Any good security system is layered, with many buffers against complete disaster. You may think of backpack theft as all or nothing when in fact your biggest threat are stealthy grabs when you’re not around to do anything about it. Instead of giving in, turn your backpack into a minefield of traps, tricks, and false hopes for even the most determined thieves.
Time Is On Your Side
One of the biggest advantages travelers typically have over opportunistic thieves is time. You can carefully craft and plan out a strategy against dishonest crooks while they’re the ones usually racing against a clock to get as much as they can without being noticed or caught. That’s where you’ll begin focusing your backpack security system – by increasing the amount of time anyone would need to get in and take your most valuable belongings.
Start With Basics
A small lock on closing your zippers together is a good place to start anytime you leave your bag by itself. Combination luggage locks are easier to manage since you don’t have physical keys to lose and are a good deterrent in luggage rooms common to hostels or hotel rooms where you aren’t sure about the staff. While it’s not recommended to lock your luggage if you check your bags due to security checks, keeping the zippers placed away from the ‘normal’ spots of at the edges or between corners can waste a few more seconds for a thief who only has a moment to make their move.
- Pacsafe – This company makes several security products for backpacks and other travel gear including an anti-theft mesh (review) and portable “Travelsafe” pouch (review) for smaller items.
These products can make your bags very conspicuous however are a powerful deterrent in a hostel room full of completely unlocked and unzipped bags. If you’d rather not travel with either of these, make sure you store your most valuable electronics and travel document (e.g. passport) in a locker which most hotels and hostels offer. (Remember to bring your own lock, most hostels don’t provide them or will overcharge you to buy one.)
Pack Your Electronics Deep When Checking In
You’ll want to keep any electronics away from the top of your bags, where they can be easily felt by a crook who might be rummaging around several bags. Place your valuable tech items deep within your bag, but disperse them throughout as well while avoiding the outer layer. For instance you could pack your iPod in a sock, while keeping your Kindle nicely folded inside a pair of jeans.
- Keep It To Your Carry-On – Keep a carry-on bag with you so you don’t have to check in any valuables (I’ve had them stolen from there before). Electronics also tend to be heavy and it’s a great way to avoid luggage fees. If the thought of traveling with two bags makes you queasy, check out the REI Travel Zip or something similar.
- Excuse Me, Do You Have Lockers? – First of all when booking a hostel or hotel, make sure to check if they have lockers, what size they are, and where they are located. If there is any ambiguity, email or call them to ask. Ideally this is where you want to keep your valuables when you’re settled in somewhere for a few days.
- Spread Out Your Cash – Keeping your items and money separately won’t save all of your stuff but might be enough to keep at least some of your valuables safe. Hide your money in various pockets, some on your person, maybe a bit in your toiletries pouch but not all in the same place.
When looking for a hostel, I’d consider a locker to be a strong deciding factor over another without one of a similar price. Some hostels also boast lockers but don’t mention that they’re not big enough to fit a laptop. Walking around with your valuables in your day pack is both cumbersome and aside from the increased threat of theft, might end up with you banging around your hard drive into an early grave.
Covering Your Bases And Maintaining A Security System For The Long Run
Much like when you start out packing, your security system is likely to be at its best when you’re first heading out on a trip. After a prolonged vacation or when shifting locales it’s a breeze to take it easy, be negligent about locking up your stuff and all of the other little tricks part of your personal travel security plan.
- Know Your Essentials – Your passport, cash, and and credit cards are essential when traveling and you should make sure you always have access to some bare minimum of funds. Do not neglect to keep these things secure. I’d also add any electronics that are too expensive or costly to easily replace (i.e. laptop if you work from the road).
- Automate It – Stay consistent with how you pack your bag so it becomes second nature. Don’t try to come up with something even more intricate every time you pack. Come up with a plan and tweak it but trying to reinvent it every time will only leave you frustrated.
- Have A Backup Plan – Encrypt your hard drive, save your digital photos from crooks, and use online backup for your data.
- Take Your Time – Not only will you be the least annoying person in any hostel dorm, packing ahead of time ensures you won’t rush through and neglect your backpack security system.
- Layers Upon Layers – Jodi Ettenberg (Legal Nomads) has some excellent safety advice which I highly recommend reading in this interview with her on Solo Friendly.
Adding a few seconds of effort to any snoops’ schedule may be all you need to deter or steal an opportunity from a thief. For those times when it’s just not enough however, finding that $50 you tucked away in your dirty socks at the bottom of your backpack will make you realize a backpack security system wasn’t so crazy after all.
[photos by: stacya (female backpacker), gsag (zipper), colijay72 (man digging hole), rpongsaj (locked safe)]
Thanks for linking to the interview, Anil. I found myself uber-automated in packing after 2+ years on the road, and had a place for my valuables (a coloured pouch for certain things, for example), which went a long way in being efficient and thorough.
You’re welcome Jodi, I remember reading it and thinking it was excellent advice!
I think there are two key principles to add to your fine article:
1. Use enough security to make your bag less desirable to “snatch and grab” from than others. I think the idea is not to be 100% secure (impossible and more annoying to the owner than anyone else) but to be sufficiently a deterrent that they don’t bother with your bag.
2. If you are going to have something stolen, make it small (as in amounts of money or gear) and not sufficient to wreck your entire vacation.
Excellent points – you can never be 100% secure, but the less appealing you are as a target the better.
Terrific advice. “Spread out your cash” is an important concept, whether you are a backpacker or traveling with luggage.
Agreed – there are plenty of hiding places in both!
Fantastic advice Anil. As a nervous traveller, I like this to be nice and secure so will definitely be taking up some of these recommendations.
Thank you Andy – I hope it helps take a bit of the security edge off 🙂
Good stuff as always Anil. Before flying or getting on a bus I always tie the loops attached to the zipper on my backpack together and then intertwine them with the buckles on my pack as well. That probably doesn’t make any sense but the idea is that any combination of knots and buckles, even if they’re relatively easy to undo, can be a deterrent.
I’ve done something similar as well, can’t hurt and might make a thief think twice and go for the less cumbersome backpack 🙂
I just saw the pacsafe mesh bag on @shannonrtw’s site and I wish I had known about that before I got to South America, looks like a light way to deter thieves. Alas, I’ll have to hope my locks are enough.
The only thing I don’t like about them is there a bit cumbersome to put on the pack – but hopefully most of the places you’re staying in have lockers, that should make up for not having one 🙂
Automation is key to not getting frustrated – I have a whole system in my bag that I have to stick to else I’ll lose track of everything!
Personally – when I carry my daypack around – I still lock it with a little combo lock so that I can feel safer as I’m shooting pictures that someone isn’t rummaging around in my pack!
Without my habits I would so easily lose track of many things. I guess we’re creatures of habit 🙂
I also find that zip-ties work really well to at least know if my bag has been messed with. I put them through the zipper pulls on my bag when I check it in at either the airport or when I put them on a bus. I also have a lock, but in the off chance they can pick the lock, I still know my bag has been messed with because what crook is running around with zip-ties to replace the one they had to cut to get into my bag?! I try to get the colorful ones at Harbor Freight or Home Depot or Lowes. They are super cheap and lightweight and don’t take a lot of space in your pack, either.
Do you use them along with the locks?
Yes. It’s a double layer of protection. One, the locks keep my bag more secure. Two, if the zip-ties have been messed with, I will know my bag has been messed with.