Backpack Security: Packing a Theft-Proof Backpack

Fred Perrotta

Everyone fears being robbed, especially while abroad. This fear is particularly acute because you’re likely to be carrying not just your money and credit cards but expensive electronics and your passport.

Losing money and replacing credit cards are a pain, but replacing your passport while out of the country is an enormous hassle that could derail your itinerary.

Neither you nor your bag will ever be 100% theft-proof. Your main goal should be to deter petty theft. Don’t be the easiest mark.

Read on to see how to keep your bag and valuables safe while traveling.

Lock Up Your Backpack

The number one way to deter casual theft is to buy a travel backpack that locks. Locks prevent theft. Duh, right?

This advice may sound obvious, but many travelers neglect even this most basic level of security by buying the wrong type of bag.

Do not buy a backpack with drawstring closures. Do buy a bag with lockable zippers. Simple.

TAll of Tortuga’s carry on backpacks feature OBK lockable zippers on all main compartments, including the access point to the computer sleeve segment. These zippers are the gold standard of lockable zippers and will fit standard TSA approved luggage locks perfectly.

Unfortunately, even locked zippers are not impenetrable. You don’t need to carry Fort Knox on your back. You just need to not be the easiest to rob.

By choosing a bag with lockable zippers, you can secure your most valuable possessions behind a TSA-approved lock. These locks keep your valuables secure while allowing the TSA to open your bag if necessary. If you use a carry-on bag, unsupervised TSA intrusion will be much less of an issue.

If you’re concerned about your entire bag being stolen while not in your possession, you have three options:

  1. Cable lock: Great for securing your bag to an immobile object like a bed. However, anyone with a knife can easily cut your straps and slip the lock.
  2. Exomesh: Pacsafe makes a great product called eXomesh, which is basically a steel net to place your bag in when locking it up. While very secure, the mesh is also heavy and not ideal for carrying.
  3. Locker: Sometimes the simplest solution is also the best. Carry a simple padlock and secure your bag in a locker when you’re not around. Most hostels have lockers that you can rent. If not, try the closest bus or train station.

Stash Your Cash

Now that your bag is secure, let’s move on to your wallet.

First, keep paper money to a minimum. Use credit cards when you can and only take 1-2 days worth of money from an ATM.

Second, minimize the number of credit cards that you bring. One is ideal. The most you should be carrying is one credit card and one debit card.

To minimize the damage of a potential robbery, make copies of all important documents, including your passport, driver’s license, and credit/debit cards.

Store these paper copies apart from the physical copies. If your wallet is always in your pocket, stash the photocopies in your backpack.

If you were to be mugged, you would still have the copies with all of your important information. You could then easily contact your credit card company to alert them about the stolen card. Having a copy of your passport will make getting a replacement much easier.

To take this approach to the next level, you can use multiple pockets to store everything. Spread your money and cards out between the various pockets of your pants and jacket.

Then, if you were robbed, you may lose some money and a card but not everything.

Considering a money belt? There are other, better options.

Be Smart with Valuables

The easiest way to protect your new DSLR camera or Macbook Air is to leave it at home.

Just because you’re accustomed to having your full array of gadgets at home doesn’t mean you need them all on the road. You may love your laptop but can probably survive with an iPad, or just your phone.

If you do bring your camera, keep it with you. You brought it to document your trip, so keep it in your daypack when you venture out for the day. Not only will it be safe from the transient population of the hostel, but you’ll also avoid worrying about it.

At the expense of your packing space, always store your electronics in your main bag. Nothing attracts a thief’s attention like a dedicated camera or laptop bag. They advertise what you’re carrying and are even easier to steal.

Store your valuable electronics in your bag and store them deep. That way, if a thief does get a quick shot at your bag, they’re less likely to find the good stuff.

For the Extremely Paranoid

Let’s conclude this guide with a few advanced tips for the extremely paranoid.

If you’re really concerned about being mugged, consider carrying a dummy wallet. Stuff it with petty cash and a few fake credit cards. The temporary cards that credit card companies send to entice you to sign up work well for the latter.

With a dummy wallet, you can give the mugger something to make him go away without losing anything yourself.

When staying in a private room at a sketchy hotel or hostel, consider packing a doorstopper to prevent unwanted entry into your room. Staying in a private room is safer than staying in the dorms, but extra precaution can never hurt.

Lastly, if you really want to pack heat, you can bring mace. The TSA allows you to bring one mace or pepper spray container of up to four ounces in your checked luggage, provided it’s equipped with a safety mechanism.

If you’re only packing a carry on, you’ll have to rely on your karate skills.

More Backpack Safety Resources

For more safety information, check out Anil’s post on setting up a backpack security system. His article inspired this one.

Zen Backpacking also has a great guide to backpack security, including why “slash-proof” bags are not the panacea they may appear to be.

Shawn Forno wrote about Bag Safety: Four Rules to Secure Your Stuff for the Packsmith blog (that’s us!)