It’s a bike traveler’s worst nightmare: You pop into a roadside shop for a cold drink and a quick snack, and when you return your beloved trusty steed is nowhere to be found! Your bike has been stolen, along with all your gear, leaving you stranded and completely unprepared somewhere far from home. 🙁
Occasionally this story ends happily when the bike is found, often thanks to a helpful and well-connected local community. Some stubborn long-term travelers replace their bike and gear and keep going! Others simply go home in sadness and disappointment.
It’s rare, but bike theft does sometimes happen to tourers and bikepackers, and many of us worry about it. Some of the most common questions I get from new bikepackers are “What do I do with my bike at night while camping?” and “Should I lock my bike when I go into a store? What’s the best bike lock for touring?”
There’s no single best answer (sorry to break it to you). Reasonable people make different decisions. Heck, even the same person might make different decisions on different days depending on how anxious or relaxed they happen to feel. Some folks like to “follow their gut” while others want a system so they don’t have to think about it every time. Yay for personality differences!
One thing we all have in common as bike travelers: we don’t want to carry extra weight or spend time fiddling every time we stop to buy a snack. This is why experienced bike travelers have a whole arsenal of techniques we use to discourage theft in subtle and easy ways. I’ll lay them all out for you below, along with recommendations for some good lightweight bike locks perfect for bikepacking and touring.
Please Note: This is a collection of ideas used by myself and other cyclists, but humans have a bad habit of confusing being lucky with being right. Just because it “worked” for someone else — they do it and their bike hasn’t been stolen yet — doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to always work for you. As with all things bike travel related, use the following advice at your own risk and apply a healthy dose of common sense.
Trust the Universe?
When someone asks about bike locks for touring in an online discussion group, there’s always one person who insists we shouldn’t worry about it. “I’ve been touring for 20 years and never lock my bike and nothing has ever been stolen,” they’ll say. “Most people are honest. Don’t be so paranoid.”
I get it. Traveling by bike is an intentional act of trust. When we’re feeling vulnerable out there, perhaps amongst an unfamiliar culture far from home, we need to believe in the basic goodness of humanity or we’ll never relax enough to sleep at night. If we expect people to be honest, perhaps they’ll rise to the occasion. Most of the time, this works! Gotta love the magic of bike travel.
So if you find value in trusting, more power to you. But then again, you’re probably not here reading this article. The following advice is for those who know most people are honest, but still feel more relaxed when we take a few simple precautions to protect our beloved bikes and belongings.
Know Your Location
Situational awareness might be the single most important tool for preventing bike theft while out on tour. All the tips that follow will be more appropriate for some places than others.
In a small rural village it feels rude to lock my bike under the welcoming gaze of friendly locals. Generally I won’t. I’ll park it somewhere visible, be friendly to whoever’s standing nearby, and trust in the honesty and accountability of the community. If I’m a wee bit concerned, I’ll subtly use one of the sneaky tricks coming up below.
In a medium-sized town, the kind where people don’t all know each other, I’m a bit more careful. I’ll lock my bike outside the gas station while I shop for food, ideally next to a window, but I won’t worry much about it.
Big cities are another situation entirely, at least in many places around the world. Here in the US there are urban areas (San Francisco, New York, and others) where your bike lock can be cut — in plain view and broad daylight — faster than you can buy a Gatorade. This isn’t petty theft by down-on-their-luck teenagers; it’s organized criminal groups who are good at their jobs. I don’t spend much time in these areas, but I would probably avoid leaving my bike unattended at all.
There are other factors, but they can be hard to read especially when traveling in unfamiliar countries. Considerations like how many tourists an area receives, the local attitude toward them, cultural and religious values, and law enforcement practices can all play a role in whether petty theft is common or rare.
Being in a poor area, contrary to what some people assume, isn’t always a risk factor if a community is socially healthy. I felt my bike was far safer in most of Sudan, for example, than in many places in the US.
Think Like A Thief
To prevent theft, it helps to try and put yourself in the shoes of a would-be bike thief. After all, as the old saying goes, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Sure, some thieves are organized and determined. An experienced thief with bolt cutters and an angle grinder can defeat almost any lock in less than a minute. You’re not going to stop these guys; your best bet is to know your location (see above) and avoid leaving your bike unattended if they’re around.
Most potential thieves, however, are just desperate individuals committing crimes of opportunity. They don’t want to be caught, don’t want their reputation tarnished in their community, and don’t want a physical confrontation. They might not be totally confident in their ability to pull off the job, nor their desire to do so.
With this in mind, make your bike hard to ride away quickly and quietly and you’ll discourage most attempts. You don’t necessarily need an impenetrable lock; you just need some of the following clever tricks.
Theft Prevention Tricks
Though you may still want to carry a basic lightweight lock while touring or bikepacking — more on that next — there are plenty of other ways to discourage opportunistic theft while you pop into the store.
Use one or more of these tricks instead of (in low risk areas) or in addition to (in higher risk areas) a bike lock when parking for short periods during the day.
Park somewhere visible. Rather than hiding your bike behind the store, park it right out in front where people are constantly coming and going, or near windows where it’s visible from inside. Bonus points if there’s a security camera.
Make your bike unappealing. The more beat up and unique a bike looks, the harder it probably is to sell on the black market. Some people decorate their bikes with stickers or paint, while others just embrace the grungy look.
Booby trap the bike to prevent a quick getaway. If a thief tries to sneakily roll or ride the bike away and the wheels won’t turn, they’re likely to give up. Ideas include:
- Clip a bungee from your bags around the wheel.
- Lock a brake lever in the squeezed position with a strap.
- Buckle your helmet around the tire and through the spokes.
- Connect a personal alarm or vibration alarm such that movement of the bike will trigger a loud noise.
Just don’t forget to undo the trap before you try to ride away…
Carry essential parts indoors. You may look a little funny walking through the supermarket, but a bike without a seat post is much harder to ride away.
Take turns watching. If you’re getting bad vibes and don’t want to leave the bikes at all, take turns having one of your riding companions watch the bikes while others go into the store.
Ask for help. If you’re traveling solo or can’t take turns, consider asking a stranger to help. The details depend on where you are. For example:
- In the US you might stop by a bike shop and ask for permission to park your bike inside for a little while, especially if you buy something while you’re there.
- In a Ugandan market you could befriend a woman selling produce and offer her a tip for keeping a close eye on your bike.
Locks for Bikepacking and Touring
In addition to all those handy tricks, there are many times when it makes sense to use a bike lock. If I’m bikepacking in the middle of nowhere and don’t expect to pass through civilization, I might leave it home. Otherwise, I always have a lightweight lock with me for those short restaurant and grocery stops.
An ideal lock for bikepacking and touring is lightweight, relatively small, and versatile in terms of position and size. A long cable lock — 6 feet instead of 4 feet — works best for wrapping around odd-sized objects like trees and benches, especially with bulky bike bags. I prefer a combination lock so there’s absolutely no chance of losing the key.
I use an inexpensive 6-foot combo cable lock similar to this one. Locks like this “keep honest people honest,” as the saying goes, meaning they won’t stop a determined professional but they’ll prevent opportunistic theft. When I’m touring in mostly rural areas and not leaving my bike unattended for very long, I feel comfortable using this lock in conjunction with the other tricks above (in particular, parking somewhere visible).
If you’re into innovative solutions and open to spending more, here are a few clever locks recommended by bike travelers for their lightweight and/or compact design:
- Z Lok Security Tie: Essentially a fancy zip tie, this affordable and lightweight option is a basic deterrent for low-risk areas. Weighs 68 grams.
- Ottolock Cinch Lock: More versatile than Z Lok due to its longer length. 18″ length weighs 145 grams.
- TiGr Mini Ulock: More expensive and less versatile but more secure than the previous two, this rigid lock weighs 409 grams.
- Abus BORDO Folding Lock: Claims to offer a higher level of security with a compact folding design. Weighs 2160 grams.
In general, the more secure the lock the heavier it is. Locks can all be cut, eventually. This burly chain might keep a bike safe in New York City (if you’re lucky), but it would be overkill in the small towns of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Look for an appropriate balance of reliability and weight based on where you’ll be riding.
How to Lock Your Bike
For quick stops and lower risk areas, bike locking technique isn’t usually critical. Still, it’s easy enough to follow a few simple guidelines to get the most from your lock.
- If available, lock to a sturdy immovable object like a bike rack, bench, post, or tree.
- If there’s nothing to lock to, lock the front wheel to the frame triangle.
- If locking multiple bikes with cable locks, it doesn’t hurt to also lock various parts of the bikes to each other, or redundantly lock multiple bikes to the same structure.
In higher risk areas people use additional techniques, like locking both wheels to the frame with separate locks and using at least one U lock.
Gear and Bags
Even if your bike is secure, aren’t your panniers and other bike bags vulnerable to rummaging? How do you make sure your gear isn’t stolen off your bike while you’re in the grocery store or away from your campsite?
In practice this rarely happens during daylight hours outside of urban areas, for the same reasons bike theft doesn’t either: no one wants to be caught stealing your stuff. Also, remember the first time you tried to mount and unmount your bike bags? Most people probably can’t figure out how to open or remove your bags anyway.
To discourage theft of gear and small items while your bike is unattended, consider these ideas:
- Always carry important items like your wallet, passport, and phone with you when leaving your bike.
- Park in an obvious place within view of people. If there’s a security camera or guard nearby, even better.
- Remove obvious electronics from handlebars and tuck them away.
- Tuck away small shiny objects that might be attractive, especially to local kids who don’t know better: sunglasses, water bottles, etc.
- Zip, roll, and otherwise close up bags to discourage curiosity.
- If using a cable lock for your bike, run it through the handles of your panniers.
- A safety pin can be used to “lock” a zipper or sneakily secure a strap. Zip ties keep panniers and bags attached to the bike. Obviously these won’t stop a determined thief, but remember that petty theft is usually opportunistic.
- Dirty laundry in the tops of panniers. One whiff of your smelly socks will send potential thieves running!
Camping and Overnight
Minimalist locks and clever tricks work well during daylight hours, but the night can be a different story. Folks who aren’t bold enough to steal a bike or gear in broad daylight might be tempted by cover of darkness.
I still don’t think it’s a major concern, but I have heard stories of people waking to attempted theft even in small towns, or finding items gone from their bags in rural areas. Here’s what I recommend.
When staying in a motel, bring your bike inside overnight. Very rarely am I turned down when I ask to do this, but if I am, I’ll find another place to stay. The bike comes into my room, or in rare cases gets locked up in a secure garage or closet.
When camping, consider the environment.
- When wild camping in unpopulated places I don’t lock my bike at all. If I’m camped in a hidden spot in a national forest somewhere in the US, in a place where no one lives or hikes, I probably have bigger problems than my bike if a person randomly shows up in my campsite at night.
- In an established campground I think the risk is quite low but I’ll still take basic precautions (see below).
- Though not common in the US, there are many parts of the world where seemingly empty places are actually full of people! Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Ethiopia, India, the list goes on… In these places you may think you’re camped in the middle of nowhere but shouldn’t be surprised when a nomadic goat herder or gaggle of kids shows up outside your tent. In these places I take some of the below precautions to “keep honest people honest.”
Discouraging Theft While Camping
If there’s a chance your camp might be visited in the night, here are some precautions to take. Start with the top ones in most cases, and only use the bottom few if you feel the risk is higher.
- In a place where petty theft is common, bring all bags and belongings inside tent or at least vestibule.
- Lock bike to a tree, fence, etc. if available, or at least lock front wheel to frame.
- Position bike very close to tent and wrap a guy line through the wheel on its way to the tent stake.
- Booby trap the bike as described above in Theft Prevention Tricks: lock the brakes, bungee wheel to frame, clip helmet around wheel, etc.
- Rig up an alarm system, either with an actual alarm or noisy metal pot and mug dangling from a guy line.
- Bring key parts of the bike, like seat post and front wheel, into your tent or vestibule.
The idea behind all of these precautions is that they make it hard to steal your stuff without waking you up. Some people think this means they’ll have to wake up and physically fight off a thief. Personally I think most opportunistic thieves will run away at the first sign of trouble, no confrontation necessary. Of course it’s up to you to make that call, and you may choose not to confront a thief if you think your personal safety is at risk.
Just like everything else about bikepacking and touring, preventing theft is a balance and a calculated risk. The goal is to reduce risk as much as possible without too much weight, effort, or money. We hope to make the right decisions, or at least to get lucky when we don’t.
It makes sense to take easy precautions, stay aware of our surroundings, and be more cautious when appropriate. It also makes sense to relax and trust people a bit more than we might be accustomed to. After all, isn’t the desire to experience human goodness part of why we travel by bike in the first place?
Did I miss your favorite technique or bike lock? Please share in the comments below!
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