For the most part, backpacking travel usually involves cheap accommodation: dormitories, shared-rooms, homestays, huts, camping… And although many hostels do a great job at ensuring individual cabinets with locks are available for each guest to safely put their belongings away, there are occasionally a few bad-intended people that will try their hardest to steal other people’s properties. Which could essentially be a huge blow to your travel plans or even completely ruin your entire trip. Following these lines we provide a few tips that should help decrease the chances of getting your stuff taken by some crook.
Choose the right luggage or backpack
As explained in our article “How to Choose the Right Travel Backpack“, it is fundamental to select a proper bag suited to the needs and requirements that a backpacking travels demand. Simply put, you should be able to lock all accesses leading to the inside of your backpack, period. Otherwise you are literally leaving an open invitation for burglars and overly curious individuals to peek inside your bag in search of valuables.
Another important aspect regarding travel safety is the color of your backpack. Hiking and trekking backpacks tend to have bright and shinny colors, for the main purpose of being seen from afar in the middle of the mountain in case they need to be rescued. However, for backpackers it’s exactly the opposite. When traveling, we don’t necessarily want for our bags, and consequently ourselves, to be easily spotted as foreign – mainly because in some places being foreign automatically makes you the target of burglars, pickpockets, scams artists, or worse. So going for a less conspicuous color for your backpack (and your gear in general), although perhaps less pretty, it can actually help keep you and your backpack safer and out of trouble.
Be conscious of the accommodation type you choose
Low budget accommodation is not always immediately associated with safety. Yet, there are two basic rules that can help you ensure the safety of your valuables when you leave them behind at your accommodation of choice.
a) If given the option, choose brick and mortar rooms over huts. Although they are undoubtedly much more picturesque, huts are the primary target of systematic burglars – simply because they are easier to break into.
b) When you are shown a room before deciding to stay in, check that all windows and doors in the room come with functioning locks — so you can use them to prevent access into the room when you are away or sleeping inside it
Keep things organized
Many people treat hostel rooms as if they were at their own home, leaving everything scattered around the room and their bags fully open. Whether you stay in the bunkers, a shared room or even a private room, leaving things loose and in the open is just an invitation for trouble. Ideally, every time you leave your hotel/hostel, you should try to keep everything that is of value to you locked inside your backpack.
Lock your luggage
Besides keeping things tidy inside your backpack, you should properly lock all the zippers on it in order to avoid easy access inside it.
Additionally, you might consider locking your backpack inside one of the cabinets that most hostels have for their guests inside their rooms. Or in case there is no cabinet available in your room, what you can do is to place your backpack under the bed, so it’s not so visible, and use a bicycle lock to attach your backpack to the bed frame.
By the way, bicycle locks are extremely handy devices for a variety of situations you might encounter along your travels – besides the one just described, another common use is to interlock multiple pieces of luggage together when leaving them at some sketchy storage room.
Don’t leave your luggage/daypack unattended
When arriving at a new place, specially if you are in crowded areas such as a train or a bus station, and going to ask for directions or information, don’t ever leave your luggage without you or somebody you trust looking after it.
Also, when being outside with your daypack and sitting to rest on a public bench or a food stand on the street, or even inside a coffee shop or a restaurant, keeping your bag on sight at all times might not be enough. A better habit is to always have your backpack or purse attached to your body. That doesn’t mean not taking it off your back, but making sure that, wherever you leave your bag, you slide one of your legs, or your chair’s leg for that matter, through at least one of the shoulder straps. That way you can avoid seeing your daypack leave you behind after being swiftly snatched by some racy burglar.
Some of these measures can seem a bit extreme to some, and they indeed require a bit of discipline, but we assure you that they are effective in persuading most crooks from abducting your baggage.
Distribute your cash
Keeping in mind the worst possible scenario where your backpack is stolen altogether, we would recommend distributing your cash throughout stashes inside your luggage and gear. For instance, you can place a bundle inside your big backpack, another one inside your daypack, a third one inside the inner pocket of your daily jacket or windbreaker, and a last one inside the shoe tongue of one of your sneakers. For the last placement we suggest you first place the bills rolled, not fold or they will get creased, inside a small re-sealable zipper storage bag so to avoid besmirching them with sweat, dust or mud. Some footwear comes already with a pocket in their shoe tongues for the purpose we just explained. Yet other ones don’t have that feature and you might have to manually cut a small hole in that area.
Fastening pockets are extremely useful
More and more we see people wearing pants with zipper fasteners on all their pockets. This is indeed a very functional feature because it will deter pickpockets from trying to reach for the content hoard inside your pants’ pockets. However, if your pants do not come with fastening pockets, it is as simple as getting a piece of Velcro and stitch it or sew it to the pocket and corresponding part of the pant as to be able to fasten that pocket. It might not be as good as having a zipper fastener but it is certainly better than leave the pocket completely exposed. Of course you can also take it to a tailor shop and get a much superior job than what most of us can do. In which case we would recommend going for the zipper fastener.
Special watch for your expensive gadgets
Not every thing on your luggage has the same value. And that’s why you should pay extra-attention to your most valuable stuff: laptop, camera, passport… What we mean by that is that perhaps there are situations where you might want to take these things with you in your daypack when you leave the hotel. But there might also be other situations where walking around with so many expensive gadgets inside your bag might not be so smart and you’ll be better off leaving them well locked inside your room. This decision is one that you’ll have to make according to your assessment of the place you are visiting and the accommodation type you chose to stay in. Alternatively, if you are not sure of either one or the other option we just mentioned, sometimes hostels offer the possibility of leaving some important belongings with them at the reception. Ask at the reception.
One thing we strongly recommend though is to carry personal identification at all times. That can be achieved by simply taking your passport with you no matter what. Or, if you are not comfortable with that, by carrying a photocopy (preferably color) of your passport’s data page, the country’s visa on your passport, the page with the entry stamp that shows the date you entered the country, and (when applicable) a copy of the page or the slip received after registering at the local police office. Only taking with you a copy of your passport’s data page might not be acceptable – specially in some areas with corrupt police officers looking to hustle you for the smallest thing as a way to extort some quick cash from you.
Don’t openly display your valuables
A rule of thumb that many people disregard is not to overtly display your expensive stuff. The latest tablet, the newest cellphone, the coolest camera… might attract undesired attention — even in shared areas at your hostel. So it’s better to keep a low profile at all times.
Same goes for your cash: prepare your money before leaving your room. A good technique is to make a folded stack of bill notes ordered by denomination from larger to smaller – that is keeping the smaller notes on the outside while concealing the larger ones on the inside of the stack. You can place the stack inside your pants or shirt’s pocket (ideally with a zipper or Velcro fastener on it) and gradually take out notes – starting with the smaller notes on the outside or with the larger ones on the inside of the stack if you are buying something that requires a large payment.
We realize that many of the notions and tricks mentioned here might be quite obvious and intuitive to many experienced travellers, but perhaps not so much for the newer backpackers. So if with this post we can bring some awareness among fellow travellers and help increase the safety rate in their travels… then we can feel we accomplished something.
Ultimately, we should understand that if somebody really wants to steal your stuff, they’ll find a way to do so. The goal here is to put up as many barriers as possible in order to make it harder for them to achieve their goal and, hopefully, persuade them from trying.