#32: Private Investigator Equipment List. The Top 20 Things you Should have in your Surveillance Vehicle

Being prepared for just about anything is the name of the game when conducting surveillance.  Different types of surveillance may require more preparation than other types, but regardless of the type, there are many basic items that every investigator should have in their vehicle. In this article I will share the items I carry in my vehicle at all times,  as well as what other investigators have shared with me over the years.

GPS

When I began conducting surveillance almost 10 years ago I was fortunate to begin working for a company that provided lap top computers with a Microsoft Street and Trips mapping system.  I would have my computer open while driving and I would follow the map on the computer.  When GPS devices became moderately affordable I purchased one.  Having a GPS device during surveillance provides me with several advantages.

Advantages

  • I don’t have to map out my route prior to the surveillance.  I just type in the address and head out.  (You still need to Google Earth the area during your preliminary investigation)
  • I can see what streets are coming up when following a subject.  This allows me to anticipate dead end roads and intersections in an unfamiliar area.
  • I can quickly find canvassing points like stores, restaurants and courthouses.

DC to AC Power Inverter

If you are not familiar with this it is a device that plugs into your cigarette lighter and allows you to plug in things like your laptop computer, cell phone, or anything else you need to charge with a traditional household plug.  I used to purchase the inverters from Radio Shack. Radio Shacks inverters (for me) would either burn out, or my battery in my vehicle would die without notice.  There is nothing like having your subject leave their home and finding out that your vehicle battery is dead.  After going through several of the Radio Shack inverters over the years I came across a Black and Decker Inverter (Black and Decker PI400AB Inverter) that has lasted several years.  I checked the reviews on Amazon for the inverter I use and the ratings were unexpectedly low. I however have not had any real issues with mine.  I actually have been happy with the product as it has two outlets and a USB port.

Advice when using an Inverter

When charging big items like a laptop make sure your vehicle is running.  An alarm will trigger when the vehicle is not running (at least on the Black and Decker).  Charging smaller items like phones, video cameras and other small electronic devices should not require the vehicle to be running.  The fan on the inverter will really hum when you are charging your lap top.

Binoculars

During surveillance you are going to need to be able to look far away quickly.  Every private investigator should own a pair of binoculars.  The only thing you need to determine is the size and power of your binoculars.  I personally use a small less powerful binocular from Bushnell.  The binoculars are very small and compact.  I have considered a more powerful set but I need to do some more research before I purchase them.

Battery Jump Starter/Inverter/ Compressor

If you are asking yourself why you would need to have this in your car, I can confidently tell you that I have used this device more than I would like to admit.  Surveillance vehicles wear down and fail at the worst moments even if you take care of your vehicle.

I have used the jump starter to jump my vehicle to make it to the closest auto parts store several times in my career.  I have filled up a flat tire several times in the same surveillance as the individual traveled from location to location, and I have used the inverter portion of the device as a backup for when I had issues with the cigarette lighter.  This is something that comes in handy to get you out of a bad situation.

The prices on these devices vary and they can be purchased at places Wal-Mart or Amazon.  I am actually due to purchase another one myself.  These devices average about $100.00 and up.  They pay for themselves the first time you need it.

A Can of Fix a Flat

A can of Fix a Flat may help you get out of a jam.  Fix a Flat from what I understand is designed to clog the leak in your tire for a short period of time until you can get the tire professionally fixed.  I have heard however that this may ruin your tire but it will at least give you a chance to get to the nearest tire repair location.  Never hurts to have it in your vehicle as a last resort.

Mono Pod

Targus Digital TG-MP6710 67-Inch Camera/Camcorder Monopod
Steady documentation is very important to insurance related surveillance.  Having a mono pod allows you to quickly obtain steady video documentation of your subject.  I still remember the times when I never used a mono pod.  I thought my documentation was steady until I went to court for a case and watched the video with a judge and attorneys present.  What I thought was steady was really pretty shaky on a large television.  I was embarrassed and disappointed and couldn’t wait for the video to be over.

Tri Pod

Tri Pods are great for documentation over an extended period of time.  This is something that everyone should have at all times in their vehicle. I recommend the Sunpak 620-620-CPG Tripod

Video Camera/Charger/Backup battery

If you are going to be conducting surveillance you obviously need your video camera.  Don’t assume you won’t need your charger.  You never know what will happen during surveillance.  It doesn’t hurt to have an additional battery for your camera.

Memory Cards/Tapes

If you are using a camera that uses 8mm tapes or Mini DV tapes it probably time to move on to a digital camera that uses a SD memory card. Regardless of your camera you will need to carry some extra tapes (if you still require them for your camera) or extra memory cards.  Having an extra memory cards of 8 GB or more will give you piece of mind if you are obtaining large amounts of video or if for some reason you memory card has a malfunction for some reason.

Backup or Secondary Video Camera

A second video camera is always nice to have in case your primary camera breaks or stops working for any reason.  I actually have a mini DV camera as an emergency camera.  This is only because I have not purchase a second digital camera just yet.

Covert Cameras

Yes that means more than one covert camera.   Covert cameras are must less reliable the your regular video camera.  Having more than one will keep you from having to explain to your client why important video was not obtained.  I also carry additional micro SD card for my covert cameras because I never know when I will need an extra one.

Toilet Paper

This is just something that you should have on hand…Just in case.  I don’t think I need to elaborate on this.

$20.00 Cash

Just something that is good to have on hand in the off chance that you need it.  I like to have cash on me when subject goes into a bar or restaurant.  I can pay with cash and not have to wait for the waitress to bring me back my debit/credit card.  Having a couple dollars in change for parking meters doesn’t hurt either.

Overnight bag

An overnight bag with toiletries, and at least one set of clothes and a jacket is the minimum you should have in your car. Having more than that is even better.  I carry additional clothes for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that I change clothes if I follow subjects into several different stores to change my appearance.  I also have a change of clothes in the off chance my subject travels out of town and my client request that I stay with the subject over night.  Instead of buying clothes every time I follow my subject for long distances I just have them on hand.

Additional Food and Water

Having additional dry snacks like crackers, chips etc.. are good things to have for backup food when your surveillance goes longer than you expected.  I have worked a surveillance case expecting to only work 8 hours on that specific day and packed a lunch to get me through that day. The subject decides to be very active on that specific day and I end up working 15 hours.  The backup snacks and water help me keep going until the surveillance ends and I can go and get a proper dinner.

Pee Bottle/Portable camping toilet

Any large bottle with a screw cap should be appropriate for men during surveillance.  A Portable Camping Toilet for women should be more than enough.  I knew a female investigator that drove a full size van and would not think of getting a different type of vehicle because she wanted to use her Portable Camping Toilet.

Flashlight

Any size flashlight will be appropriate.  I carry a small one I purchased at Home Depot.

Tool Set

A tool set to make minor repairs to your vehicle.  My battery died on my way home from a case which was 2 hours away.  I won’t get into all the details but I didn’t have the appropriate tools to remove my battery.  Having a socket wrench set would have saved me money and time when changing out my battery

Window Shades

Window shades not only keep the sun out of your vehicle but keep light from entering your vehicle.  This allows the tint on your windows to do their job and not allow people or your subject to see within your vehicle.  Blocking the front window with window shades also keeps people from seeing you videotaping as they pass the front of your vehicle.

Use your Imagination

I have known other private investigators that have carried these items and other random items in their vehicle just to be prepared for anything. I have known investigators to carry fishing poles, folding chairs, and sports equipment (soccer ball, football, basketball).  The main thing I am stressing to investigators everywhere is to be prepared for anything.  Imagine explaining to your supervisor or client on how you were prepared for a situation that allowed you to obtain damaging video that saves a client millions of dollars on an insurance claim or how you were able to obtain video that proved infidelity.  Or you can imagine how you weren’t prepared and you have to explain why you could not get that damaging video.

If you have any good suggestions that relate to this article feel free to add them in the comment section.  And as always, thank you for reading.



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20 Responses to #32: Private Investigator Equipment List. The Top 20 Things you Should have in your Surveillance Vehicle

  1. Ewuji Babatunde April 20, 2013 at 2:56 am #

    I am interested in your professional assistance in starting a private investigation outfit in my country Nigeria. I will appreciate your professional assistance.

    Thanks.

    • Andrew April 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      There isn’t much I could do. All I could recommend is to read this blog.

  2. Edmund @ preston private detectives June 1, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    My most important items-
    lunch and a flask of coffee.

    On a serious note: pen and paper, I actually worked with someone once who didn’t bring either. And I always carry a cheap pay as you go cell phone, on a different network to my main one. just n case your in a weak signal area, or have make a call and anonymous numbers aren’t accepted.

  3. Jason August 18, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

    Just wondering if you need a special license or schooling or how to start doing pi work… I know lots of colleges claim to have a course to become one but not sure if I need it or not? Any advice on starting or how to would be much appreciated!!!

    • Andrew August 19, 2013 at 10:46 am #

      Hi Jason,

      Every state has their own requirements for licensing in their state. Some require education, some require experience, some a combination of both. A handful of states have no requirements.

      Pretty much this whole website is dedicated no those interested in becoming a private investigator. I would recommend listening to the first 5 podcast episodes which can be found on this website, the podcast app on apple or the stitcher app.

      Let me know if it answers some of your questions.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Andrew

  4. Chris February 6, 2014 at 6:29 am #

    Hi Andrew
    Just browsing your site and observed your ‘equipment list’. I have been an Australia Surveillance Operative for more than 30 years and I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly with your selection of equipment. One of the most important things required is Preparation for any eventuality.
    Keep up the good work.
    Chris

  5. David Wummer April 28, 2014 at 9:13 pm #

    Hi,I have been a P.I for over 30 years in the office and field ,just a few items for consideration,a speed pass or sun=pass for any toll roads, fill your fuel tank with gas, and most Important CALL your Local POLICE DEPARTMENT if you plan to sit in one location -Law enforcement has a logbook for your Name ,car, color, tag, and if your are carrying a firearm , this will keep from a nosey neighbor calling in and blowing your cover on your stakeout for the entire day!!!! they will then know you are set up and not pull up behind you while your trying to keep a low profile.

    • Andrew April 28, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

      I am not quite sure how the log book works exactly but I think the police call receivers or 911 Dispatchers keep a record when you call in at any point. I myself have been contacted by the police on my cell phone asking if I am working in a particular area. My plates were called in and they had a record of me from years ago. I can vouch for that personally. With that being said, the police still can come and do a drive by on your vehicle. So I try to park in a manner that allows for police to come to my vehicle without the person I am watching being aware.

      Anyone can call into a police department and say they are a private investigator working in an area. Police may come out and check your credentials regardless of calling in. Be prepared for that.

  6. Mike June 22, 2014 at 7:49 am #

    I have had an additional battery installed in my trunk that runs my inverter. This way all of my electronics do not drain my car battery. When my car is running it charges this battery as well. It is a dry cell battery so no ventilation is necessary. I had a car stereo store set the system up. Since I have had this I have not had my car not start when I needed it to. Before this it was an issue as I keep my computer and camera plugged in at all times. If a person is using a laptop and inverter this is a must. It is well worth the money and it ran me around $600.00 for the system.

    • Andrew June 24, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

      Thank you or sharing Mike. Sounds like it has been a good investment for you. Are you a self employed investigator or do you work for an investigative firm?

  7. Rob October 5, 2014 at 12:42 am #

    Hi Andrew

    I am 61 and hoping to get my licence soon and decided to become a PI. However, technology is changing at a very fast pace and I think my downside is not being very familiar with technology. I am however willing to learn. I can meet the costs you mentioned. In facr, I can buy another reliable second hand vehicle as an investment per se.

    Would you please advise me which would be the best way to go about learning as to how to use those equipment and the vehicle you could suggest me to purchase. Thanking you in advance.

  8. mike December 1, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    Hello, do you think Microsoft streets & trips running on a laptop in your vehicle has an advantage over a Garmin gps during a surveillance?
    I’ve been using my Garmin for years on surveillance while on a follow, and works just fine especially in unfamiliar areas while following my target. A co-worker of mine swears by the streets & trips more so.
    They both basically do the same thing, not sure I could justify the cost of setting up a mount, purchasing a laptop and software for my vehicle?

    • Andrew December 1, 2014 at 8:42 pm #

      I had a friend that did that about 6 or 7 years ago before Garmin GPS system were affordable. I wouldn’t go through the hassle of the running a laptop to essentially do the same thing a garmin (much smaller) will do. Not worth the money or time to set up.

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