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I am planning on going on a prolonged trip and will be carrying everything that I have on my back for at least a year. I know that most of the 'horror' stories are just that, however thieves will go after the easiest target so it's worth not being one.

I will be staying in hostels or rent private accommodation (like Airbnb, or just from local adverts for a couple of months). For moving around I am planing to use local transport (buses, trains, metro, whatever is available). I will be crossing borders by plane most likely (as I will need visas that are handled at the airport).

I have done some reading on how to secure one's valuables and stumbled on backpack nets like this ExoMesh. I was wondering are they worth having (or they are overkill and are other measures like locks on zippers or just being cautious is enough)?

Is a (steel) backpack net an effective deterrent? Would it help in any way or only draw attention?

  • 8
    fair point on drawing attention. When I traveled in SE Asia I took a terrible really old pack with me and never had any trouble. When it was put in the luggage on a bus it just blended in with the luggage of the locals. IMO the best defense is to look like you've nothing worth stealing. Purely my POV though, no proof one way or the other. – the other one Oct 10 '16 at 12:35
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    Your title and question don't match - Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand (haven't been to India) are not "rougher parts" of the world. I'd be more worried on a Eurolines bus in Europe than a long distance bus in the above countries. – Erwin Bolwidt Oct 10 '16 at 14:18
  • @ErwinBolwidt I was thinking of removing this part... I was pretty much interested in nets.... – Matas Vaitkevicius Oct 10 '16 at 14:27
  • I used one going to the Philippines but only to secure it on the flights and at the airports as it's the airport security that I don't trust! After that I just packed it up and put it in the pocket so as not to draw any undue attention. However being practically albino in the Philippines made me stick out as much as possible anyway... While at the airport I did get asked about it by several backpackers who thought it was great, asking where to get it etc. and they had a lot more experience than me. – Lyall Oct 10 '16 at 15:25
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    My best advice: real problems are not thieves, real problems are mosquitos. Really. – Ivan Oct 10 '16 at 18:24
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They generally are a deterrent. They make the backpack much harder to steal and open and so greatly reduce chances of thieves targeting you backpack specifically. They can be broken with the right tool but that means the theif has to have it and time to use it without raising suspicion. This is much harder than cutting a slit into the backpack or just grabbing and leaving with it.

Personally, I have been travelling with an 85L Exo-Mesh from PackSafe since 2002. It was taken over 7 countries in South-East Asia, although the only rough place in the region for me was the Philippines, specifically Manila and parts of Indonesia to a much less extent.

The same backpack and Exo-Mesh was taken to about half of Central America and a third of South American countries. Nothing ever happened to my bag, even while I was sleeping in long-distance buses where other bags went missing. Of course, the ExoMesh alone is only part of the protection. I diligently always sat on the side of the bus where the baggage compartment opened to keep an eye on it between stops. I secured the ExoMesh on the roof of the bus in Guatemala because apparently some people snatch luggage from balconies as buses pass by.

Although you strictly do not need a zipper lock when using an Exo-Mesh, I still used one on each compartment. Actually backpack locks are mainly for show, one can easily break the zipper and just cut through the fabric with a sharp knife. That's what makes the Exo-Mesh so effective, it covers the entire bag with a mesh and no opening is larger than about 5cm, so cutting the fabric will not get any thieves very far.

In hotels you can secure your backpack to a fixture but if someone has enough time in the room with it, they can probably pick the lock which holds it together. For this reason, I often make a judgement call between leaving it in the room and asking it to be put in hotel luggage storage. Again, it depends on the place, some hotels just leave it in the lobby when you ask them to keep it! Others have dedicated rooms with proper locks within view of the front-desk.

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I spent the first half of thus year in southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia.)

First of all, I wouldn't consider this a "rough" part of the world. True, cost of living is much less than the US/Europe, and pay is consequently less. But, generally speaking, the most danger of theft you'll run into while staying in hostels is from other foreigners.

(This is in contrast to South America. I know a guy who had his entire 70 L backpack stolen in Colombia. In Southeast Asia, your greatest risk in terms of your backpack will be someone unzipping an unsecured compartment and helping themselves to the contents. Once you're inside a country (and not transiting), this will most commonly happen when you leave your pack at a hostel, the culprit will most likely be one of your roommates, and their target of choice will be electronics, passports, money, etc.)

That being said, you'll want to secure your backpack whenever it is out of your direct supervision, namely on transport. I have heard about people rifling through unsecured luggage during rest stops on long bus rides, but as usual it's luck-of-the-draw -- it never happened to me or anyone I met, but that's not to say it doesn't happen at all.

I personally have an airporter backpack cover that I stuff my backpack into. It's really just a glorified duffel bag. It serves several purposes:

  1. it has a single zipper that I can lock unlike my six zips and drawstrings and buckles on my pack
  2. it provides some measure of protection against rough handling in airports which is important for buckles and straps; and
  3. it is not a bright color nor interesting looking and it disguises its contents handily. It also has a useful handle; when staying at a hostel in Laos that had pitiful security (locks? why would you want locks on doors? silly tourists...), I used a bike chain to secure the airporter to my bed.

A net on the other hand still allows someone to unzip a compartment and rifle through it. I personally have never seen one in the wild.

Other solutions I've seen:

  • One backpacker I met used fishing twine to sew up all but one of the zips on his backpack, leaving only a single compartment entrance which he then locked. This had the unfortunate side effect of making those other compartment openings useless.
  • In airports, I commonly see backpackers use the plastic wrap machines to secure straps etc. This wont help you for land travel since these plastic wrap machines appear to be native to airports. You'll be doing a lot more land travel (buses, trains, hitchhiking, motorcycle) than flying in SE Asia -- trust me on this.
  • My younger sister just puts locks on all six pairs of zips on her backpack. This only works when all compartments are secured by pairs of zips. Just remember for locks that, when outside the US, the only thing "TSA" locks are good for is providing a security hole. You can buy the TSA keys on the black market (and ebay); I reserve the use of my TSA lock only when flying internationally to/from the US.

Whatever you decide, I would highly recommend bringing along the following:

  • a padlock (combination lock or otherwise) for securing lockers; we have a question somewhere on this site that has some lock recommendations
  • a chain (plus lock) or integrated bike lock for securing you backpack to your bunk or other immovable furniture or the wall
  • and spare luggage locks because you will lose them. I'd keep a spare TSA lock if you're based in the US for securing your luggage on your US flight.
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    Zipper locks aren't safe, because of the zipper. You can easily defeat them with a ballpen: youtu.be/wpIJVWXsBBI?t=1m10s – user31389 Oct 10 '16 at 15:26
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    @pnuts classic XY good answer. 'You asked about nets, but you really meant to ask, "How Can I Secure My Backpack?" Let me tell you ...' – bmargulies Oct 10 '16 at 16:22
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    I did say that a net won't stop someone from unzipping a compartment and rifling through the contents, which was the most common problem that I was working to deter. It is also unusual and exotic looking, which draws attention. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Oct 10 '16 at 20:14
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My friend has one of these and the steel mesh is quite heavy which far outweighs any benefit you will get security-wise, who wants to drag around extra weight.

I have never used any bag locks while traveling, they are for the most part a pointless security blanket that will not stop any thief from taking your stuff. They will use a knife or just take the entire bag, not a lot you can do to stop them.

What you can do is mitigate the risk and your possible loss. Not many thieves want a pile of your smelly clothes and that is really all your main pack should contain. Any thing important, laptop, camera, phone, money, passport should live in a small day pack and never leave your person unless locked up securely at the hostel/hotel.

Also spreading your valuables is also good mitigation, keep one bank card in your main pack, one in your day pack and one in your wallet. If something goes missing you have a backup, same with cash, and passports if you're lucky enough to have more than one, split them up. I usually keep $20 or so worth of local currency in my pocket so I can buy small stuff without needing to pull my wallet out or dig through a bag.

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    I think you're giving conflicting advice: "Don't put cash or anything valuable in your main pack" "Split your cash and cards and put some in your main pack". I wouldn't keep even a credit card in my main pack if it's going to be unattended in a luggage rack - the last thing I want to do when I don't have reliable phone/internet service is to deal with trying to cancel my card, reverse fradulent payments, and arrange to have a replacement card sent when I may not even know what town I'll be in next. – Johnny Oct 11 '16 at 4:21
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    A small amount of cash and a spare card isn't 'something valuable', it's a small insurance policy worth far more than the face value if you get robbed and left with zero cash and zero cards. – trapper Oct 11 '16 at 4:30
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    A good place to store spare money in the bag would be in a sock in the middle of the used clothes... Most thieves won't bother ;) – Shautieh Oct 11 '16 at 8:17
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    This is, IMO, the best answer. Just don't bother protecting the cloths. I travel with a DSLR, a laptop, some external hard disks, etc. They always stay either in my shoulder/lap when travelling, or the hostel locker (which doesn't stop the hostel employees stealing your stuff). The cloths themselves are cheaper ones bought off during the trip. Never had nothing stolen (except a pick pocket situation that I was an idiot). – Ayesh K Oct 11 '16 at 16:50
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Don't get a fancy and expensive backpack, and don't buy a net like this as it will draw a lot of attention from both normal people and thieves. Do you want your backpack to shine among all the other backpacks and luggage when you take the bus? Because a thief could just as easily take the whole thing home while you are stuck in the bus because it looked worth stealing.

Opening it up with the right tools isn't a problem so it cannot act as a good deterrent, whereas it certainly acts as a good thief honeypot.

Instead, you should spend less money on the backpack and false sense of security so that in the unlikely case it gets stolen you can buy a new one along with new clothes and etc.

This said, IMHO there are two cases that are 'dangerous'

  1. while in a bus, because you cannot protect your luggage so just don't make your luggage such a yummy target!
  2. while in a hostel as you cannot trust the other people (chances are that other tourists will be even more likely to steal stuff than locals): most hostels provide little closet where you can safely store your backpack, and also or alternatively, most hostels will keep your valuables in a safe if you ask for it (you could be charged too, but it may be worth it if you really want to go with your 2000 dollars macbook).

Of course, always keep your passport/papers/credit cards with you at all times. I keep them with me in the bed too, when I don't have a safe to put them in.

PS: if you are really paranoid, you could buy a little safe that you then attach in the inside of your backpack. It won't be seen so won't attract attention, but it might help in cases such as someone trying to steal from your backpack while you are sleeping next to it.

  • They do attract attention, but if you fasten it to something as it intended to be, they're not going to "just as easily take the whole thing home" – WGroleau Oct 11 '16 at 2:53
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    In most buses you cannot attach them at all (and bus drivers won't appreciate it if there is something and you actually do it), and in most youth hostels it's still better to put the backpack in one of the provided safe (if any). Where else could you attach it? To the beds? It's not always possible either... – Shautieh Oct 11 '16 at 8:15
  • In two years and ten countries, I have yet to be somewhere I couldn't fasten it. Including buses, though I keep anything valuable with me on bus/train/plane. OK, definitely hard to tie up on a plane. But no one can grab it and run home on a plane, either. – WGroleau Oct 11 '16 at 16:43
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    Did you go to countries with old, overcrowded buses? How could you manage fastening it in those without pissing off people when they wanted to retrieve their luggage and yours was in the way? – Shautieh Oct 12 '16 at 1:10
  • I didn't say I fastened anything. I don't have one of those and have never had anything stolen. I also said I keep the bag with me on a bus. If I were to worry about theft, I wouldn't when the bag is in a rack over my head. And if I were to lock a bag in the luggage rack it would not cause any problem for the person wanting to get the bag next to it. As for the crowding of the bus, I've been in buses and subways almost but not quite as packed as the subways in Japan. The one in Turkey had no place to put the bag, so I had to keep it between my feet. – WGroleau Oct 12 '16 at 2:02

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