Staying Safe In The Field

Insights to help protect you and your gear on your next photo adventure

Whether we’re close to home or in a far-flung location, keeping ourselves and our gear safe is an extremely important consideration for us as nature photographers. Sufficiently protecting ourselves and our equipment takes forethought and planning, which will lay the groundwork for a stress-free, safe experience. Fortunately, there are a wealth of tools available to us, as well as common-sense strategies we can employ.

Do The Research

Just as important as researching where and what you want to shoot is taking time to look up safety information for where you’re headed.

If traveling to a different country, first check its status with the U.S. State Department for any travel advisories. Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which sends you updates about safety and security issues for your destination and also enables the embassy to contact you in an emergency easily.

For women planning to travel internationally, also refer to the online “Women’s Danger Index.” Compiled from data from a variety of trusted international sources, this list names the safest and worst countries for solo female travel.

Dig into travelers forums on sites like Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet and Fodor’s Travel to read reviews and comments about your destination. Are there areas you should avoid or common scams to watch out for?

Lodging

When it comes to accommodations, carefully read through reviews on sites like Tripadvisor. What are the hotel’s ratings for safety? What are prior guests saying about their experiences there?

Reading lodging reviews is especially important for solo female travelers. If past guests mention security issues, sketchy employees or concerns about the neighborhood, you’ll want to steer clear. To get the best information, look for reviews written by women traveling alone.

If staying in a hotel, avoid the main floor, where windows could be easily accessed from the outside, and consider hanging the “Do Not Disturb” tag on your door handle throughout your stay to maximize your privacy. If leaving camera items in your car, store them in the trunk and activate the car’s alarm, if it has one.

If choosing an Airbnb or VRBO, look for Airbnb Superhosts or VRBO Plus hosts. These are homeowners who have stellar reviews and track records. Consider choosing lodging that’s located on the same property where the owner lives—even under the same roof—if safety is a big concern.

Getting Around

Being able to find your way, whether you’re on foot in the forest or cruising down a distant highway, is critically important. Never rely solely on your smartphone to give you your bearings. I learned this the hard way recently in Chile while on assignment for a magazine. I’d been confident that my cellphone provider offered good coverage in that country, but as I found out after arriving, that wasn’t the case. Unable to get online to use Google maps, I had to drive a rental car a few hours to my destination with only a very rough map from the rental agency. I found myself in a remote area, seriously lost and unable to speak any Spanish. I managed to finally find someone who spoke a little English and who went out of her way to assist me, thankfully. But it was a pretty stressful experience. 

We must be prepared at all times for cell service to be nonexistent, and this is true whether we’re abroad or in a remote area near home. Before you travel, download the Google map (or another map you trust) for your destination directly to your phone. It might be a road map; it might be a trail map. This way, you can readily access the info without using data or needing a connection. And consider bringing a printed map for back-up. You never know when your phone might simply run out of battery power.

If using Uber or another rideshare service, check drivers’ ratings before choosing a ride. Anything below a four-star rating should be a red flag. When the driver arrives to pick you up, make sure they state your name before you get in the vehicle.

Make Yourself Trackable

There are numerous ways you can sound an alarm and share your location. The Spot Personal Tracker employs a GPS satellite network to acquire its coordinates, then sends its location to the recipient of your choice, complete with a link to Google Maps and a pre-programmed message. Another option is to wear a discreet, easily accessible device like the Wearsafe Tag, which lets you instantly send an alert to your emergency contacts.

There are helpful apps for your phone that offer constant tracking, like Life360. Other apps, such as bSafe, offer sirens and alert authorities with your GPS location. For iPhone users, the Find My app is built-in and lets you share your phone’s location data with trusted contacts. Many phones now come with an emergency SOS feature, which provides a shortcut for calling emergency services.

If all else fails, don’t forget about the alarm on your car key, if you have one, handy for setting off if you’re in or near your car.

Finally, don’t forget to leave a friend or family member with a copy of your itinerary, including your flight numbers, accommodations and a general schedule of where you’ll be on which dates.

Documentation

When traveling internationally, keep copies of essential items like your passport and credit cards saved to cloud storage like Google Docs, iCloud or Dropbox. You can access that information from anywhere if the physical items are lost. Bring the serial numbers for your camera equipment in your wallet and phone so that if anything gets stolen, you can immediately provide those numbers to the local police. Take phone shots of each camera body and lens you’re bringing so you have those as well. 

Grab shots of your checked bags before they leave you at the check-in counter. If something gets waylaid, providing a photo of a missing bag can be a big help for the airline personnel.

Insurance

If you have a substantial amount of money invested in your gear, it’s really advisable to have insurance for it. Look for an all-risk policy that will cover any loss, including lost, stolen or broken items. And make sure that the policy covers you for international travel. Lost luggage, theft and natural disasters should all be included.

Keep in mind that policies are typically very different for pro photographers and hobbyists and that the definition of what is “professional” may differ from agent to agent. Read the fine print extremely carefully and ask questions.

In the Field

Choose your times wisely to visit places like national wildlife refuges and state and national parks. Depending on the time of year, they may be deserted, or they may be packed. If you feel safer with fewer people, consider going on a weekday and avoid school holidays. Conversely, visit the park or refuge on a weekend if you prefer to have more people around.

If the park or refuge has a visitor’s center, stop in and have a conversation with one or more of the staff so they’ll be looking out for you. Put the refuge phone number in your phone in case you need it—and give them yours if you feel comfortable doing so.

When you’re parking in an isolated spot, make sure never to leave anything in plain sight. Lock anything valuable in the trunk. If possible, choose a moment to exit the car when no one is around or paying attention. This is especially important if you’re carrying expensive-looking equipment.

Bear spray, which you should have any time you’re in bear country, can provide an extra level of protection…but make sure you know how to use it. 

Trust Your Gut

Finally, just like the wildlife we seek as we head into the field, we, too, are animals, and we retain basic instincts that can clue us in to potential danger. It’s crucial to trust our gut. If it’s telling us something is dodgy, it probably is. Listen to it. Change your plan accordingly.

Stay safe out there and have fun!

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.