9 Tips to Avoid Theft While Backpacking

by Guest Blogger on March 30, 2011 · 34 comments

The following is a guest post by Monica Stott. If you’d like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.

Money belt

Money belts continue to be a smart way to safeguard cash, ATM cards and important documents.

I recently had a 20 hour bus and boat journey through Indonesia.

I arrived at my destination feeling groggy and tired and … very light. Suspiciously light. My heart dropped while anger fired up inside me as I checked my half empty bag, the bag that I’d clutched protectively to my chest like it was a small child through the whole journey.

Both my camera and my iPod were gone. I was angry that someone had stolen them from under my nose but I was mostly confused. When and how had someone managed to get inside my bag and how could I have been so stupid not to notice!?

After hours of angry ranting, I finally listened to my fellow travellers and found that almost everyone had had a similar experience at some point during their travels.

I found that most people had their belongings stolen from their small daypacks whilst on buses and boats and together we thought of a list of things we’d do differently to avoid ever being robbed again.

Here are my top 9 tips to avoid theft while backpacking:

1. Have backpack security.

Anything from small padlocks, combination locks or full wire meshing will keep a thief away. Even if it is just for show, it will make a thief think twice. I even think that a plastic raincover can help, but at the end of the day, nothing can keep a thief with a sharp knife out of your bag, which leads me to my second point….

2. Don’t have anything worth robbing.

This isn’t always possible, especially as most people like to travel with a laptop and camera, but its the only way to be 100% sure you won’t have anything stolen. I always travel with an old, worthless mobile phone, a small and relatively inexpensive netbook (leave the Mac Air at home!) and I leave all my jewelery at home.

3. Don’t keep anything of any value in your main backpack or suitcase.

Your main bag can be out of your sight for hours at a time and this is a perfect time for thieves. This tip seems so obvious, but time and time again, I have met travellers who have had things stolen from their main bag while it was stored under a bus or on a boat. [Editor's Note: I met a young couple who had stuff stolen from their bag while atop a bus riding from India to Pokhara, Nepal. Remember, in countries such as those it's commonplace for people to ride atop buses, so you're better off keeping your valuables in your daypack where you can at least try to keep an eye on them.]

4. Keep anything valuable in a small bag.

I’d like to emphasize that this should be a small bag so you can literally take it everywhere with you. You should be able to carry this into a tiny toilet cubicle or whilst climbing up the side of a swaying ship. And most importantly, you should be able to take it everywhere without looking suspicious and make people wonder why you won’t let it out of your sight.

5. Keep passports, money and bank cards in a money belt around your waist.

It is virtually impossible for a pickpocket to reach this, especially without you noticing.

6. Carry as little cash as possible.

You often get charged for using cash machines abroad so it’s tempting to to withdraw as much as you can in one go to avoid the fee. I still think that it’s better the get charged $2 for every small withdrawal than to withdraw $200 at once and have it all stolen.

7. Use your online banking.

Avoid having a lot of money in your current account. If your card is stolen, someone could quickly access all your cash. It is best to keep the bulk of your money it in your savings account, which can’t be accessed with your ATM card, and then transfer a small amount over every week or two.

8. Don’t be flashy.

It is inevitable that you will have some valuables on you at some point so hide them away as best as possible. Use small, discreet black headphones and keep your MP3 player in your pocket. I also have a small, cheap camera that I take on nights out or to crowded places where a big camera would be inappropriate.

9. Always use the safe.

If there isn’t a safe in your hostel or hotel room, there should be one available at reception. If you’re leaving money, place it in a sealed envelope with your name and the exact amount written on the outside.

The most important point is to not forget the 9 points before this!

It’s easy to become more relaxed, particularly if you spend months traveling and don’t have any trouble. It’s a horrible thing to say, but don’t trust people you don’t know and be aware that it can be your fellow travelers who have their hands in your pockets.

Safety shouldn’t be something you have to constantly worry about while travelling, so make sure these 9 tips become second nature and they’ll go a long way to ensuring a hassle free trip.

Be prepared for the worst and have photocopies of your tickets and passport saved in your email accounts, and backup your photos on a photo sharing website.

___________

About the Author: Monica Stott caught the travel bug when she was just 10 years old and is currently on a 2 year trip around the world. You can read her tales at: The Travel Hack or on Twitter @TheTravelHack.

About the Author:

is the author of 226 posts on Go Backpacking.

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34 Comments

Skottandshawna March 30, 2011 at 2:17 pm

These are awesome tips – it is great to be proactive in terms of security when you are travelling, as there is nothing worse than losing your $800 camera…great way to ruin a day AND cut into your backpacker budget….thanks!

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alina_popescu March 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Depending on how big your backpack is, I found it very useful not to carry it normally, but switch it to the front when in crowded areas or while using public transportation. But I agree the best way is not to be flashy when traveling to less secure destinations.

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TotalTravelBug March 30, 2011 at 6:59 pm

This is a great idea to carry your daypack on your front. Pickpockets are so sneaky and amazingly good at what they do that you’d barely notice a hand in you bag if its on your back. Great point!

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segacs March 30, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Locks and fancy bag security just scream “valuable stuff in here – steal it!” The best way to avoid being robbed is to just to be lucky – it can happen anywhere – and to use bags that don’t look like fancy foreign brand-name backpacks, but more like what the locals are carrying. As a woman, in a city where people dress smartly, I’d much rather be toting a purse than a backpack, for instance.

Oh, and as for the money belt tip, they’re useful for avoiding pickpocketers but not so much for avoiding being robbed by more brazen thieves. I’ve been mugged at gunpoint and frisked for valuables – it’s better to not have them on you, money belt or not. (Also, you don’t want to look like the kid in Eurotrip with the velcro money belt and Frommer’s guide. And hey, even he gets robbed. LOL.)

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TotalTravelBug March 30, 2011 at 7:02 pm

That sounds awful about being robbed at gun point. I agree that part of avoiding theft is simply luck but I’m sure that certain people are more likely to being robbed. A friend of mine has had her camera stolen 4 times and I think this is partly down to carelessness.

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Dave March 31, 2011 at 7:26 am

I do think if you’re carrying valuables like a laptop, DSLR camera or even a new ipad that it make sense to get travel insurance. World Nomads isn’t that expensive.

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Dave March 31, 2011 at 7:24 am

I used a money belt on my 2-month trip to Europe in 1998, but after that I found it it too uncomfortable in tropical locations like Costa Rica and Belize. I still carry my money and passport and credit cards in it, but usually it’s stuffed in my daypack, not down my pants.

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Lisa E March 30, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Thanks for sharing these tips. I may going to Indonesia soon, which is one reason your post caught my eye. Also, this is something I worry about when I’m traveling in general.

I try to wear special pants with good pockets, etc. and a money belt, but that doesn’t help with the bigger/heavier stuff. I may take an iPad on my next trip and am already wondering re: how to deal with it. Does anyone think it’s worth getting travel insurance that covers theft?

Thanks.

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TotalTravelBug March 31, 2011 at 9:46 am

Definitely! I really regret not getting decent travel insurance. I had a basic, cheap deal that barely covered anything. It seems like so much effort to hunt around for the best deal that covers all your valuables but it really is worth it.

Don’t worry too much about theft though, like Segacs mentions, its mainly down to luck. Just make sure you backup your photos and keep copies of important documents saved in your emails.

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EQUIPnTRIP - sharing outdoors April 2, 2011 at 7:24 am

Thanks for the tips, excellent advice!

Another tip came to mind when reading the post.

Where possible, don’t wear the I’m a tourist with money beacon. From the perspective of theft it’s only marginally worse than wearing the I’m an idiot beacon.

Try and blend in with the locals so wear what they wear and act like they do.

By taking these simple and easy to implement precautions you dramatically reduce the risk of being the victim of theft. An added benefit is that you will find that you will be more relaxed during your travel because you aren’t constantly worried about being subjected to theft, because you’ve taken reasonable precautions to avoid it.

Allan McDonald @
EQUIPnTRIP

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TotalTravelBug April 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Great tip. This is so true. Wearing fresh white clothes and an expensive bag just screams ‘rob me, I have money!’

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Wandering Trader's Travels April 2, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Very useful tips by Monica Stott. All travelers should know about these because theft is inevitable no matter where one travels.

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jlecour April 4, 2011 at 9:57 am

As a regular backpacker, I think that the best are :
* 2. Don’t have anything worth robbing
* 8. Don’t be flashy

I’d add another one : behave and respect people around you.

If you keep a low profile, don’t have fancy stuff on you, … you improve your chances to be well.

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Hana April 5, 2011 at 9:09 am

As a virgin traveler considering going to South America soon, this list was very helpful and enlightening. Particularly one blip that wasn’t included in the actual list – “be prepared for the worst and have photocopies of your tickets and passport saved in your email accounts.” I would have never thought to do this.
The rest of the tips are wonderful and greatly appreciated, albeit a bit unsettling and scary to think about potentially getting robbed or violently mugged during my first travel expedition.
I also still don’t quite understand how things could have been stolen from your bag when you were clutching it right in front of you on the bus. I guess if you’re sight-seeing or taking a nap or are completely distracted that makes sense, but if not, I just don’t see how you wouldn’t notice someone stealing something that’s immediately in front of you.

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TotalTravelBug April 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Thats exactly what I thought. I have absolutely no idea how it was stolen and I wanted to highlight how clever these thieves are. I think this point just highlights that the only way to avoid theft 100% is to have nothing worth stealing because no matter how careful you are, there is some clever person out there who has seen it all before.
Thanks for you comments.

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Erik April 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I was thinking of bringing my new iPad 2 when going backpacking i SE-Asia this summer, but I am now reconsidering. What would YOU do?

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Dave April 5, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Now that I work while traveling (this blog and others), I’m carrying my laptop with me. If you’re just bringing the iPad 2 for fun on a short 1-2 month trip, I’d leave it at home so you don’t worry about it. That or get it insured.

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Erik April 6, 2011 at 9:06 pm

I’m travelling for about 7 months, so I’d like to keep myself updated (and entertained) on the way. Might go for the insurance solution :)

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Lis April 22, 2011 at 3:20 am

IF you REALLY have to stay in contact take a cheap netbook – they are a price point that is almost throw away now – iPads are hot and sexy and are screaming out to be stolen. I agree with Dave – it I didn’t work on the road I wouldn’t carry anything – the world is full of internet cafes

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Paul April 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I was being charged $7 to $15 per transaction to withdraw money from my account; banks in Australia are simply unbelievable. So, unfortunately, I had little option but to take out large amounts at a time. I figure, however, that with my money belt on 24×7 (except when showering) that I wasn’t really at any serious risk of losing any…

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Amy April 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Great ideas! They really should be common sense and become a habit, but I know traveling for a long time makes you lax, if not sloppy!

I have little S-biners (carabiners in an ‘S’ shape) that I use to hold my zippers together when my day pack is on my back. It’s not locking, so people still could get in, but even I had to practice to get the clip undone when I started using them, so hopefully it would deter a thief.

My backpack only has lockable zipper openings except the little pocket at top- but I carry girl stuff in there. If someone needs to steal a pad, they are welcome to them!!! I carry luggage locks and a wire ‘rope’ (?) to secure my bag if it’s out of sight or at a hostel without lockers.

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Heleen August 8, 2012 at 10:20 am

Another idea that has helped me with safely carrying a daypack in a crowded marketplace or street: use your rain cover. I always have my rain cover on my pack when travelling, which ensured that someone could not gently slide open a zipper, without me knowing about it. And another advantage: mine looks really dirty and used, makes it look like there’s not much of value in my bag.

One more thing I’ve learned: do not even trust airlines to safely handle your luggage. I went on a small airline in Bolivia and they went through my luggage to see what they could easily snatch (which was in my case a few pens and my Ipod). I was lucky, because my cameras were also in that bag!

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Backpackers Broome July 15, 2011 at 1:33 am

Great insights. This is a well-written article. It’s very informative. Thanks for the tips.

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Marcus March 20, 2012 at 2:24 am

Great tips & advice!
Although, now i’m a bit worried. First trip out of the US is planned. My wife and I are going to Paris & Barcelona. I hear Barcelona is a beautiful place, but also the #1 pickpocketing place in the world. I’m not so worried about being pick pocketed, as I’ll be aware of my surroundings and wear an undergarmet security wallet, but more worried about my new Canon 60D DSLR. I’m not naive and foolish enough to wear a backpack with it inside, on my back.. nor leave it on the ground or next to my chair as we eat… but will thugs/theives REALLY just snatch it off my neck? Scary thought… I should probably look into travelers insurance to be on the same side. I’d hate to be out $1,200 just like that.

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Dave March 20, 2012 at 9:19 am

Hey Marcus, those are two of the most visited cities in the world, so I’m sure you’ll be fine. Now that I’m carrying expensive Apple gear (laptop and iphone), I took out property insurance for peace of mind. I recommend you get some short term travel insurance that covers property for the same reason.

I actually had my wallet stolen by a pickpocket after attending an FC Barcelona soccer match. But I could’ve done more to protect my wallet on the crowded subway — should’ve either taken a taxi or worn a money belt that night.

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Waegook Tom August 8, 2012 at 9:50 am

These are great tips. I’m heading RTW next year, and it’ll be my first time travelling consecutively for more than a month. Nice tip about not having too much money in your current account – I’d have never have thought of that. Luckily I have a savings account I can easily move stuff to and from on online banking.

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Dave August 8, 2012 at 10:03 am

Hey Tom, that tip is a good idea regardless of where you’re traveling. I had some fraudulent charges against my Visa debit card while in Argentina earlier this year. My rule to not keep more than about $1000 in my account helped limit the damage.

My bank credited me back the missing funds after a week or so, and a fax, but the thief would’ve spent more of my money if he could, I’m sure of it.

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harlow August 8, 2012 at 9:58 am

These are wonderful reminders/ tips for travellers on short or long trips. The key is blending in; sometimes it can be harder for some people but acting like locals can diminish your chances of being robbed. My friend was in Rio de Janeiro and of course took his DSLR to capture the beautiful scenery but once he hit the “hot” areas he stuffed his camera in a plastic supermarket bag. He always took a fruit or two in the bag. I’m not saying people should hide their cameras in plastic bags because theives steal everything but being smart on how/ where you carry things helps out.

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susan August 8, 2012 at 11:18 am

Be particularly careful in Paris Train station and tourist spots. A front back pack was stolen with over $4,000 of camera equipment and phone, etc. (friend) and it adds up really quickly! They were both on hyper-alert and eating a baguette!

Take a picture of everything you have in a bag and the bag itself for recall and back up, In Paris the trick is to distract you with a survey about human rights or the like (may even be dressed in clerical garb) while an accomplice circles behind and grabs the entire bag and jumps on the next train etc. Always get a police report number for Insurance purposes but don’t expect recovery.

I personally leave the expensive jewelry at home and wear a ring that is not sentimental or valuable so I have something to hand over if mugged and I do not wear ‘branded’ high end clothing etc.

We also sit back to back with bags between us, use locks or plastic electrical ties, and even use a kiddie’s safety cable/wrist band attached to a belt or our wrist.

Also do not use a “Logo” camera bag for your DSLR and gear.

Password protect computers and phones if you must carry them.

Great tip about the money in the account. Also notify your bank and credit card carriers before travelling on an extended trip and make sure they have your updated cell phone and email to contact you for unusual activity on your account.

Do not keep all your credit cards, money, passports etc in one place. If you are travelling with someone else, split them up between the two of you so one of you always has a passport and a credit card.

Scan and photocopy all your documents, itinerary and email them to yourself along with emergency phone numbers, travel insurance, medical information, family numbers etc. (If you use a cell all the time, chances are you don’t remember their phone numbers).

Tear up credit card receipts into tiny bits and flush or dispose of carefully (not in one spot) and do not leave in hotel waste paper baskets (I learnt the hard way). Then relax and enjoy!

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Sara noutsi August 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Another coulle tips: dont carry everything important in the same bag.. Make sure all your passport and visa has a copy of it in another bag..

And also i travel with two bankcards.. One is in my big backpack along with some cash and the other one is in my daybag.. if i got robbed i stil can travel on.

Also dont use your phone in public.. They spot it and will take it later! while using your camera you are more busy with the great shot then watching your bag., thats a robbing moment. Here were some tips from me bye xxsara

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GringaEstudiante August 8, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I’m a U.S student living as an expat in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Money belts are pretty much one of the greatest things invented. I’ve heard alot of tourists complain that they are uncomfortable in the constant heat so don’t wear them? I wear mine like my skin as uncomfortable as it is.

I have friends that have lived here for 23 years (non Bolivian) and are strong believers in money always goes under clothes. Actually money belts can get robbed in a super crowded bus if they in any way stick out. Clothing with looser waistlines can help (if your pants aren’t falling down) as can skirts (ladies).

I carry all my money in my money belt but still try and carry as little as possible because thieves know about money belts and if they want it they WILL have it. Ladies it isn’t considered rude in this society to pull money out of your bra (just not straight in view of the cashier, turn around to a wall if able). That is actually the best place to put money (Sorry guys) in close to assurance it won’t be stolen.

The number one way to stick out (and get robbed) here is to use your backpack as a daypack. How we tell tourists from regular gringos that live here is tourists always have backpacks on (yes I do realize this is GoBackpacking but if you can leave the backpack in a secure spot where you are staying and are just out in the city for the day/evening). Incorrect. Thieves LOOOVE backpacks and don’t care how “beat up, I’ve used this for the past seven years” it looks.

I strongly invest in a sidebag (messenger bag?) that is a good neutral color (such as black brown dark blue etc) as a daypack. Make sure it has a series of zippers and fits well over the chest. Locals use this same technique. It’s true, if a thief really wants it, they are just going to cut it but something that you can literally have your eye on at all times is best.

If you are a male, having a backpack may seem like the more macho idea but the side bag is pretty unisex. Backpacks carried on chest just stand make one stand out even more so and make you look paranoid (which says rob me even more so) NEVER carry money in your daypack (this is for places like Santa Cruz that make LA seem safe).

If you are like me and have severe allergies thus having to carry an epipen or some other type need-to-have drug in your daypack make sure it is buried under something not appealing (I keep mine in the same compartment I keep tampons and pads, I realize, again so much easier to do if you are female).

I’m a Jew for Jesus who until about three weeks ago wore a Star of David necklace at all times. The chain was of cheaper silver, the pendant was of steel, so in the dollars& cents idea of worth it wasn’t “worth” much. As I was in the Plaza with a friend (following all of the how not to get robbed ideas) some guy came up behind me and in a split second ripped the entire necklace off my neck and bolted.

It’s Santa Cruz and he was a typical pickpocket so yeah, I didn’t tell the police since they were not going to do anything anyway (this is Bolivia). Totally angry was an understatement of how I felt (taking a Jew’s Star of David is like stealing an old ladies’ wedding ring….. so not cool) but I had to keep in mind that things can be replaced, people can’t.

I wish everyone could read this article and get the don’t have anything worth robbing nailed into their brains.

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Vivian November 2, 2012 at 2:30 am

@GringaEstudiante,

Your tips are very helpful for a soon-to-be first time traveller like me, but what would you do with a fairly substantial amount of cash (if ATM machines charge exorbitant fees and it’s not worth withdrawing small amounts at a time)? Would you carry it on you at all times or leave in the (relatively unsafe?) hostel room?

So far from all the various (conflicting) answers I’ve gleaned that you should:
1) carry a money belt for documents (and….larger amounts of cash?)
2) Make copies of important documents.

Was that about right?
3) Backpacks are not safe.

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Tantalizea March 12, 2013 at 9:52 pm

As a little girl, I was pickpocket-ted in my own country! I had a crossbody bag and it felt heavier. I knew I someone’s hand was touching my bag in the crowded place, but I was too scared to do anything.

The best thing to do is keep your valuables somewhere unexpected! Instead of keeping your cash/cards in a wallet, keep them in your from pocket. It worked for my cousin and I’m sure it’ll work for you, too!

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jopeppa May 25, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Thanks so much for all the great tips everyone! I am heading from Australia to South America in six months to teach english for a while (hoping to stay a couple of years at least), and have starting doing my research about how to minimise the impact of pickpockets etc while I’m over there.

I’ve heard some stories from friends about people being held up at gun-point in Sth America – a friend and his girlfriend – she handed over her backpack, but my friend refused…whilst getting a harsh warning from the culprit about being an idiot, he didn’t lose anything. This got me thinking about how much of it is all a bluff, and if you refused would there really be serious consequences? An idea I need to research more I think!

I’m thinking that with lesson plans and teaching English classes I will need a tablet/netbook or something, but I’m wondering if it will be a better idea to buy one once I have a teaching English job and am settled somewhere with a place to stay etc? I guess I need to do some research on buying that kind of thing over there…

One great way I’ve found to avoid carrying a whole lot of cash, and to avoid huge overseas transaction fees, is the 28 degrees credit card, which although has pretty hefty interest fees for the usual credit card usage, has NO international transaction/exchange fees, which I think is awesome! My strategy will be, as Dave mentioned above, to keep maybe $1000 tops in my standard account, and just transfer from my savings to my 28 degrees credit card when it needs to be topped up (keeping it in credit all the time so I don’t spend money I don’t actually have and avoid interest charges etc).

I’m still not sure what combination of bags to travel with, whether I should have a daypack or satchel – I suppose I need to do some more research on this one as well.

Thanks again for all the helpful tips everyone! :-)

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