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How to Lock Your Pack on a Backpacking Trip (Preventing Theft)

Every traveler fears being robbed, especially when traveling abroad. As a backpacker, this fear is intensified. You’re not just carrying money and credit cards, carrying around everything else you could possibly need on the trip.

Obviously, losing money, credit cards, tent, sleep system, etc is a pain. But how will you replace your passport in a foreign country? It’s going to be a huge hassle and may send your trip into a death spiral. Your itinerary will be derailed, and trip ruined.

It doesn’t matter how careful you are your bag will never be completely theft-proof, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. With a simple lock, you can deter petty theft and hopefully avoid becoming a victim.

Should I Lock My Back on a Backpacking Trip?

Whether or not you need to lock your pack largely depends on where you’re traveling. Obviously you don’t need to lock up your pack every time you travel. On a backcountry trail, there’s little risk of getting robbed. If someone does rob you out in the wilderness having a lock likely won’t help.

I’m sure that’s not the place/situation where anybody should be worried about theft. Most thefts are the result of simple opportunity. Look away for a second and your packs gone. No lock can completely prevent that type of theft.

Should I lock up my backpack on a backpacking trip? You should lock up your pack, but don’t expect it to completely deter theft. All you can do is make sure your most important items are secure and try your best to deter petty theft. Buy a cheap lock and never leave your pack unattended.

Deterring Theft on Backpacking Trip

There are three main ways to deter theft on a backpacking trip.

  • Research The Area: You can avoid common scams by doing a little bit of research. Before heading out ask for suggestions on travel forums. It’s easy to weed out dangerous areas and avoid common theft.
  • Never Set Down Your Pack: Thieves strike when you least expect it. That 30-second conversation with the taxi-driver is all it takes. Never leave your pack unattended(even for a minute) and try to avoid common scams.
  • Lock Up Your Gear: Locks can only do so much. They keep the casual thief honest, but serious criminals will just steal your pack or slash your bag with a knife.
  • Don’t Trust Anybody: As a generally trusting person, I’m the perfect target for theft. It’s hard to believe(and kinda sad), but most people are robbed by other backpackers. Lock up your gear and always keep your pack within arms reach(keep people honest).
  • Protect Valuables: There’s no way to completely avoid theft. Never store cash, credit cards and passport(most important) in your pack. You can always replace gear and borrow money, but it’s gonna take a while to get back a passport.

When are Packs Stolen?

Most people lose their pack when they least expect it. You wouldn’t believe the schemes thieves come up with to take advantage of tourists. They buy fake taxis, slash bags with knives and even create fake tour companies.

Before heading out make sure you check travel websites on common tourist traps. With a little bit of research, you can avoid the usual scams. There’s no way to completely stop theft so make sure you keep money, passport and travel documents on your body at all times.

How to Lock Your Backpacking Pack

The best way to prevent casual theft is to buy a lockable travel backpack. Obviously locks prevent theft, but most travelers don’t bother locking up their gear. It’s crazy that most backpackers don’t even bother with a lock(it’s like 5 bucks).

A basic TSA Accepted travel lock(On Amazon) is all you really need. All you’re trying to do is make it harder to access your bag. A simple cable lock is all you need to stop most thieves. It’s all about stopping the basic grab and run theft.

Look For Carry on Packs

Look for packs that are labeled as a TSA Approved carry on. These backpacks almost always have lockable zippers on the main compartments and most of the access pockets.

Personally, I like the Osprey Brand Travel packs(On Amazon), but Tortuga is another popular option. My 40-Liter Osprey travel pack has everything you could possibly want. It’s a front-loading pack, extremely comfortable, lightweight and lockable. There’s even a way to stow the shoulder/waist straps so you can basically turn it into a suitcase.

Locking Your Pack

Putting a lock onto your pack won’t turn it into Fort Knox. Unfortunately, even a locked pack can easily be broken into. You still need to pay attention to your surroundings and actively avoid dangerous situations.

All it takes is a knife to quickly cut open a backpack. With a quick razor blade slash thieves can get into a pack. There’s no way to deter this type of criminal. If a person is desperate enough they will find a way to get your pack.

You’re just trying to avoid the casual thief that’s looking for easy targets. You don’t want to be the easiest person to rob. Just by using a basic TSA Approved lock(On Amazon) you’re one step ahead of 95% of tourists.

Different Ways to Lock a Backpack
  1. TSA Approved Lock: All the vast majority of backpackers need is a basic cable lock. For like 5 bucks you can secure your pack and stop 99% of thieves.
  2. Cable Lock: With a cable lock you can strap your pack to a hostel bed, radiator, etc. All it takes is a knife to slash open your pack or cut the shoulder strap.
  3. ExoMesh Steel Nets: PacSafe makes an excellent product called ExoMesh(On Amazon). It’s basically a mesh net that wraps around the outside of your pack. These nets are very secure and heavy, but they definitely work. The only problem is your drawing a lot of attention and putting a target on your back.
  4. Hostel Lockers: Most hostels, bus, and train stations have lockers that you can rent. For a couple of bucks, you can rent a locker and use a padlock to secure your gear. When staying in a hostel it’s rare to get your own room so never leave your pack un-secure.

Make Copies of Important Documents

Make copies of all important documents in case of a robbery. This includes your passport, credit/debit cards, drivers license, travel itinerary, etc. Anything that you could possibly need to prove your identity to the embassy.

Personally, I wouldn’t bother printing off physical copies of these documents. Just scan copies and email them to yourself before the trip. This method guarantees you’ll have copies even if you get robbed.

So if you end up getting robbed you still have all of your important information. Just give your credit card company a call to report the stolen card and figure out a way to get extra cash.

Having a copy of your passport is the most important. Even though you won’t be able to get back into the country without a real one, the copy makes getting a replacement much easier.

To Replace a Stolen Passport
  1. Contact The Nearest Embassy: Just contact the nearest US embassy or consolate and report the stolen passport. Make sure you tell the person you’ve been a victim of a crime and how long you plan to stay. That way they’ll expedite the replacement process and issue you a valid emergency passport before you leave(this will take a few days).
  2. File a Police Report: If your passport has been stolen file a local police report. Although this step isn’t actually necessary it may help speed up the process of getting a new passport. Whether or not this helps depends on the country and reputation of the local police force.
  3. Take a Passport Photo: Before heading down to the nearest embassy/consulate find a place where you can take a passport photo. The local police station and Embassy should be able to point you in the right direction.
  4. Fill Out Forms and Go To The Embassy: Head to the nearest embassy, fill out all the forms and submit your passport photo. Make sure you tell them that your passport has been stolen and you need an emergency passport issued.
  5. Prove Your Identity: Before the embassy will hand over your new passport you will need to prove your identity.

Limit Your Cash and Bring Extra Credit Cards

Limiting your valuables will significantly reduce the financial hit if you get robbed. Let’s start off by saying you shouldn’t need all that much cash. You can use a Visa card just about anywhere in the world(you’d be surprised).

There’s no reason to carry more than a few 100 dollars worth of cash and a couple of credit cards from different banks. Make sure you call the credit card company before traveling to let them know you’ll be out of state.

I once got stranded in Seattle with minimal cash thanks to Chase Bank. After calling ahead of time and notifying them of my trip they still blocked my credit/debit card for unusual spending. To make matters worse they tried to tell me I had to go in person to my local branch to prove my identity.

A few hours later and talking to more representatives than I can count they eventually lifted the hold only to have it reinstated the following day(I was pissed). So moral of this story is you should always have a little extra cash and cards from different banks.

Be Smart With Valuables

The only surefire way to protect your valuables is to leave them at home. This is easier said than done, especially with cameras and computers.

I always bring a cheap laptop(leave my Macbook at home) and my DSLR camera which is worth well over a grand(only bring 3-4 lenses). I actually bought one of those Chromebooks (On Amazon) specifically for traveling. It’s crazy that I could do 99% of my work-related tasks with such a cheap computer.

It’s crazy how many times I’ve been told to leave my camera at home and that’s bullshit. Why did I spend so much money on a camera if I’m not going to use it? Travel insurance covers stolen property so even if I lose my camera it’s not a total loss.

Always Buy Travel Insurance

For most of my adult life, I went without travel insurance, but I would never go without again.

My cousin had one of those destination weddings on a cruise ship and my entire family went. I was in the wedding party, so they booked the room and ended up adding travel insurance during the reservation process.

When I went to pay it was like a 30$ difference so I decided that it wasn’t worth canceling, and it’s a really good thing I didn’t. On that trip, my cousin ended up getting a serious infection, went into septic shock and got taken off the boat by emergency life flight to the Bahamas(the next stop in our itinerary).

His wife and I ended up staying there for three weeks until he stabilized and flying back once he was released. Honestly, I don’t know what we would have done without travel insurance.

They covered every single expense until we could get back. They paid for my food, hotel, taxis, flights, reimbursed me for missed time at work, it was all covered. For such a cheap insurance policy I couldn’t believe how much was actually covered.

Had I not accidentally purchased that insurance policy I would still be paying off that trip(close to $20,000). It’s crazy how life works sometimes. I would never go without travel insurance again.