Digital Security

How do you protect your gear when traveling?

Digital SecurityRecently, I met the superb underwater photographer Bill Curtsinger for breakfast (his book Extreme Nature is stunning). He wanted to meet at a place where his car would be in plain view because of his expensive gear inside.

This is a constant challenge for all photographers—protecting pricey equipment while traveling, whether to a local park or around the world. Digital just ramps up the problem. Digital cameras can be expensive, but even more significant, they’re in demand. Thieves want digital cameras and the often accompanying laptops because this is stuff that can be readily sold.

In my position at Outdoor Photographer, I hear a lot of stories about photographers losing equipment to theft. I hope you haven’t experienced getting gear stolen, but given the statistics, I suspect a lot of you have.

As a photographer who also carries a lot of gear, I could totally understand Curtsinger’s request and, indeed, we met at a location that gave a clear view of the parking lot. I’ll often bring in whole packs of gear into a restaurant just so I know it’s safe. Of course, you don’t want to do what a couple of photographers I know did—leave the gear in the restaurant! I loop bag straps around my legs when seated in public areas so I remember my bags, plus no one can grab them and run.

I’ve taken some other, sometimes extreme measures to keep my gear safe. When traveling by car, I often carry an extra ice chest. I put my camera bag into it to keep the gear from getting hot in the summer and so that it no longer looks like I have camera gear in the car.

When my kids were young, we had an extra diaper bag. I’d put my camera bag into the diaper bag, even to the point of (don’t laugh too hard) having a diaper”stuck” in the zipper. That certainly camouflaged the gear. I actually had someone break into the car and steal the radio but not the”diaper” bag!

With concerns for camera security always present, I was quite surprised and pleased to see some new gear from Pacsafe when I was at the big Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City last winter. This trade show, known as the OR Show, showcases new gear from every sort of outdoor clothing, pack and equipment manufacturer. You may know Pacsafe from the wire-mesh security”cages” you can wrap around gear and lock to a solid, heavy object. We’ve covered them in our new products section, In Focus, in the past.

Though I know the Pacsafe cage, or pack safe (hence the name), works quite well, comes in several sizes and has given many people peace of mind, this design wasn’t completely satisfactory to me. It never packed well for me, it looked odd (to the point of attracting attention) and it was unwieldy to use.

The Pacsafe reps at the OR Show showed me prototypes of a duffel bag and a day pack with the mesh built in and with a lockable cable that could go around something solid. I was hooked. I thought this was really something photographers could use, but the bags wouldn’t be available until spring.

As I write this, it’s spring! And I’ve received samples of the bags to try out. They’re great—everything I was expecting.

The DuffelSafe 100 is ideal for use in the car (and I expect it will work well for traveling—it easily fits in airplane overhead compartments). The Pacsafe reps tell me that they will have a version with dividers so you can pack gear directly into it, but for now, I find it works just fine if you put your camera bag or pack into it.

The dimensions are 20x12x11 inches, so it isn’t going to fit a really big camera backpack, but I know there are a lot of baby boomers like me who are less and less interested in taking large camera backpacks into the field. I tend to take a selection of gear that I know I’m going to use rather than everything I think I might use. My bags fit in the DuffelSafe, and with space to spare, I can include my laptop. If I absolutely had to travel with a lot of gear, I might consider two of these bags, or the original Pacsafe.

The DaySafe is a good-sized day pack (it has a 1,500-cubic-inch volume), but it’s less useful for the outdoor photographer. That said, I know of several pros who like to put their gear into small bags, then into a day pack because they feel this keeps everything more compact and easier to transport.

Both bags work the same way: a slash-proof, high-tensile-strength, stainless-steel mesh is laminated into the outer bag fabric, weather-resistant nylon. At the top of the bag is a heavy-duty, high-tensile-strength, stainless-steel cable looped through the mesh. You pull it tight, which tightens the mesh and closes up the bag securely. The cable can then be looped around something solid, then locked back at the bag. Now the bag can’t be opened or moved without some serious cable-cutting equipment.

Although every car is different, I’ve found there’s usually somewhere you can loop this cable around and make the bag secure, such as under a car seat. Yes, that can be a little bit of a pain to do, as it requires you to work the cable through some tight spaces in most cars, but it works. And once you’ve done it one time, the next time gets easier. I’m sure photographers will find many other places to loop the cable in their cars.

In hotels, the cable can be looped around many solid objects, from plumbing fixtures to heavy furniture. I think most hotel employees, including maids, are honest, but a big problem comes from roving thieves who watch for guests with expensive stuff. They wait for the maid to open your room for cleaning, then go inside acting like they’re the guests in that room. They apologize that they’re interrupting, but that they will only be a minute while they pick up something they forgot. But with a cable securing your gear, they’re not going to grab and run with it.

In airports, I’m often either really tired or working on some project on my laptop. With these mesh bags, I can lock my gear down to the chair and not have to worry that I’m not fully focused on my bags (which is exactly what a thief wants you to do).

These bags aren’t the answer for everyone (you may find an inexpensive diaper bag works for you), but I have to tell you that the DuffelSafe really helps me relax. I don’t feel nearly so nervous about stopping for breakfast after that dawn shoot or for lunch during scouting. And I don’t have to only go to Wendy’s just because it offers a clear view of my car. If you want to learn more about Pacsafe’s products, visit

OP editor Rob Sheppard’s latest book, Outdoor Photographer’s Landscape and Nature Photography with Photoshop CS2, available in bookstores, is geared specifically for outdoor photographers. His new 3-Minute Landscapes with Photoshop how-to video can be found at