I’ve only been robbed once while on the road. I mean properly robbed; of course I’ve had objects mysteriously disappear – a cap here and there, a bag of chilli grasshoppers, two beard trimmers in as many weeks in Ethiopia – but there’s only been one occasion on which a person has walked up to me and intentionally stolen from me. I’m not counting the time I was roofied in Texas as I’ve got no idea what happened then (see review of Snow Peak Titanium Spork).
I think one of the reasons my pack has never been comprehensively rifled is that I rarely lock it. Top-loading backpacks of the type I own aren’t easily locked anyway. I think the only way to secure the side-release buckles is with Pacsafe’s Bucklesafe 100 setup. Without this, I sometimes lock the zips of a side pocket together with a small padlock e.g. the Pacsafe Prosafe 300.
Inevitably such a device draws attention to itself, inviting the curiosity of thieves and opportunists who wouldn’t otherwise have targeted the luggage for investigation. Another problem with zips is the little-known factoid that many can be cleanly opened with a pointed tool such as a ball-point pen and re-zipped without any evidence of tampering. Scary, isn’t it? Try it for yourself (but don’t blame me if you irreparably damage your YKK). So if you do secure the main compartment of your zip-around travel pack, make sure that the zip-pulls are not only locked together but also to a stationary tab or loop on the pack itself. This ensures that should the zip be breached it cannot be discretely re-closed. This will deter thieves from opening it in the first place, and certainly prevent doing 10 years in Kerobokan prison as an unwitting drug mule.
I have heard tell of pre-organised gear burglars secreted in the baggage holds of long-distance buses in Asia. These nocturnal midgets spend the entire night methodically opening every backpack within, removing all valuables and neatly repacking. None of the victims are any the wiser until reaching hotels the next morning. Thankfully this has never happened to me.
As far as padlocks go, Pacsafe have a good reputation and are very solid. I chose the combination lock over the key lock because a key can be lost whereas if you forget your combination then you don’t really deserve to access your belongings. On the downside though, the Prosafe 300 is not TSA compatible. In a nutshell this means that when you enter the US, the Transport Security Administration agents (who have the right to open and rifle your luggage) may cut off (and therefore destroy) your lock. TSA compatible locks can be opened with a special key that only TSA officers have access to (supposedly) and thus can be re-closed without damage. Something to think about.
The other consideration with a combination padlock is that, as a simple calculation shows, they are easy to open. A 3-dial lock such as the Prosafe 300 has only 999 possible combinations, so a determined junkie could crack the code in under 20 minutes by starting at 001 and trying every possible permutation. One more dial would raise that maximum time to 2¾ hours – a significant improvement.
As for my experience of being pickpocketed – it was so unexpected and almost pleasurable that I felt I had to share it. Emerging from a pub early one morning in Nha Trang – a lovely beach town in the south of Vietnam – I found myself wending my way merrily back to my hostel, alone through the deserted streets, when I was passed by a moped carrying three women. Upon seeing me the driver stopped and the rear passenger hopped off and approached me.
“You want smoke?” asked the beady-eyed, middle-aged lady, somewhat aggressively.
“No,” I sighed, tired of the question. She quickly changed tack.
“You want girls? Boom boom?” she said. Before I could reply (in the negative) she sidled closer and whispered “I suck, I f**k,” with which personal revelation she lashed out for my crotch, firmly grasping what nested therein. So surprised was I by this manoeuvre that I yelped and leapt back three feet, arms windmilling and testicles contracting in shock. The ageing strumpet meanwhile turned and jumped back on the scooter, which gunned away into the night. I stared, amazed, after them before chuckling to myself and continuing on my way. What was that all about? I wasn’t until the next morning that I realised all the money in my pocket had disappeared. I’d only had a few dollars’ worth left so it was no great loss, but I had to admire her technique. With one claw molesting my manhood, her other hand had been deep in my trouser pocket, fingering my dong*.
* The dong is the unit of currency in Vietnam, USD1 = VND20,000