accessories for mothers with infants. Besides for women,

  • Marcos August 6, 2011 09:36 am

    Hello, Im just Im just wondering, is it safe for the camera, to store it with the battery pack on?

    I have a pelican case, with a bunch of stuff in it, If I leave the battery pack putted on the camera, I can make more space for a lens, Is it safe for the camera to be with the battery pack too much time? With batteries out of course.
    Any opinion will be appreciated, Thanks!

  • Karl Kovacs April 29, 2011 07:54 am

    Great article. I can echo the pacsafe, pelican case and beat up bag. I also wear my bag on my front. I look like a dork but I am a safe dork.
    If I leave anything in my room, It is locked in a pacsafe. When I am traveling, I use a pelican case inserted into a crappy looking travel bag.

  • Carol March 14, 2011 01:17 am

    One more thing about travel insurance. I'm a photographer, but I also have a 9-5 job. Because of this, I am able to get insurance on my camera gear for a VERY small monthly/yearly fee. So far I've just insured my new gear (7D, 24-70mm F2.8, CF card, etc.) and it's only $4 extra a month - with NO deductible and it covers it anywhere in the world! It's a rider you can add on to your homewowners insurance.

  • Carol March 14, 2011 12:34 am

    Let's just say that this information could not have come at a better time! I'll be heading to Mexico and many people have made me nervous about taking my gear. Great tips!

  • J March 12, 2011 02:54 am

    Related to your point of writing it down, US Citizens traveling abroad may want to fill out CBP Form 4457, Certificate of Personal Effects Taken Abroad. It provides you with the list of items, as recommended, and can prevent hassels when reentering the US.

  • Dave March 11, 2011 10:33 pm

    Some great tips here, but generally we just need some common sense!
    Most thieves are opportunists, so don't make it easy for them.
    I travel quite a lot, and have not had any trouble yet, but have heard many stories from those less fortunate, one family I met on Machu Picchu lost their camera and days memories forever, to a young local boy of about 9 years old, and another told me about the day when he was having a group photo taken with some friends, they all pilled their rucksacks behind them while posing, and afterwards one rucksack was missing, full of camera gear, passport, purse etc., when they looked at the photos later that night, they had actually caught the thief on camera twice, once as he walked casually behind them, and again with the rucksack over his shoulder as he walked away!!
    I prefer bridge cameras for travelling (Fuji HS10), an all in one with no extra lenses, just a few spare batteries (always rechargeables) that way my kit is kept to a minimum, and can carry it in a small backpack, mine is a Crumpler Pretty Boy, which does not look like a camera bag, and provides good protection from the elements.
    It has been round the world with me a few times now, maybe 5 years old, and still looks good. When in crowded places I swing it round to my front where I can keep a good eye on it!
    Another favorite piece of travel gear for keeping passport, wallet, phone and the like safe, are Craghopper zip-off trousers (pants), there are many secure zipped pockets that have saved me more than once, and on one fateful night when properly mugged with some friends in Ukraine, my pockets went through a thorough search while being pinned to the ground, and they got nothing, even though I had my wallet, passport, mobile, camera (p&s) and loose change on me!!
    Happy snapping :-)

  • corbyn March 11, 2011 06:12 am

    When i traveled to Romania I was worried about pick pockets unziping my bag so i went out and paid two dollars for a thing that looked like a carabeaner with a screw lock. this made it to where if some one wanted in my bag it would take them longer. o ya i was in the gypsy village and they can steal anything and you wouldnt even know it. Also while travleing dont put things in your pocket, i once caught some one in my pocket just becase i turned around and there hand was stuck. also about your passport make a photo copy and email it to your self this can then be accessed from any where in the world and if it happens that your passport is gone then you have a copy that can be accessed from any where.

  • Ross Dodds March 11, 2011 04:20 am

    Been all over the world and never one single problem. Have one Pelican Case and ordering a second with wheels. These cases are bullet proof and can be secured with two locks on the case and a bike lock to anything fixed. Most of them are carry on also.

    Why you did not cover photo gear insurance is strange. Next time give the readers some thoughts on this.

  • Neil March 11, 2011 02:54 am

    I've been travelling for two months over SE Asia in quasi-low budget are some of my recommendations...

    1) Always keep the camera with you when possible. If you absolutely have to leave it in the room (even if it is for a few minutes) and there are no lockers...hide your bag. Make your regular pack full of clothes visible, then try to stash the camera bag under a bed or somewhere not so obvious.

    2) If you have a bag with buckles around the waist and/or chest -- use them. Most thefts are drive by snatch and grabs and bags that are tightly on your body aren't easy targets.

    3) If you have your camera out hanging around your neck, use your hands and cradle it securely close to your body, especially if in tight quarters or crossing roads. Keep the camera away from the road when possible.

    4) If you put your bag down, have it securely in between your legs or step into the straps so that if someone grabs it, it will be securely hooked around your foot.

    5) When changing lenses or accessing goodies in your bag, try not to open everything up to reveal all the contents. It looks like a pot of gold.


  • Andy March 8, 2011 03:03 am

    No one has mentioned changing the camera strap. Walking around with Nikon or Canon around your neck can only attract attention. A plain, bland camera strap does not scream out "steal me, I'm an expensive camera."

    The camera strap should also the most secure you can get. PacSafe and Sun Sniper One have camera straps with a metal cable running through them making them virtually impossible to cut. I've heard of the "cut and run" thefts and want to prevent it.


  • Brandon March 6, 2011 04:56 am

    What are your guy's views on the Lowepro slingshot, do you think that would be a safe bag to have in the city?

  • Brandon March 6, 2011 04:56 am

    What are your guy's views on the Lowepro slingshot, do you think that would be a safe bag to have in the city?

  • Gideon March 5, 2011 12:56 pm

    'learned a good deal here. Thanks guys! My advice is to keep your bag closed at all times and keep it to 1 bag only, in case you need to make a run. Other then that, it is just too easy te get carried away in paranoia. I'd rather lose my bag then to go round like that, it spoils my eye. That doesn't mean that one needs to walk around like a dummy, that would attract attention. Make it look like you have a goal. Move like the crowd. Enjoy and know that the lions cage is quite often the safest place :)

  • CG March 4, 2011 12:03 am

    Tenba makes camera bags that look like messenger bags that you wear across your body. They are well padded and have a top zipper for "easy" access to the camera. Downside is that the single zipper, in my opinion, makes it a little difficult to get things in and out quickly. You can also fiip up the overlay for normal access. Lots of pockets. I also found the bag too heavy to carry all day as we do a lot of traveling where we are on foot the entire day. Prefer my backpack camera bag. Anywhere you travel, keep bags closed, prefer zip closures, pay attention. Agree with article - don't be flashy. Don't be afraid to go places. Jump in and have fun.

    Also, re: serial numbers of your equipment - email the info to yourself at yahoo, google, etc. email account that you can access from anywhere. Same thing for credit card, bank info, etc. That way you don't have to remember where you wrote it and can always get to it. I do the same for all my contact info as well.

  • Mandeno Moments March 3, 2011 09:23 pm

    I often use non-photographic backpacks with rain covers that tuck away into a dedicated pocket.

    The rain cover isn't much protection, but if you're in a low-risk crowd and want to stop an opportunistic dipper they're of some value. I saw an article by a former burglar of homes and he said he always went for the easiest target; if something made a burglary slightly difficult he'd move on because there were plenty of easier opportunities.

  • Matt March 3, 2011 05:40 pm

    Oh one more thing. As I approach my hotel, I put everything away in the bag. I don't have anything on show at the entrance or through the lobby. And I keep my eyes open and notice if I see the same people around me I saw before. If I do, I loop around the block or across the street and come back.

  • Matt March 3, 2011 05:35 pm

    There is no such thing as a camera bag that doesn't look like a camera bag. They all look like camera bags as soon as you pull that camera out of your bag. I don't worry about it. I use a combination of Think Tank and Domke bags, but they look like camera bags too. Equipment I carry has changed recently, but last trip to Nepal I carried a D700, 14-24/2.8, 80-200/2.8, 50/1.4, lots of filters, gitzo tripod, lots of filters and other stuff. Occasionally I would leave the tripod at the hotel, but everything else was carried all the time. As I said, recently I switched. So now I am carrying a Panasonic GH2, 20mm, 7-14mm, 14-140mm, 100-300mm, and nikon 50 and 20 lenses on adapters, Zoom H1 and/or H4n, and a couple of LED video lights. Plus all the other crap I always carried with the Nikon. The benefit of the Panasonic system while traveling is that all of it combined weigh less that the D700 (with battery pack) and 14-24 mounted alone. There are very few trips where I don't use every single piece of equipment I carry.

    And all of it (except the tripod) comes with me to breakfast.

  • .daniel March 3, 2011 11:45 am

    travel simple! i love to take just one "do it all" lens like a 18-200 on dx and one 50mm f1.4 for the dank and i am set. i never change lenses in crowded places.

  • Claire March 3, 2011 11:36 am

    Bag-wise I carry my stuff in an over the shoulder (wearing diagonally across my front) bag from somewhere like h&m. Looks like it's just a marginally trendy bag rather than a bag filled with equipment. And it looks fine worn on the front. I tend to use larger memory cards but download the photos as frequently as possible. I carry a netbook so it's usually pretty easy. Then I try not to carry both copies at once - ie lock the netbook back at the hotel and take the memory card with me.

  • Mike March 3, 2011 10:28 am

    This leads me to ask what seems to be the ideal photo bag for walking about town, street photography, etc... where you dont want to carry the camera on its strap around your neck or shoulder like many seem to? Im looking for an alternate to the "stachel", sling around your neck/shoulder type... Ive looked at the Cotton Carrier set up, but want to be able to put the camera away and protected if we stop for a meal or something...

  • Carl March 3, 2011 10:02 am

    When not "out and about," I place my camera, etc., in my luggage. And when I go to meals, etc., I lock my luggage.

    Thieves will have to cut into the luggage, or steal the luggage, to get it (hopefully the front desk will deter this!).

  • jill March 3, 2011 09:58 am

    The address sticker goes on my point and shoot with my phone number, not my own address.

  • jill March 3, 2011 09:55 am

    Local contact info by phone and email not an address. I doubt they can figure out where I live back home or on holiday from that kind of info. The local number so they will be more likely to call, email just in case that is easier for contact.

  • Helen March 3, 2011 09:33 am

    but Jil this does tells the thief where you live to rob your home or holiday accomodation too surely !?

  • Johnp March 3, 2011 09:26 am

    Good tips. I do travel quite a bit and havent lost any gear (touch wood). I personally don't carry my bag over both shoulders as I don't like the idea of not being able to see it. I have it over my right shoulder and rest my right arm on top of it. I did have the bottom of a large backpack slashed (not when carrying it) in India (45 years ago!) but, apart from some salt, nothing was taken. I do find India though to be a safe and friendly place to travel in and have been back many times.

  • jill March 3, 2011 08:39 am

    I make my first photo my contact information, including a local contact while traveling. It gives an honest person an easy way to return wayward gear. I also stick a return address sticker on the camera body.

  • Suzanne March 3, 2011 08:17 am

    I've traveled for years with my camera equipment in a diaper bag, even though my "baby" is eleven.

  • timgray March 3, 2011 03:44 am

    MY solution is to carry ONLY small cards, 512 meg, to force me to swap often. AND a very good insurance coverage plan. If they are dropped, smashed, lost or stolen, I get brand new gear. And because I will only use small cards at most I will lose 50 photos. No I dont shoot RAW when I am on vacation.

  • Shine4Him March 3, 2011 02:54 am

    Great tips!

    Another one that someone I know used was to "uglify" the camera itself. He just put pieces of duct tape or old masking tape on nonessential areas to make the camera look old and banged up. So far, no one has touched it.

  • Justin March 3, 2011 02:51 am

    Another piece of advice regarding camera bags is to black out the brandname and to choose one that doesn't LOOK too much like a camera bag. I have a lowepro knapsack camera bag, and as soon as it came home, I covered the logos with my sharpie.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer March 3, 2011 02:48 am

    My advice, from unfortunate personal experience, would not leave anything valuable, like your camera, on the beach in Miami because if you go out for a swim, when you return, everything just might be gone.

    I wrote about a photography tip saying always keep your camera bag closed:

    I meant it more as for physically protecting your gear, but it also applies to protecting your gear from getting stolen.

    While I found Miami to be the most dangerous place for my photo gear, the safest would be Japan.

  • scott detweiler March 3, 2011 02:33 am

    I love my Pelican case for this reason and many others. Just get one and don't look back :-)

  • Susan P March 3, 2011 02:08 am

    This is great, free software for keeping an inventory of your photography gear - and anything else of value.
    It's called Know Your Stuff and you can scan in receipts, upload photos and so forth. Very worthwhile from the Insurance Information Institute.

  • Nicki Rakitti March 3, 2011 01:46 am

    I read somewhere once that converting a diaper bag into a camera bag is a good protective measure. Who'd want to rip off potentially soiled diapers?

  • Val March 3, 2011 01:36 am can get to the link by clicking on my name.

  • Val March 3, 2011 01:33 am

    Since I live in a primary tourist city (San Francisco) and having been a victim to thievery myself, I can readily give some tips on how to protect yourself and your valuables. I have also written an article, under the pseudonym of Dorothy Baum, on how to "avoid theft on vacation" and included the link with this posting.

    Never leave valuables in your car. Out of state license plates attract thieves. They know you will possibly have suitcases, cameras and equipment, I-Pods, DVD players, Gameboys, laptops, briefcases, sports equipment in your trunk, if not in plain sight. Parking your car in a paid parking garage doesn't mean your valuables will be any safer. Most garages will take no liability should your vehicle be broken into and your valuables stolen. Potential thieves will hang out in garages, watching and waiting. They can either use a "Slim Jim" or won't hesitate to smash a window to gain entry to your vehicle.

    I hope this suggestion and the others in my article will help to make your travels more pleasant!

  • Matt March 3, 2011 01:25 am

    I always keep it all with me. I carry quite a bit of gear, but I always have all of it on me. I don't leave any of the camera gear in the hotel...ever. Going to breakfast in the hotel restaurant; I have my camera. Going to the office; I have my camera. Going to tour around; I have my camera. If there is anything you don't want to carry all the time, don't bring it. But even more important that the gear is the passport. That (well, for me its those) never leave my body except when sleeping or showering.

  • Mike March 3, 2011 01:14 am

    The worst damage I ever received to photographic equipment was at the hands of a security chimp at a US airport. She took the protected wrapping off my camera, removed all the lens caps and squinted into the lenses then without replacing caps or wrapping *tossed the camera into the middle of a pile of other goods on her table. Just another data point on my long list of reasons to never visit the US again.

  • Mark C Chilvers March 3, 2011 12:59 am

    When I travel I often have more gear than can be taken as hand luggage so some goes int he hold in a Pelican Case. I always write a list of all the equipment int he case and keep a copy so that if customs open the case they will have a record of everything that should be in the case when they send it on it's way. I know this isn't much deterrent but it might act as a psychological reminder to stop the customs ripping me off. I also carry my basic kit in my hand luggage.

  • Jessica March 3, 2011 12:56 am

    Great article. I travel a lot with my stuff as well and also make extra sure that I've packed extra memory cards and have brought only the gear I think I'll really use so not be too bulky. I used to just put everything into a large purse because I hate carrying a camera bag and recently got an awesome camera bag/purse from Kelly More bags, which I would definitely recommend for female photogs. It looks like a purse but fits everything and you'd never know there were cameras inside.