Backpacks are not very secure. At least, not as secure as a hard case suitcase or a trolley bag. Of course, all luggage is vulnerable to theft, either during transit or when left unguarded. But of all the different types of luggage used in traveling, a backpack has the highest chance of being a target of pickpockets. It is also the most susceptible to damage during transit because of not being so sturdy as those hard case luggage.
What do you do to make your backpack as secure as possible? Fortunately, it is easy to secure your backpack during traveling if you understand that most luggage theft and pickpocketing is a crime of opportunity on random easy targets. If you just avoid being that easy target and take appropriate care of your backpack during traveling, you are almost guaranteed not to lose your backpack or any of its belongings. Situational awareness and appropriate precautions are the most important factors in safeguarding your travel backpack.
So how do you avoid being that easy target? Following is a list of precautions that I take while traveling with my backpack. It doesn’t matter whether I am traveling by air, or by bus or train, the rules remain the same. I follow them so diligently that it has become second nature during any type of traveling that I do.
1. Never leave your Backpack unattended
This has happened to my uncle at a train station. Someone ran away with his luggage while he was talking to a relative. One of my friends also lost his laptop backpack in a similar way.
It is ok to make new friends during traveling. But trusting your newly forged friendship with all your valuables may not be a good idea.
While traveling with a trusted friend or a relative, you can watch each other’s luggage if you go for a bathroom break. But in case you are traveling alone, just keep the backpack with you. Trust me, this minor inconvenience is necessary for the safety of your backpack and its belongings.
While traveling by bus or train, store the backpack where you can keep an eye on it. If I travel alone, I always use my backpack as a pillow while taking a nap. Otherwise, I lose my sleep worrying all the time about my backpack getting stolen.
2. Do not advertise your Backpack or its Contents
I know logos on backpacks look cool. But they also give out a lot of information, information that may pique a thief’s interest. Really, do you want to advertise to everyone that your backpack is very expensive? Or it has expensive camera gear or a MacBook inside?
There is a reason why digital camera bags and laptop backpacks are the most popular targets for a thief. They already know what is inside, that Nikon, HP or IBM logo gives it away. The more sophisticated and expensive the backpack looks, the more it becomes a target for them.
The same goes for the company logo of the backpack company itself. An expensive backpack means it contains expensive things inside. At least, the pickpocket and the thief think that way.
So what do you do? You try to make your backpack look as ordinary as possible. Avoid flashy colors in backpacks. Chose a neutral color (I usually prefer black or similar), you don’t want unnecessary attention. Make sure to remove or cover up any visible logos.
You can do so by:
- Putting paint over the logo
- Covering the logo with duct tape
- Taking out the logo itself by removing the stitches
- Sewing a patch over the logo to hide it
Remember that Americans and Europeans are usually considered rich in other countries. So they are the usual targets for pickpockets. Don’t make it more obvious with your backpack.
3. Use Lockers in Hostels, Hotels and Train Stations
A locker is your best bet at keeping your backpack (and its contents) safe. If you plan to stay at a hostel (more prone to theft), make sure to select one where you get a locker.
However, most lockers are not big enough for your backpack. In that case, you will have to take out the valuables from your backpack and keep them in the locker.
If you have the room all to yourself (especially in a hotel), keep your backpack locked while you are not in the room. A cool trick is to put the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door while going out. That may deter that sneaky hotel stuff to take a peek in your room and your belongings.
If you have some free time while waiting at the bus or train station, you may want to roam a bit. If you want to avoid carrying the backpack, you can always use those lockers available in most stations. In India, they are called Cloak Rooms.
4. Use Combination Locks
Always carry combinations locks with you when traveling. It not only enables you to lock the zippers in your backpack, but you can also use them on the lockers in hostels.
However, remember that all backpacks may not have lockable zippers. So it is extremely important while selecting a travel backpack that you make sure that the zippers are lockable. I do not know why most people just forget to do this.
I am sure you have seen backpacks with single zipper pull tabs. Or worse, backpacks with drawstring closures. Just avoid those. They may have other purposes but they are not suitable for traveling.
Locks are necessary in case you decide to check your bag during air travel as most airlines will not accept luggage that is not locked. While choosing a combination lock, go for those TSA approved ones.
This will ensure that the TSA people do not break the lock in case they need to have a look inside your backpack when you are not around. This is something they are allowed to do, so better to make the process easy for them. You will also be saved from searching for a replacement for your broken lock.
Combination locks are better than normal locks as you won’t need to take care of the key. I used to use normal locks in backpacks until I lost the key once. I had to ultimately break the lock myself to open the zippers.
With combination locks, you just have to remember the 3 digit pin. For safety, make sure that you tell your spouse or someone else you trust what the pin code is.
Make sure that the lock has a long hoop so that it can comfortably go through the lockable zipper pull tabs. I use a lock with a long flexible hoop (steel cable hoop) which enables me to lock two zippers at once.
This may not be possible with all backpacks, as the pull tabs of both the zippers need to be fairly close to one another for this to work.
5. Use Steel Cable/Chain
Attaching your backpack to an immovable object is one of the best ways of securing it. This is especially useful in an overnight train or bus.
You can attach your backpack to the support bars, to the bed frame, or any other fixed object with the chain and lock it down. This will prevent someone from just picking up your backpack and running off when you are not looking.
There is one cool trick you can do with a steel cable. You can team up with your fellow passengers and attach many backpacks with the steel cable and lock them together. No thief will ever think of running off with such a huge bundle of backpacks.
If you have a bicycle combination chain lock, you can also use that to lock your backpack to immovable objects.
At the very least, you can keep a bundle of paracord with you. Before going to sleep, just tie the backpack straps at one end and keep the other end of the paracord tied to one of your arms. This way, if someone tries to move the backpack while you are asleep, you will feel the ‘pull’.
6. Tie the Zipper Tabs together
This tip is useful in case you do not have a lock for backpack zippers. This can be done if the zipper has string pulls. Insert the tab of one zipper through the pull string of the other, and then the second one back through the first. This will create a knot attaching the pull tabs together.
Watch this video to understand how it is done:
Of course, this is not the same as locking the zippers, as anyone with some patience will be able to undo this knot. But it will definitely slow down any opportunist pickpocket. He might just avoid the hassle and go on to the next easy target.
Another way of locking your zippers is to use garbage tie locks. Believe me, these are almost impossible to open without cutting them off with a knife or scissors. If you don’t have padlocks to lock your zippers, take some garbage tie locks with you and tie your zipper tabs with them while traveling. It may prove just enough hassle for a thief to avoid your backpack and try his hand on another easy target.
7. Pack Smartly
Everybody has his own way of packing. Some use packing cubes, some don’t. Some roll their clothes, while some keep them flat. Whatever is your style, there are a few aspects of packing that can make your backpack (and its belongings) more secure.
Packing valuables safely
Pack all valuable items as deep as possible. Most pickpockets just want to grab stuff as quickly as possible and get out of the scene. Some are expert enough to do that even when you are wearing the backpack. Keeping your valuable stuff out of quick reach will make sure you don’t lose them easily. This means you totally avoid keeping anything valuable in the outside pockets of your backpack.
Packing light is an art that few people can master. But it has some hidden security benefits. Pickpockets usually target fat backpacks where they are sure to find more valuable items. A small light backpack does not appear too appealing to them.
Also if the backpack is light, it will be comfortable for you to carry it along wherever you go. Think of it as a purse and have the straps wrapped in your arm when you are not wearing it on your back. No more depending on other people to keep an eye on your backpack while you go for a bathroom break.
Waist Pouches and Money Belts
Use waist pouch and money belt to store passports, credit cards, and cash. Wear them inside your shirt to keep them hidden. Having these on your body always will make them impossible to lose.
However, make sure to keep only those items in your waist pouch or money belt which you are sure you won’t need during the journey. You don’t want to take anything out of your hidden waist pouch in front of everyone while traveling.
Backup important documents
Create photocopies as well as digital copies of all your important documents like tickets, passport, credit card information, driver’s license, etc. Keep the photocopies separate from the originals. Keep the digital copies in your email or in Dropbox, or other similar file sharing service. In case you lose any of your original items, it will be easier to get a replacement or handle the situation better if you have a copy.
8. Protect the Backpack during transit
Backpacks are not as sturdily built as suitcases and regularly get damaged during transit. This is especially common for checked luggage during air travel. If you have seen how the airport stuff handle checked luggage, then you already know what I am talking about. The material of the backpack can get torn easily in such situations.
Most backpacks have a number of straps hanging all around. Any of these backpack straps can get torn in case they get stuck in the luggage belt, or with some other luggage. A backpack with torn shoulder straps or with a clip broken may render it almost useless.
So what do you do in case you need to check in your backpack?
You need to make sure that your backpack is covered with something and none of the straps are hanging around. You can do this in two ways:
- Carry a lightweight packable duffle bag inside the backpack. Put your backpack inside the duffle before check in.
- Carry a rain cover of strong material. Put the rain cover on before check in.
I prefer not to check in my backpack during air travel. But in case I have to (or forced to), I cover it up with a rain cover that I always carry in my backpack. The cover also helps to protect the backpack from rain and dust.
In crowded places where you know pickpocketing is rampant, the rain cover can be used to cover up all the exterior pockets providing an extra layer of security to your backpack.
9. Use Anti-theft Backpacks
You must have heard about anti-theft backpacks. Such backpacks incorporate some smart features to prevent pickpockets from accessing its belongings or getting off with the entire backpack. These backpacks usually come with anti-slash bodies, straps with wire inlays and combination locks.
Are they any good? Maybe they are. I haven’t used any such backpacks. There are a few things that prevented me from getting one of them.
These kinds of backpacks are heavy. All these security features add to the weight. It goes against my philosophy of traveling light. In fact, the weight might force you to check your backpack at the airport rather than carrying it along with you as cabin luggage.
All these extra features in these anti-theft backpacks will not stop a determined thief from getting into it or stealing it if you yourself are not careful. And being careful means paying attention to your surroundings, being aware of where you are and who you are with, and of course, where your backpack is.
But if you think that extra measure of security will give you that extra peace of mind, got for it. Just make sure not to make it very obvious that you are carrying an anti-theft backpack. It might just pique a potential thief’s interest (as explained in point 2).
I have realized that no backpack or travel luggage is totally secure. The best security against backpack theft is not carrying anything in your backpack that you cannot replace.
If someone is determined to get to your belongings, he will eventually. But that is not how so many people lose their backpacks. In most cases, it is the opportunist thief looking for an easy target. All the measures discussed above are meant to prevent or slow them down. With proper deterrence in place, he might just lose interest in your backpack and look for some other easy target.