​How to Stay Safe & Avoid Theft While Backpacking

by | 13 Jan, 2017

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Since we started travelling full time in 2015 we’ve been fortunate to not have had anything stolen from us. Sure we’ve lost a couple of things here and there, like a ring in the sea whilst surfing and a jacket on an overnight bus but they were our own fault and didn’t cause any major inconvenience.

However,  if while travelling you have something valuable or important stolen from you it can very much put a dampener on your trip and could be costly to replace.

Even if you have good insurance it will likely cost you an excess, not to mention your wasted time in getting a police report to make a claim and wasted energy anguishing over how it happened.

As budget backpackers we always do our best to save a few quid on, well everything. So to then have to fork out unexpected costs because our phone or wallet got nicked it would be a nightmare for us, as I’m sure it would you.

And so we’ve put together our top travel tips for preventing theft while travelling.

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James backpacker with text overlay HOW TO STAY SAFE & AVOID THEFT WHILE BACKPACKING

Protect Your Backpack When Travelling

We know all too well how vulnerable you can feel landing in a new destination with everything that’s important to you on your back. It’s late, you’re jetlagged, you’re hot and sweaty, new sights, sounds and smells are assaulting your senses and all you want to do is get to your hostel and relax with a beer. You also stick out and are an immediate target. But the key to protecting your backpack when travelling is preparation.

We always have at least the first night booked in a hostel and have a map downloaded from Maps.Me (really helpfully they work offline) so that we know exactly where we are going in case an unscrupulous taxi or tuk tuk driver tries to give us the runaround.

Where possible we will always also plan to arrive somewhere new during the daytime. It’s a no brainer that wandering around at 3am in a strange place comes with added risks. Of course arrival times are sometimes outside of your control and our advice in this situation would be to plan ahead as much as possible.

Ask around or email the hostel to find out how much you can expect to pay or the best route to walk if it’s close by and check they have a 24 hour reception.

We once had to wait on the street from 5am until 7am when the cleaner arrived outside a hostel in Bolivia – not the smartest move to avoid theft while backpacking looking back. If you are travelling on your own or even in a couple chat to fellow travellers and see if they are headed in the same direction, safety in numbers and all that.

Keep Valuables Safe When Travelling

Having said all that your backpack will however be at its most stealable without you attached to it. For this reason make sure you separate all your super valuable stuff (I’m talking passport, cash, electronics etc) into another smaller bag to keep on your person at all times.

While travelling on an overnight sleeper bus or train we either keep this bag between us, or wrapped around our feet and secured to the seat in front with a bike lock.

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We used this a lot on trains in China to secure our backpacks to overhead luggage racks and also when airport sleeping to fasten all of our bags together. Of course these things can be cut but thefts are usually opportunistic and so the less easy you make it the better.
Sarah sleeping on airport

We always try to sit on the side of the bus where the luggage compartment opens (sometimes it opens both sides so this doesn’t always work) but you have more chance of being aware of when bags are being taken off the bus.

It isn’t unknown for people to hide in bus luggage racks in order to be able to rummage through travellers’ luggage in some countries so do be wary of this and always read reviews when choosing bus companies.

James on a bus luggage rack

On one route in Thailand at each stop, the driver would cautiously open the luggage compartment with a metal pole in his hand before retrieving disembarking passengers’ luggage!

Quite often due to language barriers and poor organisation you may arrive at your stop quite suddenly and not have much time to gather your stuff and whenever you get off bus or train or taxi (or whatever!) so make it habit to check your seat and around where you’ve been sitting for anything you may have dropped or left behind.

Never leave your ‘valuable’ bag on a bus when getting off to pass a border control or for a break either. We met far too many people who had things stolen this way. One guy even just nipped off for a cigarette and came back to find his passport had been nicked. And by someone on the bus too because no one else had gotten on!

Sarah carrying her backpack at the bus

Hostel Safety Tips

The majority of hostels provide lockers to keep your belongings in as standard and even if there isn’t a full size one to fit all of your belongings in, there will usually be a smaller one to put your most valuable stuff in. If there are no lockers – pick another hostel, it’s that simple.

Be sure to carry a small padlock with you too as these are generally not provided, we use the combination ones below to avoid additional responsibility of losing the key. Some of the more modern hostels even have charge points in lockers too which is super handy – don’t be the idiot that leaves their stuff charging in the dorm while not there!

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The same goes with the rest of your belongings. Added to the fact that it’s super annoying to share a dorm with someone who has their stuff constantly strewn all over the place, if you keep things tidied away in your backpack it’s less of a temptation for someone to nick it.

Don’t ever be fooled into thinking you can trust all fellow travellers, they can be the worst when it comes to stealing from backpackers. We met a girl in Colombia who had her phone and charger swiped from the side of her bed while she was sleeping, most likely by another girl who had checked out early that morning.

James on a motorcycle

Prevent Pickpockets

There are tons of scams going around in every country when it comes to pickpocketing. I very nearly got done by a scam in a bus station South America called the ‘mustard scam’.

Basically what happens is someone sneaks up and squirts something (like mustard) on you only to then point it out and pretend to help you get cleaned up while they or someone else is pickpocketing you. Luckily James saw the guy squirt liquid foundation on the back of my legs and chased him off, but had I been travelling on my own and not aware of the scam it might have ended up very differently.

Another popular one the world over is to take advantage of or create a distraction. Whether that be a street performance or a faked argument, always make sure you have your hands in your pockets or your bag held tightly to you when you feel your attention being diverted to something.

James with city view

Likewise if you are sat in a cafe or restaurant, always make sure your bag is secure. There’s a well known technique where a hook is used to lift bags from under tables and backs of chairs without the thief drawing attention to themselves by getting too close.

Also never carry your phone or your wallet in your back pocket – that’s just asking for trouble.

Carrying a bag in some cities isn’t the best option. Of course it’s not always possible not to if you need things with you, but if I can fit my phone and cash in my pockets I will do. Big cities in South East Asia in particular can be known for bag snatches by passing motorbikes. For this reason I am always cautious to stand well back from the road when waiting to cross and keep it close to me.

It’s not easy for me, but many of my female travel friends with rather more ample bosoms swear by carrying their cash, cards and phones in their bras.

There is also the money belt of course. Personally I think it’s a waste of time. Thieves know they exist and let’s be honest, when you are rummaging around under your shirt to buy something it’s not the most discrete.

Also don’t take things that you don’t want stolen with you if you are going out on a bender. Leave your valuables locked away at the hostel. Whilst intoxicated, naturally your senses aren’t going to be at at their height and you’re not always so aware of who’s around you. Don’t take the unnecessary risk.

Sarah on a crowd

Keep Your Passport Safe

Without a doubt one of the most important things you will want to keep safe while travelling is your passport. Without it you are pretty much stuck. For this reason some people prefer to always keep it on their person so they know where it is at all times.

Personally I think that is a terrible idea and other than when we are physically carrying everything because we are moving locations, we always leave ours locked in a safe or locker at the place we are staying.

Sarah sitting on a bench

What we do do however, is carry photocopies and scanned versions of them on our phones. For me this avoids a few things; them getting nicked, them getting damaged or us being forced to hand them over to anyone dodgy.

I’ll give you an example of this. In Bolivia there is a scam whereby ‘fake’ police officers will stop tourists and to see proof of ID in the form of a passport, only to either run off with it or confiscate it to coerce you into attending a ‘police station’ to get you on your own and further rob you.

Whilst we didn’t have any experience of this first hand whilst travelling in Bolivia, we did hear about it from other travellers that we trust. And I’m not trying to terrify you here, it’s just these things do happen and can be easily avoided if you are prepared.

Keep Money Safe When Travelling

We rarely carry more than £50 on us at anyone time and usually far less. When taking money out from a cash point we always take what we don’t need immediately back to the hostel.

We always carry a few hundred US dollars with us as emergency cash but this is seperated into different locations and hidden away. If carrying a fair amount of cash, please don’t keep it all in one place.


Same with your cards, it can be tempting to keep everything together but just putting one card in a different bag or compartment could be the difference between being stranded in a foreign country with no access to any funds.

Some people go so far as to carry a ‘fake wallet’ with a small amount of cash in it and a couple of expired credit cards.

Another one is to carry a cheap phone to swap your SIM into to take out and about with you, we never personally felt the need to go that far. Rather we try to look as least touristy as possible by not flashing our stuff or taking unnecessary valuables around with us.

Of course as bloggers working online this can be hard because we quite often need our camera or laptops with us but we cut down the risks by asking locals and hostel staff about any unsafe areas and sticking to busy streets.

In terms of our main bulk of money, we keep our cash safe while travelling by keeping it in an online saving account that doesn’t have a card. Then we simply transfer smaller amounts of money out every week or so into our current accounts that have cards attached. That way if a card gets cloned the thief doesn’t have access to everything.

Sarah ready to go

We always use a credit card to pay for anything online such as flights, just because you generally have more protection on your purchases.

Prevent Identity Theft

Which brings me nicely onto how to prevent identity theft while travelling. Unless you are staying in a private apartment through airbnb or couchsurfing when using the internet whilst travelling, you will be doing so over open networks. This leaves you wide open to having personal sensitive information stolen. As bloggers working online, even having our social media sites hacked would be bad enough, but imagine if that was your entire travel savings. It doesn’t bear thinking about. But there’s an easy enough way to minimise the risk. Get a VPN.

Sarah on her laptop and notepad

VPN stands for ‘virtual private network’ and I won’t get all techy here but what it does is basically scramble your data so anyone else online trying to look at it can’t. They are also useful if you are travelling in a country with any internet restrictions such China because you can connect via a country without those restrictions.

The one we use is called Vyper VPN, we have used it all over South America and Asia without issue. Always keep a close eye on your bank statements and for ease in case you ever do fall foul of financial theft, we would also recommend adding a trusted 3rd party back home to your account who can act on your before if need be.

Now that i’ve scared you half to death with all the scams and stories of people having their belongings stolen while travelling, let me remind you we travelled to all these countries I’m talking about and never had any problems whatsoever.

So if you’re a first time traveller, don’t be scared. Just travel smart, be alert to your surroundings and take sensible precautions.

On the whole the world is a safe place and there are far more trustworthy people than there are untrustworthy people. And when you’ve been travelling for a while these tips and tricks will become second nature.

Sarah - rice terraces view

It is also probably worth mentioning though that even for seasoned travellers it’s important to never become complacent and let your guard down too much just because a situation feels safe and familiar.

Whilst we’ve tried to cover as much as possible in this post, we know there are probably a few things we’ve missed! So please join in and share your own top tips on how to stay safe and avoid theft while backpacking in our comments section below.

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