Backpack = vulnerable to theft?
April 11, 2014 9:15 PM   Subscribe

Are backpacks more vulnerable to theft than messenger bags?

I've been eyeing various backpacks, particularly the Tom Bihn Synapse 19, for a long time, but I've stayed with my messenger bag mostly because of my (paranoid?) fear that it's super easy for people to take stuff from a backpack. Especially since, with a backpack like the Synapse, the compartments and the zippers are very visible and the cord zipper pulls are very long. I travel to dense cities all the time, and I can imagine with people crowding around me I won't be able to feel anything being unzipped.

My messenger bag, with its trusty flap that I can guard with my arms, is pretty secure, in my opinion, but carrying anything more than 2 pounds (e.g my laptop) becomes hell on my shoulders. If my theft fears could be assuaged, the Synapse would be perfect. I fully accept I may be paranoid, because everyone else I know with a backpack has never had things stolen from them if everything was fully zipped up, but no one else I know throws themselves into the densest hearts of developing cities like I do.

So, are backpacks less protected from pickpockets than messenger bags? Have you ever gotten anything stolen from a backpack? Is it even possible?

And I know I could get a backpack with a flap, like the Timbuk2 backpacks, but the Synapse is my everything. I'd rather just stick with my messenger bag than get a new bag other than the Synapse.

Physics and stories are what I need - thanks!
posted by facehugger to Shopping (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My husband, who carries the same backpack as his commuter bag in Tacoma and Seattle, says it feels like enough of a part of your body that nobody would be able to unzip it without you knowing, even in a crowd, and the way people steal a backpack is by cutting a shoulder strap, so if you put the sternum strap on, it's more comfortable and people couldn't do that.
(He insists that I add: "Physics and stories, yo." He needs his own account.)
posted by shirobara at 9:20 PM on April 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a Synapse 19 backpack. The zippers, while having a long pull, offer resistance to random pulling; you have to get the angle correct. This is an advantage. I carry that bag all over San Francisco and have never felt like someone could pick it.

The straps are super comfortable. It's very sturdy, and holds a ton more than it appears it will hold. If you are more than 5' 6"/1.67 meters tall, you should get the Synapse 25 instead.

You can also get little travel locks and lock the various zipper pulls together.
posted by blob at 9:52 PM on April 11, 2014

That looks like a beautiful bag. If you insisted on greater security, you can add a thin cable.
posted by mearls at 9:52 PM on April 11, 2014

I don't know why backpacks aren't made so the face with all the openings is against your back - is there one? I have a healthy back sort of half backpack that is made a bit like that - the zippers are against your back, and only a few pockets are accessible from the outside (and some of them are noisy to get into). Maybe this would suit you? They are made to be worn cross body on your back.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 10:07 PM on April 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have to disagree with shirobara; I was pick pocketed in London in a tourist area while wearing a backpack and never felt a thing until I started walking. I felt the flap going up and down once I started walking but she got through two zippers without me feeling anything. I only retrieved my wallet because we were in a pretty bottle necked area and she couldn't get out in time. There are some really highly skilled pickpockets out there. Also a really nice local in San Jose, Costa Rica once told us to put our backpacks in front of us because of pickpockets.
posted by gt2 at 10:24 PM on April 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with gt2. Nothing is safe from pickpockets unless it is locked or you have you hand on it. The best way to secure a backpack is to buy a little lock if the pocket in question has double zippers, but your backpack looks like it doesn't. The zippers are close enough for zip ties, which is what I use. I would get the backpack and carry a handful of zip ties, plus some little scissors or nail clippers to cut them.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 11:04 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can kind of see both points, having once had a mobile phone stolen from my laptop backpack side pocket on the underground. But that was one incident in years of using laptop backpacks in a range of circumstances, including a lot of crowded areas.

I think it's a question of being intelligent about what you store where in your bag. My wallet goes in the laptop pouch with the laptop so to get at that somebody has to open zips, flaps and get down into the bottom of the flapped compartment…unlikely even for skilled people to be able to pull that off without me noticing. Other than that the only other valuable item would be my phone. These days that generally lives in my coat pocket because i use it to listen to music when out and about and prefer it in my pocket to be able to answer it easily when it rings and to have easy access to my emails.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:15 PM on April 11, 2014

I twist the the zipper cords together in the pocket which holds valuables. I also put valuables in several different places on my person.

The one time I saw someone rooting through a backpack someone was wearing, it turned out to be her friend.
posted by brujita at 11:54 PM on April 11, 2014

I use backpacks a lot and when I'm in a sketchy area I've tended to use safety pins to secure my zippers. Sure, they're not as secure as locks, but they slow any potential thieves down, and offer the potential of getting stuck with a pin. It's like locking your bike -- you can't hope for 100% protection, the best you can do is slow the thief down and make yourself a less attractive target.
posted by Borborygmus at 11:55 PM on April 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: because everyone else I know with a backpack has never had things stolen from them if everything was fully zipped up,

I know several people who have had things stolen right out of their backpack while wearing it and walking around. Even from inside pockets within the main compartment. It's super easy and there is no way you're magically aware enough of it to notice. A backpack is absolutely less secure than a bag hanging a your side with your hand right on it, absolutely.

You can make backpacks more secure. Locks are a good start. A backpack cover that slips over the whole thing like a sleeve is better. I don't know if they have those for small bags, but I have a raincover for my full size backpack which makes accessing anything impossible without using a knife (and to be clear, in some places pickpockets will just use a knife and slash your bag open so there's only so much you can do). You can even buy metal mesh covers for big backpacks if you're super paranoid although they're heavy.

But even then people can steal stuff right out of your front jeans pocket or an inside pocket of a jacket. Or out of your messenger bag from a side pocket or by distracting you so your hand moves or whatever. All of these are harder than a backpack but still. So you have to decide your risk level, be smart about what you put where, and stay alert at all times regardless.

I'd still never wear a backpack in a crowd.
posted by shelleycat at 3:24 AM on April 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

My solution to this sort of thing, among a million other things it also rules at, was this bag. I also have a comically large version of it for longer trips/when i need to carry a lot of stuff.

It makes a completely, warner bros exaggeratedly loud noise when you peel the velcro apart to unroll the top. Like, wake the dead everyone does a 180 in a quiet room loud. Peeling it slowly or gingerly just drags out the sound. The zipper for the smaller compartment below the roll-top is also comically oversized, and jackhammer like in both physical impact and noise. If i have IEM headphones in at a fairly respectable volume it still totally drowns out the music if i pull the pack off and open it. Directly on me behind my head would be hilarious loud.

The two little outer pockets could be picked easily i'm sure, but i never put anything interesting in those. Laptop brick maybe, leatherman, maybe some misc cords like an extra micro USB and some random little bits and bobs i might need. All the good stuff goes in the two major compartments that might as well set off sirens.

I had messenger bags before, but they eventually started destroying whatever shoulder i put them on. The padding on this is divine and i can wear them all day unless the weight just generally tweaks my back out if i overload it. The generally unpickable feeling design is just icing on the cake.
posted by emptythought at 3:52 AM on April 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I had an item stolen from a zipped backpack outer pocket in a crowded subway once - didn't feel a thing, only knew because a fellow passenger yelled and stoppped the guy as he was walking away. I was a teenager at the time and maybe would be more attentive now, but nonetheless, I no longer put anything valuable in a backpack unless it's way down under other stuff in the main compartment so a pickpocket would have to really go digging.
posted by Stacey at 3:59 AM on April 12, 2014

This page on backpack security seems relevant to your interests.

If you can get one, a backpack with access from the body side would be a pretty secure solution.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:35 AM on April 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I use the Healthy Back bag too, and like the security of the zipper against my back. As an added bit of security, I zip it downwards, and then the zip tag will tuck into the strap holder at the bottom. Pic here as I didn't explain it very well. It's also super-comfortable (I have the medium bag). This model has an extra strap for added security.
posted by essexjan at 5:22 AM on April 12, 2014

Take a look at so called anti-theft bags. Travelon has this backpack, which offers various safety measures. From personal experience, I would recommend to split up your valuables on travels. Use a backpack for heavy/bulky stuff, keep wallet/phone etc. in a purse/separate bag (example travelon anti-theft messenger bag) and the really important stuff like ID/money/credit cards in a money belt underneath your clothes.
Stuff is replaceable, it just sucks when you're stranded without IDs and money in a far away place. It helps to upload digital copies of your documents to your email account for backup.
posted by travelwithcats at 7:00 AM on April 12, 2014

I have this Victorinox Flex Bag, which converts pretty easily from a cross-body bag to a backpack. It's smaller than what you want, but ever since I got it, I've thought that the way they handle the conversion would work on almost any bag.

You'd have to either modify or replace the straps on any bag that you have, but the way the conversion works is that the two straps buckle into the bag body with complementary buckles: one has the male attached to the bag and the other has the female. So you can buckle each strap to one side for a backpack, or buckle them together for a cross-body bag.

I usually wear mine on my back, but when I'm in a city with crowds and am worried about security, I just switch it to the cross-body, and carry it like that. It's a great idea, I wish they'd make more like that.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 8:08 AM on April 12, 2014

I almost got pick-pocketed recently (they moved on and got someone else in the group). Before being successful, they also tried someone with one of those cheap drawstring "backpacks," which I had assumed would be beyond even trying, as opening the bag is so obvious. I do cross-body and like the zip-tie solution but my primary advice is: if you think someone is being physically weird around you, trust your instincts. Be especially alert in situations where one or more of your hands is occupied or you are physically insecure (like scrambling up or down something). Before this recent occasion, I had thought that you just have to be bit more tied down than the next person, but pick-pockets are really ridiculously proficient.
posted by Morrigan at 3:52 PM on April 12, 2014

Small locking carabiners would mostly solve this problem. Sometimes you can zip all the zips on a backpack into the same position and lock them all with one carabiner.

Edit - I don't know if that one is any good. I used it as an example. This is obviously not going to thwart everyone. It just makes your bag a little harder to get into.
posted by cnc at 8:21 PM on April 12, 2014

Across the US and Europe I've never had an attempted theft out of a backpack. Perhaps I've just been lucky, but I know it ain't as common as it used to be.

I wouldn't let this one concern stop you from using a backpack. If you're especially worried, get some small luggage padlocks for when you're out in public.

A messenger bag once messed up my shoulder from repeated heavy use, so now I'm sort of biased against them.
posted by look busy at 11:56 AM on April 13, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!

I think I'll stick with my messenger bag for the time being - when it breaks I think I'll buy a Synapse for work and school, and a Small Cafe Bag for travels and every day city travels. The Synapse is great, but keeping my wallet and phone safe is better!
posted by facehugger at 10:25 AM on April 19, 2014

« Older Help me help my brother learn how to be a better...   |   PotFilter: The cure for what ails me? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.