Lessons learned from travelling with a DSLR.
What tips are worth taking on board, and what ones are just ridiculous!
Before I went on a long-term backpacking trip around Asia, I had one major concern.
My most treasured possession; my new DSLR.
I had dreamed of owning a proper camera since the first time I went to Thailand, in 2008. I had been really frustrated that I couldn’t take the photos I wanted to, and I regretted all the missed opportunities. So, when it was time to head off exploring again, I knew that a DSLR was non-negotiable.
Although I was struggling to save anything close to what my two travel pals had saved up for the tip, I needed a good camera. I’m sure everyone thought I was insane for blowing such a chunk of my travel fund on a camera, but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t.
Once I had held my new DSLR in my hands, I started to research how safe it was to bring a camera backpacking.
According to the internet, it wasn’t safe at all! My research painted a risky picture of bag slashers, room raiders and camera danger at every turn.
I knew the type of accommodation I usually stayed at in Asia largely consisted of beach huts and guesthouses with doors as flimsy as cardboard. I also knew that the trip would consist of more than a few nights swigging whiskey from buckets. I didn’t know what I would do to keep my prized possession safe.
I couldn’t imagine the tragedy of losing my camera on the road. I knew that it would make me want to go home. I also knew that I couldn’t not bring it, so I tried to research how to protect my camera when backpacking.
Below are the tips I found during my research into keeping your DSLR safe on the road, and the verdict on whether they are actually necessary to keep your camera safe, or just an overly dramatic waste of time!
This sounded simple enough. Get it insured, so that if (or when) I was to lose my DSLR, I could get a replacement. This was easier said than done, as many travel insurance companies have limits on how much you can get back and limits on the value of valuables you can insure.
I used World Nomads for my travel insurance that year. They allowed me to insure my camera as a separate valuable item. This gave me great peace of mind on the trip.
This is definitely a worthwhile precaution. Knowing that if your camera does get stolen, you will be able to afford a new one really allows you to have peace of mind. World Nomads are an insurance company I would recommend.
Cover it Up!
Another tip I picked up in my scare-mongering internet research was the need to cover all camera labels. Supposedly, if you cover up the Canon or Nikon logo, thieves may mistake your camera for a cheaper model, and will steal someone else’s instead of your own. I wasn’t taking any chances, so I dutifully used duct tape to cover my camera branding.
And then, when the black tape began to slide off due to Thailand’s humidity, I replaced it with a heavy duty silver tape, which I then had to cover with another layer of the black tape, which kept getting all slippy and sticky due to the heat.
By the end of that backpacking stint, my camera had spots of sticky goo that wouldn’t budge, and kept sticking to my hand. Gross.
I wouldn’t recommend this precaution. Although I have no way of knowing if my sticky tape did deter a thief, it really wasn’t worth feeling like such a loser when people all around me were whipping out their far more expensive cameras, sans sticky tape!
Get a Pacsafe Bag!
I was excited to read about the benefits of Pacsafe bags. I made yet another investment from my already tight budget, and bought the large Pacsafe backpack.
This cumbersome Pacsafe felt like an actual child. A heavy child of about five. A child I had to lug around and look after and share my space with at all times, because it contained my camera.
It did provide great peace of mind, though. I was able to attach the locked bag to furniture in hostels and guest houses all over Asia, New Zealand and Australia. It was perfect for travelling by bus and train, because I was able to lock it up and know that no one would be able to steal something from it. It came in handy on the night bus to Chiang Mai, when I woke to find my zipper had been opened and that my valuables were still safe inside.
A definite stress saver when it comes to leaving valuables (not just cameras) in rooms, and perfect for public transport. However, the weight of the bag on its own was really annoying, and it took up way too much space in tiny Vietnamese sleeper buses.
I still use my Pacsafe for long term travel, although the last time, Sean used it as his daypack, so I saved on carrying it around!
Replace Your Camera Strap
Another scare story of the internet was the tale of people who slash your camera strap from around your neck and run off.
It was advised that all travellers should replace their camera strap with a plain one to avoid tempting thieves. This was a good idea, but beyond my budget. Instead, I tried to remember to turn my Canon camera strap around so that the logo wasn’t visible. But, again, there were people everywhere with brand name camera straps.
Another suggestion was to buy a thief-proof camera strap, with metal lining, making it impossible for those camera snatchers. This sounded promising, but I chose not to do it. I also heard, or imagined (I’m not sure) that if a thief tried to steal your camera and you had a super strong strap, they could wind up nearly choking you as they tried to make their getaway.
Not essential, but I sometimes do find myself turning my strap out of habit!
A Faux Camera Bag.
I read about these very fancy camera bags that didn’t scream, ‘Hello, I have an expensive bit of kit in here, please rob me.’ They looked attractive and not like camera bags. They were, of course, really expensive and out of my budget.
There was no way I was going to bring the camera bag I already owned, as it would be far too obvious. I decided to bring another bag with me that was just a little handbag, and turn it into a camera bag. More on that next time!
Verdict : Perfect for peace of mind.
The Dangers of Humidity, Dust and Sand
This internet warning caused me some serious stress before my trip. Not only did I have to guard my camera with my life, I also had to worry about a single grain of sand getting into it and breaking it.
Then there was the humidity. Apparently, in hot countries, there was a risk of the inside of my camera getting moisture stuck in it, causing the camera to break or for droplets stuck behind the lens to ruin every photo I took.
This warning made me very particular about going from air-conned rooms to the wet heat outside, and reluctant to change lenses, memory cards or batteries while I was in dusty or very humid places.
I took one piece of advice that I read about preventing humidity damage, and began collecting those anti-humidity sachets that you find in new shoes and bags. By the time we left, I had acquired a nice collection. I kept them in my camera bag for peace of mind.
After nearly five years, I can say that I have gotten sand in my camera, that I have never experienced humidity damage, and that I have changed lenses and memory cards in sandy, dusty conditions, and she’s still going strong. I don’t know if the couple of sachets at the bottom of my bag had anything to do with this, though.
Although it is always a good idea to research before a trip, and to exercise caution when travelling somewhere new, much advice should be taken with a grain of salt.
On all of my backpacking trips, I have managed to keep my camera and lenses safe. I was often able to leave them unattended in our accommodation on nights out. The only theft that ever occurred was during the morning after the Full Moon Party, when we all went for a sunrise dip and left our bags unattended for a minute. When we turned around, we were down two cameras and an iPhone. Luckily, it was my point and shoot, as my DSLR was safely inside my large Pacsafe, tied to the sink in our extreme budget accommodation. We were totally at fault here, and all of my safety tips wouldn’t have saved our stuff. So although it’s good to be prepared, there’s no prepping for stupidity!
My Tips for Keeping Your DSLR Safe when Travelling
- Carry your camera around in a bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag.
- Invest in a lock or Pacsafe type bag to keep your camera safer when you leave it unattended. This bag can also keep your passport and money safer, but remember that it doesn’t make it impossible for a thief to get in, just a lot more inconvenient!
- Worry more about bringing enough memory cards with you, and ideally a spare battery!
- Back up, back up, back up! Your camera will be filled with moments you won’t want to forget, so the most important thing to do is to keep backing up your photos. This way, if you do lose your camera, you won’t loose all of your precious memories. The first time I travelled with my DSLR, I used memory sticks and used to burn my photos on to CDs in internet cafés. Now, I bring an external hard drive and also back up on my laptop and cloud (when the internet is fast enough.)
- Use common sense and don’t whip your camera out in an area that feels unsafe.