Keeping your backpack safe while traveling is a matter of paying attention.
While traveling in Egypt in 2006, I had a porter mistakenly pick up my bag as I was waiting at a security checkpoint. I was busy dealing with security, so I didn’t see it happen. My heart sank when I cleared the metal detector and realized that my backpack was gone!
This happened at the end of my trip just before coming home for Christmas. Inside the bag were both my journal and camera containing a year’s worth of travel memories.
For two agonizing hours, I mourned the loss as my ferry crossed over to Sharm El-Sheikh. As I was exiting the boat, the bag was returned by an honest German divemaster who had been given the bag by mistake. The close call opened my eyes to what it would feel like to suffer such a loss, and now I travel with a little more caution than before.
A little common sense goes a long way, however, thousands of budget travelers do lose their bags every year while on the road. Unfortunately, we travelers draw a lot of attention to ourselves. Locals often consider Westerns as “rich” — the loss of an expensive camera won’t hurt us as much. Obviously, that is all a matter of perspective.
Fortunately, the trick for not becoming a victim of theft is simple: don’t present an easy target. Unless you’re unlucky enough to meet a thief just looking for a challenge, more than likely they will pass you up and move on to an easier victim.
Don’t Announce the Contents
Avoid carrying bags that declare what is inside. Any thief who sees “Lowepro” or “Nikon” knows that an expensive camera is probably inside. The same thing goes for laptop bags. “IBM” on the outside will make a thief’s mouth water. Sew a patch over the logo or put some duct tape over it to make it look less appealing.
Be Smart on Buses
When riding a bus, try to sit on the same side as your bag that is stored underneath in the cargo hold. If possible, watch out of the window at stops to make sure no one grabs your bag as they exit.
When your long-haul bus makes a stop, bring your daybag with you if you get out to stretch.
Make a Leash
While sleeping and napping in public places such as parks and airports, make a “leash” out of parachute cord or clothesline. Physically connect yourself to the bag somehow. In a pinch, you can intertwine your arms through the straps on your bag. Don’t assume you’ll wake up if someone moves the bag — connect yourself!
Don’t Be Too Patriotic
Consider your home country’s political relations and history with the country you are traveling before sewing your flag patch on the outside of your bag. When a thief has to choose between dozens of bags, it may make you stand out.
Use a Bicycle Lock
Carry a small bicycle combination chain lock in the top of your backpack. Attach it to support bars when it is stored on an overnight train, or to the bed frame when it is in your hotel. You can also team up with others and lock several backpacks together, making a bundle too heavy for someone to grab and run.
Secure Outside Pockets
Put small combination locks on outside pockets, or at least a tiny carabiner on the zippers. Don’t pack important things in the exterior pockets. In a crowded area, it may be impossible to feel a deft hand unzipping and reaching inside while a big backpack is on your back.
Pack Important Items Deep
Consciously pack valuable items deep in your backpack — doing so is better for weight distribution, anyway. Not only will important things be harder to reach, if someone reaches in the top, all they’ll get is a handful of dirty underwear.
Don’t Be a Target
Carry less stuff! Don’t pack so much, and a lot of potential problems will be gone. It’s true: a fat rucksack is a fat target. Also, you will not be tempted to leave your bag behind so much if it is less of a burden.
Don’t Draw Attention
Don’t look like a target. Leave the Rolex, expensive sunglasses, and nice clothes behind. If you present an image of wealth, someone could become very interested in your backpack.
Keep Your Backpack Close
Treat your travel backpack like your best mate. While you travel, it serves as your home; your life is inside. I personally get the best night’s sleep when I have my bag under me as a pillow. If a thief can manage to get it then, they deserve it.