Camp Security – Are You Worried About Having Your Stuff Ripped Off When Backpacking?

It's easy to get a quick read on the trustworthiness of the people you meet at a Shelter after a short conversation
It’s easy to get a quick read on the trustworthiness of the people you meet at a shelter after a short conversation.

Had a good question from a reader about camp security and keeping your gear safe during backpacking trips. For example:

  • Do you hang your backpack up with others in the shelter?
  • Do you leave your stove or your sleeping bag out when you go to get water?

I think a lot depends on where I’m backpacking and my assessment of the people I meet. For example, if I’m hiking on the AT and stay at a shelter or designated campsite, I rarely have any concerns about the safety of my gear or personal effects. As long as I think the people sleeping at the shelter or neighboring campsites are serious backpackers out for a section or thru-hike,  I know that they’re unlikely to rip my stuff off. This is pretty easy to tell after a short conversation where we establish or bona fides and share trail names, where we started and where we’re heading.

If the people I meet are not experienced backpackers or scruffy looking, I’ll be a bit more cautious with my possessions and probably slip my wallet and personal effects into my pocket if I walk down to the water source or go to the privy. As for gear, I’m less worried about that because it’s hard to get very far with it and replaceable if stolen.

If I’m not backpacking on the AT, then I’m probably someplace where it’s unlikely I’ll see anyone or if I do, they’ll be far more interested in being outdoors than in stealing stuff. I mostly backpack off-the-beaten track and rarely meet anyone sketchy.

I’m much more cautious about my gear if we’re car camping however, because you never know who’s going to stay at a campsite, there’s no real opportunity to “check them out”, and sadly, people do occasionally drive through and rip stuff off. In this case, I’ll pack up expensive items like a high-end sleeping bag, electronics, and my fly fishing gear and take it with me in the car when we leave camp for the day.

Care to share your feelings about camp security?

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  1. yeah, exercise common sense, don’t put temptation in peoples paths, keep small expensive items like wallet and electronics with you.

  2. The campsites north of Vancouver, BC, Canada, all require a considerable mountain trek that requires people with a backcountry desire and fitness that seems to include ethical behavior. People new to the backcountry may not know the rules of the trail, but they are not likely to be there to steal. Their worst transgressions are usually environmental. And maybe a badly behaved dog. Also, soon everyone know everybody who is on the trail… so there is little opportunity for crooks. Yes, at wilderness cabins I trust anyone who has been able to go there. I’m likely willing to share my gear and my supplies too.

    At the risk of bringing up a point that may be off topic: my main concern about security is leaving my car at the trailhead. I feel that I’ve learned to manage objective hazards such as rockfall, avalanches, exposure, etc., but the scariest part of the journey is usually driving to and from the trailhead — and then leaving the car there for one or more days. While the bad guys (or bad gals) may not be on the trail, they can and do access the car-parks.

    • Indeed! I was on an overnight backpack with a dear friend a couple of years back. Got out and started the car and we were greeted by a thunderous noise. Someone had stolen her catalytic converter!

    • About 10 years ago my son-in-law & oldest daughter were hiking the wonderland trail under winter conditions in preparation for him hiking Denali the next month. The Forest Service campground had ALL of his expedition equipment. On their return they noticed a pickup truck leaving quickly.

      When I’m backpacking & leaving my campsite for more than a few minutes I take my sleeping bag & thermarest neoair with me.

      Note: in Glacier National Park the wildlife will take anything with sweat for the salt!

      In my car I keep a very ratty, torn sleeping bag to cover my gear.
      I hiked over 300 miles & 40,000 plus feet of elevation gain last year ~ would have been 400 miles but I lost August to forest fire smoke from Washington State.

  3. I’m worried about my food stash being raided by mice, raccoons, squirrels and bears while I’m in the woods, more than people stealing my stuff. Cars left at trailheads are a concern, but one I can’t do anytjing about, so I dont let it worry me while I’m hiking.

    Interesting point about car camping. I dont typically leave my stuff about. Even my car camping trips are relatively spartan experiences. Slightly larger tent and air mattrress, two burner coleman stove, coleman cooler with food and ice and maybe a couple adult beverages. It would be painful to replace the EE Acomplice quilt we use, so maybe that will be packed up to take with us.

    Hikers, for the most part, are a trustworthy lot.

  4. I have backpacked the AT, Smokies, and many of the Western parks, but there was only one place that I was concerned about security of my gear.

    The waysides and vendors in the Shenandoah National Park would not allow backpacks to be brought into the restaurants and stores. The clerks would not allow gear inside and scoffed at my objection to leaving my backpack at the door, where it could be so easily picked up.

    The vendors’ policy in Shenandoah would not allow a 120 pound woman to bring in a 20 pound ULA pack, citing issues with lack of space. However, they allowed parents with diaper bags and strollers, large people carrying personal luggage, and motorcycle riders toting their helmets or other gear.

  5. Not worried at all. As Philip does, I often slip my wallet into my pants on day hikes from camp. But thieves are inherently lazy, they do not want to work for something. They do not work to go backpacking either.

  6. I don’t care for staying at any shelters or campsites that are in very close proximity to a road crossing. These locations tend to bring in the locals looking for a good place to party and are not the sort that I would trust with leaving my gear around.

  7. The “scruffy looking” thing cracked me up! It doesn’t take many days on the trail for me to get “scruffy looking”!

  8. I can’t speak to backcountry security, as I pretty much never camp around other people, but I’m perpetually worried I’m going to get back to the trailhead and find my car gone. I leave my trip plans with somebody instead of putting them on the dash. It feels like asking for trouble advertising, “No one will be checking on this car for X many days!”

  9. Cars at trailhead an issue. Some leave glove box open and visibly empty and disable ignition by removing a part or a hidden switch. I don’t bother. My beat Focus is at 200K miles. Never been bothered.

    I do carry palm size pepper spray in pants pocket. Just for defense against hockey mask wearing machete wielders. And the odd rabid animal or off leash biter. I lke the UDAP 1.9 oz guys with hand strap, the so called jogger spray.

  10. I’ve never worried when on the trail because, as stated earlier, thieves are inherently lazy and not likely to be a few miles up a mountainside. I do worry about a car at the trailhead, although I’ve never had anything stolen from one. I don’t leave anything visible in the car–it all goes in the trunk.

    I do quite a bit of car camping in national parks and I’m more worried about my stuff there when taking off for the day. I zip my tent up all the way don’t leave anything tempting out. Sometimes, I’ll toss my down bag and a few other things in the vehicle when leaving. I probably worry too much when doing that because I’ve never had a human bother my camp. Javalinas, crows, and raccoons have been a different story…

  11. I had a fox steal my food bag at Loch Hourn last year but have never had anything stolen by a person in 40 years of backpacking.

  12. Our troop had some gear stolen when we were camping on a beach near Highway 1 in California. Otherwise, no problems.

  13. Great topic Phil. I once left my Nikon SLR at the trailhead kiosk at Snoqualmie Pass, WA on a very busy day. I realized this miles up the trail. My buddies waited while I ran back to find it exactly where I left it. It boosted my faith in humanity. However, I came across a group of a dozen fully loaded packs near the gulf hagas junction recently and was surprised at how trusting some people are. I always take my pack with me to go off on a side trail. It helps to have light gear :). At camp with others I assess the individuals for a sense of trustworthiness but always keep valuables like cash on my body. I have done plenty of base camping where I went off for whole days leaving my tent and bag set up. But I would not leave my fully loaded pack right on a relatively busy trail. Plus I wouldn’t leave my food bags in my pack for animals to rummage through.

    I would not feel safe in town leaving my pack outside of stores and restaurants. Not sure what I will do on a thru hike.

  14. I am not too worried in places where most cars are day hiker cars – level of in-and-out traffic is such that break-ins are unlikely. The camera gear, phone, wallet are on me everywhere. Concerning car camping, I am more worried about possible drunken fishermen harassing me than theft. Almost everything gets packed up and thrown in the car for the daytime.

  15. While trekking on the Olleros- Chavin trail in Peru our water bag was stolen by a villager who must have been living several hundred feet in a primitive stone house from our tent. We had been advised while trekking in South America to keep everything in our vestibule for this very reason. Several “trails” are really routes connecting villages to each other and eventually a road. I can’t blame the guy for taking our light collapsible synthetic bag. He had to hike daily to the nearby river to collect water with a galvanized bucket. On the flip side of that we were surprised to have our OTHER water bag that we had accidently left behind delivered to us from a far away village on the other side of the Colca Canyon. It would have been a long arduous day hike to retrieve it or 2 days. Kindness generally over greed was the rule in our experience in South and Central America. That being said, the only time (the interior of) our tent was robbed was in a Hippie-gringo camp ground – Mayabel – outside of Palenque Maya ruin in Chiapas MX. After some confrontation the bag of cash and locally purchased jewelry was returned. I trust the locals more than the scruffy stoner gringos in Latin America.

  16. My wallet has ID, credit card, a bit of cash, and my health insurance card. It never leaves my pocket. My zipped pocket. If I get separated from my pack, I’ve got my wallet. If I fall and get extracted, I have my wallet.

  17. I don’t carry my wallet itself but I keep my driver license, a credit card, health insurance card, reduced size copy of my durable power of attorney and healthcare proxy, and a little cash in a Ziploc snack bag which stays in a zipped pocket of my hiking pants. I think I’ll also add contact info for family and friends, although some of that is on my power of attorney/healthcare sheet.

    • Do you hike with a copy of your physician’s directive/living will? I’d not thought about it until I say your post. May be a good idea, especially for us seniors.

  18. Good topic that no one really wants to have to talk about. I agree that it’s fairly easy to assess fellow hikers and easy to feel safe leaving my gear around them, but, as others have mentioned, it often depends more on my location than on the individuals I’m “assessing”. If I’m at or near a road or trailhead, I am much more cautious, but if I’m a couple days away from anywhere then I worry a lot less.

    It’s the issue of having to leave my pack outside / out-of-sight at stores or restaurants that troubles me more. I haven’t yet been stuck in a situation where I didn’t have a couple friends available to watch my stuff while I went in for a quick shop (and interestingly, those trusted friends have always been recent strangers that I basically just met on the trail…can you imagine doing that at home? I can’t.), but I wonder how other people deal with those situations? Is it like leaving your car at a trailhead (i.e., take reasonable care and don’t worry about it?) or are there any other options or strategies you can suggest for making sure your stuff doesn’t walk away while you’re inside shopping, eating, etc.?

    • It would be nice if store owners would let hikers check in their packs. Maybe keep them in a back room and pick them up on the way out.

  19. I think I’d be more worried about the wild life eating my food and rummaging through things at night than people. At least where I hike, there is hardly anyone around, and the people that I do run across are there for the same reasons I am. To enjoy the outdoors. You don’t see too many “unsavory” people in the woods.

    With that said, having good situational awareness is very important to your safety. Not just from animals and humans, but weather as well. Weather spotters are trained to always be aware of their surroundings and changing conditions. This also applies to hiking and watching for rapidly changing weather conditions. Just keeping your head up and looking around you makes you less of a target to those who wish to harm you, and you also have a better idea of where you are located and what is around you and what the weather is like.

  20. Every time I’ve met a guy in the woods wearing a hockey mask and wielding a machete, he’s been up to no good. I’ve developed a tendency to stereotype that kind…

    • Stereotyping permitted!

      Seriously, SOME meaningful method of self defense is important when you’re not a martial artist, knife fighter or combat handgun expert.

      Knives, guns, and stun guns don’t do it. That little UDAP spray does it for me. In a pinch, that little non lethal spray will be a lot better than nothing. I sleep better with that knowledge.

  21. I’ve been fortunate, have done hiking since my earliest memory, episodic car/campground camping for most of my adult life, backpacking for the past couple of years and I haven’t had anything stolen while doing any of those things. That said, I am usually pretty careful to keep tempting stuff out of view and I typically keep wallet and ID in a pocket or close by at all times. I have been a bit concerned about leaving my car a trail heads…even had a conversation w/ a Sheriff’s deputy who was scoping out one trail head where there had been some recent incidents. Parked my car there anyway but was only out for a few hours. I did thank the deputy for keeping an eye on the trail head to discourage the thief/thieves though I knew he couldn’t exactly spend his whole day there. All things being equal, I would probably be less upset about wild critters stealing something than having it stolen by a two legged critter.

  22. Been back packing for years and never had a thing stolen. In fact, I am pretty sure no one wants to pack the weight as I am usually 5 to 20 miles from the car. On the other hand, I have have back packers try to give me stuff they decided they don’t want any more. I have given all my extra food away on the last day so as to not hike it out ;-)

  23. On a deer hunting trip in the Sierra Nevada, I had my truck pilfered. The bandit took a 150 quart ice chest full of food an beverages, and all the gear I left in the back of the truck. Stupid of me to leave it out like that. I actually found it all in the back of another pickup outside a bar in a little mountain town. I promptly took it back without confrontation.

    I only worry about my car at the trailhead. I think backpackers are more worried about lightening their load rather than carrying my stuff, too.

  24. I have wondered what the hikers who travel solo do when in towns if they have an attractive pack and high quality gear — when they go inside for a restaurant, a bar, a store, or a bathroom. Even if the hiker looks grungy, quality equipment stands out and is tempting. Seems you’d have to have it with you every minute or sleeping on your pack with a cord attached if not in a tent or hammock. My wife and I had our wallets stolen while we were in the water at the beach by opportunists, within sight of them.

  25. I never leave my gear anywhere. Growing up in NorCal East Bay/SF Area & being primarily a NorCal Sierras backpacker & camper I’ve seen so much change for the worse the last few decades.Since Social Media came out, I see more hipster generation types & those who commit crimes & prey on them on trail & at the parks-i.e. Car break ins… I just don’t chance it anymore at parks or on trail. I stay physically fit enough to carry my gear anywhere I go- whether it be a daypack or extended trip 45lb pack or heavier. When I say fit , I mean honestly fit/ able to carry my gear 20-25 miles regardless of terrain or elevation change. I’ve seen too much bad stuff happen over the years.

  26. we know that! sometimes it’s better just to carry! But this article also in some cases useful!

  27. The only time I left my stuff behind I went out into a very dense stand of trees and bear bagged my pack. I could stand having animals get stuff but I would have to track down a thief and get my stuff back. When I car camp with the family I take the older and cheaper camping gear.
    As others have mentioned, the trail head is where a lot of theft happens. It sucks that locals prey upon those in their community.

  28. I’ve never worried about that because I have never taken my important belongings with me . I have secret places in my car and I use it . Most of my friends say that I am very good at for backpacking . I am usually careful toabout keep tempting stuff out of view

  29. I’m more worried about a deer walking off with one of my deliciously salty boots than people.

  30. At trailhead parking lots, I leave my car empty and unlocked. I even leave a note asking “visitors” to please close the glove box after inspection, so as to not drain the battery.

    I put important stuff in the trunk.

    While my insurance will not cover theft losses if the car is left unlocked, I leave no temptations – I make it quick and easy for thieves to verify the lack of valuables, and I have never lost anything. On the other hand, a smashed window far from home in a rainy environment like mine is a ***major*** hassle.

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