Bag Security and Safety
One of the problems with backpacking in urban places and other places where there are people - is crime. A backpack to a potential thief is like a picnic basket to a bear - a beautiful container full of treats. And if a thief really wants your bag or a bear really wants your basket, they will get it. But there are many things you can do to make it more difficult for them to get at your stuff and less worth their while.
The following information on this page is a compilation of thoughts and practices regarding Backpack Security. Some of the core ideas on this page are must know concepts and practices which all travelers should know, whether you are traveling abroad or going down to the local café or grocery store. Other ideas are advanced techniques which are special applications are special people and situations. Hopefully there is something of value for you here as there is likely a lot of ideas which you may find excessive and the clinically paranoid. But remember - it's not paranoia if every IS actually out to get you - or your backpack.
In the Bag and Off the Wall - few interesting ideas
Pre-trip Planning and Minimizing What You Carry
When considering security concerns for your travels, not only should you be concerned about how you protect yourself and your gear, you need to first determine what you really need to bring and protect in the first place. It is generally easier to secure less stuff than it is to secure more stuff. And less fuss equals more security.
Minimize Weight and Bulk
Carrying less means increased mobility which enhances security in multiple ways. Less gear means:
Less stuff to haul around
Less stuff to pack
Less bags to carry or a smaller pack
Easier to store gear in lockers, under beds, on the bed with you, etc
Less rest stops if you need to haul everything
Less times you need to take off your pack
Easier to walk into tight shops and cafés
Easier to get on and off busses, taxies, tuk-tuks, bicycles, etc.
Small packs can be carried on busses and taxis, while larger ones need to be stowed, which means "good-bye pack" in some cases
Possible adventure opportunities otherwise crippled by having too much gear
Minimize the Number of Bags Carried
Ideally, one bag is the way to go. The next most desirable set up is the single carry-on bag with small daybag combo. Then, there is the check-in bag with real size day bag combo and so on. Being able to pack everything in a single backpack means that you can move around reasonably well in light crowds. A single backpack with a hipbelt on is very secure setup. Each additional bag added to your shoulder or hands cripples you to some extent against thieves. How can you chase a thief who is running off with your gear when you have a backpack on and two roller bags? Do you take off the back and leave your gear behind and hope it is still there when you get back? Do you run after the thief with bags in tow? You are basically screwed and thieves know this.
Leave Valuables at Home
Leave your valuables and non-essential gear at home. Do you really need to carry an expensive camera and a bunch of electronic toys? Depending on what you want out of your trip, the answer may be yes. But consider that without these items, you don't have to worry about locking them up and won't be such a desirable target to thieves. And should you lose your pack, your loss will be limited.
How to Pack Light
The key is not trying to figure out what not to pack, but figuring out what you can't live without. What do you really need and can't live without? Once you figure out what you need as a bare minimum, pack only that and if you wish - add one luxury item for psychological reasons. This will allow you to enjoy your trip, as opposed to enjoying your gear and being a slave to it.
Make Your Bag(s) Appear Less Appealing - Not For the Faint at Heart
A brand new colorful name brand bag with international baggage claim stickers on it is more appealing than a poor boy worn out soiled pack without any well know labels on it. And having a humdrum or worn out backpack/luggage will help protect it to some degree when in transport surrounded by other baggage, while sitting next to you on the ground and even when it's on your back.
Note that the following thoughts and techniques may someday save your gear from unnecessary inspection or theft at some point during its travels, but use of these same techniques will likely be unacceptable to many travelers, if not most. If part of your joy in travel is showing off your fancy gear, or if appearances are important for your employment, image or low self esteem, then skip to the next section. Also - great care should be taken when attempting these techniques on an unsuspecting travel mate...they don't always understand.
First off, most of the time, you don't actually need fancy name brand gear to have enjoyable travels. That said, name brand gear is often better in quality than "no name" knockoffs and your perfect pack may very well be one with an iconic big name imprinted on it and may only come in electric blue or bright metallic red. If this is the case, fear not because even a brand new, flashy bag can be made to look like something old and worthless at a quick glance. For this effect, consider some of the techniques listed below.
Techniques for Subduing a Backpack:
Start with good base bag
comfortable to wear
made from durable material
simple classic design - plain is better than fancy
avoid fancy fragile appearing designs with too many zippers
preferably choose dull colors such as Black, Gray, Brown, Tan
Remove or hide brand logos
Remove patches and badges
Sew patch of fabric, webbing or Velcro over logo(s)
Black out embroidered logo(s) with permanent marker so it doesn't stand out
Black shoe dye turns just about any fabric black, or at least darkens it significantly
Fabric dye may be an option and works on some fabrics
This allows you to purchase a less popular color option of the pack you want - when it goes on clearance.
If you have a dark bag, you don't need to go crazy with the paint - just dust the pack in a few spots with a lighter color
If you didn't dye your pack and don't like the color, here is your chance to make it work for you - black matches everything
Optional - paint on stripes or other patterns so your bag is easy to find in a pile at the airport or bus station
Optional - stencils can allow you to add some fun graphics
Note - some paints stick well, while others flake. Hunter's Specialties CAMO Spray Paint seems to stick well to fabric and is dull.
Add stains and scuff marks or go for that artsy look
Hand sewn white dental floss on dark fabric gives that "repaired" look
Reinforce weak spots with webbing
Use permanent marker to stain various areas
Duct tape or medical fabric tape added to handles and other parts of bag/suitcase goes a long ways.
Dust and rub in some talcum powder for a temporary moldy look if bag still looks too new
Some travelers actually physically damage their packs with sandpaper, belt sanders, cutting etc. - this isn't recommended.
Oil, mud and food will easily stain fabric - but who wants to carry around that dirty of a pack? - that's the idea of course
A belt sander will quickly add wear to your pack and straps
You don't actually have to damage luggage to repair it
This technique is not recommended
Spray painted backpack
Use of iconic logo creates opposite outcome
Painted Backpacks Examples:
instructables Personalized Backpack Spray Paint & Stencil Style
Fancy backpacks can also be stored in a plain duffle bag when in transport, such as at airports or when truck transported. This not only hides your pack, it also protects the bag's many straps from getting caught in conveyor belts, on other luggage and on many of the sharp objects your bag will come in contact with during its journey. A plain duffle bag is often easier to secure and offers better security than most packs with multiple openings.
NEVER carry a purse. This just makes thieves drool with want. They are generally easier targets for multiple reasons than backpacks and much more likely to have valuables in them. Plus, haven't you ever wondered what ladies keep in those things? Someone might want to take it just of find out.
A cameral case should also be avoided as it just says "loaded tourist" all over it. It makes both your camera bag and you a target. A plain bag or diapers bag may draw less unwanted attention and sever the same function.
Physical Security When Backpack is NOT Worn
When accessing your backpack in public, wear pack over one shoulder, leave hipbelt attached or lock pack to fixed object.
You should never leave your bag unattended or sitting freely on anything (countertop, floor, seat and lap included). It only takes a quick moment for someone to target your bag, grab it and disappear into a crowd or down an unfamiliar street before you and turn around. And by the time you notice your bag it gone, it's too late to do anything about it.
Cable Lock used to secure backpack to bed, pole, chair, etc.
Lock Alarm Mini - Cable lock with alarm
A cable lock makes locking up your gear a cinch, especially if you mount on on the outside of your pack. And if you are very paranoid and don't mind annoying those around you, consider one with a built in alarm.
If you take your pack off, you should lock it to a bed frame, seat or even just run a strap through your belt or around your leg if you are just sitting down. When waiting around with multiple bags, you should run a cable through each bag so that they are secured to each other and preferably also to a fixed object such as a bench, table, metal fence, pipe, etc.. In places of increased concern, such as when sleeping in open berths in sleeper cars in China, you should lock up everything tight, cable your pack to a fixture and use your pack as a pillow. Note that busses, trains and subways are notorious crimes spots. It is so easy to pick up a bag or grab other gear, like your phone, and run off a bus or train right before it departs.
It's hard to beat a cable and real lock for jingle free security
It is important to note that in certain touristy areas, cars (particularly rental cars) are targets for thieves. Not only should you hide away any gear you have in your trunk, you should also chain it to the trunk hinges. If you don't have a trunk (hatchback, van or too much gear), conceal it as best as you can and chain it to your car seat brackets.
Chains allow for cinching items tight and jingles when moved. These can be clasped (shown on left) or locked with a lock
A small chain, cable or cable lock is a necessity for any trip where you plan to leave your bag(s) unattended, such as in a room, hostel, etc or if you plan to sleep. They are also really nice to have in/on your your day pack, as they allow you to secure your pack when seated or should you need to leave your daypack unattended for some reason - like during a nap.
US Patient 5177986 - locking strap
US Patient 20070240798
If your shoulder strap unclips, you can use it to lock it around a fixed object. Hip belts on backpacks also work when available.
This doesn't stop determined thieves, but can stop a bag snatcher looking for an easy pick up
Locking devices are vital if are leaving your pack unattended. But if you are just setting down your pack while seated at a café, all you may need is just something which can be easily clipped together around your chair or table legs. If you have a pack with detachable shoulder straps, you can use these or a hip belt on a backpack. Other devices, such as the I Lock You Lock, stroller clips (some are even lockable), stroller straps, a chain clasp (Perslock), cargo straps, belts and the like are easy to apply and will make theft more difficult and potentially embarrassing for a thief.
Stroller clips and straps
Some devices allow you to secure your pack temporarily without a key or combo. These devices are used to delay a snatch and grab and are not suitable for unattended security
Physical Security When Backpack IS Worn
Bold thieves have been known to pull shoulder bags, purses and backpacks off of victims. The more straps you have, the more difficult it is to take your stuff. The more difficult it seems to take your gear, the more likely a thief will pass on you as a target.
Two straps are better than One. Three straps are even better yet.
Comparison of Straps vs Security
No Straps - Handbags
A handbag is simply an invitation to theft and should be left at home
If carried, should the held tight and against the front of your body
On sidewalks, stay away from the street side where motorcycles and scooters roam
Never set bag down on anything - adjacent chair, floor, countertop, hanging from bathroom stall door, shopping cart, etc.
Single Strap - Shoulder Bag
Far more secure than handbag
Still a desirable target for thieves
Avoid wearing strap draped vertically off of shoulder on same side as bag
Pull strap tight so bag doesn't dangle and wear with strap diagonally across body
Hold under arm and close to body in front
Consider slashproofing the strap
Avoid walking on the street side of a sidewalk
Note: you can wear a regular backpack with one strap diagonally across your body so that the top opening is in front of you and under one arm. This makes access to gear quicker and a bit more secure against pickpockets, but makes you more vulnerable to a slash and grab attack. This configuration also makes for improved access items such as:
ammunition and munitions
art supplies - spray paint, chalk, streamers, yarn
items you are passing out
items you are collecting
souvenirs thrown at carnival
clams and other aquatic/beach items
rocks - hopefully not too many
expended weapon's magazines
Single Strap - Hip/Fanny/Waist Bag
Most can be unclipped far too easily
Consider adding another link - threaded link vs actual lock
Run strap through belt loops so that it is harder to pull off
Consider adding loops to bag so that you can run your trouser belt through them
Consider slashproofing belt
Double Shoulder Strap - Backpacks and Rucksacks
Considerably more secure than a shoulder bag with single strap
Wear straps tight when possible
Double Shoulder Straps with Hip Belt
Difficult to remove
Lanyard aka Dummycord
Attach backpack to your trouser belt
Adds considerable amount of security to pack if lanyards is strong enough. Consider threaded metal links instead of plastic buckles.
Allows for protection even while taking pack off
Can be annoying
Coiled lanyard designed for pistol security
One end of a lanyard (aka "dummy cord") can be attached to your pack and the other end to your pants' belt so that if anyone grabs your pack from you, they'll have to pull you along with your pack. This can be a bit annoying at first, but protects your bag from Grab-N'-Run thieve whenever you take your pack off (such as to when you need to get something from it or when taking it off to sit down).
In addition to loosing your entire backpack to a thief, you should also be concerned about the possibility of someone/something rifling through your pack. Pickpockets can be pretty crafty and only need a small window of opportunity to remove contents from your pack. When items of value are carried, they should be placed in your pack close to your back and not in the outermost pockets. This makes it more difficult for pickpockets and bag slashers to get to these items. Small pockets for electronics, documents or valuables can be sewn to the inside or your pack to help with organization and protection of smaller items of value. When in crowds (train stations and night bazaars), you can also choose to wear your pack in front of you to make it more risky for a thief to get into it.
The worlds most popular places for travelers also has the world's most skilled pickpockets. These professional thieves are good at what they do and look for easy targets. The goal is to be aware of your surroundings and make sure that you and your gear are too much trouble to mess with.
Lock closures are hard to access
LOCK ALL ZIPPERS and other closures and keep pack closed at all times.
Threaded lock link or safety pin may be all that you need to make it more difficult to open zippers
See our Zipper Security Page for more on locking up zippers
Pack items of value close to your back and in an inner pocket if available.
Consider adding a secret pocket deep in pack for special items.
Wear backpack in front if you are concerned about pickpockets
Place expendable and frequent items of use in outer pockets such as maps, wipes, etc.
Avoid carrying valuable items as backpacks are often targeted
Waist/Hip/Fanny Pack - desirable and easy target for many pickpockets
lock waist strap if possible - it may be easier to just unclip your belt than unzipping it.
extra link vs actual lock
consider adding belt loops to bag for your trouser belt
consider cut proof strap
run strap through your trouser's belt loops to make harder to remove
keep in front of body - never wear it behind your back
If important items are kept in fanny pack - pack them contained inside inner pockets
tie down any keys to inside of pack
consider making a cover flap with Velcro and/or button closure over zippers for one additional layer of protection
Don't carry a purse.
Don't place wallet in purse. Instead, place wallet in locked up fanny pack or zipped up pocket.
If you use a purse, use one which zips tight and LOCK ALL ZIPPERS.
Use a shoulder strap diagonally across body and not over just one shoulder.
Adjust strap tight so it stays close to front of body under elbow
If you have a hand bag, leave it at home or lock up in backpack. If you carry it, hold it close to the front of your body.
Avoid setting your purse down anywhere - including next to your seat, in a shopping cart or on a store counter. If you do, lock it to your chair, cart or waist.
The next best thing to hidden pockets are those with zipper and/or buttons - P^Cubed Adventure Pants
Risky areas include pockets both inside and outside of jackets/coats and back trouser pockets. Front pockets are somewhat safer, especially if buttoned and/or zipped closed. Some travelers add Velcro to their pockets to keep contents in them.
If you have to carry a wallet, keep it zipped up and minimize what you carry in it. The fatter the wallet, the more inviting it is and the more you can lose.
A rubberband wrapped around your wallet will increase friction and make it more difficult to easy out of a pocket.
Larger pocket secretaries are surprisingly easy to steal and inviting to pickpockets.
Try to avoid checking for your wallet by patting it down. This reflex keys thieves nearby were to focus their attention.
busses and trains with standing room only.
tight and crowded walkways
setting credit/debit card down anywhere
counting money in public - do this at home or in your room
pulling out wallet for panhandlers or street performers - loose change only if anything at all
wearing jewelry - particularly anything that looks like it might be valuable
carrying gadgets like iPods and extra fancy phones
traveling at night
giving a waiter your credit card as they can make a copy of it. Instead walk it up to the counter.
trousers with zippered pockets
money belt, secret pockets inside pants and/or pants wallet (underwear/shorts with pockets)
mugger's wallet if traveling in violent cities, such as in the US. This is a fake wallet with receipts, fake credit cards, etc.
Body Side Access Backpacks aka Rear Opening Backpacks
Rear opening panel under shoulder straps. Prevents access into bag when worn on back.
There are a few backpacks available which incorporate a rear access compartment (aka body side access) in their design. This access is blocked when the pack is worn properly on the user's back. The backpack must be taken off to access this compartment, therefore offering excellent defense against pickpockets. This feature is sometimes found in camera and motorcycle bags.
You can custom make your own rear access backpack from scratch or convert a backpack of your choice. When converting a backpack, you'll need to add a zipper (or other closure device) to the back panel and then decide if you want to cover up the front access zippers to prevent entry from that side. You can cover up the original zippers from the inside for best aesthetic results and to confuse anyone you ask to get something out of your pack. Otherwise, you can just add a few stitches in the old zippers so that the sliders are locked in place.
Rear Access Packs:
Rear Access Cameral Packs:
Rear Access Backpack Patents:
WO2001010261A1 zipper on backside
Chinese 202739052U horizontal zippers on back of pack
Chinese 202858099U - steel mesh - slashproof pack
WO2005092143A1 zipper on backside
US7422131 zipper on backside
WO2005018376A3 zipper on backside
Having hidden pockets in your clothing is one of the most secure ways of storing your cash, passports and cards while on the move. Even when robbed at gunpoint, you can lose your backpack and contents in your regular pockets and maybe even and hidden moneybelt for savvy thieves, but most thieves won't make you strip. And most pickpockets and slashers won't bother with hidden pockets.
It is really easy to sew in your own hidden pockets and if you sew flip out pocket at your beltline, you can even hand sew everything with minimal skill and your "work" should be hidden by your belt. Of course, if you have minimal skill, you should make two passes with your stitches since they will be holding up your valuables.
E4S4Q0ZNK6EP287SCQ How to make an easy hidden pocket
US180372 hidden pocket with button closure
US2859449 complicated hidden jacket pocket
US931473 complicated hidden pocket
US1397729 double button pocket
US1571847 hidden button pockets for trousers
US2407888 hidden zipper pocket
US4553269 hidden pocket with button
US4852188 panty pockets
US5082157 hidden inner pocket/pouch attaches to belt
US4553269 button pocket with inner protective flap
US947047 hidden trouser pocket with snaps
US2251576 hidden zipper pocket for trousers with additional attachment point so that pocket can not be pulled inside out.
WO1997049307A1 hidden zippered pocket in bottom of front trouser pocket with brace also see espacenet 9749307A1
CN2572794Y hidden pockets
US8566963 hidden pocket for hoodie
US3137862 undershorts pocket
US2997719 jacket pocket with zipper
US785454 jacket pocket with "zipper" similar to binder clip
US3152339 rear trouser pocket with flap and button
US1123539 purse held in pocket with buttons
US2689957 wallet snaps to pocket
US2165843 hidden zipper pocket in trouser with protective flap
US2527224 zippered trouser pockets
US8307465 deep pocket of gun or passport
US6374421 deep pocket design
US2251576 hidden zippered front trouser pocket
US1255497 pocket watch pocket - sewn to create maze
US20130239297 internal sectioned off compartments in front trouser pocket
US851966 protective inner flap
US2899684 protective inner flap in front trouser pocket
US Patent US26001 from 1859
There have been many pickpocket alarm systems used throughout history to safeguard pockets, wallets, purses, etc. These do have some practical uses and can even be simple to install or even fabricated from readily available products. The problem with alarms is that by the time a thief activates them, they may already have the items your are trying to protect in hand and can make a quick getaway.
hackaday quick-wallet-hack-adds-pickpocket-alarm - simple DIY wallet alarm
US3245089 pocket with cord to hold wallet
US1310210 sewn down pockets - so they can't be pulled inside-out
US2536469 latch for wallet
US4972524 antislash pockets
US20050091730 antislash pockets
US2522606 pickpocket trap - view for humor
GB2282750 friction area around wallet, diary, etc.
CA2206927A1 - folding pouch for passport secured with button (sewn on inside of jacket pocket) US5678620
Hostel, Hotel and Airport Security
Places were you leave your pack unattended are great areas where other travelers, housekeeping and other thieve can rummage through your stuff. And although most places are safe and most people are honest, it only takes one thief to put a big kink in your day. And like everywhere else, you are never entirely safe from crime, but you can significantly decrease it's occurrence with just a few precautions with your gear and secure it while out.
If you are staying at a reasonable hotel, you should be able to lock up everything tight and use a security cable or chain to secure your pack to your bed frame or other furniture and leave it there. If furniture doesn't allow you to secure your gear properly, you may be able to use the metal pipes in the bathroom or heater. The idea here to to make it really inconvenient to walk off with your stuff.
Lockers are more secure and safer than many hostel or hotel rooms
In many hotels or hostel, you will want to find a more secure option than leaving your gear in your room, such as locking belonging up in a locker. Locker and lock boxes can generally be found in most hostels and many hotels. If you have no luck there, you may be able to find a suitable one for rent at a train or bus station. Other possible options include museums and other touristy places.
Even in high end hotels, thieves have been known to break in at night, so it's a good idea to secure your gear, particularly your valuables, before turning off the lights and drifting off to sleep. And while in a hostel, your gear needs to be locked up at all times, unless you are actively getting something out of your bag.
What does securing your gear mean? It means locking your pack to your bed frame as well as locking up every opening in your pack so that it is too troublesome for someone to get into it. Place items of value deep in your pack and not in easier to assess outer pockets.
It is important to note that ALL openings on a backpack can be secured. You may need to modify your pack a little by sewing on loops or purchasing special locks, but all openings are lockable. See our Backpack Security - Locking It Up Page for a comprehensive guide to securing any backpack.
Preventing Unwanted Entry Into Your Backpack
If you are leaving your pack all by itself in a room or are checking it in for transport, you need to secure all openings with a lock. Packs vary greatly in their ability to be secured, but ANY backpack can be secured. It just a matter for how much effort you want to put into securing your backpack and how much you are willing to modify your backpack. In the end, you may find that it is easier to simply find a replacement backpack, but ANY backpack can be secured.
Mail bag rope lock
Locking up a backpack tight can be more challenging than just locking up zippers, particularly when you have a backpack with non-zippered openings. There are still ways to lock up anything. See our Backpack Security - Locking It Up Page for a comprehensive guide to securing any backpack.
Although not a wide spread attack technique, many thieves have been know to slash straps on bags and run, or even slash open backpacks when left unattended or even when on your back. Slashing is difficult to defend against, but there are several tips, modifications and special gear which can drastically reduce the vulnerably to this security threat. And even if a slasher doesn't get away with any belongings, the damage incurred by your pack really sucks.
Adding stainless steel cable to a strap will make it difficult to cut
This is great for fanny packs, bags with a single shoulder strap and waist belts
Defending against slash attacks is difficult, but there are many techniques which can be incorporated to defend, or even prevent these types of attacks. See our Backpack Security - Slash Attack Page for more on this topic.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Electronics Shielding
Without getting too technical, an RFID chips is a basically a tiny computer which can transmit information once being activated. Most systems are both passive and promiscuous which means that the will communicate with any reader and are powered solely by the energy from the radio waves sent by that reader. So basically, anyone with a reader can walk down a street and record RFID information from anyone within a reasonable distance.
What is contained in RFID? In short, it's that private information people are worried about losing. A chip may contain single or multiple serial numbers, or in the case of some passports, contain a considerable amount of information, such as everything contained in that passport to include a digital picture of you.
Rounding off corner and/or trimming down cards makes it much easier to them pull out
Blocking radio wave transmission of RFID can be as simple as creating a Faraday cage by placing your RFID items in a tin of some sort or in a sleeve lined with aluminum foil. Aluminum foil and cup open beer cans can be crafted into pockets, sleeves and wallets with duct tape and other methods. You can even line your pack or make a larger sleeve to "hide" your electronic devices such as laptops and phones.
Wiki Radio-frequency identification
ptgmedia.pearsoncmg.com garfinkel ch02.pdf
Choosing the Right Backpack
Pack with lockable zippers
There are several considerations you should keep in mind when selecting a backpack. Most backpack security guidelines point out that you must purchase an expensive backpack with a large zippered panel with zipper sliders designed for a padlock. But honestly, security and cost are only part of the decision making process as you will need a pack which truly fits your individual needs and a pack which feels comfortable on your back. It is often easier to make a backpack more secure than it is to make it more comfortable.
Luckily for travelers, commercial options are plentiful and any backpack can be modified or "upgraded". See our Backpack Security - Choosing the Right Backpack Page for more on this topic.
There are many things that you can do to make you as a person less of a target to thieves and other criminals. You should take a look at our Backpack Security - Personal Security Page for more on this topic.
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