Vagabond Travel Tips: Protect your Gear with a Cheap Cargo Bag

Vagabond Travel Tip: Safeguard your Gear with a Cheap Cargo Bag


I knew it was only a matter of time until something got stolen. While re-arranging the gear in my backpack for the 20th time last night, I realized that my beloved Nikon binoculars had disappeared.

I had buried them deep within my main pack in hopes that they would escape attention — apparently, they didn’t. I carry my day pack with me at all times so that my laptop and camera are always with me, but the larger pack with my clothes, sleeping bag, and assorted gear stays behind in the hotel room. The binoculars were just too heavy and bulky to lug around every day.

So, sometime during the last couple of weeks, someone snuck a hand in there and liberated them. Ironically, I’d been debating whether or not to mail them home, since I wasn’t getting enough use from them to justify their two pounds of weight. I no longer have to make that decision, I guess, but they were a damn nice set that I’d bought off eBay for $150 and I’d hoped to do some serious wildlife-watching with them.

Most thefts while traveling are pilfering of this nature — the thief takes something they hope you won’t notice is missing until you’re long gone.

Most likely they were stolen by someone with a room key at a hotel, but they also could have disappeared during a bus ride, while the pack was out of sight in the cargo hold or strapped to the roof. Most thefts while traveling are pilfering of this nature — the thief takes something they hope you won’t notice is missing until you’re long gone. They certainly don’t want you raising hell with the hotel management and asking uncomfortable questions.

The other bit of gear I’d been ready to ditch was a large canvas cargo bag that I used to store my main pack in while flying. It only weighs a pound or so, but also was seeing very little action — until now.

Now I keep it in the top of my pack and before leaving the hotel room or boarding a bus, my main backpack and loose gear all go into the cargo bag, which is zipped closed and locked shut with a cheap lock.

This is by no means a perfect solution — obviously, anyone who really wants to steal something could easily cut through the bag or even carry the whole damn thing away. What this does is prevent anonymous pilfering and keeps strangers from rummaging about your goodies without leaving obvious evidence of their activities. I’m hoping that’s enough, but only time will tell.

Have any traveling horror stories or safety tips of your own? Please leave a comment below.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Joel May 18, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Sorry about the loss, Wes.

It’s a great idea about the cargo bag. Since my gear is going to be spread amongst 4 panniers and a trunk pack on my bike, I need to consider one of those to contain it all at one time so I don’t lose an entire bag somewhere.
.-= Joel´s last blog ..Travel Is Not My New Job =-.


AJ May 18, 2010 at 9:59 pm

I’m so sorry to hear that, Wes! What put my mind at ease was the use of zip ties to secure the double zippers on my bag on my Kelty 2900. This provided alot of peace of mind when my bag was out of sight. Three of the storage pockets had these double zippers that I was able to secure from prying hands in between major points of interest while traveling. Then
I’d clip em off with a pair of toenail clippers whenever I needed. I did this initially for use with overly populated trams where people can easily fish your pack while you’re jammed in there like sardines and all I ever had “stolen” (more likely I lost them) were a couple pairs of socks and a pair of underwear.


Natalka May 18, 2010 at 11:17 pm

We always lock our bags when they are not with us and would even go as far as lock our packs together around a desk leg or something so it would be too difficult to carry both if that’s what the thief wanted. We just used cheap locks as you are and it somehow avoids the temptation. No one wants to take the time or even fess up to knifing open your bag or cutting through a lock. Sorry to hear about your binoculars though. A pricey loss indeed.
Another necessity is a rubber door stop. Not all the guesthouses we stayed in had locks from the inside so we used the door stops at night. Just something that worked for us.
Love your blog!


wes May 22, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Thanks for the tips, Natalka! Door stop is a great idea.


Joe May 19, 2010 at 12:43 am

Wes would love it if someone stole his underwear.


wes May 19, 2010 at 8:45 am

what underwear?


Nomadic Chick May 19, 2010 at 1:46 am

I hear the pacsafe wire thingy is good because it wraps around your entire pack and then you can chain it to a sturdy desk leg in your hostel/hotel room. However, your method is infinitely more frugal!
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..How To: Get Rid of Paper =-.


Josh | The Wander Project May 21, 2010 at 9:14 am

That’s rough, Wes, but I guess the damage could have been worse. A strategy question: You carry your laptop all day? I’m trying to figure out what I’ll do with mine on my upcoming trip. I’d worry that I’d lose it too easily in a run-of-the-mill mugging, but I don’t really like the idea of leaving it anywhere, either. Not sure what I’ll do…
.-= Josh | The Wander Project´s last blog ..Pre-Trip Medical Checklist =-.


wes May 22, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Yeah, I carry the laptop and camera with me about 95% of the time. It’s a pain, but I really can’t think of a better way to deal with it. They’re just too valuable and central to what I’m doing — can’t leave them behind unguarded…


Jodi May 21, 2010 at 10:43 am

We highly recommend those pack duffel bags. We’d lock ours just the same as you with a cheap lil’ lock. Seemed to work great. Personally, I’d stay away from those pacsafe wiry things … it just makes people wonder what the heck is so valuable in your bag.


Natalka May 21, 2010 at 10:46 am

the pacsafe wire cover is quite heavy as well…


wes May 22, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Agreed. I’ve tried one and they are rather heavy and a bit of a pain to squeeze back into the provided sack…


Farm and Cottage Holidays May 21, 2010 at 7:20 pm

my friend got liberated of his camera and money in tijuana , mexico.By a stripper in a club , who had the dexterity to rob him while dancing for him.Think he’s learned a lesson there


Dustin Main May 25, 2010 at 9:39 pm

I’ve got a great duffel that doubles as a rain cover and also folds up into a little pocket. On flights, I lock my main pack in it for check in so my pack doesn’t get banged up or opened, and on shady buses etc I do the same. Also give me a 2nd bag to leave behind at a hostel/guesthouse if I take off for a week or some.

As for pacsafe, I like their gear. I carry a ‘travel safe’ with me which is a lightweight ‘bag’ with stainless steel mess laminated inside. It closes and then locks around a secure object. I’ll usually carry my camera+extra lens, or my laptop, but not both, so I can lock the other stuff up and any of my other tech gear to keep it away from prying fingers.

I’m going to do a post on security soon(ish), but one tip I could share here, is to ditch the TSA locks on your bags when you’re not flying. I’ve heard of a couple of instances, including my Dad, who had stuff stolen from a locked bag in a locked hotel room.
.-= Dustin Main´s last blog ..Photo of the Day: Tokomaru Bay =-.


wes May 26, 2010 at 4:16 pm

I know I’ll sound like a travel geek, but that waterproof duffel sounds *sexy* ;)

I have a pacsafe money belt and camera strap — really like them both. I tried the full-size pacsafe for my backpack, but have come to the conclusion that it isn’t worth the weight and hassle…

Good advice on the TSA locks — thanks!


Robin March 22, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Dustin what’s the brand of that sweet rain cover/duffel? I’m heading to India in a week and could use something like that.


Dustin Main May 26, 2010 at 8:59 pm

hehe nerding out over techy travel gear!

I have a pacsafe camera strap as well which is comfortable and doesn’t scream NIKON in bright yellow letters.

The portable safe I have is here
.-= Dustin Main´s last blog ..Photo of the Day: Tokomaru Bay =-.


Matt | YearAroundTheWorld December 6, 2010 at 10:04 pm

I use the REI Pack Duffle Bag. Lockable, and packs up into itself. I also carry a thin, light, strong cable. I can lock the duffle to a bed frame or to the rack on top of a chicken bus.

As for laptop and camera, I feel comfortable with them in an actual locker at a hostel or hotel. If a hotel doesn’t have a locker, it will often have a double door cabinet of some sort, like under the sink. You usually lock it up with one of these adjustable padlocks:
Matt | YearAroundTheWorld recently posted..VIDEO- Jungle Volcano HikeMy Profile


wes December 7, 2010 at 11:36 am

Thanks for the great tips, Matt. That padlock looks very handy – wished I’d grabbed one before I left…


Natalka December 8, 2010 at 1:51 am

I was contemplating a $20- extendable 30″ cable lock from Magellan for my upcoming trip but found the exact same thing in the hardware department at Wal-Mart for $5.00. With three packs we will nicely be able to lock our things together to a pillar or sink while we are out, use it for a bike lock, or use at airports to lock our things up while we rest….I travelled with a smaller one last year and it was used daily.


Di March 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Love your website.
I have a tip for some security of a back pack.
I was in Copenhagen and wearing a back pack. Someone opened the backpack but they couldnt get to anything because I had a thickish magazine lying flat accross the top of everything. I didnt put that mag there to stop thieves but when a fellow shopper told me the zip was open on my backpack I realised that the mag had stopped anything from being stolen. Maybe this tip will help someone!


Hik June 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Hi, I’ve used the little padlocks on my bag, but after seeing this video realized how useless they really are:


wes June 9, 2011 at 8:05 am

Ha! Yeah, pretty much worthless…


wes July 24, 2013 at 11:58 am

Custom built. And it’s been so long since I did it that I need professional help to edit/fix it ;)


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