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How To Keep Camera Gear Safe While Traveling

How To Keep Camera Gear Safe While TravelingI 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
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.

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