#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, there are many basic items that every investigator should have in their vehicle. In this article, I will share a private investigator equipment list for surveillance and the items I carry in my vehicle at all times.

Private Investigator Equipment List for Surveillance Investigators

GPS is essential equipment for surveillance
A good map is essential


When I began conducting surveillance almost 14 years ago I was fortunate to begin working for a company that provided laptop 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.  You can also use Google Maps on your phone should you not want to purchase a GPS device.  Here is a link to Google Maps on Apple devices and Android devices.


  • 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.


Charging equipment with power inverter
A good power inverter keeps your devices charged

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 laptop.



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 monopod allows you to quickly obtain steady video documentation of your subject.  I still remember the times when I never used a monopod.  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-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 Mafrotto Compact Action 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 is probably time to move on to a digital camera that uses an 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 extra memory cards of 8 GB or more will give you peace of mind if you are obtaining large amounts of video or if for some reason your 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 purchased a second digital camera just yet.

Covert Cameras

Yes, that means more than one covert camera.   Covert cameras are much less reliable than your regular video camera.  Having more than one will keep you from having to explain to your client why the 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.

I currently use a pen camera from Penrecorder Pro.  Here is my review of this spy pen.

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 the 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 overnight.  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.


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

Tool Set

A toolset 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.


Everyone should have a computer with them in their vehicle despite being able to do most things on your phone.  I use a Chromebook in the field because the of long-lasting battery and because it can do most of what a Windows laptop can do.  It has its limitations but overall it gets the job done.  Whether it be a Chromebook or another type of laptop, have it with your while you are in the field.

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.


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


  2. 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. 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!!!

    • 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.


  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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. 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.

    • 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?

    • I have only been a Private Investigator for a short time now; however, to what you explained about the battery, I have been a mechanic for a large number of years which includes racing and a lot of long off road trips, as well as a mechanic in the military for a number of years. A cheaper fix to this that will suffice a lot better than setting up a system such as this is installing an Optima battery in your vehicle. This is one of the best battery’s on the market, I have lost an alternator belt on my Jeep and the battery ran the vehicle through trails for nearly 4 days without fail, that included running my winch at times. Having a good inverter installed sometimes drains a normal car battery when the vehicle is not running, along with a large number of items that most PI’s have in there vehicle. I have a power strip that allows me to plug in my chargers, my computer, and other items as needed (Including a fan that prevents me from having to run my car during hot days) and I feel a lot safer with purchasing a $300 to $400 battery that will take care of this rather than having to install a second battery and adding a lot more stress on the alternator when the vehicle is running. In order for that system to last you need to (depending on your vehicle) run a much larger alternator, ans even then you have the chance of burning out your alternator. Sorry but I would really like to have the ability to get home if my alternator goes bad, what will these battery’s do in this case?

      • Thank you for your insight on the Optima Battery for your vehicle. I had never heard of it before and did not know batteries could perform in the way you described in your comment.

        I am not a private investigator that recommends installing a second batter to run equipment though I know that there are others out there that do. And those investigators typically have a large van that they conduct surveillance in. I am not a big believer in using those types of surveillance vehicles to begin with because they are not versatile and do not blend in.

        The battery in the article can be used for jump starting, for putting air in your tires and as a power source for equipment. That is why I recommended it as a back up in case something happens.

        Now even though I would recommend every piece of equipment that is in this article, this article was also written several years ago and new things have developed over the years that I would add to this list. I don’t know that a car batter would make this list but it would definitely be something that investigators should look into for their surveillance vehicles.

        Thank you again for bring the battery to my attention and others that will come across this article. Much appreciated.


  7. 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. 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?

    • 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.

  9. Hello Andrew,
    I was wondering if you have written any articles about what it’s like for women in the P.I. business? I’m curious what the pros and cons are. I’m a young woman looking into this career and I’d like to know some more information on that particular aspect. Thank you so much, you write a phenomenal and very helpful blog

    • I have wanted to write an article about my experiences with women in the PI field but haven’t gotten to it . Their is a female investigator I have worked with quite a bit in the last year and will likely interview her in the future as she has been one of the best investigators I have worked with in my career.

      You are very welcome and I am glad you are getting some much value from the articles on my site.

  10. Andrew,

    Great list of items.

    I’m particularly interested in the covert cameras. Although there’s plenty available – trying to find one that produces a decent video is always a bit of a challenge. Do you have any experience with any particular models that you could recommend?


    • James,

      Most of the covert cameras i have tested are small, hand held and purchased from Ebay or Amazon. The video quality is typically acceptable. I don’t spend a great deal of money on my spy cameras as I am always suspect of crappy spy cameras being over priced. Camera makers that are confident about the products have reached out to me and provided me cameras to review and their quality is good. But those good camera come at a more expensive cost.

      Are you looking for hand held or something that is larger?

      • I find that using fake surveillance glasses work VERY well, and the quality is good. Just be mindful of the dark bars that people venture into and out of at night of course. There are also the mini hand-held “Radio/Camera/IPod” device with built-in hidden video/audio/digital-camera which also includes built-in night vision.

        • Hey David,

          Can you link to where you found the spy cameras with built in night vision?


  11. I have been a PI for 25 years and suggested that a female PI be added to our company. I believe in gender Equality and the first thing I taught her was to find a way to use the washroom effectively and efficiently as possible in her SUV . She purchased a female urin bottle and made up a kite with baby wipes and Lysol disinfecting spray paper towel and put the works all in a 5 gallon bucket . And she used it from day one even on long follows while driving.I taught her mostly in real time on the phone.I would be on surveillance and mentor every move she made in the begging..I taught her to take pictures from the surveillance video place them in the reports use Dropbox etc. In Canada she started off at 15.00 an hour and after 16 months she is now making 27.00 an hour. I still work with her daily on the phone .Now she helps me on my grammar and is an expert on Cyber research..This female investigator gets more video in parks swimming pools in doctors office then I ever can.She also does the video editing and can pixelate All the other Faces in the video report and when the insurance company receives this video they’re absolutely delighted with all the added techniques that we’ve been using to only focus on the insurance claimant Protecting everybody else’s privacy. In Canada this is standard now if this surveillance insurance video is to be used in court .

    • Thank you for comment Clay. That sure seems like quite a bit of work to pixilate everyone in the video other than your claimant. In the United States if you are in public then there is no expectation of privacy so there is no need to block out everyone other then the subject. Sounds as though she got on with a good company to make $27 an hour.


  12. Hi Andrew
    I’m 16 and am really interested in being a pi, what can I start doing at this age, and any other advice you can think of for a junior

  13. Hi. I’m 44/w/f louisiana. Find my self starting over and wanting to choose some thing that interest me. I found out my local university offers a 40 hour basic course that I would be required to take before testing for my license. I have no experience in this field but I feel as I would be good at it and it just interested me. Do you have any suggestions… is there anything I need to ask myself before I go any further in my plans

    • Alot of what I talk about on this website will prepare you.

      Here is a link to my start page. This will provide some good content to listen to and read.



    • Hi Liane,
      I couldn’t help but give my two cents worth… I am a PI from Ontario, Canada, working for many years in the industry. When I started out I took all the courses, even advanced ones, took the government exam getting licenced etc… applied at every private investigation agency in my area, and was told I’d either never work in the industry or would have a very difficult time breaking into it… the best thing I ever did was train with a local agency to learn the trade first hand, which no book or video can ultimately prepare you for! I spent many weeks training with x-coppers, and seasoned private investigators at the agency, once I obtained practical experience, and felt competent in the trade, the boss gave me a shot to prove my abilities… he’s my boss to this day. Mind you, this is not the only way to break into the industry, but worked for me! The two week mandatory government training & exam we have to take in Ontario to obtain a PI license is a joke! and does not prepare any investigator for the trade… get as much practical experience & training as you can.