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How to Make Backpack Zippers Lockable

I’ve written this tip before but I did not emphasize the importance of being able to lock your travel luggage. This tip shows in detail how to make a standard backpack zipper lockable.  Most travel theft is “by opportunity,” meaning that if you give people the opportunity to steal from you there is a much [...]

I’ve written this tip before but I did not emphasize the importance of being able to lock your travel luggage. This tip shows in detail how to make a standard backpack zipper lockable. 

Most travel theft is “by opportunity,” meaning that if you give people the opportunity to steal from you there is a much greater chance of them doing so. It is my opinion that most travel thefts are not perpetrated by professionals, but rather by people taking advantage of an easy opportunity — such as an unattended money belt, a laptop left sitting out in a hostel, a debit card left on a restaurant table, or valuables left sitting out in a hotel room. Though I have to admit that many travelers often invite temptation by giving these easy opportunities en masse, and many have their possessions pilfered.

Lockable backpack zipper

A lock on a backpack does not prevent theft but it does deter it. An unattended,   strongly locked bag in a hotel room or hostel could easily be cut open with a dull table knife, but this is rarely done in relation to how often unlocked bags are pilfered in similar circumstances. It is much more common for a thief to look for the easiest target available and hit it as fast as possible. The trick to theft prevention is to make robbing you appear to be a challenge — most often a thief will just look for an easier target.

Many travel thefts are on the fly, and revolve around a “leave no trace” intention: the bag is opened up, its valuable contents stolen, and then are closed up tight — leaving everything appear as if it was not touched. This then often casts a vibe of doubt into the minds of the robbed: am I sure I really had that in the bag when I got here? How do I know that I didn’t loose it somewhere else? Anybody here could have taken it, there is nothing I can do. All too often I have observed travelers who have no idea where they were robbed. Somewhere between Antigua and Xela I lost my Ipod. If you leave your luggage easy to open people can rob you easily — you are making opportunities for theft and could be leading otherwise good individuals into temptation.

In nearly 13 years of travel I have not yet had my luggage pilfered. Either I’m lucky beyond probability or the locks on my backpacks work.

How to make a backpack zipper lockable

First of all, choose a backpack for travel that has a zipper enclosure. Above all, stay away from top loading backpacks. Not only are top loading backpacks cumbersome and annoying to use but most are unlockable. If you stay in hostels or ride buses with a top loader don’t get pissy when you make a donation to the local thieves’ union. I usually recommend Kelty Redwing backpacks or the Lowe Alpine TT Tour (this backpack comes with a build in lockable zipper) for travel. The problem with the Kelty is that its zippers are opened and closed with a thin piece of shoelace like cord. Even if you did put a lock through it someone could just untie the cord and get into your bag. To remedy this, Craig from Travelvice.com came up with the following method which I’ve had success with for many years.

The goal: to remove the cord on the zipper of the Kelty Redwing — or any other similarly made backpack — and insert a steel wire that can be secured and locked.

Materials

All of these materials can be found at a hardware store. If you’re a cheapskate like us, buy them from a store that has a no questions asked return policy, keep the receipt, and return them for a refund once you’ve finished the job. Some of the tools and materials that are needed to make one of these backpack locking mechanisms are not very common for the lay handyman, so you may want to print the photos from this page out and bring them to the hardware store.

Materials:

  • A long enough length of steel wire to cut into enough sections to loop through all of a backpack’s zipper eyelets. If you have two zippers and four connector eyelets then I would recommend roughly 20 inches of steel wire.
  • A heavy duty wire cutter or a heavy duty chisel that can be struck with a hammer to slice the wire.
  • If you use a chisel to cut the wire you also need a hammer to hit it.
  • A pair of heavy duty crimpers.
  • One crimp for each steel loop you intend to connect to the zipper.
  • Electrical tape.

Crimpers

Crimps

Steel wire

Directions

  1. Clear the eyelet of the zipper’s closure pieces. If you are using a Kelty bag this means removing the shoelace like cord.
  2. Cut sections of steel wire into five or six inch pieces.
  3. Insert the sections of wire into the eyelets of the zipper’s closures.
  4. Put a crimp over the ends of the wire and seal it with the crimpers.
  5. Put electrical tape over the sharp ends of the wire.

Photos

Cut wire with chisel or heavy duty wire cutters

Put wire through eyelets on zipper, insert crimp, and close it

It's easier to do this with some help

Crimp

Lockable backpack zipper

Conclusion

Making your backpack zippers lockable and then always locking them when you leave your luggage in hotel/ hostel rooms and when unattended on buses is one of the prime ways of deterring theft when traveling. If you make a thief’s job as difficult as possible you will seldom find yourself locked in their sights.

Filed under: Travel Gear, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3400 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

6 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Tim April 21, 2012, 3:15 am

    Read this tip a while ago and dug it. Thanks for the updated info and pics!

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    • Wade Shepard April 21, 2012, 4:46 am

      Thanks, Tim!

      Just got a new Kelty bag and figured that I would put this tip up again with better photos and a more clear cut presentation.

      Link Reply
  • Cathy Ly April 21, 2012, 6:07 am

    Whoa! Steel wire. I love it. Such a great tip. Will be my new project! I got my shit stolen at a Vietnam Airport!!

    1 shoe (yes, just one), a jacket, a camera, and lotion.

    Lol!

    Cathy Trails

    Link Reply
  • Colin April 26, 2012, 3:29 pm

    Good tip. Once upon a time, I looked in to supposed “knife-proof” rucksacks/backpacks (just for kicks, really), and the 200 usd price tag settled that query pretty quick. I think that doing what you can to keep a mindful eye is the best first line of defense from thieves, but it’s nice to have a bit of back-up…ie: placing a simple lock on your rucksack or other bag.

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    • Wade Shepard April 27, 2012, 7:20 pm

      Right on! If someone really wants to steal or break into your bag there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. Staving off theft, I suppose, is about deterring the opportunity rather than prevention. I’ve never seen a knife proof backpack before, what are they made out of?

      Link Reply
  • SteveP May 15, 2012, 12:43 pm

    I have found most packs/luggage with twin zippers can be locked using a small padlock through the pulls. While not particularly strong, it has a deterrent effect and requires nothing beyond one or two of those $5 TSA padlocks you may already own.

    I think it is more common to lose an entire bag. It’s quicker and simpler for a thief to just grab the bag and disappear (or run) than to take time looking for specific valuables (unless you were watched stashing something?)

    For this reason, I follow the “strap over knee” protocol whenever I travel with a bag. I also carry a thin wire with a snap on the end (can also be locked) fastened inside a pocket on the bag. This can be looped through a chair or some other fixed item to add a bit more protection – say on a train where your bag is above your seat but you might nod off. Never leave your passport, money or phone in a separate bag.

    “Knife proof” bags, BTW, could be ones with cut-resistant straps (they have hidden wire embedded) or those “Pac-Safe TM” expandable “mesh” sleeves (like chicken wire) you can stretch over your pack. I looked at them once, but they weigh quite a bit and really don’t offer that much protection.

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