Bag Safety: 4 Rules to Secure Your Stuff

Shawn Forno

You’ve got a lot of cool travel gear. We all get it.

Packing light

$200 sweat-wicking merino shirts. A Macbook Air (with 3TB external HD). $700 Monclair Hiking Boots. Heck, even your underwear costs $40 a pop. You bought the best because you want to have the best trip ever, and even if you’re broke like that Proclaimers cassette tape I listened into oblivion (and IIIIII would walk 500 miles!) You still want to keep your carry on backpack safe and sound.

So, listen up.

Here are four ironclad bag safety rules to keep your backpack secure from dirty, nasty thieves:

Rule #1: Don’t Be the Easiest Target

Thieves are super lazy.

Seriously. There’s no crack team of quirky criminal misfits plotting to snatch your ipad mini. No one is twisting his mustache hatching a plot to swipe your passport and strand you in Prague. No one cares about you, or your stuff.

While that might sound harsh, it’s also kind of awesome. Most theft is a crime of opportunity on random, easy targets. Just don’t be that easy target.

Bag safety is like the story of the two hikers and the bear:


“While walking in the woods, two hikers come across an angry grizzly bear. Both hikers freeze in place as the 12-foot mama bear rears up on her hind feet and roars to protect the two cubs behind her. Ever so slowly, one hiker sits down and starts unlacing his heavy hiking boots. He slips them off and carefully reaches into his bag for a pair of super light boat shoes with fantastic traction, not to mention style for days.
The other hiker watches this and scoffs. “You’ll never be able to outrun that bear. Bears can run 30 miles an hour,” he sneers, confident in his vast ursine knowledge. The bear roars and both hikers cringe in the face of this mountain of fur and flesh and teeth and claws.


The first hiker slips his feet into the undeniably awesome boat shoes and looks at his friend. “You’re absolutely right. I can’t outrun that bear,” he admits with a shrug. “But…” he says as he turns away from the approaching beast, “I can outrun you!” he screams and charges down the hill leaving the other backpacker to his fate.”
What’s the lesson of this tale?

Never. Wear. Hiking. Boots.

Oh yeah…and don’t be the easiest target.

I could probably stop this list of travel tips with this simple rule and you’d be fine. But you want hacks and tips, right? Ok. Here’s rule #2 for becoming a theft-proof backpack ninja…

Rule #2: Hold All the Keys: Literally

Hostel Security

I managed an off-the-books cash-only hostel in Rome for nearly a year. It was awesome. We had loads of fun, and I still consider it one of the best times of my life. However, looking back there was some shady stuff going on, and a lot of it involved other staff members—not other travelers.

These were the days before Hostel World and “credit cards,” so it was as shady as you can imagine. Shadier actually. I literally paid a police officer €50 every single night for I don’t know what (my Italian was pretty bad). We had a lot of stuff “go missing.”

Hostel Staff: A.K.A. “Other Broke Travelers”

It blew me away, but a lot of people just left their bags lying open with stuff everywhere. We had lockers, but only half of the guests used them, and most of those didn’t even have a lock. Of course stuff went missing, and I’m pretty sure I knew who the thief was every single time.

bag safety

I hate to throw shade, but the most likely thieves at a hostel aren’t other backpackers—it’s the staff. Hostel staff aren’t the well-trained employees you assume they are. Most receptionists and bartenders are stranded travelers who burnt through their savings and are now working for pennies a day and a free bed.

This mixed bag of broke hippies, burnout festival goers, budget backpackers that have run low-on funds, and Australians (those guys are everywhere) are exactly the kind of people that steal from other backpackers. Barring the Aussie (hey guys!) you’ve basically placed your stuff in an environment where the broke, transient people with zero accountability have the keys to your room. Not ideal.

Get a Combination Lock

I always travel with a long-neck (the hoop part) combination lock. The long hoop ensures that it’ll fit on most lockers. Combo locks don’t have a key to lose (which you will) plus remembering stuff wards off alzheimer’s—do your sudoku, kids!

Train Station Lockers

I’m also a big fan of train station lockers. A lot of times you’ll have hours to kill in between trains or arriving early for your overnight train. Train stations are hot spots for thieves, and taking your eye off your bag—or leaving it with a “friend” while you pee—are great ways to find it gone in the blink of an eye.

bag safety

Train lockers only cost a few bucks, and you can wander around the station, enjoy some food or a coffee, and just relax before your trip.

Locker Nap Pods

Pro Tip: Those really deep lockers can double as a makeshift nap pod if you’re in a real jam. Seriously. I used one as a makeshift hostel for three days during Oktoberfest in Munich a few years back, when hostels were over 100 Euros a night.

You just put your bag in the back, use it as a pillow, and lay down with your feet dangling out. It’s not glamorous, but damn, that’s cheap accommodation. Bring deodorant.

Train & Bus Travel Security

Keep Your Enemies Close & Your Stuff Closer

Since you’re traveling with a carry on bag (way to go) you’ve dodged the first significant theft hurdle while on trains—leaving your stuff unattended. European train cars, among others, typically have a little alcove between cars where you can leave your super heavy checked bag—unattended—while you squeeze into your seat, or car, 100 yards away.

If you think your bag will fit overhead, think again. The thin overhead rack only fits small bags, so don’t think of cramming a packed suitcase there. Banging your way down a crowded aisle with your 40kg bag will mark you out as a novice ripe for the picking.

Take all your valuables out of your carry on and keep them in a day bag that you keep at your feet or in the seat with you. Loop your feet through one of the shoulder straps for extra security. However, the best way to keep your small (and most valuable) items safe is by keeping them on you. Like, actually on you.

Jacket With Zippered Pockets

bag safetyI like to keep my passport, phone, and cash physically on me while I’m in transit, and not just in a front, or back, jeans pocket. I’m a deep sleeper, and can nap pretty much anywhere (read that Munich train station hack, above, again) and I don’t want my passport falling out while I’m busy saving Natalie Portman from an intergalactic space invasion with Spiderman by my side.

Invest in a thin jacket with at least one zippered pocket and you can dream any crazy crap you want with absolute peace of mind. I like the thin, seam-sealed “Cranky” jacket from Nau. It’s awesome.

For added security (and great organization) look for a jacket with a “passport pocket” on the interior of the coat. That way you’ll always know where your passport is, and you’ll never risk it falling out while you retrieve your itinerary or check for wifi.

One pocket for one item: it’s the way to go. Which brings me to my next theft-proofing point…

Rule #3: Get Organized

Organization is Your Best Defense

No one wants to hear this one, but it’s true. If you’re disorganized you are more likely to:

  • Lose things
  • Waste time
  • Rush (which leads to all sorts of problems)
  • Be a more likely target for theft

It’s harsh but true.

A sloppy packer with clothes strapped to the side of their bag, cables sticking out of every pocket, open zippers, bulging pockets crammed with four different currencies wadded into a ball, expired train tickets, and a deck of beer-stained cards, are practically begging to be robbed.

Keep everything tidy with packing cubes and separate designated compartments. That goes for your personal carry items too.

I live in New York City, and everyday I leave the house with my:

  • Wallet in the back right pocket
  • Phone in the front right
  • Keys clipped to a carabiner on the right hip
  • Headphones rolled into the back left pocket
  • Right front pocket = miscellaneous

Obsessive? Sure. Theft-proof? Mostly. Organized and relaxed? Heck yeah.

Which brings me to money belts.

Money Belts

bag safetyMoney belts, security wallets, fanny packs—whatever you call em, they look super dumb and I’m not a big fan. But not because of the aesthetics

A money belt only works if you use it correctly. And no one does.

A money belt is meant to be worn either under your shirt across your chest (high and tight) or below your waist line under your pants depending on the style you purchased. That’s ridiculous. I can’t think of a grosser, less convenient—and less effective way to carry my valuables. The sweat alone…

If you need to get money you have to flash everyone at the night market to grab a fresh (sweaty) twenty. And guess what you just did by lifting your shirt or unbuckling your pants for everyone to see? You might as well have just hopped on the nearest table and shouted:

“Attention thieves! I have enough money on me to be worried about you stealing it, and I’ve shown you exactly where I keep it. Please wait for me to literally pull down my pants so that you can take it from me or follow me and mug me in a less public place! Please don’t stab me!”

I actually have a money belt, and I use it a lot.

I keep a few different currencies, a backup credit card, and ID in it if things go poorly—and they have. However, it’s stashed in a secret spot in my backpack, not in my underwear like a moron. I wear it on the rare occasions when I don’t feel safe leaving it at my accommodation or I’m traveling in a super sketchy place (like Los Angeles).

Funny story: I’ve been mugged at gun point twice. Guess where it was? Near my hometown and alma matter, Long Beach, California. Don’t travel in fear, Americans. The US is probably worse than wherever you’re headed. Which leads to my final rule: Relax.

Rule #4: Don’t Panic

bag safety

Your Stuff Isn’t Worth That Much

If sage advice from Douglas Adams, patron saint of travelers, isn’t enough for you, maybe the words of award-winning war correspondent, traveler, journalist, and all-around badass Robert Young Pelton’s advice on theft will be a comfort. Pelton has been to some of the most dangerous places in the world. Read about it in his fantastic book, aptly named, The World’s Most Dangerous Places.

The primary rules are: Be prepared to give away, lose, or not-figure-out-where-it-went everything you bring.

Secondly, learn from the locals: Where do they eat? How do they sleep? Do you really need a sleeping bag, a flashlight? Do you really need sunglasses? I strip my stuff down to the bare minimum with the full expectation that I’m going to give away almost everything I bring.

Man, I love that guy.

Remember that you’re traveling the world. Unless you’re in a Taken situation, losing your old iphone isn’t that big of a deal. Try to find your zen and just enjoy life without it for a week or two. If you leave the hostel (or airbnb) every morning clutching your day bag like it’s the one ring to rule them all, (my precious!) you’ll not only make yourself a target (see rule#1) but you’ll have a crappy trip.

Get travel insurance for your gear, don’t take your best camera and laptop unless you absolutely have to, and pack regular clothes unless you’re summiting Everest, you weirdo.

Bonus Round

What’s that? You want those Buzzfeed style theft proof lifehacks? Alright fine. Here are three sweet travel safety hacks:

Wool Cap + Stretchy Belt = Incognito Money Belt

Use a wool cap looped through a stretchy belt as an incognito wallet, or money belt. It’s perfectly safe for holding your cash everyday, and I promise you, no one—and I mean no one—is going to try to steal your stinky wool cap.

bag safety

 Deodorant Safe

travel hacks

I covered this in another “Travel Hack” article, but basically, you keep some spare cash, credit card, and ID underneath the little sliver of deodorant on top. Pop it out when you need the cash, and put it back to ward off thieves. A running theme to theft proof your stuff is with smell. FYI.

Garbage Tie Locks

I know some people are big fans of baggage locks, but I’m just not (sorry, Fred). They’re a daily hassle, and they don’t provide any real theft-proofing. You can open even the good ones with a Bic ben (I’ve done it).

Don’t add the extra weight (every little bit counts) and the neon sign that says “valuable stuff in here” that comes along with baggage locks and those weird mesh cage things. Ugh. Go low-fi and use garbage ties instead.

Loop a twisty garbage tie between the to eyes of your closed zipper toggles. Twist closed. Boom. A garbage tie is juuuuust enough of a hassle, that thieves will move on to another easier to open backpack.

This is an especially great tip for overnight buses and trains where you have to put your bag in the overhead rack or under your seat. The extra noise and added time it takes to undo these toggles will deter almost every casual thief (rule #1).


Theft is rare. Don’t let fear of losing something that can be replaced rob the most valuable thing you have while you travel—your memories. Even if you travel for a living like I do, every single trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Don’t steal that time from yourself with fear.

  • Don’t be an easy target
  • Use locks & lockers
  • Keep your most important stuff actually on your body
  • Be prepared for theft and if it happens, don’t panic
  • Employ the hacks

Stay safe and see you out there!


Want more like this?

Get weekly gear reviews, travel hacks, and packing tips sent straight to your inbox. We’ll send you a carry on packing list right away.

Want more like this?

Get weekly gear reviews, travel hacks, and packing tips sent straight to your inbox. As an added bonus, we’ll send you a carry on packing list right away.