You’re trying enjoying the exotic scenery, perhaps going for dinner, and in a flash you hear a ripping sound and see someone running off. Your backpack has an ugly gaping hole and your $2,000 Sony camera is…gone. You’ve been bag-slashed.
So, how can you prevent getting your bag getting slashed, ripped, gashed, etc. when you’re traveling?
The best ways to prevent bag slashing include:
- knowing what it is and how and where it happens
- staying alert
- keeping your valuables close to your body
- not using a backpack, or carrying it in front of you
- using a shoulder bag or no bag at all
- getting a cut-proof/slash-proof bag
Bag slashing is uncommon in the West, but in poorer countries, it’s a quick and dirty way for someone to take your things from you. It’s the simple act of someone using a knife or another sharp object to slash your bag and grab what they can. Sometimes it’s quick and brazen, sometimes it’s in a crowd and you don’t even realize it until later.
Bag slashing is crudely effective and it sucks to be a victim. I’m lucky that it’s never happened to me, but it’s really not luck. I prevented it from happening, many times. Here’s a deeper look at how to be as fortunate as I’ve been.
First, adjust your thinking (if necessary)
Dealing with a different view of life and different cultures can also mean having to understand some of the thinking about morality and theft. You also have to understand life’s hardships and how it creates desperation. Drugs and alcohol, of course, also impair people’s sense of right and wrong.
I’m not preaching to people who know this already. Do as you do. But these days, there are more new travelers than ever. A lot of them are really nice people who think by being nice, no one will harm them. Life can be cruelest for these types.
For some places it seems crime simply a part of life, and they may think you’re the one who’s responsible for protecting your stuff. If you get robbed, tough luck. That may seem pretty odd if you’re from a generally ethical place where that’s just not done. Too bad – you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Preparations: take stock and make backups
Personal documents are perhaps the most valuable “stuff” when you’re traveling or living abroad. I always scan a copy of my driver’s license, passport photo page, visa, and email it to myself and store it in the cloud. If I have anything else important, like travel insurance, perhaps credit card numbers, ID cards, all that. Copy it and save it securely.
If you can’t scan them, just take a snapshot with your phone.
Send it to a family member or close friend who’s not traveling with you as well, just in case.
Do it for everyone in your travel group if you’re a couple or family.
Install a kill app for your phone, so you can lock it in a flash before they get your data.
Now consider: do I really need to take this with me? For anything other than the essentials, ask yourself this question. Put the rest in a secure place, such as your hotel’s safe.
Read up and YouTube up
Read up on where you’re going, watch YouTube videos, ask friends who’ve been there – find out if it’s a place where bag slashing occurs, and what the common methods are.
In Manila, for example, where bag slashing and many other types of thefts and rip-offs, are an unfortunate part of everyday life, you’ll often see local people walking with their backpacks on the front of their bodies. It’s funny-looking, and it’s hot, but it’s common sense. Backpacks are the easiest bags to open, slash, or even just pull right off someone.
Another tactic in Manila is to throw a towel over your bag, which hides what’s going on and confuses you. This is exactly what three street kids tried to do to me. I knew what was going on right away and shoved the little towel-holding prick off me. They just ran off laughing. And they didn’t get my bag. It was a shoulder bag, but the way, because of the backpack thing. And they still gave it a go.
This turned out like it did because I read up on Manila before I went.
If you’re in a place where there are lots of people, there are often going to be thieves among them. It happens at home too, maybe not as often, but it can happen.
So just prepare and be aware. Easier said than done, right?
Keep the most important stuff closest
Often I’ll go to markets where it gets crowded. I love them! They’re real and alive. I like being around lots of people. But I try to make sure that it’s as hard as possible for someone to steal my wallet and passport. I keep them in a front pocket, a safety belt, or another secure place. Or I don’t even carry them. I carry a passport copy and minimal cash, maybe a credit card and an ATM card.
Public transportation is a common place for secretive slashing, not to mention pickpockets. And it’s not just young men who do it. In some places it could be a group of women or a mixed group of people who will bump into you or chat you up, trying to distract you.
Handbags can be slashed, as well as snatched. It’s easy to cut the straps, even when driving by on a motorbike. Pockets on clothes and bags can be slashed, too. These are thieves who know how to get at your things.
If you’re a frequent overseas traveler, it’s almost inevitable you’ll fall victim to some sort of crime. Bag slashing is one of the more preventable ones, and it starts with you and your thinking.
Now for practical ways to avoid bag slashing
So you’re going to carry a bag. You need a bag. Here’s what you can do.
Backpacks: theory and justification of these ugly things
I’m a semi-pro photographer, and I when I’m doing some consigned work, I can’t avoid wearing a backpack. I have my camera, lenses, tripod, etc.
In Japan it’s never an issue. But in a place like Manila, or really anywhere in Southeast Asia other than maybe Singapore, I need a heavier-duty, slashproof bag just to be sure.
(Actually, since backpacks have finally become popular among non-children in Japan, it’s now also good manners to take off your backpack on crowded trains. Slashing’s not an issue, though.)
Outside of Japan and other developed countries, I’ll usually move my bag to the front or will hold it under my arm before getting on a crowded bus or train.
If it’s a large backpack then I’ll just carry it in front of me. It might slow me down, but I can see what’s happening with it. These days, though, I’m a bit older and I like to travel in style. So typically don’t lug a huge backpack on travels. I use a hard-shell suitcase and send it ahead as much as possible. Saves me a lot of sweat and worry.
The virtues and evils cheap backpacks for travel
Cheap backpacks are a tricky topic. On the one hand, they show you probably aren’t a money-pants and may not be a great target. In a pinch, you can pick up a $5 fake FjallalraaafvenIKEAoverpriceds whatever they’re called at a local market and use it to carry around basic like a change of shirt, toiletries, etc.
On the other hand, cheap backpacks are thin, flimsy, and offer very little protection. If you use one, you should still be able to lock the zips and make sure you don’t have your valuables in the outer pockets, which are even easier to get at.
Better yet, buy yourself a Pacsafe or Loctote. More on that later.
Shoulder bags, cross-body bags, shopping bags
Each of these offer benefit. I most commonly use a shoulder bag because I work online and I need to take my laptop almost everywhere. I’m always working.
A strong, slash-proof messenger bag lets me bring my laptop, a smaller camera, and other basics. Shoulder bags also don’t get you as sweaty as backpacks. The downside is they can scratch, cause pain, and the imbalance a heavier one gives just isn’t good for your body alignment.
There are small cross-body bags/sling bags and pouches. Some of which are unisex.
And finally is the plastic shopping bag. Don’t use a transparent one, naturally, but if you’ve only got a few things, a cheap plastic bag, while giving no slash protection, simply looks like you’re not carrying anything valuable.
What special gear is there for preventing bag slashing?
Problems open the door to solutions, and there’s more anti-theft travel gear on the market than ever. The technology keeps improving. Investing in a few choice items can really make your travel life much freer and less stressful.
Anti-theft, slashproof backpacks
So I strongly recommend anti-theft backpacks. These will have stainless steel mesh under the canvas making it essentially impossible to slash through.
This mesh will also be on the straps so those can’t be cut either.
The zips are designed so that it’s easy to attach a lock, which will also deter pickpockets.
They’re generally more expensive than regular backpacks (other than Fjallravvednfsck trendy things) but they’ll offer you much more security and they should come with a guarantee if something goes wrong.
If you live abroad, and in places where it’s harder to buy them, get on Amazon or whatever your online poison is, and get yourself one.
Slash-proof shoulder bags and cross-body bags
There are also anti-theft shoulder or cross-body bags. These also use the stainless steel mesh and have lockable zips.
The larger ones, like messenger bags, can hold a laptop, phone, wallet, passport, pretty much the day out requirements for many travelers.
For the on-the-road businessman, marketer, writer, editor, whatever I want to yammer about, this is the most common choice.
Anti-theft body pouches
Body pouches are a bit more than a wallet, less than a shoulder bag. They’re sort of a unisex purse (sorry bros, but that’s how I see them). They let you have your valuable items (wallet, cash, phone, etc.) very close and this makes it much harder for pickpockets. They also have a little extra room to stuff in a toothbrush, makeup, medicine, that sort of thing.
Among all the bags (not including safety wallets and under-the-shirt stuff), if you get a reinforced, crime-proof one with RIFD blocking for good measure, this will keep your very basics the safest, if you must bring them.
Bags that sit close to the body are, naturally, much harder to snatch from a passing scooter or motor bike, and harder for anyone to slash.
A few words on anti-theft camera bags and traveling with lots of camera gear
I shoot full-frame as much as I can, and I still use a big Nikon DSLR. However, if I’m going somewhere just for a holiday and I really don’t have to max out my photos, I leave it at home in Tokyo. Both for safety and for convenience (these things are heavy), I can make a tradeoff.
So when I travel distance, I take a micro-four thirds, which still can often take photos nearly as good as those on my main Nikon. The only slight tradeoff is in low light.
That said, there are anti-theft camera bags large and small. Just realize that if you have a big, slick backpack, you’re quietly yelling, “PSSSST! I have a lot of expensive stuff with me!” So even if they can’t slash it, they can still try and mug you. Just saying.
A word on purses, from a relatively clueless man
I’m no expert in this areas, but I know this about purses:
- Women love them
- They’re wonderful targets for bag slashing, snatch theft, and generally for prying fingers (watch some YouTube vids)
To the rescue are slash-proof travel purses, and anti-theft regular-use purses. I’ve looked at a lot of these on Amazon and I’ve hired a few women to review them. I’ll post some of those review in due course.
From my perspective, a lot of these purses look pretty frumpy. But if you’re a traveling girl and you don’t want to use a backpack or some sort of shoulder bag like your mom did, they’re not a bad compromise.
And from my perspective as a guy, and unrelated to the topic at hand: we don’t care what purse you’re carrying.
The final word on preventing bag slashing
Check my other articles for tips on other common travel theft. As for bag slashing, for some reason it doesn’t upset me as much as things like scams.
Scammers are dirty, rotten scumbags who use trickery and intimidation. They prey on power imbalance.
There’s something very Wild West about a good ol’ bag-slashin’. Something very straight-forward and brutal about it. Compared with an assault or a scam of deep intimidation and trickery, it’s not as bad, least not in my opinion. I DO NOT condone bag slashing at all. I do not want to be victim. And I haven’t been. Knock on wood.
Also, bag slashings are even worse if the knife misses the mark and contacts someone. And bag slashers have no mandate to be surgeons. However, it’s a physical and straight-forward crime. For that reason, it’s one that can be outsmarted with relative ease.
Maybe I’ve been abroad too long, but I also feel if you’re going to be dumb enough to put a passport and a cash-stuffed wallet in the outer pocket of your Gucci or Fjallafevasddfilletoffish backpack, you’re kind of asking to get robbed. My sense of right and wrong is the fortunate result of being raised in relative physical safety and not in poverty and abuse.
Street kids are too young to understand the logic of “doing good”. And they’re often very abused physically and mentally, and under the intimidation of some scumbag adult. If they slash your bag, they’re following orders. They’ve been scared or programmed to think it’s OK. I don’t blame them even 1/10 as much as I blame the scumbags who trained them.
Do your research, adjust your thinking, gear up, and you can avoid bag slashing.
Enjoy taking the local bus. It will be an adventure.
Investigate those markets, they’re usually fascinating places.
And just remember to use sensible precautions to protect yourself and your belongings, and you can enjoy the positive experiences that come from travel.