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9 Tips to Avoid Theft While Backpacking

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.

Want more tips? Click here for a complete guide to avoid theft whilst traveling

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.

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avoid theft while backpacking

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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.

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Alex

Wednesday 23rd of April 2014

I get secret pockets sewn into my jeans and shorts with strong velcro or a zipper to seal them. Pretty much a sewn in money belt. I have also put "Booby Traps" in my bag (pins/needles sticking up thru a piece of foam) in the top compartment so if they unzip and reach in they get jabbed. I almost had my watch stolen in Barcelona and was cut on the hand with a razor in an attempt to make me let it go, it didn't work and I got the guy. I figure if they are going to rob you they deserve some needles in the fingers or a smack in the mouth...

jopeppa

Saturday 25th of May 2013

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! :-)

Tantalizea

Tuesday 12th of March 2013

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!

GringaEstudiante

Wednesday 8th of August 2012

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.

Vivian

Friday 2nd of November 2012

@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.

Sara noutsi

Wednesday 8th of August 2012

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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