The PI world is inundated with products marketed toward those interested in surveillance and security. Unfortunately, most of them are unnecessary and shouldn’t be cluttering the kits of any professional private investigator. That raises an especially important question for PIs out in the field: What equipment is beneficial for the job or adds important capabilities for a case? Let’s go over some of our favorite (and effective) options.

A Current Smartphone

It’s incredible just how useful a smartphone can be, especially newer models with their powerful camera lenses that can – in a pinch – substitute for a traditional camera and even come with powerful zoom options and automatic geotagging for later reference. But that’s only the start of a smartphone’s usefulness, as it can also:

  • Provide on-the-ground map apps for navigation even when you aren’t in a vehicle
  • Allow you to immediately search public records and other databases, which often come with their own apps or allow web searches.
  • Allow dictation via speech-to-text features that are excellent for taking speedy field notes
  • Offer a variety of recording options for recording interviews and conversations (as always, make sure this is legal in your region)
  • Some apps can scan for hidden cameras and other basic surveillance tasks to help speed things up

We recommend, if possible, using a dedicated work phone for the job. You should avoid keeping any sensitive business information on your personal devices for security reasons. If it’s been several years since you updated your professional smartphone, it may be time to start looking for a new model

A DSLR with a Good Zoom Lens

For serious surveillance, nothing will ever surpass a true DSLR camera with a compatible zoom lens to really magnify, capture details, and even surveil distance areas that you are nowhere near. A DSLR also allows you to add other lenses and accessories (flexible tripods can be especially useful) to the kit as necessary, and automatically transfer photo files over to your phone as you work (these files can be enormous, so make sure you have enough cloud storage, or you keep an external storage device handy).

The downside is that a DSLR kit can be an expensive investment, so we only recommend it if you regularly have surveillance jobs where staying unnoticed or watching from afar is important. If you’ve never used a DSLR before, they can take some practice to get used to. Some PIs like to carry a covert camera/mic too, but these can be gimmicky and limited in usefulness except for specific cases.

Side note: Some PIs prefer to use video cameras for their jobs. It can be a good idea to have a spare video cam in your kit just in case. You can find very compact video cameras that are much more affordable than a DSLR camera – just remember to keep the battery charged for quick use.

Binoculars

Your binoculars don’t have to be particularly high-powered, but you should always have a pair available for surveillance. You may prefer a compact pair that you can easily keep in your pocket, or a larger pair with more range, depending on your typical cases.

A Portable Charger/Battery Pack

What happens when your electronic devices run out of juice? Always keep a charging battery pack in your kit so you can plug in any devices that have low batteries without needing to depend on your car engine for charging. These packs in a variety of sizes and styles, so pick one that you prefer. They are small enough to keep nearly anywhere.

GPS

If your smartphone comes with GPS capabilities, you may not need to worry about this device. However, a GPS allows you to immediately know where your vehicle is at any time, and note specific locations for later use or review. They are frequently useful devices, but they will take a bit of setup and investment to equip on your vehicle.

A Flat Tire Kit

Flat tires happen, and occasionally a PI’s tires may be purposefully damaged. It’s a good idea to make sure you have a spare tire and a flat tire kit with plugs, emergency inflation options, and anything else you might need for repairs. This is also a good spot to include jumper cables and whatever else you may need for a vehicle emergency.

A Durable Overnight Bag

Your kit should always include a durable overnight bag that allows you to spend a full day and night no matter where you are. It should include a change or two of clothes, a coat for weather changes, a flashlight cash, snacks, water, cleaning wipes, toilet paper deodorant, mouthwash, etc. – and a selection of hats and beanies if you have a need to suddenly look different. If you suspect that you’ll be spending a lot of time in your vehicle, you will also want a dedicated container to pee in. It happens.

Conclusion

Our list is a good start to building a professional PI kit, but always think about customizing your kit for the cases you typically take on and what is required. It’s often a good idea to budget some firm funds specifically toward a kit account so you can upgrade or add gear as needed. The more prepared you are, the better the results will be!