10 Tips to Deter Trailhead Theft

Keep your possessions yours.

You’re tired and mile weary from a long weekend in the woods. You’re looking forward to slipping on the cotton clothes and flip flops stashed in the trunk of your car and noshing on a burrito in town. Real coffee is in your future. But as you approach the parking lot, a sinking feeling creeps in—something is not quite right.  Your window is broken, glass spread all over the ground, your possessions strewn about your car. Then it comes together: theft.

I’ve had that sinking feeling three times now. Once, I came back from a day hike to find the majority of the items that had traveled with me from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail stolen. My Arc’teryx puffy with the rainbow duct tape patches that my hiking partner gave me; my pack, perfectly broken-in and customized with national park patches; and even my compression skirt, more tan than white and without any compression left. It was heartbreaking. In the hopes of preventing this from ever happening again, I did some research.

For advice on how to help keep your stuff from getting stolen, I enlisted the help of REI Outdoor School instructors in the highly-trafficked Bay Area and an REI product expert.

1. Do your research: The best way to stop theft is prevention. There are some trailheads you just shouldn’t park at. Look up trip reports, talk to locals, ask a ranger and check for broken window glass before you leave your car for long stretches of time.

2. Empty your car: Outdoor School instructor Beth Mutchler, who teaches backpacking, night hiking and wilderness survival skills, stresses prevention: “Don’t leave things in your car, and you won’t have anything stolen.” That’s pretty simple. It’s a great idea to bring your wallet, phone and any other small valuables with you on the trail. It’s better to have them on you than unmanaged in your car.

3. Make it obvious: Remove a thief’s temptation by making it very apparent there is nothing in your car. Outdoor School instructor Nina Gordon-Kirsch, who teaches hiking, backpacking, biking and kayaking, says, “A few of my friends leave their glove compartments unlocked and totally flopped open so that people can see there are no valuables in it.” Others go even further, leaving their entire car unlocked, in the hopes there won’t be a broken window at the trailhead after a long hike.

4. Hide your goods: Mutchler suggests if you do have to leave things in your vehicle, “don’t let them be visible—put items in the trunk or under the seat.” And, of course, “hide things like cords that would indicate you have electronics in the vehicle.” Living in your van? You’re going to want to hide the most important items and then take a look at tip #5 for the rest.

5. Shield the view: If you’re unable to hide all of your goodies, consider tinted windows, curtains or even sunshields. If would-be thieves can’t get a good visual, they are less likely to break in.

6. Lock it up: Deter theft by making it hard to break in. Lock your vehicle and set your alarm, if you have one. If your car has a separate trunk, “there’s [often] a setting to lock your trunk so that the trunk opener from inside the car no longer works. That way if someone breaks into your car, they still can’t break into your trunk. Check the car manual,” says Gordon-Kirsch.

7. Consider a roof box with locking components: If you don’t have a hidden trunk and need to leave gear in your car, it’s worth investing in a roof box. “Be sure to pay the extra money to get locking cores for your roof rack, roof box and hitch rack,” REI staff member and product expert Derek Konzelman says. That way, a thief can’t take the roof box and all your gear in one go.

8. Lock down gear outside your car: Konzelman keeps a few items in his open air truck bed, and he’s careful to use a long locking cable to strap down any noticeable, easily snatched items.

9. Cover your bases with a good purchase history and insurance: “All locks and cables are designed to primarily deter theft, but they can’t ultimately stop it altogether. Given enough time and opportunity, a thief can get into almost anything, which is why purchase history and insurance can be a good backup plan,” Konzelman says. Save your receipts and online banking records for all of your gear, so you can recoup your costs in the case of theft. Did you know renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policies typically cover your belongings, whether items are stolen from your home, car or even while you’re traveling? Just be sure to document your belongings before hitting the road.

10. Save emergency contact numbers before leaving the trailhead: Before hitting the trail, know who to call in case of an emergency. If you return to find broken glass and belongings missing, contact local law enforcement or the land management agency. If you’re on public land, call the park authorities first. If you’re on unmanaged lands, call the local police department. Unsure? Start with the local cops. And remember, don’t call 911 unless you’re in a situation that requires immediate assistance. Lastly, document the damage and call your insurance company.