Backpacking is carrying your home on your back through different countries, cultures and terrains. It’s lugging your home into taxis, storing it under busses and locking it under bunk beds. Backpacking is being entirely self-sufficient through your personal belongings while simultaneously being unattached to it all.
One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome – and avoid – is theft while you’re backpacking.
One of the first things people tell you is not to travel with things you aren’t willing to lose. However, this is nearly impossible to do as everyone travels with credit cards, cash and smart phones.
Instead, take extra precautions to make sure you make it safely to your next destination with all your valuables.
After six months of travel (three months in South East Asia and three in Mexico) I’ve adopted many tricks to avoid theft. And unfortunately, some of these lessons were learned the hard way.
Before Your Trip
Make copies of important paperwork – such as your passport and visas. Unless you are leaving a destination permanently or boarding a flight, leave your physical passport back at your accommodation and bring a copy.
Write your name and phone number on all of your electronics – I’ve even toyed with the idea of writing a “reward if found” on my electronics.
Purchase TSA approved locks. I have two small locks with a numerical code, one for each backpack, and a cord to attach my bag to my seat while on trains, buses, etc.
How To Protect Yourself
When traveling with a backpack, lock the zipper together. Avoid putting anything valuable in the small front pockets (such as a wallet, passport or cell phone) and instead, keep it in the main pocket with the rest of your items. Although inconvenient, it will make it more difficult for pick pocketers to access these items.
When staying at hostels, lock up all your valuable belongings. Most hostels have personal lockers. The first thing I do when I check in is move all my valuables into this locker and secure it with my own personal lock.
Avoid leaving anything unattended at hostels. It’s nice to think that fellow travelers have your back but I’ve heard too many stories of theft in hostels too.
Before you get off a bus, train, taxi, etc. check to make sure you have everything on you. Have a mental checklist – phone, camera, sunglasses, wallet – to ensure you don’t leave anything behind. The easiest way to have something stolen is simply forgetting it behind.
When flying Aeromexico, I left my purse on the airplane, when it was returned to me all my cash had been taken out of my wallet. I’m not telling you this story to make you paranoid but rather to emphasize my point that theft happens everywhere. I was just thankful that they hadn’t stolen anything else!
Hold your camera on your lap when on public transportation or keep it at the bottom of your backpack. To avoid theft or damage, keep your camera wrapped up in a t-shirt or a small case. After having my camera pick pocketed from my backpack I began placing a paperback book over my camera as a barrier.
When you’re on a sleeping train/bus, use a small cord to lock your bag to your seat. I cannot stress enough the importance of locking your backpack zipper. During my three months in Asia, I did this religiously and made it out without a single item stolen.
Keep your bag in front of you when eating out. Avoid leaving your backpack on the side of the table or your purse hanging from the chair. Instead, keep your bag at your feet and keep a strap wrapped around your leg.
Do not leave your phone out on the table. There are many scams that involve thefts looking for targets that leave their phone out on a table while eating out. One of which is the clipboard scam. Petitioners will approach you and set a clipboard over your phone, asking you to sign a form. After, when they lift their clipboard, they will swipe your phone as well.
When going out to bars, leave any valuables at home. Only bring out the amount of cash you think you’ll need, an ID and a credit card. In Asia and Latin America, you are rarely carded. A copy of your passport or your license will suffice. Avoid bringing your physical passport.
*Ladies* take a purse that would be difficult for pick pocketers to access. I use a backpack with a clip or a zipper clutch that I am always holding onto. After having *ahem* three iPhones stolen, I had to rethink my going out habits.
*Men* use a front pocket wallet. Although a seasoned pick pocketer can still swipe a wallet from your front pocket, this acts as a deterrent. The Rogue Wallet is a great option for a wallet that fits into your front pocket – perfect for travel.
Use a money belt. For extra security, use a money belt instead of a wallet. You can tie this onto your belt loop to keep it from getting unclipped. Make sure it has an RFID block for additional identity protection.
Avoid walking and texting. When using your phone for directions or answering a text message, don’t hold it out in front of you when walking. This is an easy target for passerby’s to grab your cell phone. When in Vietnam, a motorbike drove by and grabbed my friend’s iPhone from her hand while she was using it for directions.
What To Do After Your Property is Stolen
Cry if you want to. And after you cry…
Report it to the local police. If you have travel insurance, you will need an official police report to be reimbursed.
Call your credit card company if any of your cards were stolen. This is where having copies of your passport, IDs and a list of credit card numbers comes in handy. The more prepared you are before your items are stolen, the easier the process is to report it.
Check local pawn shops. In Mexico, most stolen items are then sold to pawn shops. Although it is unlikely that you’ll find your items this way it is a possibility.
Unfortunately, theft is a regular occurrence when you travel. This should not keep you from traveling but instead, act as a reminder of the importance of staying vigilant.