Keeping your photography equipment safe when traveling

I’m a trusting person but when I’m traveling one of my major fears is having my camera gear stolen. Yes, it’s well insured and if it gets stolen when I’m home I can quickly make a trip into New York City and have all shiny new gear really fast. But when on the road it can be a different story.

Losing my equipment hasn’t happened to me but when I was leading a book project on Pope John Paul II one of the photographers had a big problem. I had hired 10 great photographers and we were sitting around a hotel lobby talking about the first day’s shoot. One photographer left his camera bag sitting behind his chair. We had pulled the big seats into a circle and most of us had our gear at our feet, except one. When we got up to leave his bag was gone. This was before there were security cameras everywhere and we asked everyone we could find but his equipment was gone. I had to put together another kit for him to shot the rest of the week.

I think about that when I’m in an airport and feeling drowsy. I use Think Tank’s Airport Security rolling bags. All the zippers lock plus there is a cable that you can wrap around a chair or bench leg and secure with a combination lock. It isn’t the biggest cable you’ll ever see but it would take a pretty big pair of wire cutters to get through it. All the locks are TSA compliant so the bag won’t get trashed if the TSA needs to look inside when you check it.

Think Tank also makes an International version which is a little smaller since some foreign airports have smaller carry on bag requirements. This is the one I use for international travel and although it holds a little less equipment, it is well built and has locking zippers and the security cable.

The Think Tank bags are so secure that I don’t hesitate to leave them in a car with the security cable wrapped around something that won’t come loose, like a car seat. It would take some serious tools to get into the bag. I also use them in hotel rooms and loop the cable through the bed frame. Make sure you don’t just put the cable around the leg of something that the bad guy can lift and pull the cable out.

The only bad thing is that on the International bag the area for a laptop or iPad isn’t secure, those zippers don’t lock. My larger Airport Security bags are the original version and they don’t even have a place for a laptop. Since I have two of those bags and they are in great shape I can’t justify buying new ones just to have a secure laptop area, although that would be great.

Depending on the trip and how much gear I take, I usually have a laptop backpack that I use as my small carry on bag. It isn’t secure at all so I have this great thing from PacSafe called a backpack protector. It is a steel mesh that you put around a bag, pull the opening closed with a steel cable and lock the cable to something that isn’t moving. It folds up nicely, is fairly small and comes with a carrying bag. Again, the mesh is thick enough that serious cutters would be needed to get through it, but it is a deterrent and not 100% secure. The mesh openings are big enough that a lens could be pulled through it but a DSLR camera with a lens or a laptop or iPad wouldn’t squeeze through the mesh. I put it around my laptop bag in hotels so I don’t have to worry when I’m out of the room.

PacSafe makes lots of great theft deterrent gear, like bags and backpacks, but also camera straps with wire in them so they can’t be cut. There were lots of reports at the Rio Olympics of guys on motorcycles riding up beside photographers, pulling out a knife, slicing camera or bag straps and riding off with the gear.

I also carry a small retractable locking cable, like a bike lock. I first had one when I was skiing to secure my skis outside while recuperating in the lodge. Now I use when I want to slow down a thief, like wrapping the cable around my tripod so it can’t quickly walk away. Or run it through a backpack, just to make it a little harder to grab and go.

I try not to look too much like a photographer when I travel but I’m sure I do. I always carry a big tripod and that is a pretty good giveaway. But at least I do what I can to make it a little harder for my gear to get stolen.

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