26 Top Items of Private Investigator Equipment
If you're thinking of becoming a private investigator and want to know what equipment you'll need - read on! Maybe you’re a seasoned PI whose investigator gear has seen its days and now you need to update your current gear.
Well, we've come up with a list of 26 basic private investigator tools and equipment every PI can use - no matter what. Whatever the need, any investigator knows their equipment needs to be up to date, at its best, fully serviceable, and of excellent condition and quality to get the job done. Here you will find some of the most basic and essential pieces of equipment for private investigators; the tools any professional PI should have in their kit bag. If you don't want to read everything, we've made a quick list below. But if you're curious, there's more details about each piece of equipment further on.
Our List of PI Gear Items:
16. GPS Tracker
19. Spare Change
8. Wrist Watch
9. Mobile Phone
10. Zoom Lens Camera
#1. Pocket Notebook and Pen
First out of the bag is a notebook and pen. It sounds obvious but it’s one of the most essential pieces of equipment a PI needs in his or her arsenal. A pocket note book is used by investigators and law enforcement officers for contemporaneous notes (notes made at the time of an incident, or as soon as possible afterwards), as well as sketches and any other important information. Memory alone shouldn’t be totally relied upon!
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#2. Digital Audio Recording Equipment
It’s not always possible to get your note book and pen out to start writing, particularly when in close proximity to your target. The next solution is to use a digital audio recorder. This is a handy investigator tool used to record what you see without attracting attention. The digital recorder can fit into a pocket, with a small wired microphone attached under the clothing, close enough to talk into and record events as they happen. You can also use it to record conversations and interviews with witnesses.
Our Recommended Digital Audio Recorders
■ See our Best Spy Voice Recorders Review
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#3. A Reliable Car
Again, an obvious piece of investigator gear but maybe so obvious it gets overlooked. A part of the private investigator’s toolbox is a non-conspicuous, plain looking, fast, reliable car that blends in. A type of car that's common. The car may be used for mobile surveillance from time to time and so it's sensible to get one with a neutral color. Remove any distinguishing marks and stickers. Get rid of the roof rack and make it as uninteresting as possible - and no fancy memorable number plates. You will also want one that is economical on fuel and comfortable for long periods of sitting still.
#4. Satellite Navigational System and Paper Maps
It has to be said that Satellite Navigational Systems certainly make life easier, and can be a godsend for investigations, particularly mobile surveillance. Just save your target’s address and other associated places your target frequents into the Sat-Nav, simple. However, a private investigator, as part of their gear, should also carry road map books, or paper maps, of the areas they are planning to be operating in. The paper map can be used as a backup in case the Sat-Nav fails, and also better orients you in unfamiliar surroundings.
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#5. Computer Equipment
A computer is a necessary investigation tool, not only for day to day business emails and making up invoices, etc. but for internet research and online investigations. Simply attach a USB Dongle to get connected to the internet to do your online investigations. A computer laptop, notebook, or tablet, is ideal when out and about on case assignment, as they are small and easily portable. A good field laptop computer that's built for rugged use and has a strong external casing is ideal for investigation work outdoors.
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A part of a private investigator’s personal gear should consist of a good pair of binoculars. There are many types available and when considering what to buy; the cost, size, robustness and magnification should all be factors when choosing. You don't need the huge Coast Guard type binos but you also don't want a small inferior pair. Binoculars are advertised by magnification and diameter (10x50). The 10 magnification means you will see objects at 10 times the normal size and the diameter refers to the larger lens at the front of the binoculars. The larger the diameter the better field of view (left to right) you have. A pair of binoculars with the magnification and diameter of 10x50 is adequate enough for standard private investigation equipment and PI work.
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#7. Flashlight / Torch
A good flashlight or mini-flashlight is an essential part of an investigator’s equipment. There will be scenarios where a flashlight will be needed for extra light, not only at night but during the day also. A Maglite is one of the most popular flashlights due to its size and strength. It's long, made of metal and can be used as a protection tool. For a stealthier night light, a mini-flashlight is an ideal investigator tool. You can keep it in your pocket for night-time recces and is useful for note-taking or map reading at night. Applying a red filter over the glass can dim the light (making it less noticeable) and also help to protect your eye’s night vision ability.
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#8. Wrist Watch
In your toolkit should be a good robust wrist watch that is accurate, functional, and of course easily read during the day and at night. One that is shockproof and waterproof is ideal. The watch doesn't have to be flashy with lots of dials and ability to tell time in 20 countries, but a simple timepiece. A wrist watch with a luminous dial or hands will save on having to use light at night, which could make people more aware of your presence. Consider getting a watch cover which will not only cover any luminous glow, but will also add protection from damage.
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#9. Mobile Phone
The modern mobile smart phone is a great tool for any investigator. A field tested outdoor rugged mobile phone is a preferable aid for an investigator's use, particularly on rural covert surveillance. A mobile phone is an essential communication line for emergency assistance if needed, especially when working alone, as some private investigators do. Adding pre-programmed numbers to this tool can give you instant backup at the touch of a button. Mobile phones come with the function of downloadable applications (Apps) of which there are numerous for the modern PI to make use of. You will also want some accessories to go with your phone such as a cover (for protection) and a blue-tooth hands-free kit.
#10. Zoom Lens Camera
When conducting surveillance on a target you may be situated across the street in a car, or in a covert OP (Observation Post) at some distance. In order to get that perfect photo at distance you will need a good quality camera, with a good quality zoom lens. You don’t need dozens of zoom lenses in your camera equipment, but perhaps 3 lenses of varying magnifications; one for taking still photos close up, one for middle distance, and one at far distant ranges. There are also small pocket digital cameras that come in handy when on foot surveillance. These cameras have some reasonable zoom capabilities. If you plan on getting one of these small pocket cameras to add to your investigator gear, make sure you select one for its optical zoom and not for its digital zoom. Optical zoom allows you to take photos or video at a distance without losing the quality, whereas digital zoom, although allows you to zoom in, makes the picture more pixilated.
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#11. Digital Video Camera
An investigator’s job is to build evidence and one of the best forms of evidence is photographic evidence. A digital video camera is top in the private investigator’s equipment list for secretly filming targets; such as cheating spouses or personal injury claimants faking injury. As explained earlier (with the small one-shot digital camera) you should choose a video camera with a good optical zoom and not worry so much about the digital zoom. You may also consider a back-up video camera in case the main camcorder fails. You don’t want to lose the opportunity of capturing that crucial piece of evidence.
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#12. Night Vision Optics
Night vision equipment for private investigators is needed when working on surveillance operations at night. Having some form of night viewing equipment (goggles, binoculars, monocular) when working in dimly lit areas, particularly rural areas, is important. This type of gear can help you see in the dark where there is no street lighting, so you can still maintain surveillance. Some night viewing aids also come with video recording capabilities, allowing you to watch as well as capture video in the dark.
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#13. Monopods, Tripods and Stabilization Gear
There’s nothing worse than presenting photographic / video evidence to a client or court that's blurred or shaky. A great way to keep your camera or digital video recorder still, while recording your target, is by using a monopod or tripod. Tripods are invaluable when on surveillance, providing readiness and a steady shot, without having to hold your camera for long periods. It's wise to have at least one monopod and one tripod in your investigator gear that's easy to set up and collapse.
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#14. Body Worn Covert Camera
A small covert camera with DVR (Digital Video Recorder) is another must have piece of private investigator equipment. These covert cameras can be installed inside bags, hats, watches, glasses, jackets, pens, etc. and allow close up filming of a subject. You will need various pieces of body worn camera gear to suit different situations. Apart from the body worn gear, there are other spy cameras a PI can use to set up in rooms for static surveillance situations.
#15. Spare Batteries, Power Packs, SD Cards, and Cables
Most private investigator tools use power, usually in the form of battery power. It’s good practice to have an abundance of spare batteries or power packs, as a backup, to keep your surveillance gear going. Likewise with spare batteries, it’s also good practice to carry spare SD / memory cards for your surveillance cameras. Digital video footage uses a lot of space on hard drives and memory cards, so it's best to purchase large storage sizes. Always keep spare backup cables for your investigation and surveillance gear too. You can never guarantee a cable won't fail and if it does you will have wasted some opportunities.
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#16. GPS Tracker
GPS (Global Positioning System) Trackers are used to monitor and track the whereabouts of vehicles, high valued assets, or sensitive materials such as classified documents. GPS trackers come in all forms, shapes and sizes for a variety of functions. Some can be hard wired into a vehicle, which utilizes the vehicle's own battery power. Others use their own in-built power source. Private investigators use these tools for cases such as tracking the car of a suspected cheating spouse. The tracker makes it easier for surveillance, as you can hang back and still be assured you won't lose the target. This is definitely a useful piece of private investigator equipment and worth their weight in gold.
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#17. Handheld Document Scanner
A document scanner isn’t an essential part of an investigator’s equipment, but it can certainly come in handy when needing to secretly scan an incriminating document. You don't want to be accused of theft by taking a piece of paper or document, even though it is vital evidence to support your case. These document scanners are easily portable and can fit inside a handbag, coat pocket, or briefcase. Simply turn it on and run the wand over the document and record the image on the internal memory, or SD card. If you opt to buy one then choose a portable scanner that has a high-speed sensor for fast scanning.
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#18. Spy Camera Finder
Spy cameras come in all shapes and sizes, and this piece of investigator equipment comes in handy when searching for them. The spy camera finder is a reliable and easy to use tool for finding hidden camera lenses of any type, even the latest covert cameras. Simply scan around a room or office looking through the viewing port. The lens of a hidden camera will be revealed, as a bright pin-prick of light, by the spy camera finder's LED's.
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#19. Spare Change
It’s always good to have some spare cash on yourself for operational emergencies. Having some spare cash or pocket change is important particularly when on mobile surveillance. You may end up tailing your target to a car park where you may need change to pay for the parking. If your target enters a restaurant and you need to follow, you will need to order something to avoid suspicion. You may also need to leave quickly and paying by credit card will delay you. Paying by credit card also leaves a paper trail. So tuck a little spare money away in your car for those emergencies.
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#20. Power Inverter and Spare Car Battery
Investigator equipment tends to use up a lot of power, particularly when on long-term surveillance. It’s a good idea to invest in a spare car battery and power inverter to charge your gadgets. You can charge your equipment whilst your engine is running, but when turned off it's better to flip the inverter over to the spare car battery for obvious reasons. You wouldn't want to lose your subject because you have a flat car battery. The car battery and power inverter can be hidden in the car, but with access to enable you to connect up and charge your surveillance equipment.
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#21. Personal Defense Equipment
It goes without saying the job of a PI can be dangerous at times. It’s always good to have some form of personal protection equipment for personal defense. As well as taking self-defense classes or becoming a licensed firearms holder, there are a few pieces of self-protection equipment a private investigator can use when absolutely necessary. Pepper spray, taser, stun gun, telescopic baton, and concealable body armor, are the most common items to have to hand, but be aware of relevant stun gun and taser laws. It's always better to have a piece of self-protection equipment with you even if you never use it.
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#22. Food Ration Packs
It's something we can't do without, and that's food and water. If you don't eat nutritious foods during investigations you will have mental and physical shutdown, particularly on long surveillance tasks. Keeping your body topped up with healthy foods and supplementation will help you to focus and be on top of your game. Store food in your car that has a long shelf-life, can be accessed easily, doesn’t need to be heated (i.e. can be eaten cold), and is still nutritious. You can buy military type rations that will last for long periods, and store them in your surveillance vehicle or car. You should also consider getting a stock of supplements from a health shop. A good multi-vitamin with all the B-Vitamins will keep your cognitive functions sharp.
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#23. Kit Bag of Spare Clothing and Toiletries
The nature of investigative work is such that you won't always know what will happen or where you will end up. It’s always useful, as part of your private investigator gear, to have some spare clothing and toiletries in an overnight bag stored in your car. A change of clothing is good, not just to keep you from smelling, but to also help change your appearance when on surveillance. The type of clothing to keep should reflect the weather and area you will be operating in; but always keep some warm kit for nights.
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#24. Mini First Aid Kit
It's inevitable that at some point during your investigation work you will need a first aid kit, either for yourself, a passerby, or perhaps even your subject. It's a wise point to have at least some basic first aid equipment to hand. Some plasters and bandages of varying sizes, gauze, scissors, latex gloves and face mask (for protection), sterile pads, antiseptic creams, peroxide, tweezers, cotton applicators, a first aid manual. If you really want to get training you can do a first aid course, giving you some good tools to perhaps save someone's life.
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#25. Pee Bottle / Urination Device
Last but not least is this tool for a private investigator caught on the hop. When you have to go, you have to go. This type of equipment is obviously for taking a pee and not the other. You will have to decide what to do in that case. A pee bottle (or urination device for female private investigators) would really only be necessary on long surveillance cases. But caught in an emergency, where you couldn't leave your target location, well what else can you do?
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#26. Bug Detection Equipment
Note: A word on why this item on the PI equipment list was left until last. Bug detection is more of a specialized field left to TSCM (Technical Surveillance Counter Measures) professionals. These guys invest a huge amount of money in the latest eaves-dropping equipment. Because listening and bugging devices come in all shapes, sizes, radio frequencies, etc, etc. one piece of bug detection equipment won't find them all. However, if you want to invest in some bug finding investigator tools, make sure you get some high quality bug detection gear and get trained on how to use it.
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Conclusion of Our Private Investigator Equipment List
That concludes our list of basic private investigator equipment. Being an investigator in the field you will undoubtedly get involved in situations whereby a different investigation tool would be handy to have - so this list is not everything you will need but some of the basic equipment. There are many other interesting private investigator tools and real spy equipment on the market, and if you keep coming back we will show you what these gadgets consist of.